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Burton v. Jordan School District

United States District Court, D. Utah

September 12, 2017

JANENE BURTON, Plaintiff,
v.
JORDAN SCHOOL DISTRICT, a subdivision of the State of Utah; ANTHONY GODFREY, in his individual and official capacities; LAWRENCE URRY, in his individual and official capacities; and JOHN DOES 1-5, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          TED STEWART UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant Defendants' Motion as to Plaintiff's federal claims and decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state-law claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Janene Burton (“Burton”) became a Career Employee of Jordan School District in 1984. Burton was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007 and was soon after diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. In 2007, Burton filed for and received medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Burton returned to work after her leave, but obtained FMLA leave again for the first quarter of the 2009-10 school year.

         Prior to the 2010-11 school year, Burton used her fifth period prep hour to check her blood sugar levels. Burton was also allowed to park in a handicap spot and keep a refrigerator in her room. In 2010, Burton's new principal, Mr. Lawrence Urry (“Urry”), changed Burton's schedule so that she would no longer have fifth period prep. Urry also notified Burton that she would no longer be given a handicap parking spot or a refrigerator for her room. Burton believed that these accommodations were necessary for her medical condition. Burton explained this to Urry and requested that he restore the accommodations, but Urry declined her request.

         Burton then went to Anthony Godfrey (“Godfrey”), an associate superintendent for the Jordan School District and Urry's direct supervisor. On August 18, 2010, Burton discussed her situation with Godfrey. As they talked, Burton became emotional. The parties disagree as to what transpired during the meeting and whether there was one meeting or multiple meetings. Burton claims she requested leave for a year and that Godfrey assured her an extended medical leave with a guaranteed teaching spot upon Burton's return. Godfrey then allegedly pushed a form towards her, leaving his hand over the title and other key portions, and instructed her on how to fill it out while assuring her that the form would secure an extended medical leave.[1] In fact, the form was a Notification of Resignation.

         According to Godfrey, Burton announced that she “need[ed] to be done, ” and wanted to quit.[2] Godfrey claims that he warned Burton that she would have to go through the application process if she resigned and then wished to be re-employed by the District. He then directed Burton to Human Resources (“HR”). Godfrey claims that he did not discuss FMLA leave with Burton, that he never provided a form to Burton, [3] and that, prior to August 2013, he did not know whether Burton resigned, remained, or took leave following their meeting.[4]

         The day after Burton signed the Notification of Resignation, the District HR Director sent a letter accepting Burton's resignation with an enclosed Employee Benefits Notification.[5]Burton claims she never received the letter accepting her resignation, but did receive the benefits form. The form clearly noted that her reason for leaving was termination of employment. Burton signed and returned the form to the school district. On or about October 1, 2010, Burton signed and submitted a “withdrawal/Rollover 401(k) Plan Application, ” stating that her last day of employment was August 23, 2010. Burton withdrew the full balance of her retirement funds from her Utah Retirement System (“URS”) account. Withdrawal of the full balance of 401(k) funds can only occur if the account holder terminates employment, retires, or reaches the age of 59 ½ years. The parties agree that Burton's withdrawal was not based on disability or age. Burton claims that she did not understand this and that she intended to make the withdrawal for her immediate needs, as she had done in the past, and pay the amount back into her account after she returned.

         Burton returned to Jordan School District before the 2011-12 school year only to be directed to apply for open positions. Burton applied for positions in the spring of 2012 and in subsequent school years. Burton was eventually hired as a paraeducator by Granite School District, but failed to secure a full-time position in a location that was acceptable to her.[6] In October 2015, Burton filed this lawsuit against Jordan School District, Godfrey, and Urry, alleging a FMLA violation, a § 1983 violation, fraud, and a violation of the Utah Constitution.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[7] In considering whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, the Court determines whether a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party in the face of all the evidence presented.[8] The Court is required to construe all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[9]

