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Isom v. JDA Software Incorporated

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 31, 2016

Kimberly Isom, Plaintiff,
JDA Software Incorporated, Defendant.


JAMES A. TEILBORG, Senior District Judge.

In this Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") case, the jury found that Defendant JDA Software Incorporated violated the FMLA by interfering with Plaintiff Kimberly Isom's statutory rights, and awarded Plaintiff $114, 618 in compensatory damages. (Doc. 171 at 1). Following the verdict, the Court instructed the parties to file proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to the issue of whether Defendant acted in good faith. (Doc. 166). The Court has considered the parties' filings, and hereby finds and concludes the following.[1]

I. Findings of Fact

The following findings are derived from stipulated facts, credible testimony at trial, and documentary evidence submitted into the record. Plaintiff first informed Defendant of her pregnancy and of the possibility of exercising her right to medical leave under the FMLA in December 2010. On December 30, 2010, Plaintiff emailed Debbie Baker, Defendant's Human Resources Director, and expressed that her greatest concern with respect to the pregnancy was the possibility of Defendant's sales management team "taking away any of [her] hard work over the last [two] years building a[]... pipeline, " as certain account opportunities can "take anywhere" from a year to a year and a half to realize a sale. Plaintiff sought to ensure "that [she would be] compensated for [her] work, even if out of maternity leave, " and to determine whether it was in her financial interest to take FMLA leave.

Sometime "in or around January of 2011, " Plaintiff informed Brad Bell, [2] her immediate supervisor and the Vice President of Sales for the Retail Hardlines group, that she was pregnant and had been given a due date of July 3, 2011. Bell was aware that Plaintiff had "expressed her concerns" about commissions associated with accounts that she had been working on "[b]oth in telephone communications, in person[, ] and in emails." By March 21, 2011, Plaintiff had yet to be informed by human resources or her management team as to how, or if she would be paid for certain accounts if she took FMLA leave. Plaintiff contacted Debbie Baker via email for an update on whether she would retain certain accounts while on FMLA leave and if she would be eligible for any kind of a commission. The following day, Plaintiff contacted Brad Bell and voiced surprise at a recent "change in direction by [Human Resources], " as well as concern as to the negative effect the change might have on her sales accounts. At this time, Plaintiff openly entertained the notion of returning from FMLA leave early, and her communications again concerned "commissions, " how Defendant would "handle [her] accounts, " and whether she would return to work "with [the] same accounts and [the] same earning potential."

By May 31, 2011, Plaintiff had not received information on how her "accounts w[ould] be managed" while she was out. On June 2, 2011, Plaintiff contacted Michael Bridge, Defendant's in-house General Counsel at the time, to determine whether there had been "any progress on clarification" of Defendant's maternity policy. Plaintiff had not made a decision as to whether she would exercise her rights under the FMLA and was concerned that certain accounts would be taken from her. Plaintiff informed Defendant that her decision with respect to FMLA leave would be "based on the financial impact" it would have on her, and she again expressed concern over how Defendant would handle certain deals that she had invested an extended period of time in, including Sears Canada. Bridge did not know why Defendant had not contacted Plaintiff directly, but told her that "management and/or HR should be getting back to [her] to give [her] more clarity."

Plaintiff decided to take FMLA leave on June 3, 2011, when her twins were born, but was unsure as to how long she would remain on leave due to her inability to obtain substantive responses to her inquiries. On June 13, 2011, Bryan Boylan, Defendant's Vice President of Human Resources, advised Plaintiff that "[Defendant's] general policy is that a sales account manager who is on leave of absence at the time a software license deal closes shall not be entitled to any commission for that particular deal, " and that Defendant would "not consider any exception to this policy" other than in "rare circumstance[s]" not applicable to Plaintiff. A determination would then be made by Defendant "as to whether it is necessary to assign another account manager to [certain] accounts during the period of [Plaintiff's] absence." Sometime after this exchange, Plaintiff called Brad Bell and left a voice mail seeking an update on her accounts.

On July 6, 2011-"a few weeks" after Plaintiff's voicemail-Bell informed Plaintiff that despite his efforts over the previous four weeks, and having "invested significant time supporting" Plaintiff's accounts, he had "no choice but to re-assign" the Sears Canada account because it was "clear... that there [was] still significant work to be done to bring Sears Canada... to closure."[3] Plaintiff inquired as to whether the account would be returned at the conclusion of her FMLA leave, and emphasized the significant time she spent on the account over the previous eighteen months. Bell told Plaintiff that when she returned to active work, Defendant would review the accounts that were transferred, and if the accounts were still active, "determine if they should be assigned back to [Plaintiff]." He further reaffirmed that Defendant did "not have any split commissions arrangement."

On July 14, 2011, Defendant transferred the Sears Canada account to Bill Wortham due to Plaintiff's absence on FMLA leave. Plaintiff returned to active work on August 22, 2011. The Sears Canada account remained with Wortham and Plaintiff was advised "that this decision [was] final, " it was made "in accordance with [Defendant's] policy" and was "not subject to negotiation." Plaintiff did not receive any commission when Sears Canada closed on March 31, 2012.

The foregoing findings were based on stipulated facts, documentary evidence submitted into the record and credible testimony at trial from February 29, 2016, to March 9, 2016.

II. Analysis and Conclusions of Law

A. Liquidated Damages Under the FMLA

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. Title 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(A)(i)-(iii) (2012). However, "if an employer who has violated [the FMLA] proves to the satisfaction of the [C]ourt 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 its discretion, reduce the amount of liability to the jury's award of lost employment benefits plus interest. 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(A)(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). It is the "employer's burden... to establish that it had an honest intention to ascertain and follow the dictates of the Act'[4] and that it had reasonable grounds for believing that its conduct complied ...

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