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Mary Wolski v. City of Erie

February 25, 2011

MARY WOLSKI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF ERIE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., District J.,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Mary Wolski commenced this civil action under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C.A. § 12117(a), and related provisions of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, § 951 et seq., following her termination from employment as a firefighter with the City of Erie.*fn1

Presently pending before the Court is the Defendant's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, that motion will be denied.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper only where the moving party has established "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact" and "the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "To demonstrate that no issue is in dispute as to any material fact, the moving party must show that the non-moving party has failed to establish one or more essential elements of its case on which the non-moving party has the burden of proof at trial." McCabe v. Ernst & Young, LLP, 494 F.3d 418, 424 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986)).

To survive the motion, the non-moving party must go beyond its pleadings and point to specific facts which demonstrate that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. at 324. An issue is considered "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis such that a reasonable jury could find in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the action under governing law. Id. In adjudicating a Rule 56 motion, we view the underlying facts and all reasonable inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion -- here, the Plaintiff. McCabe, 494 F.3d at 424; Fasold v. Justice, 409 F.3d 178, 180 (3d Cir.2005).

II. BACKGROUND*fn2

Wolski was hired as a firefighter by the City of Erie in 1997. After initially working as a suppressionist, putting out fires, she eventually became a fire truck driver and performed her duties satisfactorily over the years.

In 2005, Wolski's mother became ill and Plaintiff took extended periods of approved leave from her job in order to care for her mother up until her death on December 24, 2005. The death of her mother caused Wolski significant grief and resulted in her taking additional approved leave time for much of 2006. During these extended absences, city officials maintained contact with Wolski in order to determine that she was receiving proper treatment and to encourage her return to work. No effort was made during this period to terminate, demote, or discipline Wolski as a result of her absences and, in fact, she received numerous sympathetic and supportive contacts from her co-workers.

In conversations with the City's benefits coordinator, Colleen Faytak, Wolski disclosed that she was seeing a psychiatrist, was on medications and was receiving counseling. Wolski eventually agreed to return to work on a part time basis, performing two half-days of light duty per week beginning December 12, 2006.

When December 12, 2006 arrived, however, Wolski did not report to work and the City was unable to contact her. Consequently, Fire Chief Anthony J. Pol sent his deputy, Vance Duncan, to Wolski's residence in order to check on her and assess her well-being. Deputy Chief Duncan's report of the encounter states, in relevant part:

... [Wolski] asked me to come in and sit down. She explained that she has been very depressed and has had some suicidal thoughts. She stated she has been going to the doctor and seeing a psychiatrist. She also stated she has begun a new medication yesterday and that the previous medications "did not work." Some medications made her "feel anxious." She said that "the new medication may take several days until it makes her feel better." She also stated that she did not want to talk to anyone today; that is the reason she did not answer the phone when Collen (Faytek) called earlier. She said that she has been depressed due [to] the circumstances (her mother's death last Christmas eve) and she has not been out of the house much.

I told her that we were concerned since she did not answer the phone. We wanted to make sure that she was okay. I also told her that if she needed anyone to talk to, feel free to call myself, Chief Pol, Colleen (Faytek) or [Human Resources Manager] Connie Cook.

She stated that it would probably help if she got out of the house and came back to work. She said that she has not been motivated to [do] anything.

I once again told Mary to call Colleen the next day or two and at the latest to call on Friday. I also restated that she should call either me, Chief Pol or Connie Cook also at anytime to talk. (See Pl.'s Ex. F [23-8].) After leaving Wolski's house, Deputy Chief Duncan contacted City Hall and related the foregoing events to Chief Pol and Colleen Faytek. He also left a message for Connie Cook and then completed his written report of the incident.

On December 27, 2006, Wolski's immediate supervisor, Lt. Darren Hart, telephoned to check on Wolski in light of it being the anniversary of her mother's death. Wolski advised Lt. Hart that she was "freaking out, but I have my family with me, so I'll be okay."

The following day, Wolski went to the vacant home of her father (who was then hospitalized) and attempted to commit suicide. Inside the house, Wolski disconnected the smoke alarms and disassembled the furnace flue pipe in an attempt to produce carbon monoxide within the residence. She then ingested an overdose of her father's medications. When these suicidal measures failed, Wolski ignited some clothing in the bathtub of the house. Her intent was to create a smoky fire that would result in her death through carbon monoxide poisoning. After lighting the fire, she inflicted several cuts to her neck with a buck knife.

After family members discovered Wolski, City firefighters were dispatched to the scene via a 911 call. At that point, the fire was no longer engaged, but the firefighters sprayed down some areas with water to ensure that any hot spots would not reignite. Plaintiff was taken to the hospital by paramedics and later flown to Pittsburgh for emergency treatment relative to her overdose of medication and smoke inhalation.

In the wake of these developments, the City of Erie commenced a criminal investigation into the events of December 28, 2006. After determining that the fire had been intentionally set, law enforcement officers entered into discussions with the District Attorney about the possibility of filing criminal charges against Wolski. During this time, Wolski was represented by counsel and offered very little in the way of information about the fire.

Meanwhile, in March of 2007, while the District Attorney's office was still evaluating whether to file criminal charges, Wolski approached Fire Chief Pol at a retirement party and inquired about what she had to do to return to work. According to Wolski, Chief Pol replied that he did not know and "alluded to the fact that... we had to wait until the criminal charges ... were resolved before I could come back to work." (Pl.'s Ex. D [23-6] at p. 7.)*fn3

After Wolski's sick leave time expired, Chief Pol advised her that she was being placed on a paid administrative leave effective April 3, 2007 "pending the completion of the investigation on a legal matter concerning you." (Pl's Ex. G [23-9] at p. 5.) Ultimately, the District Attorney declined to file charges based on the anticipated reluctance of the victim (Wolski's father) to participate in the prosecution, the relatively minor damage to his property, the possible difficulty in proving the necessary mens rea, and the mitigating factors involving Wolski herself.

