Wake Forest Law Review

By M. Allie Clayton

Today, in the civil case of Barton v. Constellium Rolled Products-Ravenswood, LLC., a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court in granting summary judgment for the company. The court stated that the governing collective bargaining agreement did not provide for vested retiree health benefits, and thus the former employer was within their power to unilaterally alter its retiree health benefits program.

Facts

A class of retirees and their union, The United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industry & Service Workers International Union AFL-CIO/CLC (“The Union”), filed this action. The union had represented the retirees since 1988 and had negotiated collective bargain agreements with their previous employer—Constellium Rolled Products-Ravenswood, LLC (“Constellium”).

The Parties’ Agreement

There was a specific provision of their collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) that governed group health insurance benefits: Article 15. The 2010 provision of Article 15 stated:

  1. The group insurance benefits shall be set forth in booklets entitled Employees’ Group Insurance Program and Retired Employees’ Group Insurance Program, and such booklets are incorporated herein and made a part of the 2005 Labor Agreement by such reference.
  2. It is understood that this agreement with respect to insurance benefits is an agreement on the basis of benefits and that the benefits shall become effective on July 15, 2010, except as otherwise provided in the applicable booklet, and further that such benefits shall remain in effect for the term of this 2010 Labor Agreement.

In addition to Article 15 and the various booklets incorporated by reference therein (which operated as summary plan description (“SPD”)), Constellium (or its predecessors) and retirees agreed to further parameters governing retiree health benefits that were contained in “Cap Letters.” The cap letters throughout the years governed how Constellium (or its predecessors) would allocate health care spending of employees based on pre- and post-January 2003 retirees. The third cap letter, which took effect on January 1, 2011, was unique in that it took effect after the concurrently-negotiated collective bargaining agreement did.

The Unilateral Change Leading to Litigation

While the parties were negotiating a new CBA in July 2012, Constellium proposed a change to Article 15 that would extend the cap on its contributions to retiree health benefits to those who retired before January 1, 2003, and freeze its Medicare Part B premium reimbursement amount for all hourly retirees at $99.90. The Union refused to bargain about this issue because it asserted that the retiree health benefits had already vested. Constellium notified the Union that it planned to make those changes on January 1, 2013, and made those changes on that day.

Procedural History

After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted the company’s motion and dismissed the case.

The Issue

Did Constellium’s unilateral alteration of those benefits breach its obligations under the CBA?

Reasoning

The Supreme Court in M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett stated that courts must “interpret collective-bargaining agreements, including those establishing ERISA plans, according to ordinary principles of contract law, at least when those principles are not inconsistent with federal labor policy.” Therefore, as this court was interpreting the collective bargaining agreement with the parties, it was bound by ordinary contract principles. Those ordinary contract principles included the rule that states that in order to find that the retiree health benefits vested, there must be unambiguous evidence that indicates that the parties intended that outcome.

The Fourth Circuit found that the plain language of the CBA and the SPD indicated that the benefits did not vest. They found that there was explicit durational language in the retiree health benefits SPDs. Bolstering that conclusion was the contrast of the retiree health benefits section with a different section of the SPD that stated unambiguously that the pension plans cannot be reduced and they are paid monthly for the participants. Because the language was unambiguous in another section, it clearly demonstrated that the parties knew how to express their intent that certain benefits should vest.

Disposition

Because there were clear temporal limitations on the employee health benefits, the retirees’ and the Union’s arguments that the benefits had already vested cannot be upheld. Therefore, the grant of summary judgment in favor of Constellium by the district court is affirmed.

By Kelsey Hyde

On March 17, 2017, the Fourth Circuit published an opinion in the civil matter of Sharma v. USA International, vacating the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remanding for further proceedings. In departing from the lower court’s ruling, the Court found the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia improperly granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based solely on the contested issue of plaintiff’s purported damages.

Factual & Procedural Background

The plaintiffs in this case, Jatinder Sharma & his corporation Haymarket Fast Foods, Inc., were involved in a business transaction with defendants Khalil Ahmad and Mahrah Butt, partners at USA International, LLC. Sharma became interested in purchasing two restaurants– a Checkers and an Auntie Anne’s– from defendants upon learning how these restaurants were generating high sales. Throughout negotiations for the purchase of these restaurants, Sharma reviewed USA International’s tax returns and financial statements, which indicated the combined sales of the restaurants for the most recent months were about $75,000 per month.

The parties’ first purchase agreement specified a price of $720,000, and made the sale contingent on the stores collectively acquiring $90,000 in monthly sales in the two months prior to a settlement. Subsequent financial statements revealed lower monthly sales, thus the price was later reduced to $600,000 and the conditional-sale provision was eliminated from the final agreement. Sharma formed the entity Haymarket Fast Foods, Inc. in relation to the transaction, and also applied for a loan at his bank to secure part of the purchase price. His application represented that the restaurants’ average monthly sales based on the figures presented in the financial statements provided by defendants.

Shortly after the closing, Sharma noticed sales well below the figures that had been conveyed by defendants. Sharma looked further at other elements of the business– namely the supply orders, employee’s personal observations, and bank records– in an attempt to uncover the discrepancy. This investigation made Sharma realize that, based on the supplies available, the amount of sales defendants had purported to make were simply not possible; he then suspected that defendants had inflated their sales on the income statements provided to him before closing. Further, employees who had been working for defendants revealed to Sharma that defendant Butt had, on numerous occasions, rung up high sales for food not ordered by customers, and then directed employees not to prepare the food that coincided with these orders. Moreover, Bank of America accounts revealed that deposits attributable to the restaurant were substantially lower than those represented in the statements given to Sharma.

In response to these findings, Sharma filed on action for fraud against the defendants, alleging they had inflated sales figures and lied during negotiations, resulting in fraudulent inducement to pay a higher price for the business than it was truly worth. He proposed that damages be calculated by either (1) multiplying weekly sales by 36, or (2) multiplying monthly earnings by 48, either of which meant to provide the proper valuation of the business.

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming plaintiffs had failed to sufficiently establish the materiality of the alleged misrepresentations, their reliance on the misrepresentations, and their damages (i.e. three of the particular elements necessary to succeed on a fraud claim). The district court found that plaintiffs had adequately shown the materiality of and reliance on defendants’ misrepresentation, but had indeed failed to provide enough evidence for a factfinder to estimate with reasonable certainty the amount of damages they sustained. Namely, the court rejected the two methods proposed by plaintiff for finding the actual value of the two restaurants, concluding that neither method conformed to any generally accepted methods for valuing a business, nor sufficiently proved they were independently reliable. Thus, because damages are a necessary element of a fraud claim under controlling state law, the court granted summary judgment. On appeal, the sole issue presented regarded the district court’s finding of insufficient evidence of damages.

Elements of the Claim & Standards to be Met on Motion for Summary Judgment

On a motion for summary judgment, the court takes the record in the light most favorable to the non-movant party. The moving party is entitled to a grant of summary judgement as a matter of law if they show there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. F.R.C.P. 56(a).

To establish a claim for fraud under Virginia law, a plaintiff must show: (1) false representation, (2) of a material fact, (3) made intentionally and knowingly, (4) with intent to mislead, (5) reliance by the party misled, and (6) resulting in damages to the party so misled. Evaluation Research Corp. v. Alequin, 439 S.E.2d 387, 390 (Va. 1994). Because all such elements are necessary, failure to satisfy any one element is enough to bar relief for a fraud claim, as the district court found in their ruling based on failure to establish damages.

Under Virginia law, when a dispute involves the transfer of goods or property, damages are measured by the difference between the asset’s actual value at the time of contract and the asset’s purported value if the representations made had instead been true. Courts have previously treated sales prices as sufficient evidence of value, especially in arms’ length transactions. Virginia law maintains that plaintiffs need not prove damages with absolute certainty, but a plaintiff still must provide sufficient evidence to allow a factfinder to make an intelligent, probable estimate of the damages or losses allegedly sustained.

