United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION
Rosenthal, Chief United States District Judge
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).
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
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.
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
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.
The Summary Judgment Record
facts are shown by the parties' summary judgment
evidence. The summary judgment evidence includes the
. 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
. the certification forms for Matson's
. 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
. 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).
What the Record Evidence Shows
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).
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).
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. (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).
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
(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).
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.).
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).
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
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.
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).
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
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).
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
[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).
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.”
second letter, also dated August 30 but signed by Dy Wolpert,
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.
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 ...