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Shelly Mills v. Temple University

April 3, 2012


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


Plaintiff, Shelly Mills, brings this action against Temple University ("Temple"), alleging claims of discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (the "FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq., and violations of the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Mills, a secretary, suffered a back injury at work that interfered with her ability to complete tasks involving lifting and filing. Mills claims that Temple discriminated against her in violation of the ADA by refusing to accommodate her disability and by instead requiring her to take unpaid FMLA leave. She also alleges that Temple retaliated against her for requesting a disability accommodation by placing her on unpaid leave. Although Mills had previously been granted intermittent FMLA leave to attend doctors' appointments for her back injury, Temple requested an additional healthcare certification, which Mills claims constitutes unlawful interference under the FMLA. Currently before me is Temple's motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons set forth below, I will grant in part and deny in part Temple's motion.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History*fn1

Mills began working for Temple University Hospital in 1998 as a patient interviewer. (Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Facts") ¶ 1; Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts and Counterstatement of Facts ("Pl.'s Facts") ¶ 93.)*fn2 In 2007, she accepted a bargaining-unit position as a secretary in Temple's Cardiology Department. (Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 2, 4; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 4, 94.) Mills's job duties included supporting nursing staff with clerical duties, making appointments, producing letters, pulling charts, and filing. (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 6.) She spent approximately one hour a day filing. (Id. ¶ 96.)

Mills's employment was relatively uneventful-she received positive job reviews and worked well with her co-workers-until July 23, 2008. (Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 8-9; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 97.) While typing at her desk that day, Mills was struck in the back by a co-worker and flung forward.*fn3 (Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 9-10; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 98.) She did not report the incident to her supervisor, human resources, or her union that day. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 11; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 11.) However, she began experiencing severe pain within days of the incident. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 15; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 15, 99.) By the end of the following week, Mills reported the incident; a workers' compensation incident report was completed and Mills was referred to a physician in Temple's Occupational Health Unit. (Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 15-16; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 15-16.)

Mills was initially treated by Dr. Evelyn Balogun in Temple's Occupational Health Unit. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 17; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 101.) Dr. Balogun examined Mills and ran several tests including an X-ray and a bone scan. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 17; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 17.) Although Dr. Balogun was unable to diagnose Mills during her initial visit she gave her a medicated topical cream for pain and continued to see her approximately once a week until December 2008. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 18; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 101.) After each appointment, Dr. Balogun released Mills to return to work without imposing any restrictions on her activities. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 19; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 19.) Ultimately, Dr. Balogun referred Mills to Dr. Ray Moyer, an orthopedist, before releasing her from workers' compensation medical care altogether. (Def.'s Facts at 3 n.3; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 18.)

Dr. Moyer prescribed Naprosyn*fn4 to Mills for pain management and recommended physical therapy three times a week. (Def.'s Facts at 3 n.3; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 102.) Dr. Moyer referred Mills to Dr. Stanley Michaels, also an orthopedist, who in turn referred her to Dr. Tayron. (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 103, 105.) Mills saw Dr. Tayron only once around February 2009 and received a "pain management shot" during her appointment. (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 105.)

During this time when Mills was being treated by various physicians, she continued to work without any doctor-imposed, work-related restrictions. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 19; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 19.) Nevertheless, Mills experienced pain in her back while working and had difficulty lifting and filing patient charts. (Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 19, 106.) Mills's supervisor, Anthony Morlino, the senior administrator for the Cardiology Department, was aware that Mills was in pain, as Mills discussed the matter with him on four or five separate occasions between July 2008 and August 2009. (Id. ¶¶ 89, 107.) And between early 2009 and mid-2009, Mills asked Morlino for assistance with filing on several occasions. (Id. ¶ 108.) In reality, student interns and permanent Temple staff took over filing for Mills toward the end of 2008, (id. ¶¶ 19, 106), a fact that Mills shared with Maureen Murphy, her direct supervisor (id. ¶ 109).

Outside of work, Mills continued to engage in daily activities such as driving, caring for her herself and her daughter, and shopping. (Resp. Ex. A, Dep. of Shelly Mills (March 16, 2011) ("Mills Dep.") at 67:13-16; 70:18-24.) However, Mills struggled with these daily activities, which she found exhausting. (Id. at 67:13-24.) Mills enrolled in a ballet class in the fall of 2008, but found that she could no longer exercise to the extent she had previously been accustomed. (Id. at 69:9-24; 70:6-15.)

