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Eastman v. ReSearch Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

United States District Court, Third Circuit

July 31, 2013



William H. Yohn Jr., Judge.

Plaintiff, Linda Eastman, brings this action against ReSearch Pharmaceutical Services, Inc.[1] (“RPS”), alleging claims of discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., and violations of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), 42 Pa.C.S.A.§§ 951 et seq. Currently before me is defendant’s motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons set forth below, I will deny defendant’s motion.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History[2]

A. Events Leading to Eastman’s Termination

RPS is a clinical research organization that places teams of experienced staff to conduct and manage clinical trials for its pharmaceutical clients. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 1; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Statement of Facts (“Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts”) ¶ 1.) Eastman began working for RPS as a clinical research associate (“CRA”) on February 1, 2010. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 2; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 2.) As a CRA, Eastman’s duties involved monitoring clinical trials, which included conducting site visits and site management activities, ensuring compliance with clinical trial protocol by the hosting physician, participating in conference calls with RPS’s clients, and completing reports. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 3; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 3.) During most of her time working with RPS, Eastman reported to RPS clinical research manager Toni Contreras. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 4; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 5.) In February 2010, Eastman was assigned to monitor clinical trials for RPS’s client Allergan. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 4; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 4.) While monitoring the Allergan clinical trials, Eastman primarily communicated with Allergan regional area manager Tricia Byrne. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 6; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 6.)

Neither party claims that there were issues with Eastman’s employment prior to November 29, 2010, when Eastman contacted Byrne and notified her that she wanted to reschedule her Allergan site visit because of back pain. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 9; Pl.’s Statement of Facts (“Pl.’s Facts”) ¶ 28.) Eastman’s back pain and limited mobility had begun the previous week, around Thanksgiving 2010. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 4.) Since Thanksgiving 2010, plaintiff had been having difficulty walking, bending, moving, lifting her legs, and changing physical positions. (Id. ¶¶ 5-8, 27.) During, Eastman’s phone call with Byrne, Byrne notified her that the site visit could not be rescheduled and that Byrne would find someone to cover for Eastman. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 11; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 29.) Eastman responded that she would work through her back pain and attend the site visit, although she would be late to the site. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 12; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 30.) Eastman alleges that she notified Byrne that she would have to wear slippers because it was too difficult for Eastman to put on shoes. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 30.)[3]

On November 30, Eastman drove from New Jersey to Garden City, New York, and checked into a hotel where she would reside during the Allergan Garden City clinical trial visit. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 14; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 32.) On December 1 and 2, 2010, Eastman was working at Dr. Jeffrey Lumerman’s office in Garden City, New York, monitoring the clinical trial he was hosting for Allergan. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 17; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 33.) When Eastman stood up to go to the bathroom, Dr. Lumerman noticed that she was struggling to move and asked what was wrong. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 18; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 38.) Eastman responded that she had hurt her back and Dr. Lumerman offered to examine her. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 19; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 40.) After his examination, Dr. Lumerman noted that Eastman was suffering from significant discomfort with motion, bending, and walking, and diagnosed Eastman with musculoskeletal back pain. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 20; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 42-43.) Dr. Lumerman instructed Eastman to continue taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication every six hours, rest, and apply heat. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 44.) Additionally, Dr. Lumerman gave Eastman a Valium pill and instructed her to take the Valium as a muscle relaxant once she reached her next destination. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 20; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 46-47.) Dr. Lumerman had never treated Eastman as a patient before, and they only knew each other because of their responsibilities in the Allergan clinical trial. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 21; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 21.)

That same day, December 2, 2010, Byrne informed Eastman that Allergan needed to have a teleconference with her at 4 p.m. to discuss an audit report plaintiff had prepared. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 22; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 35.) Additionally, Byrne asked Eastman to fax a copy of the audit report to her prior to the teleconference. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 23; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 36.) Because the report was at Eastman’s hotel room and not at Dr. Lumerman’s office, Eastman left for her hotel at 3:00 p.m. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 24; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 51.) At 3:30 p.m., upon returning to her hotel room, Eastman took the Valium given to her by Dr. Lumerman. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 26; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 52.) After she took the Valium, Eastman went down to the hotel’s business center to fax the report to Byrne. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 27; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 54.) When Eastman returned to her room, she realized that she had locked herself out. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 28; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 55.) Consequently, Eastman needed to get a key from the lobby, resulting in her being a few minutes late for the teleconference. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 29; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 55.)

Eastman called into the teleconference with Byrne and another Allergan employee named Lisa. (Def.’s Facts ¶¶ 30-31; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 57.) During the beginning of the teleconference, Eastman was laughing because she had locked herself out of the room. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 58.) Byrne asked Eastman if she was okay. (Id. ¶ 59.) Eastman discussed her back pain with Byrne. (Id. ¶ 60.) Additionally, Eastman told Byrne that she had taken a Valium pill given to her by Dr. Lumerman. (Id. ¶ 61.)

