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Matson v. Sanderson Farms, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

July 23, 2019

ELVIS MATSON, Plaintiff,


          Lee H. Rosenthal, Chief United States District Judge

         Elvis Matson sued his former employer, Sanderson Farms, Inc., asserting violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII, and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Matson alleges that Sanderson Farms discouraged him from taking medical leave; interfered with his leave; and then fired him because he is African-American, had “mental issues, ” took FMLA leave, complained about discrimination, and filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sanderson Farms moved for summary judgment, arguing that it granted Matson's medical leave and that it had a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reason for firing Matson. Matson responded that Sanderson Farms's reason was a pretext for discrimination and for retaliation for taking medical leave and for filing an EEOC charge. Sanderson Farms replied, and Matson surreplied. (Docket Entry Nos. 1, 18, 22, 26, 31).

         After a careful review of the complaint; the record evidence; the motion, response, reply, and surreply; and the applicable law, the court finds that Matson has not identified or submitted evidence supporting a reasonable inference that Sanderson Farms either interfered with his FMLA leave, or discriminated or retaliated against him for taking the leave and filing an EEOC charge. Because there are no factual disputes material to deciding these issues, summary judgment is granted for Sanderson Farms, and final judgment is separately entered. The reasons are explained in detail below.

         I. Background

         This would have been an easy case but for some complicating facts. Sanderson Farms granted FMLA leave to Matson for residential mental-health treatment. Unbeknownst to Matson, Sanderson Farms, or the treatment facility, the treating “doctor” was no doctor at all. He was, instead, a nurse practitioner. The nurse practitioner wrote Matson a return-to-work letter with facially apparent authenticity problems and sent the letter to Matson through his personal email. Matson forwarded the email and letter to Sanderson Farms. Sanderson Farms contacted the treatment center to authenticate the letter, and the treatment center assured Sanderson Farms that the letter had not been written by one of its physicians. This assurance led Sanderson Farms to fire Matson for falsifying a physician's statement, as its work rules require. But Sanderson Farms was ready, and tried, to reinstate Matson promptly after learning that the “psychiatrist”-the nurse practitioner posing as a doctor-had, in fact, written the return-to-work letter.

         Matson, however, did not return to work when offered reinstatement, choosing instead to continue to work at his brother's trucking company and search for positions at other companies. There are no allegations that any medical condition prevented Matson from returning to Sanderson Farms on the dates it specified, to complete the reinstatement process. Because Sanderson Farms had a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reason to fire Matson when he declined to return to work for reasons unrelated to health, summary judgment is granted to Sanderson Farms.

         At bottom, the case involves an employer that met its statutory obligations and an employee who did not meet his employment obligations. The employer is entitled to summary judgment.

         A. The Summary Judgment Record

         The facts are shown by the parties' summary judgment evidence. The summary judgment evidence includes the following:

. transcripts from the depositions of Matson, Amberly Sherwood, Brenda Gatlin, and Casey Laub;
. declarations from Matson, Judy Matson, Amberly Sherwood, Casey Laub, and Jennifer Buster;
. Sanderson Farms's job description for the master skilled mechanic position; and its substance abuse policy, work rules, and other employment documents;
. commercial driver licenses held by Sanderson Farms employees besides Matson;
. Matson's psychiatric evaluation from a behavioral-health center;
. the certification forms for Matson's FMLA leave;
. documents showing that Sanderson Farms granted Matson's FMLA leave;
. return-to-work letters sent to Sanderson Farms from Matson's treatment center;
. email correspondence between Sanderson Farms, Matson's treatment center, and Matson;
. a transcript from a recording of the meeting in which Matson was fired; . the Sanderson Farms termination and reinstatement paperwork for Matson;
. the findings and conclusion from the Arizona State Board of Nursing's investigation into the nurse practitioner who held himself out as a doctor; and
. Matson's EEOC discrimination charge and related documents.

(See generally Docket Entry Nos. 18-1, 23, 26-1).

         B. What the Record Evidence Shows

         Sanderson Farms is a Mississippi company that processes chicken products in facilities across the country, including in Bryan, Texas. (Docket Entry No. 1 at 1-2). In September 2009, Sanderson Farms hired Matson as a master mechanic. (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 5-7, 54-55). His job was to maintain and repair the commercial trucks and trailers, perform road tests, train other mechanics, and keep inventory at the Bryan Facility. (Id.). The master-mechanic position required the “[a]bility to obtain a class A [commercial driver's license] within [a] specific time limit.” (Id. at 56). Matson drove commercial trucks “every day” and maintained his commercial driver's license. (Id. at 8).