Fourth Circuit Finds Plaintiffs’ Evidence Regarding Estimated Damages Sufficient to Survive Motion for Summary Judgement

The Court concluded that plaintiffs had indeed met their burden and had put forth sufficient evidence to allow an estimate of damages by a factfinder. Namely, the Court emphasized that the parties’ arms-length transaction would allow a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the restaurants’ final sales price represented their value, as needed for the calculation of damages. Viewing the record most favorably for the plaintiffs, the Court found that negotiations surrounding the final price of the restaurants evidenced that both parties’ relied on a valuation of the businesses derived from a multiple of weekly and/or monthly sales. Moreover, the entire content of negotiations between the parties clearly revolved around the restaurants’ weekly or monthly sales, from Sharma’s initial interest in purchasing the restaurant to the later financial statements used by defendants to further persuade Sharma to go forward with the purchase. The Court even performed its own calculations to affirm this result, despite the defendants’ refusal to confirm the calculation methods used to arrive at the sales price.

However, the Court also emphasized that the actual multiplier-numbers used or derived are not dispositive in this case, and that defendants could indeed challenge those numbers as a matter of fact later in the case. Instead, the true question was whether plaintiffs provided sufficient evidence, as a matter of law, for a factfinder to estimate a probable calculation of damages. In the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, the plaintiffs did just that by presenting their own estimate with reasonable precision and support for their own calculations, using an accepted approach based on income and computing their results with specific numbers provided by defendants to estimate the purchase price.

Vacated & Remanded

Based on their finding that Plaintiff’s purported estimates of damages were acceptable and sufficient to create a material dispute of fact, the Fourth Circuit vacated the District Court’s grant of summary judgement and remanded for further proceedings to continue plaintiff’s fraud claims.

By: Kristina Wilson

On Monday, March 20, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Grutzmacher v. Howard County. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the District of Maryland’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the defendant’s termination of plaintiffs did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment Free Speech rights. The plaintiff raises two arguments on appeal.

Facts and Procedural History

Prior to initiating this action, plaintiffs worked for the defendant, the Howard County, Maryland Department of Fire and Rescue Services. In 2011, the defendant started drafting a Social Media Policy (“the Policy”) in response to a volunteer firefighter’s inflammatory and racially discriminatory social media posts that attracted negative media attention. The Policy prevented employees from posting any statements that may be perceived as discriminatory, harassing, or defamatory or that would impugn the defendant’s credibility. Additionally, in 2012, the defendant promulgated a Code of Conduct (“the Code”) that prohibited disrespectful conduct toward authority figures or the chain of command established by the defendant. Finally, the Code required employees to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected favorably on the defendant.

On January 20, 2013, one of the plaintiffs advocated killing “liberals” on his Facebook page while on duty for defendant. The defendant asked the plaintiff to review the Policy and remove any postings that did not conform. Although the plaintiff maintained that he was in compliance with the Policy, he removed the January 20th posting. On January 23, 2013, the plaintiff posted a series of statements that accused the defendant of stifling his First Amendment rights. On February 17, 2013, the plaintiff also “liked” a Facebook post by a coworker was captioned “For you, chief” and displayed a photo of an obscene gesture. Shortly thereafter, the defendant served the plaintiff with charges of dismissal and afforded the plaintiff an opportunity for a preliminary hearing on March 8, 2013. On March 14, 2013, the defendant terminated the plaintiff.

At the district court, the plaintiff argued that the defendant fired him in retaliation for his use of his First Amendment Free Speech rights and that the Policy and Code were facially unconstitutional for restricting employees’ Free Speech. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding the retaliation claims, holding that the plaintiff’s January 20th posts and “likes” were capable of disrupting the defendant’s ability to perform its duties and thus did not constitute protected speech. Similarly, the January 23rd post and February 17th “like” were not protected speech because they did not implicate a matter of public concern. In June of 2015, the defendant revised its Policy and Code to eliminate all the challenged provisions. As a result, the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s facial challenge as moot.

The Plaintiff’s Free Speech Rights Did Not Outweigh the Defendant’s Interest

In evaluating the plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim, the Fourth Circuit applied the Mcvey v. Stacy three-prong test. 157 F.3d 271 (4th Cir. 1998). Under Mcvey, a plaintiff must show the following three conditions: i) that he was a public employee speaking on a matter of public concern, ii) that his interest in speaking about a matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in providing effective and efficient services to the public, and iii) that such speech was a “substantial factor” in the plaintiff’s termination. Id. at 277–78.

The first prong is satisfied when a plaintiff demonstrates that his speech involved an issue of social, political, or other interest to a community. Urofsky v. Gilmore, 216 F.3d 401, 406 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc). To determine whether the issue was social, political, or of interest to a community, courts examine the speech’s content, context, and form in view of the entire record. Id. The Fourth Circuit concluded that at least some of the content of plaintiff’s posts and “likes” were matters of public concern because the public has an interest in the opinions of public employees. Although not all of the postings were of public concern, the Fourth Circuit advocated examining the entirety of the speech in context and therefore proceeded to the second prong of the Mcvey analysis.

The Mcvey Factors Weighed More Heavily in Favor of the Defendant

The Fourth Circuit next balanced the plaintiff’s interest in speaking about matters of public concern with the government’s interest in providing efficient and effective public services. The Fourth Circuit used the Mcvey multifactor test to weigh the following considerations: whether a public employee’s speech (1) impaired the maintenance of discipline by supervisors; (2) impaired harmony among coworkers; (3) damaged close personal relationships; (4) impeded the performance of the public employee’s duties; (5) interfered with the operation of the institution; (6) undermined the mission of the institution; (7) was communicated to the public or to coworkers in private; (8) conflicted with the responsibilities of the employee within the institution; and (9) abused the authority and public accountability that the employee’s role entailed. McVey, 157 F.3d at 278.

The Fourth Circuit held that all of the factors weighed in favor of the defendant. The first factor was satisfied because plaintiff was a chief battalion, a leadership position, and allowing plaintiff to violate the Policy and Code without repercussions would encourage others to engage in similar violations. The second and third factors weighed in the defendant’s favor because several minority firefighters issued complaints and refused to work with the plaintiff after the posts. Similarly, the fourth factor weighed in the government’s favor because of the plaintiff’s responsibilities as a leader. The plaintiff’s leadership duties depended on his subordinates taking him seriously and looking to him as an example. By violating the policies he was supposed to uphold, the plaintiff failed to act as a leader and carry out his duties as chief battalion. Finally, plaintiff’s actions also “undermined community trust” by advocating violence against certain groups of people. Community trust and preventing violence are central to the defendant’s mission because the defendant’s function is to protect the community. Therefore, although plaintiff’s speech did involve some matters of public concern, the matters were not of sufficient gravity to outweigh all nine factors of the Mcvey multifactor test. Thus, the government’s interest in effectively providing public services outweighed the plaintiff’s interest in speech about public concerns.

The District Court’s Dismissal of the Facial Challenge on Mootness Grounds Was Proper

While defendant repealed all the challenged sections of the Policy and Code, a party’s voluntary repeal of provisions can only moot an action if the wrongful behavior can be reasonably expected not to recur. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the facial challenge for mootness because the current Fire Chief issued a sworn affidavit asserting that the defendant will not revert to the former Policy or Code. Additionally, the defendant’s counsel at oral argument declared that the defendant has no hint of an intent to return to the former guidelines. The Fourth Circuit held that these formal declarations were sufficient to meet the defendant’s mootness burden.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit affirmed both the district court’s grant of summary judgment and its grant of a motion to dismiss on mootness grounds.

 

By Mike Stephens

On Thursday, February 23, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in Heyer v. U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Appellant, Thomas Heyer, brought several claims against the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for failing to accommodate his deafness. After reviewing the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of BOP, the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded the order.

Facts and Procedural History

After Heyer’s initial sentence expired, he remained in civil custody after being deemed “sexually dangerous to others.” He was born deaf and his native language is American Sign Language (ASL) . Given the dramatic differences between ASL and English, Heyer is unable to communicate effectively in English. Since his arrival at the prison, Heyer has repeatedly requested ASL interpreters. His inability to communicate with others has created several problems. Heyer is unable to communicate with the mental health officials responsible for determining the duration of his stay in prison. Heyer has suffered several strokes at the prison and has not been provided a way to communicate with medical personnel. He has also does not attend religious services and is unable to access goods sold because there are no translators. Additionally, Heyer has repeatedly been late or missed scheduled activities because he cannot hear announcements and does not have a vibrating watch or bed.

