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McACHREN v. SAINT VINCENT HEALTH CENTER

November 3, 2005.

JOYCE McACHREN, Plaintiff,
v.
SAINT VINCENT HEALTH CENTER, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MAURICE COHILL JR., District Judge

Opinion

Plaintiff Joyce McAchren brings this civil rights employment discrimination action asserting that she was wrongfully terminated from her job with Defendant Saint Vincent Health Center based on her age in violation the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") (29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.) (Count I) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 P.S. 951, et seq. (Count II). Ms. McAchren also asserts a claim of wrongful discharge alleging that in violation of Pennsylvania public policy Defendant terminated her in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim in violation of Pennsylvania public policy (Count III).

Presently before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 17), to which Plaintiff has responded. For the reasons stated below, we will grant Defendant's motion and dismiss this action.

  I. GENERAL BACKGROUND

  Joyce McAchren was hired by Saint Vincent Health Center as a Registration/Discharge Clerk on August 8, 1994, working at Defendant's Lawrence Park Family Practice. Ms. McAchren was born on March 31, 1947, making her 47 years old at the time of her hire. In 1998, the Lawrence Park Family Practice merged with Defendant's Harbor Creek Medical Practice, with the new name of East Harbor Primary Care. As a Registration/Discharge Clerk, Ms. McAchren's responsibilities included answering telephones, scheduling patients for office visits, checking patients in, taking information from patients for prescription refills, and discharging patients.

  During her time with Defendant, Ms. McAchren received evaluations in each year from 1996 through 1999. While she was with the Lawrence Park Family Practice her 1996 evaluation was completed by Kristin Lazzara, and her 1997 evaluation was completed by the Office Manager of the Practice, Jan Tassario. These two evaluations included detailed comments and were critical of Ms. McAchren's job performance. At the East Harbor Medical Practice, her 1998 evaluation was completed by Denise Liberatore, and her 1999 evaluation was completed by Lynn Schnars. These two evaluations contained minimal comments but did find Ms. McAChren to be competent in her job performance.

  During the relevant time period Nancy Potter was the Practice Manager responsible for East Harbor, and beginning in April 2000, Katrine Danowski was the Clinical Coordinator. James W. Lane, M.D. and Carl Eby, M.D. were physicians who worked at both the Lawrence Park Family Practice and the East Harbor Medical Practice throughout Ms. McAchren's employment. Michael Madden, M.D. was the Medical Director for Saint Vincent Medical Group responsible for the medical providers at the practice and the quality of the clinical services. Finally, throughout the relevant time period the Director of Associate Relations for all of Saint Vincent Health Center was Johnie Atkinson.

  During her time at East Harbor, Ms. McAchren's responsibilities were changed from time to time. At one point, the duties of answering telephones and making patient appointments were split into a phone operator position and a registration position, with Ms. McAchren assuming the phone operator position. On May 22, 2000, Ms. McAchren was moved to the medical records department and was responsible for filing and retrieving patient charts and records. On her first day in the medical records department Ms. McAchren began wearing a back brace. She eventually mentioned her back pain to Ms. Danowski who suggested that Ms. McAchren contact the Employee Health Services.

  On June 29, 2000, Ms. McAchren filed a Confidential Associate Injury Report with the Employee Health Service, alleging work-related back and knee injuries first occurring in June, 1998. On June 30, 2000, Ms. McAchren presented a doctor's note to Ms. Potter and Ms. Danowski stating that she should not continue to work in medical records due to her 1998 back injury. Ms. McAchren never filed a workers' compensation claim, however, based on the report of the injury to Employee Health, Defendant's employee in charge of worker's compensation issues reported Ms. McAchren's injury information to Defendant's workers' compensation carrier.

  Ms. McAchren began an approved medical leave for surgery unrelated to her back injury on July 1, 2000, returning to work on August 21, 2000. When she returned from her medical leave, Ms. McAchren was assigned to work at the registration desk because she could not work in medical records due to her back injury.

  While Ms. McAchren was on leave, Defendant learned from the Highmark insurance company that two of its customers had complained specifically about Ms. McAchren's rude behavior on the telephone. As a result, Ms. Potter and Ms. Danowski created and implemented a work improvement plan for Ms. McAchren aimed at improving her performance. Ms. Potter and Ms. Danowski presented and discussed the action plan with Ms. McAchren on August 25, 2000. As part of the Plan, Ms. McAchren was scheduled for additional service excellence education; her duties were to be monitored daily by Ms. Danowski; and she was to attend weekly meetings with Ms. Potter to discuss her performance, customer concerns, and general concerns.

