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Juan C. Pag_n-Col_n; Ada I. Renta-Bonilla v. Walgreens of San Patricio

September 4, 2012

JUAN C. PAG_N-COL_N; ADA I. RENTA-BONILLA; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP PAG_N-RENTA, PLAINTIFFS, APPELLEES, CROSS-APPELLANTS,
v.
WALGREENS OF SAN PATRICIO, INC., DEFENDANT, APPELLANT, CROSS-APPELLEE.



APPEALS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Gustavo A. Gelp_, U.S. District Judge]

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lipez, Circuit Judge.

Before Lynch, Chief Judge, Torruella and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

This case arises from the termination of the plaintiff-appellee, Juan Pag_n-Col_n, from his job as an assistant manager at a Walgreens store in Juana D_az, Puerto Rico. Although the parties disagree as to the reason for Pag_n's termination, there is no dispute that he was fired after a two-week absence from his job due to a medical condition that required one week of hospitalization and another week of recuperation. Following Pag_n's termination, he and his wife, Ada Renta-Bonilla, brought claims in federal district court against Walgreens alleging that he was fired in retaliation for conduct protected by the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. __ 2601-54; that his termination was wrongful under Puerto Rico law; and that the loss of Pag_n's job caused Renta to suffer emotional distress compensable under Puerto Rico law. After the district court granted summary judgment for Walgreens on Renta's claim and the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the other Puerto Rico law claim, the FMLA claim went to trial and a jury found in Pag_n's favor, awarding compensatory damages.

On appeal, Walgreens argues that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the FMLA claim and that the district court erred in denying a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) motion to amend the judgment. In turn, Pag_n and Renta argue that the court erred in denying liquidated damages on the FMLA claim and in granting Walgreens summary judgment on Renta's Puerto Rico law claim.

For the reasons described below, we affirm the judgment of the district court in all respects, save its rejection of Renta's Puerto Rico law claim. That claim presents an important and unresolved issue of Puerto Rico law that we decline to address in the first instance. Accordingly, we certify the question to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and reserve judgment on this particular issue pending its response. Additionally, as a matter of first impression, we conclude that a backpay award under the FMLA may include overtime compensation.

I.

A. Factual Background

As we are called upon to review the denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law, we review the evidence "in the light most favorable to the verdict" in favor of Pag_n. Alvarado-Santos v. Dep't of Health, 619 F.3d 126, 132 (1st Cir. 2010).

1. Pag_n's Hospitalization and Discharge

Pag_n began working for Walgreens in September 2000. By the time of his discharge in 2008, he had been promoted to assistant manager of the Walgreens store in Juana D_az. On May 10, 2008, Pag_n reported for work at 4 a.m., but shortly thereafter he began to experience chest pains, heart palpitations, and sweating. His symptoms worsened that morning, and during his 9 a.m. break he went to the emergency room at a local hospital. Already suffering from type II diabetes, he was found to have high blood sugar and high blood pressure, and he asked hospital staff to contact his wife, Renta.

When Renta arrived, Pag_n asked her to contact Edwin Figueroa, the manager of the store at which he worked, and tell Figueroa that he was in the hospital and unsure when he could return to work. She did so immediately after leaving the emergency room at approximately 10 a.m. She also called the store twice more that day to give updates on Pag_n's condition and inform those at the store of his admission to the hospital. Pag_n was hospitalized from May 10 to 17, and he underwent a cardiac catheterization surgical procedure on May 16. During his hospitalization, he was in contact with co-workers, including another assistant manager whom he told of his upcoming surgical procedure.

Pag_n was discharged from the hospital on May 17. That day, he went to the Walgreens store at which he worked to pick up prescription medication and deliver a medical certificate explaining his absence. He met with assistant manager Mariel Col_n, who was the most senior employee present at the time, and bookkeeper Wanda Santiago. During this meeting, he told Col_n that his doctors had ordered him to rest at home for one week and he presented the medical certificate to Santiago, a fact verified by that day's surveillance video footage from the store and stipulated by the parties at trial. However, Figueroa, the store's manager, testified that news of Pag_n's hospitalization, physician-ordered recuperative rest, and delivery of the medical certificate was not communicated to him.