In 2011, Heyer filed suit against BOP asserting multiple violations of his First and Fifth Amendment rights. His Fifth Amendment claims were based on BOP’s failure to provide translators that would allow him to communicate with the medical and mental health professionals. Furthermore, the complaint alleged Heyer’s First Amendment rights had been violated by BOP’s refusal to provide a videophone and its failure to have translators present at the religious services. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of BOP.

Heyer’s Fifth Amendment Claims

Heyer alleges that BOP’s repeated failure to accommodate his deafness violates his Fifth Amendment rights because it rises to the level of “deliberate indifference.” While this standard is most often used in claims arising under the Eighth Amendment, the Fourth Circuit applied it to Heyer’s Fifth Amendment claims. The standard has two components: the plaintiff must show that he has serious medical needs, an objective standard, and that the defendant acted with deliberate indifference to those needs, a subjective standard. Heyer did not claim his deafness constituted a “serious medical need.” Rather, Heyer’s complaint alleged that BOP’s failure to provide interpreters for his interaction with medical professionals has resulted in inadequate treatment for his medical needs. BOP argued that because Heyer had suffered any actual injury, the standard had not been violated.

The Fourth Circuit agreed and held that Heyer had presented enough evidence to satisfy the deliberate indifference standard. The Court rejected the BOP’s argument, holding that BOP’s actions had exposed Heyer to a substantial risk of serious harm. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that Heyer’s continued seizures, coupled with his inability to communicate with the medical staff, was sufficient to satisfy the object prong.

The Fourth Circuit held that Heyer satisfied the subjective prong as well. BOP argued that Heyer presented no evidence showing BOP knew that the failure to provide translators created a serious risk to his health. Additionally, BOP argued that providing Heyer with assistance from other inmates constituted constitutionally adequate treatment. Again, the Fourth Circuit rejected BOP’s argument. Given BOP’s awareness of Heyer’s deafness, the Court reasoned that BOP was well aware that the failure to provide translators would create for ineffective medical treatment. This awareness, the Court reasoned, was sufficient for a factfinder to conclude the BOP was deliberately indifferent.

First Amendment Claims

Heyer’s alleged that the refusal to provide a videophone violated his First Amendment right to communicate with others outside of the prison. BOP countered that the refusal was merely an unwillingness to provide Heyer with his preferred method of communication. As such, BOP argued that it did not “impinge” on Heyer’s constitutional rights because Heyer could use the TTY devices at the prison.

The Fourth Circuit rejected BOP’s argument. TTY devices require the users to be proficient in English. Given that Heyer could not communicate in English, the Court reasoned that requiring Heyer to use TTY devices to communicate impinged on his First Amendment rights. The Court then proceeded to determine whether requiring Heyer to use the TTY devices was reasonably related to the penological interests of the prison. The Court applied the four factor test as required by Turner v. Safley. Ultimately, the Court found that the factors created issues of fact to be decided at trial. First, there was a factual dispute as to whether the TTY devices provided Heyer an effective means of communication. Second, a question of fact arose as to whether BOP would have to install new IT infrastructure to maintain prison safety. Lastly, the Court found a factual dispute as to whether there were alternative communicative devices available for use by Heyer. Ultimately, given the disputed facts, the Fourth Circuit found the district court erred in granting BOP’s motion for summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit also found a dispute of fact existed as to whether BOP had unreasonably restricted Heyer’s access to the TTY devices.

Lastly, Heyer alleged that the refusal to provide interpreters at the religious services violated his First Amendment rights. The district court dismissed these claims, finding that they were moot given BOP had provided interpreters to Heyer for other occasions. The BOP argued that a 2014 affidavit from the prison chaplain showed that BOP would provide an interpreter if necessary.

The Fourth Circuit also rejected this argument. The Court found that the affidavit was merely a “mid-litigation change of course” given the BOP had failed to provide an interpreter to Heyer for a religious service. The Court reasoned that an assurance to provide an interpreter in the future did not make Heyer’s claim moot.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Heyer’s First and Fifth Amendment claims. The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

By Kelsey Hyde

On October 31, 2016, in the civil case of Masoud Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissing plaintiff’s claims of unlawful retaliation by his employer. Because plaintiff failed to sufficiently rebut the defendant employer’s reasoning and factual support for their actions against him, the Fourth Circuit found the District Court had correctly granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed plaintiff’s claims.

Sharif’s Claims and Subsequent Proceedings

On March 14, 2014, Masoud Sharif and his wife, both employees of United Airlines, Inc. at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., embarked on a planned vacation to South Africa. Their trip was scheduled to last until April 4, as a result of their successful bidding and receipt of approximately 20 days off, but, in the midst of those 20 days, Sharif was still assigned to work March 30 to 31 at customer service back in Washington, D.C.  Through the United Airlines “shift-swap” website, he was able to cover one day, but was still scheduled to work March 30.

However, back in 2009, Sharif had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, resulting in his qualifying for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et. seq. (2012), in order to handle his panic attacks. On the morning of March 30, the day of the shift he had unsuccessfully tried to cover, Sharif called from South Africa to take medical leave under the FMLA. Sharif had not made any prior reservations for a return flight to the U.S., but did fly to Italy with his wife the next day, and did eventually depart for Washington on April 3, arriving back just in time for his wife’s shift.

The circumstances of Sharif’s FMLA leave, coincidentally falling on the only day he was scheduled to work in the midst of planned time-off, did not go unnoticed. Instead, this incident, along with another prior instance in September 2013 where Sharif took FMLA leave under similar circumstances, inspired an investigation. Sharif was interviewed by a member of Human Resources and gave a series of inconsistent answers regarding his “unsuccessful efforts” to return home in time for his shift. As a result, senior management was notified that Sharif was untruthful in his answers, and changed his story many times, which, ultimately, led to the conclusion that he never intended to make it back in time to work his shift. Other evidence in employment and travel records also corroborated this conclusion. After being suspended without pay, Sharif was notified that United Airlines planned to terminate him for fraudulently taking FMLA leave and for making dishonest representations during the subsequent investigation. Sharif retired under threat of termination in June 2014.

Challenging Employer Action as Retaliation in Violation of FMLA

            The FMLA includes both a prescriptive element, guaranteeing substantive rights to employees who qualify, and a proscriptive limitation on employers, which makes it unlawful for employers to discharge employees for opposing employment practices that are unlawful under the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. §§ 2615(a)(1), 2615(a)(2). The proscriptive limitation effectively provides plaintiff employees with an avenue to legally dispute retaliation by their employers.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed relevant Supreme Court and Circuit Court decisions to navigate the standards of law and burdens of proof applicable in this case. To succeed on retaliation claims, a plaintiff must show that (1) they engaged in protected activity, (2) the employer took adverse action against them, and (3) this adverse action was casually connected to the protected activity. Yashenko v. Harrah’s NC Casino Co., LLC, 446 F.3d 541, 551 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Cline v. Wal-Mart, 144 F.3d 294, 301 (4th Cir. 1998)). Thus, employer intent is especially relevant to such claims, and plaintiff can establish such intent by either direct evidence, or under the “burden-shifting framework” introduced by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. 411 U.S. 792, 800-06 (1973).

This burden-shifting framework entails: (a) plaintiff establishing a prima facie case of retaliation; (b) if successful, the burden shifts to the employer to provide some legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action to rebut plaintiff’s prima facie case; (c) if successful, the burden shifts back to plaintiff to persuade fact-finders that employer’s explanation in (b) was a “pretext” for discrimination. Id. at 802-04. This third element requires plaintiff to produce sufficient evidence such that a reasonable fact-finder could conclude the employer’s reasons were impermissible.

In addition to these standards specific to the FMLA and retaliation claims, the summary judgment standard further requires that a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party, in this case Sharif. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (2016).