After being released from workers' compensation medical care in December 2008, Mills contacted the Human Resources Department about how to pursue a workers' compensation claim. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 22; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 22.) Ultimately, her claim was unsuccessful. (Def.'s Facts at 4 n.4.) Because Mills was using sick time in order to attend her doctors' appointments, Morlino suggested that she apply for FMLA leave to protect these periodic absences. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 23; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 23.) Mills contacted Thomas Johnston, the director of workers' compensation and absence management at Temple, regarding the availability of and process of applying for FMLA leave. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 24; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 24.) Johnston provided Mills with information regarding her eligibility for intermittent FMLA leave and did not discourage her from taking FMLA leave. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 26; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 26.)

At Temple, when an employee believes that he or she is eligible for FMLA leave, he or she contacts the Benefits Department. (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 117.) Upon receiving a request for information pertaining to the FMLA, the Benefits Department provides the employee with a "leave request" form, a "release of medical information" form, and a healthcare provider certification (the "Certification"). (Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 120-21.) After the completed forms have been returned, Johnston reviews them to ensure that each has been properly filled out. (Resp. Ex. K, Dep. of Thomas F. Johnston (April 14, 2011) ("Johnston Dep.") at 35:10-18.)

Mills received the FMLA paperwork in early 2009 and filed her first application for intermittent leave around February 24, 2009. (Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 30-31; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 30-33, at 16 n.2.) Dr. Michaels, Mills's healthcare provider at the time, completed the Certification. (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 125.) On the certification, in response to the question that asks, "Is the employee unable to perform any of his/her job functions due to the condition?" he answered "yes." (Id. ¶ 126.) Mills's application was conditionally denied on March 5, 2009, because Dr. Michaels had not properly completed the Certification. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 31; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 31, 129.) Mills contacted human resources concerning the denial and was instructed to have Dr. Michaels clarify the information he provided on the Certification, particularly his diagnosis. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 32; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 32.) Because Dr. Michaels had only seen Mills once, he declined to provide a diagnosis or complete the Certification. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 33; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 33.) As a result, Mills's first request for intermittent FMLA leave was denied on March 18, 2009. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 34; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 34, 130.)

After being discharged from Dr. Michael's care, Mills began treating with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a pain-management specialist, around April 2009. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 37; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 37.) On April 16, 2009, Dr. Gupta noted that Mills had disc "desiccation with disc bulging eccentric at C2-3 and to [the] right at C5-6." (Resp. Ex. F at 1.) Dr. Gupta treated Mills for approximately six months, and she received bi-monthly epidural injections for her back pain. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 37; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 37.)

Mills applied a second time for intermittent FMLA leave in May 2009. (Resp. Ex. B at 1.) Dr. Gupta completed the Certification for her application, in which he noted that Mills had a thoracic MRI that was positive for disc degeneration and a cervical MRI that was positive for disc degeneration and bulging. (Id. at 4.) He further described Mills as suffering from Kyphosis.*fn5 (Id.) Dr. Gupta also answered "yes" to the question, "Is the employee unable to perform any of his/her job functions due to the condition?" (Id.) In response to the next question, "identify what job functions the employee is unable to perform," Dr. Gupta wrote, "having trouble filing, etc." (Id.)

Although Mills's second application for intermittent FMLA leave was approved, the parties offer different accounts as to what occurred between Mills's filing and Temple's approval. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 39; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 39.) According to Johnston, when he read the Certification and Dr. Gupta's description of Mills's difficulty filing, he asked Susan Latorre, an employee in his office, to clarify the nature of the restrictions. (Johnston Dep. at 81:9-24.) Evidently, Johnston expected Latorre to write a letter to Mills or Dr. Gupta asking for clarification-did Mills have difficulty filing for only a few days immediately following an epidural injection, in which case she could use FMLA protected leave, or was this a work-related restriction that applied beyond a brief recovery period following each injection? (Id. at 81:9-82:13.) Johnston claims that Dr. Gupta told Latorre over the telephone that the restrictions "are only after she gets a shot." (Id. at 82:24-83:2.) Dr. Gupta, however, maintains that he never had such a conversation with Johnston or Latorre, and that Mills was actually restricted from filing before, during, and after her injections. (Resp. Ex. R at 1.) In any event, Mills was informed by letter dated June 3, 2009, that she had been approved "for intermittent FMLA leave from 5/26/2009 to 11/26/2009." (Resp. Exhibit S at 1.) And she took FMLA leave periodically until July 1, 2009. (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 136.)