         When Matson was hired, Sanderson Farms gave him the “Work Rules for Hourly Employees.” (Id. at 62, 76). Under these Rules, falsifying a “doctor's statement” was “cause for discharge without warning.” (Id. at 66). The Sanderson Farms Department of Transportation Drug and Alcohol Policy permitted an employee to return to work after self-identifying a drug or alcohol problem, but the employee had to meet with a mental-health professional and pass an unannounced drug and alcohol test before returning to work. (See Id. at 170-200; Docket Entry No. 23 at 111- 12). An employee's “failure to appear for any test within a reasonable time” counted as a refusal to take the test, and the employee would be fired. (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 172-78).

         Matson has a history of psychiatric problems, including hallucinations and thoughts of self-harm. (Docket Entry No. 23 at 7-8). Early in January 2016, Matson was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and gout and prescribed Interferon for 12 weeks. (Id. at 8-9, 81). The gout caused inflammation in his foot, and the Interferon made Matson's psychiatric problems worse. He had “meltdowns” at Sanderson Farms.[1] (Id. at 9, 81). Matson asked Sanderson Farms if he could “work [his] 40 [hours] in four days” instead of five, explaining his “medical condition” and “what was going on in [his] mind.” (Id. at 20). Sanderson Farms approved Matson to work 4-day weeks, which Matson described as a “special accommodation[]” allowing him to “stay on the job.” (Id. at 20).

         On May 25, 2016, Matson was admitted to the Rock Prairie Behavioral Health Center for residential treatment for “depression, anxiety, and agitation.” (Id. at 97). His initial psychiatric evaluation described “an obese male, in severe distress, ” with bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, and nicotine dependence. (Id. at 97-98). Matson told Rock Prairie that he had been “drinking about a half a pint or a fifth [of liquor] on a daily basis now, ” and had smoked “four packs [of cigarettes] in the last 24 hours.” (Id. at 97). The evaluation, signed by Dr. Fernando G. Torres, stated:

The patient will stabilize with the care plan involv[ing] medication management, group, individual therapy, family therapy. Estimated length of stay will be a week. Initially, the patient is going to be prescribed medications [that have] some sedative properties, but as he recovers then [Dr. Torres] will lessen the medications so they will not adversely affect his commercial driver's license operations.

(Id. at 98). Matson testified that he submitted a FMLA request for his stay at Rock Prairie in early June 2016, but the record does not contain that request or its result, and it is unclear when Matson left Rock Prairie. (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 10-11).

         In July 2016, Judy Matson, Matson's wife, became convinced that he needed “professional psychiatric treatment” because his “depression, mood swings[, ] and insomnia continued” after the Interferon treatment ended. (Docket Entry No. 23 at 100). Judy Matson arranged in-patient treatment for Matson from “Doctor” Rodney Dy Wolpert at the Red Rock Addiction and Treatment Company outside Phoenix, Arizona. (Id.).

         On July 20, the Matsons both went to Sanderson Farms to meet with Amberly Sherwood, the Field Employee Relations Manager at the Bryan Facility, about Matson's “health and his need to take time off to get treatment.” (Id.). According to Matson, he told Sherwood that he needed “FMLA [leave] for a mental issue.” (Id. at 9). He got the FMLA leave Matson arrived in Arizona on July 23, 2016. (Id. at 10-11, 13-15, 23). He went to a hospital for two weeks for examinations and “psychiatric interviews” to determine which in-patient residential treatment center best suited his medical needs. (Id. at 10-11, 13-15). After his hospital stay, Matson was admitted to Red Rock Addiction and Treatment Company for treatment. He saw Dy Wolpert, the faux doctor, each day for an hour of therapy. (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 14-16; Docket Entry No. 23 at 12). Dy Wolpert told Matson that he was “schizophrenic” and that his condition was “life threatening.” (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 19). Matson left Red Rock on August 26, 2016, after about 30 days. (Docket Entry No. 23 at 13).

         Unknown to the Matsons and to Red Rock, Dy Wolpert was neither a psychologist nor any kind of medical doctor. (Docket Entry No. 26-1 at 4-5). He was a licensed nurse practitioner who worked at Red Rock from June to September 2016 and held himself out as a psychiatrist. (Id. at 4-6, 11). Red Rock fired Dy Wolpert on September 28, 2016, after “numerous issues with his employment.” (Id. at 17). The Arizona State Board of Nursing later investigated Dy Wolpert, finding a long and deeply troubling history of serious misconduct and misrepresentations to patients. (See generally id.). Dy Wolpert voluntarily surrendered his Arizona nursing license in September 2017, after the investigation concluded that he had violated many Arizona laws. (Id. at 20-24).

         Shortly after arriving at Red Rock, Matson asked Sanderson Farms for FMLA leave. On July 28, 2016, Red Rock sent Sanderson Farms a completed “Certification of Health Care Provider for Hourly Employee's Serious Health Condition.” (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 127-30). This initial certification form listed Matson's job title as “MAINT. 1” and his medical provider as “Dr. Dy Wolpert, ” described as a “psychiatrist.” (Id.). The contact number for Dy Wolpert was, confusingly, Sanderson Farms's number. (Id.). The initial certification form stated that Matson was “hospitalized due to life threatening conditions” and could not work. (Id.). According to the initial certification form, Dy Wolpert treated Matson between July 20 and 25, 2016. (Id.).