Legal Contentions on Appeal

Sharif filed suit against United Airlines for retaliation in violation of the proscriptive provision of FMLA, arguing they threatened to terminate him for taking FMLA leave and that their proffered reasons were a mere pretext for this discriminatory act. The District Court found that Sharif failed to create an issue of triable fact regarding United Airline’s explanation for his threatened discharge as allegedly pretextual, and awarded summary judgment to the defendant employer, dismissing Sharif’s claims. On appeal, Sharif contends that he has produced sufficient evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment.

Plaintiff’s Failed to Create a Triable Issue of Fact 

            Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit was unpersuaded by plaintiff’s argument that United Airlines’ actions were a pretext for impermissible discriminatory conduct under the FMLA. The Court considered the evidence as a whole, in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, yet could not find any cause for dispute over the logic and reasoning of United Airline’s conclusion. On the contrary, they found all evidence supported the nondiscriminatory motivations for their action against Sharif, based on the facts available from Sharif’s employment records, his noted FMLA leave, and the results of the subsequent investigation. Additionally, the Court found that Sharif’s inconsistent narrative throughout the investigation, as well as his failure to provide any documentation or verification of his own version of the events, did not effectively dispute the evidence proffered by United Airlines, or offer any alternative, such that a fact-finder could reasonably rule in favor of him. Thus, he failed to meet his burden to provide sufficient evidence and create a genuine dispute of material fact regarding his employer’s motives as pretext.

Affirming Dismissal and Defending the Purpose of the FMLA

            Based on their analysis of the case under applicable Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit precedent, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims. In doing so, the court also highlighted the fundamental importance of the FMLA, allowing employees to take leave for legitimate family needs and medical reasons without threatening job security, and emphasized that fraudulent invocations and dishonest representations for claims under the FMLA greatly compromise this Congressional goal. As such, their decision reflected the importance in providing employers the ability to sanction employees who threaten to abuse this statute and undermine its purpose.

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By Mike Stephens

This afternoon, October 7, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case McCray v. Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the Plaintiff’s Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”) claims regarding notice. However, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s decision that two of the defendants, the White Firm and the “Substitute Trustees,” were not “debt collectors” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).

Facts and Procedural History

In October 2005, Renee McCray took out a loan to refinance her house. The loan documents were sold to the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”). Wells Fargo was retained to service the loan. After several years of payments, McCray disputed a billing statement in June 2011 and sent Wells Fargo several requests for information regarding the costs contained within the statement. Wells Fargo either failed to respond or did not respond adequately to McCray’s requests. Eventually, McCray stopped making payments after April 2012 and the loan went into default. Wells Fargo employed the White Firm to initiate the foreclosure.

The White Firm sent McCray a letter dated September 28, 2012, notifying McCray that the firm had been retained to begin the foreclosure proceedings on her home. The letter ended by stating, “This is an attempt to collect a debt. This is a communication from a debt collector. Any information obtained will be used for that purpose.” The White Firm also sent McCray another letter notifying her that the loan was “154 days past due” and that $4,282.91 was needed to cure the default. Members of the White Firm were placed as trustees on the deed of trust and filed a foreclosure action in February 2013, which is still pending. McCray filed suit in 2013, alleging violations of FDCPA and TILA. The district court dismissed four of McCray’s claims and granted summary judgment on the fifth. McCray raised three issues on appeal.

Defendants Were Debt Collectors Subject to the FDCPA’s Regulation

McCray first alleged that the the district court erred in concluding the White Firm and the Substitute Trustees were not “debt collectors” as defined within the FDCPA. McCray argued that the facts contained within the complaint regarding the firm’s letter were sufficient to show that the White Firm “regularly collect[ed] or attempt[ed] to collect debts” that were owed to another, consistent with the definition in 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). The White Firm responded that their actions did not qualify them as debt collectors as they never actually sought collection of money because, as the district court concluded, there was no “express demand for payment or specific information about [McCray’s] debt.” The White Firm also argued that their foreclosure action was “incidental to [their] fiduciary obligation,” placing them within an exception in § 1692a(6)(F)(i).

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s dismissal, holding that McCray’s complaint sufficiently alleged that the White Firm were debt collectors and that their actions in initiating the foreclosure constituted debt collection activity for the purposes of the FDCPA. The Court rejected the White Firm’s argument for two reasons. First, the Court held that the FDCPA did not require an “express demand for payment.” Instead, activities “taken in connection with the collection of a debt or in an attempt to collect a debt” are actionable under the FDCPA. Second, the Court held that foreclosure is not merely “incidental,” but instead “central to the trustee’s fiduciary obligation under the deed of trust.” Thus, because McCray’s complaint alleged facts showing the White Firm was retained to collect the loan in default, and because the firm’s letter concluded that it was “an attempt to collect debt,” their actions fell within debt collection activity that is regulated by the FDCPA.

The District Court Properly Dismissed McCray’s TILA Claim

McCray also alleged that the district court wrongfully dismissed her TILA claim against Freddie Mac. McCray argued that Freddie Mac failed to give her notice of its purchase of the loan in violation of § 1641(g). This provision was added by Congress in 2009, which provides that:

not later than 30 days after the date on which a mortgage loan is sold or otherwise transferred or assigned to a third party, the creditor that is the new owner or assignee of the debt shall notify the borrower in writing of such transfer.

The district court found that McCray’s complaint failed to allege that Freddie Mac acquired the loan after Congress amended TILA to require notice. Additionally the district court found that McCray received notice of her claim in October 2011 because Wells Fargo sent her a letter notifying her that Freddie Mac was the “investor” on the loan. Because McCray filed suit in 2013 after receiving notice of the TILA claim in October 2011, the district court held, in the alternative, that her claim was barred by TILA’s one-year limitations period.

The Court affirmed the district court’s initial conclusion because McCray did not challenge the district court’s dismissal for failure to allege that her loan was sold after Congress amended TILA in 2009.  The Court affirmed the district court’s alternative holding as well. McCray did challenge the district court’s alternative conclusion, alleging hat the district court erred by not allowing her the opportunity to amend her complaint.  McCray pointed out that the October 2011 letter was not included in her complaint and instead was contained within the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Yet, McCray submitted an affidavit in her response where she stated she received a letter in December 2011 which repeated that “[t]he investor/noteholder for this loan is [Freddie Mac].” The Court found McCray’s claim was barred by the statute of limitations because McCray conceded notice that Freddie Mac was the owner of the loan in December 2011.

Wells Fargo Did Not Hold Legal Title

Lastly, McCray argued the district court wrongfully dismissed her claim that Wells Fargo violated § 1641(g) when it failed to give her notice that it had been assigned the deed of trust. The district court concluded that § 1641(g) was not applicable because Wells Fargo only received a “beneficial interest” to service the loan and “not legal title.” McCray claimed that a line in the deed of trust granted Wells Fargo an ownership interest and that failure to notify her of this interest was in violated of TILA.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, holding that the Wells Fargo did not obtain an ownership interest because the note was not sold to Wells Fargo. The Court found that simply because the note “can be sold” does not mean “the note was in fact sold to Wells Fargo.” The Court also highlighted that this claim contradicted McCray’s previous claim that Freddie Mac owned the note and failed to provide timely notice of ownership.

Disposition

The Court ultimately reversed and remanded McCray’s FDCPA claim that the White Firm and the Substitute Trustees were acting as “debt collectors.” The Court was careful to note that this reversal was not to indicate whether or not the defendants actually violated the FDCPA. The Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of McCray’s TILA claims.

Judge Johnston Concurring in Part and Dissenting in Part

Judge Johnston, District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation, only dissented on the portion of the decision to affirm dismissal of McCray’s TILA claim against Wells Fargo for failing to provide notice of its interest in the loan. Judge Johnston noted that McCray’s complaint was filed pro se, and as such, should have been construed liberally. Because of this, the complaint could be read to infer that McCray could not identify the actual owner of the mortgage loan. In essence, the TILA claim regarding notice was nothing more than a pro se litigant attempting to “cast a wide net” by alleging both Wells Fargo and Freddie Mac failed to provide her notice of which entity owned the loan. Judge Johnston found the majority opinion’s reading of a pro se complaint to be “unduly strict” at the pleading stage when discovery would surely reveal whether Wells Fargo did receive an ownership interest.