         1. FMLA violation

         The FMLA makes it “unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right provided” by the FMLA.[10] A claim for abuse of FMLA provisions is typically subject to a two-year statute of limitations.[11] In the event that a violation is “willful, ” however, the statute of limitations is three years from the date “of the last event constituting the alleged violation for which such action is brought.”[12]

         The Court can assume for the purposes of this Motion that Burton presented sufficient evidence to support a claim of a willful violation. Thus, the Court will apply the three-year period which begins on the date of the last event constituting the alleged violation.[13] Here, the alleged violation of the FMLA began with the alleged procurement of Burton's resignation by trickery in response to her request for leave in August 2010. Burton did not file her Complaint until October 2015. Therefore, this claim is barred.

         Burton appears to make an argument for equitable tolling of the statute of limitations period by claiming that until 2015, “[she] was unaware of the fraud that Godfrey had perpetrated upon her and could not reasonably have filed a complaint.”[14] The FMLA “does not contain provisions for tolling the statute of limitations nor does it address the continuing violation doctrine.”[15] “The continuing violation doctrine is premised on the equitable notion that the statute of limitations should not begin to run until a reasonable person would be aware that his or her rights have been violated.”[16] If a plaintiff knows or should have known of discrimination through the exercise of reasonable diligence, “a continuing violation claim will likely fail.”[17]Further, the Tenth Circuit has “recognized equitable tolling of . . . time limitations only if the circumstances of the case rise to the level of active deception which might invoke the powers of equity to toll the limitations period. For instance, equitable tolling may be appropriate where a plaintiff has been lulled into inaction by [the actions of others].”[18]

         Burton testified at her deposition that Godfrey told her in a phone conversation in 2013 that she “had really signed a resignation letter.”[19] Even prior to this 2013 conversation, there were many events that would put a reasonable person on notice that fraud occurred. For example, in August 2010, Burton signed a benefits form which stated that her employment had been terminated. One year later, an employee from the school district's HR office told Burton that she would need to participate in open enrollment and apply for positions if she wanted to get her job back.[20]

         Between 2011 and 2013, Burton took a job as a paraeducator in Granite School District and “kept applying for teaching positions” in Granite, Canyon, Moab, and Jordan School Districts, suggesting that she knew she was no longer a Jordan School District contract employee.[21] In addition, she testified to understanding that she was on her own for health insurance after her 2010 meeting with Godfrey, despite the fact that she did not lose her benefits the prior two times she took FMLA leave.[22]

         Burton also argues that no resignation appeared in her personnel file. However, she failed to produce any evidence that a notice of resignation is typically filed in a personnel file. While Jordan School District employees may not have told her that she resigned until 2013, their statements and actions were clearly incompatible with Burton's claimed belief that she was still a contract employee. In addition, Burton signed a form shortly after the alleged fraud which clearly stated that her employment had been terminated. At this point, a reasonable person would have been aware that his or her rights were violated. For these reasons, the Court finds that Burton knew, or should have known, that her employment had been terminated before October 2012, which means tolling is not justified and Burton's FMLA claim is untimely.

         2. Due Process Under § 1983

         “42 U.S.C. § 1983 allows an injured person to seek damages against an individual who has violated his or her federal rights while acting under color of state law.”[23] Burton brings a claim for a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment applies only to federal employees, [24] and, therefore, does not apply to Defendants. The error has no practical effect because the “Fourteenth Amendment imposes no more stringent requirements upon state officials than the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment upon their federal counterparts.”[25] The Court will therefore apply Fourteenth Amendment law.

         The statute of limitations for § 1983 actions is “drawn from the personal-injury statute of the state in which the federal district court sits.”[26] Utah's personal injury statute of limitations is four years.[27] The Tenth Circuit has confirmed the application of Utah's four-year personal injury statute of limitations to § 1983 claims and the Supreme Court has implicitly endorsed this practice.[28]

         “While state law governs limitations and tolling issues, federal law determines the accrual of ...


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