  While on the action plan, Defendant received three more patient complaints about Ms. McAchren's rude and unprofessional behavior. Because of the recent complaints and Ms. McAchren's seeming failure to acknowledge a problem Ms. Potter and Ms. Atkinson met with Ms. McAchren on September 15, 2000, and suspended her with a recommendation of termination pending an investigation. On September 21, 2000, Ms. Atkinson informed Ms. McAchren that an investigation had been completed and that St. Vincent Health Center was upholding the recommendation for termination, thus her employment was terminated as of September 15, 2000.

  II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

  Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). Summary judgment may be granted only if the moving party establishes that there exists no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. Summary judgment is appropriate only when the record evidence could not lead a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). In evaluating a motion for summary judgment the court does not weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 120 S.Ct. 2097, 2110 (2000). Rather than evaluating the evidence and determining the truth of the matter, the court determines whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing the evidence, the court draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Reeves, 120 S.Ct. at 1210; Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986).

  Once the party moving for summary judgment has satisfied its initial burden of production on the motion, then the burden shifts to the party opposing the motion. The party must set forth specific facts to show that there is a genuine issue for trial. The non-movant "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," and has an affirmative duty to produce evidence demonstrating the existence of a factual dispute. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586. The court must evaluate the entire setting of the case, including the record and all materials submitted in accordance with the motion for summary judgment; whether it is clear that a trial is unnecessary; and whether there is any doubt as to the existence of a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324-25.

  III. DISCUSSION

  Defendant argues that Ms. McAchren cannot establish a prima facie case for either her age discrimination claim or her retaliation claim. In addition, even if she could establish a prima facie case Defendant argues that she cannot rebut Defendant's legitimate non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory reasons for terminating her. Generally, Defendant claims that Ms. McAchren is not qualified for her position based on a lengthy history of poor performance, rude and unprofessional conduct towards patients, and her failure to acknowledge or address these deficiencies despite Defendant's attempts to help her. Ms. McAchren claims that she performed competently throughout her employment and challenges Defendant's evidence in support of its claim that Ms. McAchren was fired because of her poor work performance. She thus argues that genuine issues of material fact exist precluding the entry of summary judgment

  With regard to the retaliation claim, Defendant argues that Ms. McAchren admitted that she had never filed a workers' compensation claim thereby making it impossible for her to establish that she was fired when she had only engaged in protected activity. Ms. McAchren claims that once she filed an internal injury report with Defendant's Employee Health Service a workers' compensation claim was automatically filed by Defendant, and therefore it is reasonable to "surmise that Plaintiff's Supervisor" was aware of the claim.

  A. Age Discrimination

  The same analysis is used for both Plaintiff's ADEA claim and her PHRA claim. See O'Connors v. Chrysler Fin. Corp., 160 F.3d 971, 972 (3d Cir. 1998). Under the ADEA, "[i]t shall be unlawful for an employer (1) . . . to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age." 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1).

  The familiar McDonnell Douglas analysis requires: "first, that the plaintiff establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination; second, that the employer proffer a nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action; and third, that the plaintiff must then show that the employer's proffered explanations were pretextual." Williams v. Shenango, Inc., 986. F. Supp. 309, 318 (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)); see also Goosby v. Johnson & Johnson Medical, Inc., 228 F.3d 313 (3d Cir. 2000).

  To establish a prima facie case of age discrimination, a plaintiff must show that he or she:
(1) was a member of the protected class, i.e., was over 40, (2) was qualified for the position, (3) suffered an adverse employment decision, and (4) ultimately was replaced by a person sufficiently younger to permit an inference of age discrimination. Duffy v. Paper Magic Group, Inc., 265 F.3d 163, 167 (3d Cir. 2001).
Monaco v. American General Assurance Company, 359 F.3d 296, 300-301 (3d Cir. 2004), cert. den'd, 125 S.Ct. 62 (2004).

  Once a plaintiff sets forth a prima facie case, the defendant has the relatively light burden of coming forward with a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment decision. Goosby, 228 F.3d at 319. "If the employer is able to proffer a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its actions, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the proffered reason was merely a pretext for unlawful discrimination." Id.