By Sarah Saint

On April 8, 2016, the Fourth Circuit released its published opinion in the civil case of S.B. v. Board of Education of Harford. S.B., a student with disabilities who attend Aberdeen High School in Harford County, Maryland, by and through his mother, A.L., sued the Harford County Board of Education (the “Board”), alleging that the Board violated § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by allowing other students to bully and harass S.B. because of his disability. S.B.’s stepfather, T.L., who is a teacher and athletic director at Aberdeen High School, sued in his own right, alleging that the Board violated § 504 by retaliating against him for advocating for S.B. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the Board, ruling that neither S.B. nor T.L. provided evidence for their claims.

Facts Presented in the Light Most Favorable to S.B. and T.L.

S.B.’s disabilities included Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, weak visual-spatial ability, and a nonverbal learning disability. During high school, S.B.’s classmates severely bullied him, insulting him with homophobic slurs, sexually harassing him, physically threatening him, and calling him racist names. S.B.’s parents reported these incidents to the school, which investigated each incident. The school regularly disciplined the offenders and assigned a paraeducator to follow S.B. during school to monitor his safety. Nevertheless, this was not to A.L. and T.L.’s liking, and S.B.’s parents eventually began publicly criticizing the school’s efforts to protect S.B in November 2012.

Around the same time, the school denied T.L. the opportunity to complete a practicum for his master’s degree program at Aberdeen High School. Then, in the spring 2013, the school did not give T.L. tickets to a scholarship banquet for student-athletes and informed him that he would not be teaching the summer physical education classes that year, though he had taught it the previous years.

In April 2013, A.L. and T.L. filed the original complaint. In October 2013, T.L. raised concerns at a parents’ forum about the lack of harassment reporting forms available at the high school.

Despite the bullying, S.B. graduated Aberdeen High School on time in June 2014. He consistently achieved passing grades throughout high school and began taking classes at Harford Community College after graduation.

Procedural History

In June 2013, S.B. and his parents amended their complaints to allege violations of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.; Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.; and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. The claims were premised on the fact that the defendants had discriminated against S.B. on his disability by failing to prevent student-on-student bullying and harassment and had retaliated against S.B.’s parents when they advocated for S.B.

In September 2013, the district court dismissed all the individual defendants and S.B.’s claims under §§ 1983 and 1985. A.L. also voluntarily dismissed her retaliation claim. Before the district court at trial and before the Fourth Circuit on appeal were S.B.’s claim of disability-based discrimination in violation of § 504 and the ADA and T.L.’s claim of retaliation under § 504.

After substantial discovery, in April 2015, the district court granted summary judgment to the Board because there was not evidence to support S.B.’s and T.L.’s claims. For one, there was no evidence in the record that the Board had acted with bad faith, gross misjudgment or deliberate indifference in responding to the harassment. Additionally, there was no evidence of a causal link between T.L. advocating for S.B. and any action taken by the Board.

Standard of Review

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision de novo. Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine dispute to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fact are viewed and inferences are drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, here S.B. and T.L. If no reasonably jury could find for the non-moving party, the appellate court will affirm a grant for a motion for summary judgment.

Fourth Circuit Adopted Davis Standard of Deliberate Indifference for § 504 Claims

Section 504 provides that “[n]o otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). S.B. claimed that he was subjected to years of sustained and pervasive student-on-student harassment and bullying based on his disability. By the Board failing to prevent the harassment, S.B. alleged that the Board engaged in disability-based discrimination prohibited by § 504.

In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999), the Supreme Court addressed a similar claim under Title IX, which provides for similar protections as § 504 but for gender instead of disability. The Court held in Davis that a school could only be liable for student-on-student harassment when it was “deliberately indifferent” to known acts of such harassment. A negligent failure to learn of or react to student-on-student harassment does not subject a school to liability–only “deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment.” Id. at 642–43.

The Fourth Circuit, in alignment with most other federal courts who have reached this issue, decided that the same reasoning the Davis Court applied to Title IX also applies to § 504 claims arising from student-on-student harassment or bullying because of the statutory parallels. Schools must be on notice of the student-on-student harassment and act with deliberate indifference in order to be held liable for it.

The Fourth Circuit rejected S.B.’s argument that the Fourth Circuit had already adopted a different standard for § 504 liability in 1998: that a school can be liable if the school acted with bad faith or gross misjudgment. The 1998 case that S.B. cited in support of this theory–Sellers v. School Board of City of Manassas, 141 F.3d 524 (4th Cir. 1998)–did not involve school liability for student-on-student misconduct but a school’s own direct conduct. When a school allegedly violates § 504 through it’s own conduct, such as failing to provide a free appropriate public education, the bad faith or gross misjudgment standard applies. However, Sellers said nothing about school liability for student-on-student harassment. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit found that it is guided by Davis and not Sellers.

S.B.’s Claim of Disability Discrimination in Violation of § 504

To succeed on a § 504 student-on-student harassment claim, a plaintiff must show that he was an individual with a disability; that he was harassed by other students because of his disability; that the disability-based harassment was sufficiently severe, pervasive, and objective offensive that it effectively deprived him of access to educational benefits and opportunities at school; and that the school knew about the disability-based student-on-student harassment and was deliberately indifferent to it.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that S.B. could not establish that the student-on-student harassment was based on his disability. It was more likely that S.B. was bullied because of his race, which is not actionable conduct under § 504. Further, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that S.B. and his parents never informed the Board that he was being bullied because of his disability, only that he was being bullied. S.B. alleged that the school should have known that the harassment was based on his disability, but the Supreme Court expressly rejected such a standard in Davis.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that the Board was not deliberately indifferent under Davis, which is a high standard that requires an official decision by the school no to remedy the student-on-student harassment. The response to the harassment must be clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances. Because the school investigated every single incident of harassment of which it was informed, disciplined the offenders, and assigned a paraeducator to accompany S.B., the school acted reasonably. School administrators are entitled to substantial deference when they execute a disciplinary response to student-on-student bullying or harassment, so requests from parents for stronger discipline is not enough to make the school’s chosen actions clearly unreasonable. The Fourth Circuit decided that no reasonable juror could find that the school was less than fully responsive to S.B.’s situation.

T.L.’s Claim of Retaliation in Violation of § 504

Because there was no direct evidence of retaliation, T.L. had to use the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973), burden-shifting framework to make a prima facie case of retaliation by showing (1) that he engaged in protected activity, (2) that the Board took an adverse action against him, and (3) that the adverse action was causally connected to his protected activity. The Board did not dispute that T.L. engaged in a protected activity, advocating for S.B., a student with disabilities. The Fourth Circuit found that the Board’s decision not to rehire T.L. to teach the summer physical education class was a materially adverse action. Nevertheless, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that no reasonable jury could find the necessary causal connection between the Board’s adverse action and T.L.’s protected activity. The Board proffered the legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its decision that they needed one male and one female physical education teacher for the summer, and that another male had more experience than T.L. T.L. attempted to rely on the temporal proximity between the reassignment and the protected activity to show the causal connection, but timing alone cannot defeat summary judgment once an employer offered a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason.

Conclusion

Because the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that no reasonable juror could find that the school was deliberately indifferent to the student-on-student harassment of S.B. and no reasonable juror could find that there was a causal connection between T.L.’s protected activity and the adverse action against him, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court granting the Board’s motion for summary judgment.

mining

By Daniel Stratton

On March 8, 2016, the  Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Peabody Holding Company, LLC v. United Mine Workers of America, vacating the district court’s decision. The Fourth Circuit held that under the complete arbitration rule, an arbitrator handling a labor dispute between Peabody Holding and United Mine Workers of America should have been allowed to finish resolving both the liability and remedial phases of the dispute before the matter was moved to federal court.