On April 11, 2007, Chief Pol signed a letter of termination directed to Wolski. In relevant part, the letter stated:

The reasons for this action were referenced in my letter of April 4, 2007, placing you on paid leave pending the completion of the investigation of the December 28, 2006[ ] incident involving you. On that date, you started a fire in your residence, having disconnected the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, and took an overdose of medication as a suicide attempt. Family members extinguished the fire, but the City firefighting crew was dispatched to your home; and you were taken by helicopter to Pittsburgh for emergency medical treatment to save your life.

This incident renders you presumptively unsuited to be a firefighter, as you pose an ongoing threat to the safety of the public, other firefighters and yourself, having set a fire in a residence. ....

(Defs.' Ex. A [19-2] at pp. 4-5. It is undisputed that present counsel for the City, Gerald Villella, Esq., drafted the letter, and that Chief Pol, Connie Cook, and the Mayor of the City of Erie all had input into the decision to terminate Wolski's employment.

Before sending the letter, Chief Pol contacted Wolski's attorney to inform him of the decision. According to Wolski, her lawyer advised her that same day that there was "good news and bad news," to wit: although no criminal charges were going to be filed against her, she was going to lose her job with the City. (Pl.'s Ex. D [23-6] at p. 12.)

After she was terminated from her job, Wolski unsuccessfully pursued a grievance procedure pursuant to her collective bargaining agreement. During this process, Wolski was represented by counsel and, because she anticipated pursuing a further administrative appeal to the City's Civil Service Commission, she offered very little information concerning the events of December 28, 2006. Among other things, she would not admit to having set the fire and refused to release her full mental health history.

At some point during this general time frame but after June 26, 2007), Wolski submitted to the City a letter from Lance Besner, M.D, a treating psychiatrist. This letter, dated June 26, 2007, consisted of one sentence indicating that Wolski had been medically cleared to return to work as of March 15, 2007.

Wolski subsequently submitted another letter from Dr. Besner dated August 6, 2007 which purported to summarize Wolski's mental status, both past and present, as well as her medication trials. This letter was received by the City on August 28, 2007, two days prior to the commencement of Wolski's hearing before the City's Civil Service Commission.

As set forth in Dr. Besner's August 6 letter, Wolski in November of 2006 -- approximately one month prior to her attempted suicide -- had displayed a depressed and "mildly anxious" mood. Her affect was "mildly to moderately depressed," but appropriate to thought content. Her range of affect was "mildly restricted" and thought processes were goal directed. She showed no flight of ideas, loosening of associations, delusions, paranoid thoughts, or hallucinations, and she was denying any homicidal or suicidal thoughts. Her insight and judgment were thought to be fair. (Pl.'s Ex. K [23- 13].) In fact, though it was not referenced in Dr. Besner's report, Wolski had attempted to take her own life on two other occasions prior to December 28, 2006.

As of August 6, 2007, Dr. Besner found Wolski's mood to be good and her affect euthymic and appropriate to thought content. Her range of affect was normal, and her thought process was goal directed. She exhibited no flight of ideas, no loosening of associations, no delusions, no paranoid thoughts, and no hallucinations. She denied any suicidal or homicidal thoughts, and her insight and judgment were felt to be "fair to good." (Pl.'s Ex. K [23-13].) As of August 6, Wolski was on a regimen of Wellbutrin, Seroquel, Restoril, and Ativan. (Id.)

On August 30, September 27, and November 20, 2007, the City's Civil Service Commission convened for hearings relative to Plaintiff's challenge of her termination. As provided under Pennsylvania law, Pa. Stat. tit. 53 § 39870, the Commission was charged with determining whether the City had established "just cause" to fire Wolski. In the course of the hearing, both Connie Cook and Chief Pol testified to the circumstances surrounding Wolski's termination.

As to the reasons he did not want Wolski back on the force, Chief Pol told the Commission the following:

[I]t was presumed she started the fire. ... And my concern is the safety of all my firefighters and the citizens. And anywhere else where a firefighter starts a fire, they're terminated or go to jail. The DA decided not to press charges, that's one thing.

But I don't think that I can sit here and say that -- with any degree of certainty that firefighters don't have a concern. Many firefighters have approached me in saying that they don't want to work with her. If she's in there, they'll transfer out. They have concerns about her ability to do the job. And as chief, I have concerns, too. If she's on medication, being a driver of the vehicle, there was some question about some incidents with her driving. You know, nothing documented ... fire department's a little bit like a brotherhood. Some guys didn't want to blow her in, write her up, or do things, so things aren't documented. But there were things with firefighters coming back to me that there were concerns about her ability to drive and do the job. (Def.'s Ex. 3 [19-3] at pp. 82-83.)

Chief Pol spoke to the fact that the City did not receive Dr. Bezner's June 26, 2007 letter until after Wolski had already been fired from her job, despite Dr. Bezner having cleared her to work as of March 15, 2007. When asked what might have been different, had Wolski presented the letter before being placed on administrative leave, Chief Pol responded:

If she had presented that letter, I guess maybe that would have started an evaluation process or it would have triggered something that we would have done something differently. The course of action may have been ...


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