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Felix v. Town of Kingston

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 8, 2019

LINDA FELIX, Plaintiff,
v.
The TOWN OF KINGSTON, ROBERT FENNESSY, Town Administrator for the Town of Kingston, the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Kingston, ELAINE FIORE, DENNIS RANDALL, and SANDY McFARLAND [sic][1], as individuals and in their official capacities as members of the Board of Selectmen, THOMAS CROCE as an individual and in his capacity as a member of the Council on Aging, and FLORENCE CERULLO, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          DONALD L. CABELL, U.S.M.J.

         I. Introduction

         The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2612, entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave to address medical concerns. Plaintiff Linda Felix availed herself of such leave with the assent of her employer, the Town of Kingston (the Town). Felix's position, a term position subject to reappointment, expired while she was on leave, and she was not reappointed to the position or selected to interview when the Town set about to refill it. Felix brings claims for violation of the FMLA, Massachusetts' employment discrimination statute, M.G.L. c. 151B, its whistleblower protection statute, M.G.L. c. 149, § 185, and also alleges various state common law torts. The defendants move for summary judgment on all counts. For the reasons discussed below, the defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

         II. The Parties

         The plaintiff worked for the Town from August 2010 to January 2014.

         Defendant Robert Fennessy was at all relevant times the Town Administrator and the plaintiff's direct supervisor.

         Defendants Elaine Fiore, Dennis Randall, and Sandy MacFarlane were at all relevant times members of the Town's Board of Selectmen (the Board). Randall also served as a member of the Council on Aging (COA) for a period of time before becoming a selectman.

         Defendant Thomas Croce, now deceased, was at all relevant times a member of the COA.

         Defendant Florence Cerullo conducted a review of the Senior Center at the Board's request.

         III. Relevant Facts

         In 2010, the Board appointed Felix as the Town's Director of Elder Affairs (Director) for a term to run from August 2010 through June 30, 2011. Defendants' Concise Statement of Undisputed Material Facts in Support of Summary Judgment (Defendants' SUF), at ¶ 1. In order for Felix to serve for another term after that date the Board would have to reappoint her. Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 3. In fact, the Board reappointed Felix to two subsequent one-year terms; the first ran until June 30, 2012, and the second ran until June 30, 2013. Defendants' SUF, ¶ 4.

         At some point following her initial appointment Felix became aware that a Senior Center employee, defendant Croce's wife, was allegedly taking illegal paid vacations. The Plaintiff's Undisputed Facts in Response to the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Plaintiff's SUF), at ¶ 1.[2] The plaintiff reported these findings to the acting town administrator. Id. This report caused some friction between the plaintiff and Croce, who directed policy for the Senior Center as a member of the COA. Id., at ¶ 2; Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 5.

         Further disagreements between the plaintiff and COA members regarding the Senior Center's operations developed over the next two years. Defendants' SUF, ¶ 6-10. The COA does not have authority to hire or fire the Director but it does provide the Board with recommendations regarding appointments. Id., at ¶ 11. In May 2013, the COA voted to recommend that the plaintiff not be reappointed for another term. Id., at ¶ 12.

         The plaintiff was never formally disciplined or “written up” during her employment with the Town. Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ 3. However, given developing tension between the plaintiff and the COA over the COA's recommendation, the Board in June 2013 voted to reappoint the plaintiff, but only for a six-month term ending December 31, 2013, rather than for a full year. Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 15, 18.

         On July 1, 2013, the plaintiff through her counsel sent a letter to the Town's labor counsel. The plaintiff cited the issues she was having with COA members and specifically mentioned her belief that Croce's role in directing policy for the Senior Center while his wife was employed there presented a conflict of interest. Id., at ¶ 24; Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ 4.

         In August 2013, Fennessy was hired as Town Administrator; he oversaw the Town's human resource functions among other responsibilities. Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 26-27. Fennessy noticed immediately that the plaintiff and COA members would quickly become very upset and antagonistic when dealing with one another. Id., at ¶ 29-30. Fennessy met with the plaintiff several times to discuss how she might improve her relationship with the COA moving forward. Id., at ¶ 31.

         During the summer of 2013, defendant Cerullo undertook at the Board's request an efficiency review of the various Town departments, including the COA and the Senior Center. Id., at ¶ 21-23. Cerullo completed her review in September 2013 and prepared a document outlining her findings. Id., at ¶ 32.

         At a meeting that same month, the COA happened to discuss the status of funds the plaintiff's daughter had raised for the Senior Center. Id., at ¶ 33. The plaintiff believed Board member Randall and COA member Croce were unappreciative of her daughter's help and were accusingly questioning how the money had been used. Id.

         Also during September 2013, the plaintiff told Fennessy that Randall had been taking meals from the Senior Center without paying for them. Id., at ¶ 34.

         At the COA's October 2013 meeting, the topic of the plaintiff's daughter's use of the raised funds came up again. Id., at ¶ 36. The plaintiff became upset and told Fennessy that she needed to go home. Id., at ¶ 37. The plaintiff took some sick days following the meeting and was treated by her physician with prescribed medication for anxiety. Id., at ¶ 38; Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ 7. The plaintiff subsequently received workers' compensation benefits due to emotional distress. Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 40; Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ 6.

         On October 28, 2013, the plaintiff submitted a request for FMLA leave. Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ 8; Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 41. By letter dated the next day, Fennessy granted the plaintiff's request for the maximum twelve-week period, from October 28, 2013 to January 20, 2014. Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ 9; Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 43-44. Fennessy's letter also stated that “[w]hen your leave is completed, you will be entitled to be restored to your current position or an equivalent position with equivalent benefits, pay and other terms and conditions of employment. However, you will not have any greater rights to restoration or benefits that you would have had if you had remained employed during the leave period.” Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ 10.

         As the plaintiff's six-month term neared its end, the Board did not hold a vote on whether to extend her term beyond December 31, 2013. Id., at ¶ 11; Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 45. Consequently, the plaintiff's term expired as of January 1, 2014, even though she was still to be out on FMLA leave for another three weeks, through January 20, 2014.

         It appears that no one initially fully comprehended that the Board's failure to vote on Felix's reappointment (one way or the other) meant that she was, effective January 1, 2014, on medical leave from a position she no longer held. The Town's labor counsel, for example, emailed the plaintiff's counsel on January 16, 2014, seeking an update on whether and when the plaintiff intended to return to work given that her medical leave period was nearing its end. Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ 13; Defendants' SUF, at ¶ 49. Similarly, the plaintiff's counsel responded that the plaintiff did intend to return to work and asked for information on applying for reasonable accommodations. Plaintiff's SUF, at ¶ ...


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