         On the morning of August 4, 2016, Jeffrey Baker, a Red Rock case manager, sent Sanderson Farms another certification form, this time using the Sanderson Farms preprinted FMLA form. (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 78, 84-85, 121). The second certification form had Sanderson Farm's name and contact preprinted and listed Matson's title as “Master Skill M1, ” describing his job functions. (Id. at 78). But like the initial certification form, this second certification form stated that: “Dr. Dy Wolpert” was Matson's medical provider; Sanderson Farms's phone number was the contact number for Dy Wolpert; Matson was “hospitalized due to life threatening conditions” that would last about “3 months”; Matson could not work during those 3 months; and Dy Wolpert treated Matson between July 20 and 25, 2016. (Id. at 13, 78-80).

         After Sanderson Farms received the second certification form, Amberly Sherwood asked Brenda Gatlin, the Sanderson Farms Senior Employee Relations Manager, if she could have Casey Laub, the Bryan Facility's Occupational Health Nurse, seek clarification from Red Rock on the form, including on the “life threatening conditions” that the form referred to. (Docket Entry No. 23 at 51). Gatlin replied, “Yes[, ] we need to clarify what exactly is his condition[, h]ave the nurse call.” (Id. at 115).

         Amberly Sherwood told Laub “to obtain additional information so that [Sanderson Farms] could certify . . . Matson's request.” (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 140). Laub did not contact Dy Wolpert because the number for him on the second certification form was Sanderson Farms's number. (Id. at 140-41). In an email to Sherwood and Gatlin, Laub voiced her concerns:

Something is not right with this situation. The physician's name listed on these FMLA papers is a psychiatrist who lists an office in Florida on the internet. The phone number on the FMLA papers is the phone and fax for our hatchery. When I call the phone number listed for that name on the physician's self-help web page, I get a cell phone that the person who answered stated [he] was a government IT help cell phone. Per the website, [Red Rock] is an alcohol and substance abuse treatment center in Arizona.

(Docket Entry No. 23 at 169).

         Laub, the Occupational Health Nurse, called and emailed Red Rock, asking to speak with Dy Wolpert to clarify why Matson “needs to be off of work” and to obtain Wolpert's “contact information.” (Docket Entry No. 18-1 at 83). Baker, the Red Rock case manager, responded that he understood why Laub “might be confused.” (Id.). Baker provided the following information:

[Matson] is currently in a[n] inpatient program for substance abuse treatment. His listed diagnosis on his EMR is F19.2 Substance Use Disorder, moderate[, ] and F10.2 Alcohol Use Disorder, severe. His first interaction was at our detox center and is now at the above listed treatment center. He is currently scheduled to be with us for 30 treatment days.

(Id.). On August 5, 2016, based on the information Baker sent, Sanderson Farms approved Matson's FMLA leave from July 20, 2016 to October 20, 2016, as the second certification form requested. (Id. at 137-38).

         On August 30, 2016, Sanderson Farms received two return-to-work letters for Matson. (Id. at 87-89). The first letter was on Red Rock letterhead and signed by Jeffrey Baker and Erika Heckman, the Red Rock Program Director. (Id. at 89). It stated that “Elvis Matson successfully completed our Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program and Partial Hospitalization Program with Sober Living Housing on August 26th, 2016.” (Id.). According to the letter, “[t]he doctor, Dr. Dy Wolpert[, ] cleared [Matson] to return to work as of 8/27/16, ” because his treatment had been “successful” and “he does not pose a risk to himself or anyone else.” (Id.).

         A second letter, also dated August 30 but signed by Dy Wolpert, stated:

Elvis Matson has been under my care from 7/27/2016 to 10/20/2016 and would be able to go back to work on 10/21/2016. He is able to perform all duties. If there's questions regarding this matter please don't hesitate to call me at (602)300-8135. Thank You!

(Id. at 87). This second letter was not on Red Rock letterhead. (Id.). It is unclear whether Sanderson Farms received this letter.

         On September 7, 2016, Matson emailed Sanderson Farms a third return-to-work letter, over his personal email. Matson told Sanderson Farms that this third letter came “from [his] doctor to return to work on September 21, 2016.” (Id. at 93). The third letter stated that “[Matson] is released to Return To Work on 9/21/2016, ” without any restrictions. (Id. at 91). That letter showed that it came “from the desk of Dr Dy Wolpert” on “1234 Main Street Anytown, State Zip (123) 456-7890.” (Id.). Dy Wolpert's name was signed on the third letter, but the signature did not match his earlier ...

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