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Sproull v. Golden Gate National Senior Care

April 1, 2010

NICOLE SPROULL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL SENIOR CARE, LLC FORMERLY KNOWN AS BEVERLY ENTERPRISES, INC. TRADING AND DOING BUSINESS AS BEVERLY HEALTH & REHABILITATION SERVICES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Pending now before the Court is the DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, docket entry number 42 (Doc. # 42), with memorandum in support (Doc. # 43), concise statement of material facts (Doc. # 44), and appendix (Doc. # 45); PLAINTIFF'S BRIEF IN OPPOSITION TO DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Doc. # 47), with Plaintiff's response to Defendant's concise statement of material facts (Doc. # 48), Plaintiff's concise statement of material facts precluding summary judgment (Doc. # 49), and appendix in support of Plaintiff's brief in opposition (Doc. # 50). In reply to Plaintiff's responses, Defendant filed a reply brief (Doc. # 52), a response to Plaintiff's concise statement of facts (Doc. # 53), a response to Plaintiff's response to Defendant's concise statement of facts (Doc. # 54), and additional excerpts from depositions (Doc. # 55). In sur-reply to Defendant's replies, Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition (Doc. # 58) and a response to Defendant's response to Plaintiff's concise statement of material facts (Doc. #59). The issues have been thoroughly and extensively briefed and the motion is ripe for disposition.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

With this action, Plaintiff brings claims alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 42 Pa.Cons.Stat. § 951 et seq., alleging that her employment as the Manager of Training and Compliance at Defendant's Central Billing Office was terminated in retaliation for reporting what she considered to be sexual harassment of a non-management employee by other managers within the office, and also that the termination of her employment was the result of gender discrimination. Defendant denies any wrongdoing, and avers that Plaintiff's employment was terminated for a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reason. Unless otherwise indicated, the following material facts are undisputed.

1. Plaintiff's Employment History with Golden Gate National Senior Care

Plaintiff Nicole Sproull was employed by Defendant Golden Gate National Senior Care ("Golden Gate")*fn1 from July 2003 to February 6, 2006. She began her employment with Defendant in July 2003 as a business office consultant. Beginning in December 2004 and continuing until the time of her termination, Plaintiff worked at Defendant's Central Billing Office as Manager of Training and Compliance, a supervisory position. Her supervisor at the time relevant to the Complaint was Melissa Guess, the Regional Director of Business Office Operations.

According to Defendant, the decision to terminate Plaintiff's employment was the result of the findings of an investigation into an allegation that Plaintiff had violated company policy prohibiting the unauthorized disclosure of confidential or privileged information when she disclosed certain information regarding other employees to one of her subordinates.

2. Defendant's Policies and Procedures

Defendant maintained a number of policies and procedures relevant to the issues raised by the parties. For one, Defendant promulgated a Code of Conduct and Business Ethics. Included within this code of conduct are rules regarding confidential information. In relevant part, this provision noted that "information concerning the management and operation of our business is generally not known to the public or our competitors and should be kept confidential." The personal information of an associate of the company is cited as an example of confidential information. For the purpose of protecting confidentiality, the code of conduct includes a number of guidelines, including the rule that confidential information should be shared only with those inside the company whose jobs require them to have access to the information or when the law requires or protects the release of such information. On August 12, 2004, Plaintiff provided a written acknowledgment that she read the entire code of conduct and understood how the provisions and content related to her position within the company.

Defendant also has a progressive discipline policy. Within that policy, infractions are categorized into different groups based upon severity. Category I offenses are considered the most serious kind of infraction. With category I offenses, an employee is immediately suspended without pay pending an investigation for possible discharge. In comparison, category II offenses are less serious offenses, and, depending upon the circumstances, may result in a first written warning, a second written warning, or an immediate suspension pending investigation for possible discharge. The manner in which investigations are conducted is also defined within the policy and includes, inter alia, interviews with witnesses, review of any relevant documents, and affording the subject of the investigation with the opportunity to present her version of what occurred. The results of the investigation are reviewed by the employee's supervisor and the Corporate Human Resources office, and a decision is made regarding what action, if any, is to be taken. The unauthorized disclosure of confidential or privileged information concerning the company or other associates is a category I offense.