In June 2009, the student intern who had been helping Mills with her filing left for the summer and the unattended filing began to pile up. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 44; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 44.) On June 23, 2009, Murphy, Mills's supervisor, circulated an email asking several members of the staff, including Mills, to assist with the filing. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 45; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 45, 137.) Mills responded the next day by email: "I am not able to handle filing at this time; By doing so could further injure [m]y back. I have been organizing the loose files to prepare them to be filed. I am always happy to assist in the growth and development of the department. If you need further documentation please inform me." (Resp. Ex. C at 1.) Murphy informed Mills that she would need documentation if she was unable to file. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 47; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 139.) Mills inquired whether a copy of the FMLA certification would suffice, but Murphy asked for a letter from her doctor instead. (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 139.) On July 2, 2009, Mills gave Murphy a letter from Dr. Gupta stating, "She has disc degeneration with radiating cervicothoracic. She is getting interventional spine injection treatment for her condition. She can work restrictive duty with no bending, lifting, filing, pushing or pulling and weight bearing activity."*fn6 (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 142; Resp. Ex. D at 1.)

On July 7, 2009, Murphy forwarded Dr. Gupta's letter to Morlino. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 51; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 142.) Morlino immediately contacted Johnston to discuss how the matter should be handled. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 52; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 143.) Johnston inquired whether there was any way they could help Mills file, or if there were any student interns available to help. (Johnston Dep. at 121:11-23.) Morlino responded that filing was an essential function of Mills's job and that she had to do it. (Id.) At the conclusion of the five- to fifteen-minute conversation, Johnston told Morlino that they should send Mills home and offer her continuous FMLA leave. (Id. at 121:17-23; 139:10-140:1.) Neither consulted Mills, Dr. Gupta, or Temple's Office of Labor and Employment before deciding to send Mills home. (Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 147-51.)

Later that same day, Morlino sent Mills an email explaining that he had received the letter from her doctor concerning her work restrictions and "[t]herefore we will be unable to continue your services in your position. You are of course eligible for FMLA [leave] . . . . Should you produce a letter indicating you may return to full, unrestricted duty, we will consider your return to the position." (Resp. Ex. T at 1.) Upon receiving the email, Mills called Morlino to discuss the matter. (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 153.) Morlino did not return her phone call that day, and Mills finished her regular shift. (Id. ¶ 154.) Mills left the next day for a week-long vacation that she had previously planned. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 55; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 155.)

The morning after her vacation (approximately July 15 or July 16), when Mills had been scheduled to return to work, she called Murphy to discuss how to proceed and Murphy referred her to human resources. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 56; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 56, 156.) Mills visited human resources in person and was informed that she could not return to work and was provided with an application for continuous FMLA leave. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 57; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 157.) After receiving the application, Mills contacted Johnston for clarification. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 61; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 158.) Johnston explained the differences between intermittent and continuous FMLA leave. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 62; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 62.) Mills told Johnston that she objected to taking unpaid leave for an injury that occurred on the job and did not understand the need to complete another Certification when she had already been approved for FMLA leave. (Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 64, 159.) According to Mills, Johnston informed her that she could either "do the twelve weeks without pay or get an attorney." (Pl.'s Facts ¶ 160.) Mills returned home, paperwork in hand. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 60.)

Mills never completed the application for continuous leave. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 64; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 64.) And after being sent home, she did not abide by Temple's call-in procedure for absences. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 65; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 65.) Temple contacted Mills to remind her of the deadline for submitting her paperwork and granted her extensions of that deadline on more than one occasion. (Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 63, 66; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 63, 66.) When Temple did not receive her paperwork by August 18, 2009, it sent her a letter terminating her employment for being absent without authorization. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 68; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 68.)

Since her termination, Mills has not found other employment, although she has applied for several positions. (Def.'s Facts ¶ 76; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 76.) Mills has pursued a certification in medical billing and coding, which requires her to take two buses and wheel her eight- to ten-pound backpack to class. (Mills 100:5-13.) She lost her health insurance following her dismissal and therefore stopped seeking medical care for her condition in December 2009. (Id. at 169:5-172:1.) Today, Mills experiences minimal pain that she treats with Motrin or a prescription muscle relaxer. (Id. at 170:7-20.)

Mills filed this action against Temple on August 25, 2010, alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of the ADA (counts I and II, respectively), interference with her rights under the FMLA (count III), and due process violations (count IV). After discovery, Temple filed this motion for summary judgment.

II. Standard of Review

A motion for summary judgment will be granted only "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). "Facts that could alter the outcome are 'material,' and disputes are 'genuine' if evidence exists from which a rational person could conclude that the position of the person with the burden of proof on the disputed issue is correct."Ideal Dairy Farms, Inc. v. John Labatt, Ltd., 90 F.3d 737, 743 (3d Cir. 1996). "Where the ...

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