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Browning v. Southwest Airlines Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

April 23, 2019



          David C. Godbey, United States District Judge.

         This Memorandum Opinion and Order addresses Defendant Southwest Airlines Co.'s (“Southwest”) motion for summary judgment [26]. Plaintiff Leonardo Browning's Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) claims are time-barred, and he fails to ma k e out a prima facie case of either race or disability discrimination under the Texas Labor Code (“TLC”). Accordingly, the Court grants Southwest's motion.

         I. Origins of the Dispute

         Leonardo Browning has worked for Southwest since 2006. After spending five years as a Customer Service Representative, he became a Flight Attendant in 2011. At some point before that, however, Browning began using FMLA leave to tend to a growing list of disabilities that included depression, insomnia, and sensitivity to medication. His medical problems soon got worse. In 2014, Browning says that he had developed a form of cancer that was making it increasingly difficult for him to work as a flight attendant.

         In the beginning of April 2015, Browning was feeling particularly ill. He called his supervisor to report that he was taking FMLA leave that would cover a shift he was scheduled for on April 3, 2015. He was next scheduled as a reserve for a shift based in Dallas beginning on April 10, 2015. Southwest's Work Rule-Class I, #17 (“Rule 17”) requires reserves to be within two hours driving distance of the airport he or she is assigned to for the duration of the shift.

         On April 10, 2015, Browning was not within two hours driving distance of Dallas. Instead, believing he was still on FMLA leave, he was at his home in Austin. He did not respond to Southwest's attempts to reach him prior to the start of his shift. When it finally learned that Browning was in Austin on April 10th, Southwest terminated Browning for violating Rule 17.

         On or about May 16, 2017, Browning filed a petition in state court, alleging violations of the FMLA, as well as race and disability discrimination under the TLC. Southwest removed the case to this Court and now moves for summary judgment.

         II. Legal Standard for Summary Judgment

         Courts “shall grant summary judgment 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). In making this determination, courts must view all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962). The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the court of the basis for its belief that there is no genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the movant has made the required showing, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to establish that there is a genuine issue of material fact such that a reasonable jury might return a verdict in its favor. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). Factual controversies are resolved in favor of the nonmoving party “‘only when an actual controversy exists, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.'” Olabisiomotosho v. City of Houston, 185 F.3d 521, 525 (5th Cir. 1999) (quoting McCallum Highlands, Ltd. v. Washington Capital Dus, Inc., 66 F.3d 89, 92 (5th Cir. 1995)).

         III. The Court Grants Summary Judgment For Southwest As To Browning's FMLA Claims

         A. Browning's FMLA Claims are Time-Barred

         FMLA claims generally carry a two-year limitations period, but that period may be extended to three-years if there is evidence of a willful violation. Mozingo v. Oil States Energy, Inc., 661 Fed.Appx. 828, 830 (5th Cir. 2016) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2617(c)). It is undisputed that Browning filed his original petition on either May 16 or 17, 2017.[1] The Court holds that Browning became aware of his claims on May 9, 2015, that the limitations period was not extended, and that Browning's FMLA claims are thus time-barred.

         Much of this dispute hinges on the application of the sham affidavit doctrine. The doctrine allows a district court to “refuse to consider statements made in an affidavit that are ‘so markedly inconsistent' with a prior statement as to ‘constitute an obvious sham.'” Winzer v. Kaufman Cty., 916 F.3d 464, 472 (5th Cir. 2019) (citing Clark v. Resistoflex Co., a Div. of Unidynamics Corp., 854 F.2d 762, 766 (5th Cir. 1998)). This doctrine is to be applied with care. “Not every discrepancy in an affidavit justifies a district court's refusal to give credence to competent summary judgment evidence.” Id. If the “affidavit supplements, rather than contradicts an earlier statement” or if the two statements can be reconciled, then the sham affidavit doctrine does not apply. Id.

         Browning has made three statements regarding the accrual date of his FMLA claims. First, in his Original Petition, Browning claims that he was not aware of his termination until May 16, 2015. Pl.'s Original Pet., 3 [1-1]. But during his deposition he made clear he was mistaken:

Q. I'll represent to you that May 8th, 2015 ...

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