United States District Court, D. Arizona
Amie M. Gressett, Plaintiff,
Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Defendant.
JAMES A. TEILBORG, Senior District Judge.
In this Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") case, the jury concluded that Defendant Central Arizona Water Conservation District, as the operating agency for the Central Arizona Project, violated the FMLA by interfering with Plaintiff Amie Gressett's FMLA rights. The jury awarded Plaintiff $140, 000 in compensatory damages. Following this verdict, the issues pending before the Court are whether awards of liquidated damages and front pay are appropriate, and if so, in what amounts. The Court has considered the parties' briefs (Docs. 171, 172, 173) as well as their arguments at a hearing on these issues.
I. Liquidated Damages
A. Legal Standard
Under the FMLA, a successful plaintiff is presumptively entitled to an award of liquidated damages equal to the amount of employment benefits denied or lost to her by reason of the defendant's FMLA violation, including interest. 29 U.S.C. § 2617(A)(1)(i)-(iii). However, "if an employer who has violated [the FMLA] proves to the satisfaction of the court that the act or omission [that violated the FMLA] was in good faith and that the employer had reasonable grounds for believing that the act or omission was not a violation of [the FMLA], " the court may, in the discretion of the court, reduce the amount of liability to the jury's award of lost employment benefits plus interest. 29 U.S.C. § 2617(A)(1)(iii). In determining whether a defendant acted in good faith and had reasonable grounds for believing its actions were not violative of the FMLA, a court must make specific, explicit findings and explain its reasoning. Traxler v. Multnomah Cnty., 596 F.3d 1007, 1015-16 (9th Cir. 2010).
Plaintiff asks the Court to award $140, 000 in liquidated damages, the amount equal to the jury's award of compensatory damages for lost employment benefits to Plaintiff. Defendant argues that liquidated damages are unwarranted because it undertook its FMLA obligations in good faith and reasonably believed its actions did not violate the FMLA.
During the Court's hearing, the Court asked Defendant how there could be an absence of bad faith in this case if Plaintiff was terminated without any effort to reconcile which of her hours off from work were protected by the FMLA and which were not. The evidence at trial showed that Plaintiff had accumulated a number of absences, some of which were for FMLA-protected reasons and some of which were not. The evidence also showed that although Defendant's employees were aware of Plaintiff's FMLA status, they failed to account for Plaintiff's FMLA time and did not compile a spreadsheet tracking this time until well after Plaintiff was terminated and Defendant had to respond to an inquiry by the United States Department of Labor.
Defendant's spreadsheet, created for the Department of Labor and admitted at trial as Exhibit 35, admitted that many of Plaintiff's absences were FMLA-protected. At least two absences admitted by Defendant (long after Plaintiff's termination) to be FMLA-protected were the subject of disciplinary action against Plaintiff, including being the subject of consideration when Defendant's termination committee recommended terminating Plaintiff. The termination committee based its recommendation upon a termination packet provided to them by Michelle Ludke, employed by Defendant as a senior human resources generalist. This packet contained Plaintiff's prior disciplinary history, e-mails, and other relevant items, and was admitted at trial as Exhibit 115.
Ludke admitted at trial that she compiled the termination packet and that she did not include in the packet any specific accounting of Plaintiff's FMLA-protected absences. Indeed, upon prompting by Plaintiff's counsel, Ludke examined the entire contents of Exhibit 115 and testified that it did not contain any references to certain hours being designated as FMLA time off. David Modeer, Defendant's general manager and the individual responsible for making termination decisions, testified that he terminated Plaintiff for absenteeism and poor performance. He also testified that he knew at the time of the termination meeting that Plaintiff had been granted FMLA leave, but his termination decision did not consider any FMLA leave. However, Modeer was unable to identify anything in Exhibit 115, the termination packet, identifying which of Plaintiff's absences were FMLA-protected.
Additionally, Plaintiff's counsel asked Modeer the following question:
Q: If it turns out that even one of those absences that you considered was protected by FMLA, would the decision to terminate have been improper?
A: Not necessarily.
Modeer's answer speaks ...