  1. Prima Facie Case of Age Discrimination

  Defendant argues that Plaintiff's age discrimination claim fails because Ms. McAchren cannot establish a prima facie case, i.e., she cannot show that she was qualified for the position of Registration/Discharge Clerk. The duties of the Clerk include, inter alia, answering telephones, scheduling patient office visits, checking patents in and out, and taking information from patients for prescription refills. Of primary concern for the Defendant is that the position requires excellent customer service skills given that the first person a patient encounters either on the telephone or in person is the Registration/Discharge Clerk. Defendant claims that throughout Ms. McAchren's employment there were numerous complaints from the practice's doctors, patients, and co-workers about her poor job performance, in particular her rudeness and impropriety towards patients. Defendant asserts that despite its efforts to counsel and train Ms. McAchren to be able to perform her job in the area of customer service it eventually became apparent that she did not possess the requisite skills to successfully perform her position. Defendant argues that Ms. McAchren's overall employment history shows that she was not qualified for her position. a. Ms. McAchren's Evaluations

  As noted, Ms. McAchren received four evaluations during her tenure with Defendant.

  i. 1996 Evaluation

  Plaintiff's 1996 Competency Assessment identifies four of nine areas of "Responsibilities/Competencies/Expectations" where Ms. McAchren was designated as not competent. (1996 Competency Assessment, attached as Ex 1. to Def. Ex. A (McAchren Dep.).) According to the Assessment Ms. McAchren was not competent in performing the patient registration process; handling incoming telephone calls; performing the patient discharge duties; and maintaining daily office cash flow. (Id.) The Assessment form was completed by Kristin Lazzara, who handwrote the following relevant comments in an adjoining column entitled "Comments/Strategies/Improvements/Outcomes":
Joyce performed the registration function daily until the patient complaints became overwhelming. She was told not to answer phones and her jobs tasks in the office decreased significantly.
Joyce was told specifically about her phone etiquette and taken off the phones. Because of the volume of phone calls, Joyce is needed. Her performance will be monitored.
At one time Joyce performed the discharge function, but no longer feels comfortable with this task. Rarely does Joyce schedule or discharge patients. She will perform this function during evening hours and also when the others are absent.
Joyce works hard and is not a malicious [person], but is not carrying her weight in the front office. We have discussed this several times and she has also met with the physicians. Joyce cannot seem to understand these accusations. . . .
  A specific four-page Competency Tool for the Registration/Discharge Clerk position is attached to the 1996 Competency Assessment. This form sets forth more specific areas of evaluation for the position. Ms. Lazzara also handwrote comments with regard to some of these areas as follows: 2.2 Welcomes each patient upon arrival.
 
Joyce does not welcome patients from her position in [the] front office.
3.1 Promptly answers telephone and triages telephone calls as needed.
Joyce does not answer phone calls due to her demeanor on the phone. She has been asked to stay off the phone because of her manners and rudeness to patients. Joyce can in no way understand what the problems are or the fact that patients complain [.]
3.3 Responds to telephone inquiries in a professional manner.
Joyce has been asked by Dr. Lane or Eby not to answer phone calls because of her lack of professionalism.
At the bottom of the page, underneath the general evaluation area "3. HANDLES INCOMING TELEPHONE CALLS" is listed the following comment:
Since the volume has increased, Joyce has been asked to help out [rest of sentence is cut off.]
On the last page of the Competency Tool, Ms. Lazzara wrote the following comments:
. . . We need to have Joyce perform more of the front office tasks in order to have the work evenly distributed . . .
Joyce does not agree[] that she is not carrying her load. She has worked in healthcare 12 years and feels she has done a fine job.
ii. 1997 Evaluation
  An Associate Communication Form addressed to Ms. McAchren and another employee named Ann was prepared by the Office Manager Jan Tassario on December 30, 1997. This Form stated that Joyce and Ann had "made no significant progress with registration and charge entry despite the additional resources and meetings that have been held with you both." (December 30, 1997 Associate Communication Form, attached as Ex 2. to Def. Ex. A (McAchren Dep.).) This memo recounts the history of recent meetings addressing the two employees' failure to fulfill the expectations of their job duties with respect to "charges, hospital billing and registrations." (Id.) On December 1, 1997, Ms. Tassario and Laurie Dart met with the employees to discuss their "expectations and actions that must be taken to ensure that charges were addressed." (Id.) This meeting was necessary because the office was falling behind in these tasks because it was short-staffed until an open full time clerical position was filled. (Id., Memorandum from Laurie Dart to Patty Ballman, Dr. Trotta, Dr. Lane and Dr. Eby, dated December 9, 1997, and attached "Event Report," ("Explained that until we hire Michelle's replacement the work flow must continue").)

  On December 18, 1997, Ms. Tassario again met with the employees, this time with Patty Ballman, in order to discuss "the seriousness of the situation and lack of progress." (Id.) Ms. Tassario again met with the employees on December 23, 1997 "to address your lack of response to fulfilling the expectations of your job duties. . . ." (Id.) Ms. Tassario recounted that at the December 23rd meeting the employees "were informed that you must keep all registrations updated daily and that at least 40 charges a day must be entered." (Id.) Ms. Tassario also explained that with regard to registrations and charges Joyce and Ann

 
are both equally responsible to ensure that those two directives will be met. It is imperative to the practice that those two directives are carried out. Failure to do so will result in the ...

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