United Mine Workers and Peabody Coal Company Enter into Job Opportunity Agreement

In 2007, the United Mine Workers of America and Peabody Coal company entered into a Memorandum of Understanding Regarding  Job Opportunities (“Jobs MOU”). Peabody Coal signed the agreement on behalf of itself and its parent company, Peabody Holding. The purpose of the Jobs MOU was to require non-unionized companies within the Peabody corporation to give preference to coal miners who either worked for or were laid off by Peabody Coal with regards to hiring treatment. The Jobs MOU included an arbitration clause that required all disputes involving the MOU to be submitted to an arbitrator, whose decisions would be final and binding.

That same year, Peabody Energy Corp., the ultimate corporate parent of Peabody Holding,  Peabody Coal, and another company, Black Beauty Coal Company, began a process to spinoff part of its mining operation into a new entity known as Patriot Coal Corporation. Peabody Coal was spun off into Patriot. All of the Peabody subsidiaries that became part of Patriot had been signatories to the Jobs MOU. The only subsidiary that had been a signer to the Jobs MOU that was not spun off into Patriot was Black Beauty. At the completion of the spinoff, Peabody Coal had no corporate relationship with Peabody Holding or Black Beauty.

In 2008, Black Beauty hired United Minerals Company to assist with mining operations on Black Beauty’s property. Both United Minerals Company and Black Beauty were non-unionized. Shortly after United Minerals Company began working with Black Beauty, the United Mine Workers of America sent a letter to Peabody Energy and Peabody Holding explaining that Peabody Holding and Black beauty were still bound by the Jobs MOU. Peabody disagreed, arguing that after Peabody Coal had been spun off, the rest of the Peabody corporate family no longer had any obligation under the Jobs MOU.

Peabody initially argued that this dispute with United Mine Workers was not arbitrable, an argument that the Fourth Circuit rejected in 2012. After being sent back to arbitration, the union and Peabody agreed to bifurcate the dispute into separate liability and remedy phases. The arbitrator ruled that the Jobs MOU remained in effect despite the fact that Peabody Coal had no corporate relationship with Peabody Holding. The arbitrator declined to rule on whether or not Black Beauty was actually exempt from the Jobs MOU, deferring its decision on that question until the remedy stage.

Peabody and United Mine Workers Take Their Dispute to the Courts

Peabody sought to vacate the arbitrator’s decision, filing an declaratory judgment action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. At the same time, the United Mine Workers filed a counterclaim to enforce the decision by the arbitrator.  Under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), some courts viewed their jurisdiction as being limited to “review of final arbitration awards,” while others believed that Section 301 provided “sweeping jurisdiction.” The district court ultimately declined to weigh in on that debate, instead noting that because the liability portion of the arbitration was finished, it was final and therefore reviewable. The district court found in favor of the union, holding that the arbitrator was right to find the Jobs MOU still valid. Peabody and its subsidiaries appealed the district court’s decision. After the parties briefed the appeal, the Fourth Circuit asked for additional briefing on whether the arbitrator’s decision was even properly before the circuit, because the arbitration was not yet complete.

The Limits and Scope of the Complete Arbitration Rule

Under Section 301 of LMRA, federal district courts have jurisdiction over suits involving contract violations between employers and unions. The Supreme Court has long held that Section 301 can be used to seek enforcement of an arbitration award made under a collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration clause. As a threshold matter however, a court must determine that the award is final and binding. Many courts have held this to mean that an arbitrator must have ruled on both liability and remedies before the decision can be reviewable.

Some judicial decision viewed the complete arbitration rule as a restriction on federal jurisdiction. Other decisions had focused on Section 301’s broad language, and have viewed the complete arbitration rule to be “only a prudential limitation on judicial involvement” in an arbitrated labor dispute.

The Fourth Circuit Finds that the Arbitration Decision was sent to the Courts Too Soon

The Fourth Circuit noted that several courts which view the complete arbitration rule in jurisdictional terms still concede that there are exceptions to the rule in extreme cases. Based on this, the Fourth Circuit noted that this necessarily meant that the complete arbitration rule only constituted a prudential limitation. The Court also noted many policy rationales for the complete arbitration rule were the same as those used for strictly jurisdictional relatives. Like the rules that require a district court to enter a final judgment or order before an appellate court can review the case, the complete arbitration rule promotes the same goals of preventing “piecemeal litigation and repeated appeals.” Applying the complete arbitration rule also helps prevent a party from using courts to delay the arbitration, the Fourth Circuit noted.

In terms of actually applying the complete arbitration rule, the Fourth Circuit noted that the application was straightforward. Generally, when an arbitrator decides liability and “reserves jurisdiction to decide remedial questions” later, a federal court should wait to review until all questions have been resolved.  The Court was unpersuaded by Peabody’s arguments that the liability phase was final and thus reviewable. The Fourth Circuit noted that such a division was sensible and common. Just because the parties decided to split their dispute did not change the fact that they agreed to submit the entire dispute to the arbitrator.

The Fourth Circuit also quickly dismissed Peabody’s arguments that reviewing the liability portion now would promote efficiency. Such efficiency arguments could potentially be applied to virtually any case, the court noted, before explaining that by waiting until after the remedy portion was resolved the court was actually promoting efficiency. This was because the parties could still reach a settlement at some point, making a review of the liability portion moot. The Fourth Circuit concluded by explaining that arbitration is a matter of contract, and as such the parties should be able to design an arbitral process that best suits the needs of the parties.

The Fourth Circuit Remands the Case Back to the Arbitrator

The Fourth Circuit ultimately held that the arbitrator’s decision had been prematurely sent to the courts, and remanded the case back to the district court to remand the case back to the arbitrator to continue the arbitration.

By Whitney Pakalka

On March 10, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case, Groves v. Communication Workers of America. Plaintiffs, employees who were terminated by AT&T based on what were later discovered to be flawed reports, filed suit against AT&T and their union under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act. The district court granted the Union’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Plaintiffs had not shown that the Union’s conduct prevented Plaintiffs from exhausting their contractual claims against AT&T under the collective bargaining agreement. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that a hybrid § 301 suit cannot be used to challenge union conduct that, although obstructive, did not contribute to an employee’s failure to exhaust her contractual remedies for the employer’s conduct.

Plaintiffs’ Termination and the Union’s Handling of a Subsequent Settlement Offer

Rebecca Groves and Jonathan Hadden, Plaintiffs, were hired as retail sales consultants for AT&T in Anderson, South Carolina in December 2008. Both Plaintiffs joined the union, Communications Workers of America (“CWA”) and Local 3702 (collectively the “Union”). The Union entered into a collective bargaining agreement with AT&T, under which a formal grievance for an employee’s wrongful discharge or discipline must be submitted by the Union to AT&T in writing within forty-five days of the action complained of. Failure to follow the prescribed grievance procedure results in waiver of the formal grievance by the employee and the Union.

Groves and Hadden were fired in May and June 2012, respectively, but neither of them contacted the Union or filed a grievance. In August 2012, Steve Frost, executive director of labor relations at AT&T, contacted CWA’s administrative director, Betty Witte, to explain that AT&T discovered that reports that led to the termination of sixteen employees, including Plaintiffs, were flawed. Frost asked Witte to contact the terminated employees and offer a settlement of either $2,500 and reinstatement, or $5,000 without reinstatement. Witte then contacted Gerald Souder, a staff representative for CWA, who contacted Les Powell, president of Local 3702, asking him to contact Plaintiffs. Although Local 3702 had Plaintiffs’ contact information on file, Plaintiffs were not contacted because they had not filed grievances or contacted the Union.

Groves and Hadden later learned of the settlement offers, and contacted Souder, who informed them that only the $5,000 offer without reinstatement remained available and they could not file a grievance because the forty-five day limit in the collective bargaining agreement had passed. Plaintiffs filed suit against AT&T and the Union in the District Court for the District of South Carolina, alleging that AT&T breached the collective bargaining agreement between itself and the Union, and that the Union breached its duty of fair representation by failing to inform Plaintiffs of the settlement offers. Plaintiffs and AT&T reached a settlement, and Plaintiffs were reinstated to their former positions in March 2013. The district court granted the Union’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Plaintiffs had not established the threshold requirement for a § 301 action, which requires that the Union’s breach of duty prevent Plaintiffs from exhausting their claims under the collective bargaining agreement

Actions Under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act 

Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act allows “[s]uits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization,” but usually requires that an employee first exhaust contractual remedies in that agreement. However in a “hybrid § 301” action, an employee may file suit without exhausting all contractual remedies by showing that the union breached its duty of fair representation and that her employer violated the collective bargaining agreement. Thompson v. Aluminum Co. of Am., 276 F.3d 651, 656 (4th Cir. 2002). A union breaches its duty of fair representation if its actions are arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith. Air Line Pilots Ass’n, Int’l v. O’Neill, 499 U.S. 65, 67 (1991).