Within its corporate human resources manual, Defendant has policies relevant to personal conduct within the workplace. The first, policy HR-902, "Unlawful Harassment", broadly prohibits conduct demonstrating harassment or hostility based upon "sex, race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental disability, marital status, sexual preference or orientation, age, or any other basis made unlawful by federal, state, or local law." The policy further identifies sexual harassment as one form of the broader category of unlawful harassment. The policy does not define sexual harassment directly, but explains that sexual harassment "includes any unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, or any other conduct of a sexual nature when:

! submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or inexplicitly a term of an individual's employment;

! submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions;

! such conduct has the effect of interfering with the individual's work performance;

! such conduct creates a hostile work environment."

Similarly, the policy somewhat indirectly defines a hostile work environment as an environment that "can be caused by sexually suggestive or lewd remarks, insults, humor and jokes about sex, hugs, touches or kisses, requests for sexual favors, sexually suggestive or pornographic posters, cartoons, or drawings and obscene or sexually suggestive body gestures." The policy requires that all allegations of unlawful harassment are to be investigated.

3. In January 2006, a Newly Hired Employee Was Inadvertently Discharged and Subsequently Rehired

In January, 2006, Defendant hired two new employees. New employees are required to submit a urine sample for drug screening, which both did in this case. The samples were tested, the results of which apparently revealed the presence of a banned substance, namely the metabolite for marijuana, in one of the two samples. Matt Davis, Defendant's Central Billing Office Manager for Insurance and Medicare, terminated the employee thought to be the source of the sample containing the banned substance. However, due to some unspecified error, the sample was inadvertently associated with the wrong employee. As a result, the employee who was discharged was the employee whose urine sample did not indicate the presence of the marijuana. Shortly thereafter, Defendant discovered its mistake. Manager Davis sought to remedy the error by discharging the other newly hired employee, the one who had been retained as a result of the mistake, and by attempting to contact the previously discharged employee in an effort to offer him reemployment. Davis' efforts proved successful, and the employee incorrectly associated with the sample results returned to work for the Defendant.

4. Investigation into Allegation that Plaintiff Divulged Confidential Information

On January 31, 2006, Michelle Havrilesko, a non-management associate employed under the supervision of Plaintiff, approached Melissa Guess, the Regional Director of Business Office Operations. Guess was also Plaintiff's immediate supervisor at the time. Havrilesko made an unsolicited report to Guess that on January 11, 2006, Plaintiff had divulged confidential information to her about the error involving the drug screening results of the two employees referenced above. In relevant part, Havrilesko reported the following information as revealed to her by Plaintiff: that the wrong employee was discharged originally, although that employee assumed the results of the testing may have applied to him given his previous, albeit relatively infrequent, use of marijuana; that Davis was upset with respect to the mix-up; that Davis tried several times to contact the discharged employee via telephone; and that Davis decided to drive to the employee's residence if he was unable to contact him by phone.

Having received this information from Havrilesko, Guess contacted Defendant's Regional Employment and Labor Relations Manager Marie Cottrell. Cottrell advised Guess to suspend Plaintiff pending the outcome of an investigation into the allegations, which Cottrell immediately commenced. As part of that investigation, Cottrell interviewed a number of employees, including Plaintiff and Havrilesko, and collected written statements. Havrilesko reiterated the information she previously reported to Guess and provided a written statement on February 3, 2006 which detailed the information she allegedly received from Plaintiff. The written statement said in relevant part:

I became aware of a situation involving two newly hired associates through general office conversation. We were introduced to these employees on their first day of employment, and a couple of days later, they were gone. As everything does, this also spread like wildfire throughout the ...


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