2. Pag_n's Termination

After consultation with the Walgreens district supervisor and corporate legal counsel, Figueroa sent a letter dated May 19 to Pag_n, stating that he had not heard from Pag_n and had no explanation for his extended absence. The letter asked that Pag_n contact Walgreens management to determine his eligibility for disability leave, and stated that if he did not do so within 48 hours there might be "negative consequences for [his] job." Pag_n did not receive this letter until May 28,*fn1 well after the expiration of the 48-hour deadline, and Figueroa never called Pag_n or made any other attempt to get in touch with him. On May 23, having not heard from Pag_n, Figueroa again consulted with the district supervisor and legal counsel, and the decision was made to terminate Pag_n's employment with the understanding that he had abandoned his job.

Unaware of this decision, Pag_n went to the store that same day to let others know that he was available to return to work the following day and to determine what his work schedule would be. He spoke with assistant manager Ivelisse L_pez, who agreed to speak with other managers and let Pag_n know when she learned of his schedule. After Figueroa became aware of Pag_n's visit, he asked L_pez to contact Pag_n with instructions to come into the store to meet with him at 8 a.m. the following day. When Pag_n came to work on May 24, Figueroa told him that he was fired and asked him to return his keys to the store. Figueroa offered no explanation for the termination. When Pag_n asked for one, Figueroa simply told him to contact Walgreens' corporate offices. After trying unsuccessfully for several days to contact someone at Walgreens' corporate offices by phone, Pag_n went to the office in person and was able to meet with Miriam D_az of Walgreens' Human Resources Department. D_az was also unable to explain his termination, but she said that she would look into the matter and give Pag_n an answer.

Upon realizing that Pag_n had documentation of his hospitalization and doctor-ordered rest, Figueroa, in consultation with the Walgreens district manager and Walgreens legal counsel, decided to reconsider his termination. On June 3, Figueroa called Pag_n to ask him to come to the store to be interviewed. The next day, Pag_n met with Figueroa and another Walgreens employee and described to them the circumstances of his hospitalization and attempts to notify Walgreens of his absence. After this meeting, Figueroa attempted to verify Pag_n's account by talking with the Walgreens employees that Pag_n claimed that he or his wife had contacted. According to Figueroa, at least one individual that Pag_n claimed his wife had contacted had no recollection of the call, and neither of the individuals that Pag_n met with on May 17 recalled receiving a medical certificate from him. Accordingly, Figueroa concluded that Pag_n had lied to him during the investigation and, again in consultation with the district manager and legal counsel, Figueroa decided to terminate Pag_n for his dishonesty -- a decision that Walgreens insists was entirely independent of Pag_n's hospitalization and related absence. Accordingly, on June 6, Pag_n was notified that his termination was confirmed, but the basis was changed from his two-week absence to his alleged dishonesty during the investigation.

B. Procedural History

Shortly after his discharge, Pag_n and his wife filed a complaint against Walgreens in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. They raised several claims, including: 1) retaliation under the FMLA, 2) wrongful termination in violation of Puerto Rico Law 80, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, __ 185a-185m, and 3) damages under Articles 1802 and 1803 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31, __ 5141-5142. The district court granted summary judgment for Walgreens on the Article 1802 and 1803 claims, and the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their Law 80 claim during the course of the trial. Accordingly, only the FMLA claim was submitted to the jury.

At the close of evidence, Walgreens moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, but the court denied the motion and submitted the case to the jury. The jury rendered a judgment in favor of Pag_n, awarding him $100,000 in damages. Sua sponte, the court ordered remittitur, reducing the award to $47,145 to match Pag_n's estimated lost wages (including overtime) and account for earnings at a new job that mitigated damages. The court also denied Pag_n's request for additional liquidated damages under the FMLA.*fn2 Finally, the court considered dueling Rule 59(e) motions to amend the judgment. It allowed Pag_n's motion to grant prejudgment interest on the award, but denied Walgreens' motion seeking to eliminate or reduce the overtime pay included in the damages award.

On appeal, Walgreens challenges the district court's denial of its Rule 50 and 59(e) motions. With regard to the former, it argues that Pag_n presented insufficient evidence at trial to establish its liability under the FMLA. On the latter, it argues that it is entitled to an amended judgment because back pay for overtime is not available under the FMLA and, even if it is, the court's award in this case is excessive. In turn, Pag_n and his wife have cross-appealed, arguing that the district court erred in denying their request for liquidated damages and in granting Walgreens summary judgment on their Article 1802 and 1803 claims.

II.

A. Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a ...


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