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Sarah Lowenstein v. Catholic Health East

October 26, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: DuBOIS, J.



In this employment discrimination action, plaintiff Sarah Lowenstein alleges that defendants unlawfully denied her medical leave and discriminated against her based on her medical condition. Presently before the Court is defendants' Motion to Dismiss. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants the motion in part and denies it in part.


Defendant St. Mary Medical Center ("SMMC") is a Pennsylvania corporation. (Compl. ¶ 3.) Catholic Health East ("CHE"), also a defendant, is SMMC's parent company. See Regional Health Corporations, Catholic Health East, (listing SMMC as a Regional Health Corporation and explaining that each Regional Health Corporation "has CHE as its sole member").

SMMC hired plaintiff Sarah Lowenstein ("Lowenstein") as a "staff or pool [p]harmacist" in April 2009. (Compl. ¶ 19.) Shortly thereafter, plaintiff informed defendant Claire Shanks ("Shanks"), a benefits manager in SMMC's human resources department, that she had "an autoimmune disorder with associated morbidities" that would sometimes require her to miss work. (Id. ¶ 24.) Plaintiff requested a "reasonable accommodation for absences related to her medical conditions." (Id. ¶ 25.) Shanks told plaintiff she would "take care of it" as long as plaintiff notified her when she needed to miss work and provided a doctor's note when she returned. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26.) In August 2009, plaintiff submitted a Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") application, which SMMC provided to her, but it was denied because she had not worked at SMMC long enough. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29.)

Plaintiff alleges that, despite Shanks's promise to "take care of" the issue, Shanks either rebuffed or ignored her each time she sought approval for illness-related absences. (Id.¶¶ 27-38.) Once, Shanks simply did not return plaintiff's phone calls about the matter. (Id. ¶ 35.) On other occasions, she told plaintiff she was too busy to discuss it. (Id. ¶¶ 36-37.) Between August and December 2009, plaintiff received numerous warnings for her absences, despite providing doctor's notes explaining that the absences were related to her medical condition. (Id. ¶¶ 30-31, 33-38.) Plaintiff's supervisor, Suzette Cuncelli ("Cuncelli"), allegedly told plaintiff in late 2009 that "hospitalization [was] not an excuse for missing a day of work." (Id. ¶ 39.)

On March 15, 2010, Cuncelli terminated plaintiff because of her absences. (Id. ¶ 41.) Cuncelli retracted the termination, however, when plaintiff told her the absences were because of her medical condition. (Id.) Plaintiff provided Shanks with another doctor's note explaining why she had been missing work, but Shanks told her the letter did not conform to SMMC's requirements. (Id. ¶ 43.) Plaintiff produced notes from four more doctors, but Shanks said they were all unacceptable. (Id. ¶ 44.)

Plaintiff missed work on April 16, 2010, because of emergency surgery and provided a doctor's note. (Id. ¶ 45.) On about April 21, 2010, SMMC and Shanks gave plaintiff information on how to reapply for FMLA benefits, stating the application was "necessary in order to approve special accommodation for any absence prior to April 27, 2010." (Id. ¶¶ 46-47.) Plaintiff submitted the application. (Id. ¶ 48.) Nonetheless, on May 5, 2010, before plaintiff received a response, Cuncelli and another SMMC employee notified her that she had been terminated "for violating SMMC's absenteeism policy." (Id. ¶ 49.)


Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that, in response to a pleading, a defense of "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted" may be raised by motion to dismiss. To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a civil plaintiff must allege facts that "'raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'" Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). A complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). To satisfy the plausibility standard, a plaintiff's allegations must show that defendant's liability is more than "a sheer possibility." Id. "Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

In Twombly, the Supreme Court used a "two-pronged approach," which it later formalized in Iqbal. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950; Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Under this approach, a district court first identifies those factual allegations that constitute nothing more than "legal conclusions" or "naked assertions." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557. Such allegations are "not entitled to the assumption of truth" and must be disregarded. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950. The court then assess "the 'nub' of the plaintiff['s] complaint-the well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegation[s] . . . to determine" whether it states a plausible claim for relief. Id.


Plaintiff's Complaint asserts that she is entitled to relief under the FMLA, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"). With respect to the FMLA, plaintiff alleges that defendants CHE, SMMC, and Shanks unlawfully denied her FMLA benefits and interfered with the exercise of her FMLA rights. With respect to the ADA and PHRA, plaintiff alleges that because of her medical condition, defendants ...

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