Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Melloy, Circuit Judge.
Before BYE and MELLOY, Circuit Judges, and ERICKSEN,*fn1
Buddy Rynders sued Larry Williams for wrongful termination, in violation of Rynders's rights under the First Amendment and the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Williams, and Rynders appeals. We reverse.
On June 8, 2003, Rynders commenced working for the Garland County, Arkansas Road Department. Nearly three years later, on April 6, 2006, Rynders was involved in a workplace incident with three other Road Department employees. During the incident, Rynders purportedly came to the defense of one employee against the other two, who were carrying a rock and a knife. Rynders called the police and filed charges against the two attacking employees, but the charges were later dropped. Rynders maintains that Williams, who was responsible for the Road Department as part of his duties as judge for Garland County,*fn2 had the prosecutor dismiss the charges. Rynders also alleges that Williams expressed his disappointment in how the situation was handled.
Since that incident, Rynders claims that his co-workers at the Road Department have harassed him. Specifically, Rynders alleges that he has received death threats and that his co-workers have hidden his time card in an effort to make him appear late or absent. This harassment only intensified, according to Rynders, after Rynders found illicit narcotics in a County vehicle and reported it to Jerry Lampo, the Assistant Road Commissioner. Rynders stresses that he has reported the harassment on numerous occasions to no avail.
On December 17, 2007, a local paper published a letter Rynders wrote to the editor. In that letter, Rynders asserted that the Garland County Quorum Court, the legislative body for Garland County, was unjustifiably refusing to raise the wages of County employees. The letter mentioned Williams only once, stating that: "Garland County Judge Larry Williams has asked for raises and been turned down on more than one occasion."
On September 12, 2008, Bobby Maughan, the Road Commissioner appointed by Williams to run the Road Department, issued Rynders a written warning, stating in total: "You have been late to work on several occasions. In August you were late 13 times and so far in September you have been late 7 times. This is not acceptable. If this behavior continues, further disciplinary action will be taken." According to Rynders, he informed the Road Department at this time that some of his tardiness and absences were due to his co-workers hiding his timecard and that some tardiness and absences were due to severe complications from taking an ace inhibitor, a medication primarily used for the treatment of high-blood pressure. Rynders also claims that he requested and was denied information on how to take FMLA leave even after stating that he may have to miss more work due to his illness. In his own words:
Bobby Maughan, Jerry Lampo, Debbie Holt or Hope (secretary) and Cindy Archer (office administrator) were present at this meeting. During the meeting, I explained that many of my tardies were due to a chronic illness that I was trying to get diagnosed, that I was seeing my doctor, and that I might have to go out of state to a specialist. I told them that I was having trouble breathing, and that I was dizzy a lot, that I was blacking out, that I was coughing severely, and vomiting. I would miss work because I had to see a doctor; was too ill to do my job due to these symptoms; or they would cause me delays in getting to work. . . . I asked them for FMLA paperwork at that time. They did not give it to me. I repeatedly asked for months afterward and was not given the paperwork. . . . Jerry Lampo has claimed that I lost interest in the leave after finding out it was not paid. This is a lie on his part.
While acknowledging that this conversation occurred and that Rynders inquired about the FMLA, Lampo testified that Rynders never asked for any FMLA paperwork, lost interest in any leave after finding out that it was unpaid, and never discussed the issue again.
On January 13, 2009, Lampo gave Rynders a written suspension. In that letter, Lampo stated that Rynders was being suspended because Rynders had been late to work fifty-two times in 2008 and because he had abused sick time by taking twenty days in 2008, even though he did not have paid time for seven of those days. The letter further informed Rynders that the suspension was to last three days until a final decision on Rynders's employment was made and that, if Rynders wanted to respond, Rynders must do so in writing by January 15, 2009. The letter finally stated that Garland County would be making the final decision on Rynders's employment on January 16, 2009.
According to Rynders, he subsequently prepared a response and attempted to deliver it to Lampo on January 15, 2009. Rynders maintains that Lampo was acting as the head of the Road Department by this point because of Maughan's declining health and that Lampo refused to accept his written response, stating that Rynders should "go to the Judge's office because it was out of his hands."
Before going to Williams's office, Rynders called a friend, Diane Silverman, and asked her to accompany him so that he would have a witness. Silverman agreed, and they traveled to Williams's office, where Williams agreed to meet only with Rynders. According to Silverman, she was forced to wait outside of his office, but she was nonetheless able to hear most of the conversation by sitting next to the door and later a wall. Both Silverman and Rynders assert that Williams told Rynders in the ensuing conversation: "I am firing you because of . . . that letter you wrote about my finance committee." Williams denies making this statement or even being involved in the decision to terminate Rynders, but he does admit that he had the authority to fire Rynders and that he had been apprised ...