Hybrid § 301 actions exist in order to avoid “unacceptable injustice” that would occur if an employee had to exhaust all contractual remedies even when the union representing her in the grievance procedure acted in such a way as to breach its duty of fair representation. The Supreme Court has held that the hybrid § 301 action is appropriate when an employee cannot exhaust contractual remedies because “the union has sole power under the contract to invoke . . . the grievance procedure” and the employee “has been prevented from exhausting his contractual remedies by the union’s wrongful refusal to process the grievance.” Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 185 (1967).

Fourth Circuit Holds that a Union’s Breach of Duty Must Inhibit Employee’s Ability to Exhaust Contractual Remedies

The Fourth Circuit reasoned that requiring a causal nexus between a union’s breach of its duty of fair representation and the plaintiff’s failure to exhaust her contractual remedies was consistent with other circuits and the Supreme Court’s articulation of the hybrid § 301 claim’s purpose. The court reasoned that it was “a safeguard for wronged employees whose unions fail to assert [their] rights,” and that to allow a hybrid § 301 claim where the union did not impact the employee’s ability to pursue contractual remedies would convert it into “a tool to bypass the normal exhaustion rule . . . any time employees also have some unrelated claim against their union.”

The Court noted that Plaintiffs did not allege that the Union’s conduct had prevented them from filing a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement, and that because they did not file a grievance with the Union, the Union did not know they were terminated until after the contractual period for filing a grievance had passed. Although the Fourth Circuit described the Union’s conduct as “irresponsible at best, and certainly prevented Plaintiffs’ from accepting AT&T’s original reinstatement offer,” the court found that Plaintiffs had waived their right to grieve and were thus not entitled to that offer. The court found that because the Union’s conduct “had nothing to do with their failure to vindicate their rights through the contractually designated procedure,” allowing Plaintiffs to bypass the usual requirements of § 301 would be inappropriate, and accordingly affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.

The Fourth Circuit did not foreclose the possibility that an employee could bring a hybrid § 301 claim without first attempting to file a grievance, noting that where an employee’s failure to invoke the grievance process was caused by the union’s breach of duty, a hybrid § 301 claim “might well be viable.” Additionally, the court noted that its holding did not leave Plaintiffs without a remedy, because they could have brought a stand-along claim against the Union for breach of its duty of fair representation.

Fourth Circuit Affirmed the Grant of Summary Judgment in Favor of the Union

The Court found that Plaintiffs’ failure to file a grievance was not caused by the Union’s failure to contact them about a settlement offer made by AT&T after the company discovered that it had terminated Plaintiffs based on flawed reports. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendant-Union because any breach of the Union’s duty of fair representation did not contribute to Plaintiffs’ failure to exhaust their contractual remedies under the collective bargaining agreement.

 By Whitney Pakalka

On January 11, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of Askew v. Hampton Roads Finance Company. The District Court for the District of Maryland granted Hampton Roads Finance Company (“HRFC”) summary judgment on all of Dante Askew’s borrower-creditor claims. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment as to Askew’s claims that HRFC violated the Maryland Credit Grantor Closed End Credit Provisions (“CLEC”) and was in breach of contract for failing to properly notify him that the interest rate exceeded the statutory maximum within sixty days of when it “should have” known of the error. However, the Court found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to Askew’s claim that HRFC violated the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act (“MCDCA”), and reversed and remanded the district court’s grant of summary judgment as to that claim.

The Used Car Contract and Dispute Between Askew and HRFC

 In 2008, Askew entered into a contract with a car dealership for financing to purchase a used car. The dealership assigned the contract to HRFC, which discovered in August 2010 that the contract’s interest rate of 26.99% exceeded CLEC’s maximum allowable rate of 24%. The next month, HRFC sent Askew a letter informing him that the interest rate was “not correct” and credited his account $845.40. However, the letter did not specify the new interest rate, which was set at 23.99%.

After receiving the letter, Askew fell behind on his payments and HRFC took steps to collect on the account. Over a period of seventeen months, HRFC contacted Askew five times by letter or telephone to seek repayment. Askew alleged that HRFC made false and threatening statements, including that it had reported him to state authorities for fraud for failing to insure his car and attempting to conceal it from repossession agents, that a replevin warrant had been prepared, and that his complaint in this case had been dismissed.

Askew filed the present suit in state court, alleging violations of CLEC, the MCDCA, and breach of contract based on the alleged failure to comply with CLEC. After HRFC removed the case to federal court, the district court granted HRFC’s motion for summary judgment on all claims.

Askew’s Claim that HRFC Violated CLEC and Accordingly Was in Breach of Contract

Under Maryland’s CLEC, credit grantors can elect to make a loan governed by CLEC that sets a maximum interest rate of 24%, which “must be expressed in the agreement as a simple interest rate.” Md. Code § 12-1013.1. If a creditor violates this provision, it may generally only collect the principal of the loan, but not interest, costs, fees, or other charges. Md. Code § 12-1018(a)(2). However, CLEC, also has two safe harbor provisions. One allows creditors to avoid liability “for any failure to comply with CLEC” through self correction “if, within 60 days after discovering an error . . . the credit grantor notifies the borrower of the error and makes whatever adjustments are necessary to correct the error.” Md. Code § 12-1020. The second safe harbor offers protection from liability where a creditor “unintentionally and in good faith” failed to comply with CLEC. Md. Code § 12-1018(a)(3).

Askew argued that HRFC violated CLEC by failing to expressly disclose in the contract an interest rate below the statutory maximum. The district court rejected the argument, finding that CLEC’s disclosure requirement only mandated that the interest rate be expressed as a simple interest rate. The Fourth Circuit agreed, stating that Askew’s interpretation would create a “meaningless technical requirement while doing little to protect consumers.”

Askew further argued that the “discovery rule” usually applicable in the statute of limitations context should apply to CLEC’s 12-1020 safe harbor, which would mean that HRFC “should have” known of the error when it took assignment of the contract because parties to a contract are presumed to have read and understood its terms.   The meaning of “discovery” in § 12-1020 was an issue of first impression, and the Fourth Circuit determined that “discovering an error” means when the creditor actually uncovers the mistake that violated CLEC. The Court reasoned that this reading better comports with CLEC’s text and purpose, as well as public policy. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that Askew’s reading of the safe harbor would give creditors little incentive to self-correct their mistakes and would work “to exacerbate one of the harms CLEC seeks to avoid—the charging of usurious interest.” Because HRFC discovered its error and attempted to cure the mistake within sixty days of that discovery, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that HRFC is not liable under CLEC.

The Fourth Circuit also rejected Askew’s contention that because the contract incorporated CLEC’s provisions, HRFC is liable for breach of contract for any deviation, regardless of whether HRFC properly cured the violation. The Court found that the contract incorporated all of CLEC’s provisions, safe harbors included, and that to find differently would lead to an anomalous result by nullifying the safe harbor provisions.

Askew’s MCDCA Claim that HRFC Attempted to Collect Debt Through Improper Threats and Harrassment

 MCDCA § 14-202(6) provides that a debt collector may not “[c]ommunicate with the debtor or a person related to him . . . in any other manner as reasonably can be expected to abuse or harass the debtor.” Askew contended that HRFC violated the MCDCA by making false representations about legal action it had not actually taken by falsely suggesting it had obtained a replevin warrant, reported a notice of complaint to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration fraud division for failure to insure his vehicle and hiding the car from the lien holder, and that the present case had been dismissed when it was still pending.

The Court made a distinction between “truthful or future threats of appropriate legal action,” which would not violate MCDCA, and “false representations that legal action has already been taken.” Based on Askew’s allegations, the Fourth Circuit concluded that a reasonable jury could find that HRFC had engaged in conduct reasonably expected to abuse or harass. Accordingly, The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Askew’s MCDCA claims.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed in Part and Reversed and Remanded in Part 

Because the Fourth Circuit found that the correct meaning of “discovering an error” in the context of Maryland’s CLEC means when the credit grantor in fact realizes a mistake has been made, the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment as to Askew’s claims that HRFC violated CLEC. Similarly, the Court rejected Askew’s breach of contract claim, because to subject a credit grantor to liability for violating CLEC when its conduct falls within a safe harbor of CLEC would be anomalous. However, the Fourth Circuit found that a reasonable jury could find that HRFC engaged in abusive and harassing conduct in violation of MCDCA, and reversed and remanded for further proceedings on that count alone.

 

 

By Elizabeth DeFrance

On December 9, 2015 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a published opinion in the civil case, Goode v. Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. The plaintiff, Freddie L. Goode (“Goode”), appealed the district court’s dismissal without prejudice of his complaint against Central Virginia Legal Aid Society (“CVLAS”) for race and age discrimination. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that it lacked jurisdiction because the order of dismissal was not final and appealable.

Complaint for Race and Age Discrimination Dismissed Under 12(b)(6)

Goode is an African-American male, who was seventy-two years old when he was terminated from his position as one of two Senior Managing Attorneys at CVLAS. The Board of Directors made the decision to eliminate Goode’s position during a meeting where it discussed the loss of funding and the need for reorganization. Goode subsequently filed a complaint against CVLAS for race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The district court granted CVLAS’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under12(b)(6), determining that Goode “failed either to present direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination or to make out a prima facie case of discrimination.” The district court held that Goode failed to allege sufficient facts to show his job performance was satisfactory at the time of his termination, that he was treated differently than similarly situated employees outside the protected class, and that he was replaced by someone outside the protected class with comparable qualifications. Accordingly, Goode’s case was dismissed without prejudice, and he filed a timely appeal.

When A Complaint Is Dismissed Without Prejudice, It Is Not Appealable

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, the Court may only exercise jurisdiction over final orders (and certain interlocutory and collateral orders not at issue in this case). When a complaint is dismissed without prejudice, it is not a final order “unless the grounds for dismissal clearly indicate that no amendment in the complaint could cure the defects in the plaintiff’s case.”

Defects in The Complaint Were Curable

The Court concluded that Goode could cure the defects in his complaint by amending it to plead specific facts supporting his contentions that his job performance was satisfactory at the time he was terminated, that he was treated differently than similarly situated employees outside the protected class, and that his job duties were dispersed to remaining, younger employees. Nothing in the district court’s order indicated Goode would not have the opportunity to amend his complaint to include such facts. Therefore, the order of dismissal was not final because the district court’s order did not clearly indicate that no amendment could cure the defects in the complaint.

In his appeal, Goode alleged that the district court used an erroneous legal standard to dismiss his case. However, the Court declined to take up this issue because the “district court maintains authority over a case until it issues a final and appealable order.”

Dismissed for Lack of Jurisdiction

Because the district court’s order did not clearly indicate that no amendment could cure the defects in the complaint, the order of dismissal was not final and appealable. Therefore, the Court dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction and remanded the case with instructions to allow Goode to amend his complaint.

By Whitney Pakalka

On July 15, 2015, the Fourth Circuit released its published opinion in the civil case of Butler v. Drive Automotive Industries, Inc. The Court reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendant, Drive Automotive Industries (“Drive”), the company where Plaintiff was sent to work by a temporary employment agency. The Court found that although the staffing agency employed the Plaintiff, under the joint employment doctrine, Drive was also Plaintiff’s employer for purposes of this Title VII action.

Butler’s Allegations of Harassment and the District Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment

Brenda Butler was hired by a temporary employment agency, ResourceMFG, to work at a Drive factory in Piedmont, South Carolina. Drive hired some of its employees through temporary employment agencies and some directly. Drive set Butler’s work schedule, arranged for part of her training, and supervised her on the factory floor. Butler was told by ResourceMFG that she worked for both Drive and Resource MFG. For its part, ResourceMFG required that Butler wear its uniform at work, paid Butler her earnings, controlled discipline and termination, and had a special parking lot for its employees.

According to Butler, one of the Drive supervisors, John Green, repeatedly harassed her verbally and physically by making comments about her buttocks and rubbing his crotch against her buttocks. Butler reported the conduct to a ResourceMFG representative and to Green’s supervisor at Drive, Lisa Gardner Thomas, but Butler claims that no action was taken.

In December 2010, Butler refused to work on a particular machine after she was instructed to by Green, who called her “big booty Judy” when she refused. Butler informed Thomas of the encounter. Thomas then asked another supervisor at Drive to terminate Butler’s employment. A few days later, Green called Butler and implied that if she performed sexual favors for him, he could save her job. She then received a call from a ResourceMFG supervisor informing her that her employment had been terminated.

Butler filed a Title VII employment discrimination action in the District Court for the District of South Carolina alleging sexual harassment. Drive filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Butler worked for ResourceMFG, and therefore Drive was not her “employer.” The district court recognized that under the joint employment doctrine an employee can have multiple employers, but concluded that Drive was not an additional employer and granted it summary judgment.

The Joint Employment Doctrine and the Hybrid Test for Determining Who is an “Employer” Under Title VII

 The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s grant of summary judgment and its interpretation of Title VII de novo. The Court addressed whether the joint employment doctrine applies to Title VII cases in the Fourth Circuit, and whether the District Court correctly applied the doctrine.

The Court affirmed the District Court’s finding that an employee can have more than one employer, stating that the joint employment doctrine applies when an employer contracts with an independent company for the use of its employees, but then retains control over the terms and conditions of employment. Rivas v. Feceración de Asociaciones Pecuarias de P.R., 929 F.2d 814, 820 n.17 (1st Cir. 1991). The Court formally adopted the doctrine in the Title VII context finding that it is consistent with both Fourth Circuit and Supreme Court precedent that focused on who exercises control over the employee. The Court further found that this interpretation was consistent with the remedial purpose of Title VII and recognizes the reality of modern employment, where many workers are employed by temporary staffing agencies that do not control their day-to-day employment.

The Fourth Circuit found that the district court conducted an inappropriate analysis under its newly-articulated joint employment doctrine. The Court noted that various circuits have applied different tests, all of which aim to determine, based on the facts of the case, whether an entity exercises such control over an employee that it should be liable under Title VII. See Clackamas Gastroenterology Assoc., P.C. v. Wells, 538 U.S. 440, 448 (2003).

The Fourth Circuit adopted a multi-factor hybrid test for determining when an employee is jointly employed in Title VII cases. The hybrid test balances the “control” test’s focus on agency with the “economic realities” test’s focus on the degree to which an employee is economically dependent on the entity in question. The hybrid test considers nine fact-specific factors, none of which are said to be dispositive. However, the Court placed the greatest emphasis on three factors: (1) which entity has the power to hire and fire the employee; (2) to what extent the employee is supervised by the entity; and (3) where and how the work takes place.

Drive Automotive was Butler’s Employer and May be Held Liable Under Title VII

Applying the newly-articulated hybrid test to the facts of the case, the Court held that ResourceMFG and Drive were Butler’s joint employers. The Court noted that Drive had a great deal of control over the terms of Butler’s employment and was able to successfully request that she be terminated. Indeed, Drive had never been refused when it requested that ResourceMFG fire an employee. Additionally Drive supervised its employees and ResourceMFG’s employees alike. Both types of employees did substantially the same work on the same equipment, and that work comprised the core of Drive’s business. 

Fourth Circuit Reversed and Remanded

The Fourth Circuit found that the district court had not paid sufficient attention to factors that militated in favor of finding that Drive was Butler’s joint employer. After establishing the joint employment doctrine and the hybrid test for the Fourth Circuit in Title VII cases, the Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Drive and remanded for consideration of Butler’s claims against Drive on the merits.