Later that night, Contreras received a phone call from Byrne to discuss her teleconference with Eastman. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 37; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 64.) During her deposition, Contreras testified that Byrne notified her about Eastman’s conduct including laughing, telling Byrne that she was a bit off and “knocked off her feet”, and about taking the Valium given by Dr. Lumerman. (Def.’s Facts ¶¶ 37-39; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶¶ 37-39; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 65-66.)[4] Additionally, Byrne told Contreras that she was worried Lisa would escalate the incident internally at Allergan. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 41; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 41.) After Contreras’s phone call with Byrne, she sent an email to Karen McConnell, a human resources generalist for RPS. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 42; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 72.) In the email, Contreras relayed the conversation she had with Byrne about Eastman, including Eastman’s behavior and use of the Valium given by Dr. Lumerman.[5] (Def.’s Facts ¶ 42; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 73-77.) McConnell replied to Contreras that they needed to discuss Eastman and to set up a time to talk to her. (Pl.’s Facts ¶79.)

On December 7, 2010, Contreras and McConnell spoke with plaintiff by telephone. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 44; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 86.) Jim Jackson, executive director of human resources at RPS, was also on the line; however, he did not announce himself and, accordingly, Eastman was unaware of his presence. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 87.) During the call, McConnell told Eastman that there had been a report of Eastman’s abnormal behavior on December 2, 2010. (Id. ¶ 90.) Additionally, McConnell asked Eastman if she had taken Valium and if she had a prescription for the Valium. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 45; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 92, 95.) Eastman responded that she did take a Valium pill before the teleconference on December 2, and that she did not have a prescription, but that Dr. Lumerman had given her the pill. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 46; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 46.) McConnell told Eastman to continue working and that she would discuss this issue with her later. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 100.) Subsequently, Eastman contacted Byrne to inquire about Byrne’s perception of Eastman’s behavior on the December 2 teleconference call. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 49; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 49.) Byrne explained to Eastman that Eastman should not have told Allergan she had taken Valium. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 50; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 50.)

After McConnell’s December 7 phone call with Eastman, McConnell and Jackson had a discussion about what actions RPS should take regarding Eastman’s behavior. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 51; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 102,106.) On December 8, 2010, Contreras, McConnell, and Jackson called Eastman again. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 51; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 102, 106.) During the phone call Jackson discussed Eastman’s use of Valium without a prescription. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 52; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 110.) Eastman told Jackson that she could get Dr. Lumerman to document what had happened; however, Jackson responded that a retroactive prescription would not be valid. (Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 111-12.) Additionally, Jackson told Eastman that she should not have gone into work that day and instead sought medical help. (Id. ¶ 114.) RPS contends that Jackson informed Eastman that she was fired for unprofessional behavior[6] and for violating RPS’s drug free work place policy (“drug policy”).[7] (Def.’s Facts ¶ 53.) Plaintiff agrees that Jackson said she was fired for violating the drug policy by taking a controlled substance without a prescription, however, she argues that Jackson never terminated her for unprofessional behavior. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 109.) For summary judgment purposes I must, obviously, accept her version. Subsequently, Jackson notified Eastman that she would still be paid for the days it took to complete her outstanding reports. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 53; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 117-18.) Eastman testified that she notified Jackson that she was still in a lot of pain and needed to go to a medical doctor, and would let RPS know the doctor’s diagnosis.[8] (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 119.)

On December 10, 2010, McConnell emailed Eastman and requested an update on her medical status after her doctor’s visit. (Id. ¶ 127.) On December 13, 2010, Eastman and McConnell emailed back and forth discussing Eastman’s medical condition, medical treatment, and her ability to finish the reports. (Id. ¶¶ 129-32.) Additionally, Eastman notified McConnell that she was still in a medically comprised state and needed to seek medical attention, but that she would keep McConnell informed. (Id. ¶ 133.) McConnell emailed Eastman and requested that they discuss Eastman’s employment by telephone, but Eastman responded that because of her medical condition she could only communicate by email. (Id. ¶¶ 134-35.) On December 14, 2010, McConnell wrote a letter to Eastman informing her that December 13, 2010, would be her last day of employment with RPS.[9] (Def.’s Facts ¶ 55; Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 140.) After receiving the December 14, 2010 letter, Eastman emailed McConnell on December 27, 2010, to fully inform McConnell about her back condition. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 146.) When McConnell did not respond to Eastman’s December 27, 2010 email, Eastman forwarded the email to the CEO of RPS, Daniel Perlman. (Id. at ¶ 147.)

B. Post Termination Review

On January 5, 2011, in response to Eastman’s December 27 email, Aly Yantes, executive vice president of global human resources for RPS, emailed Eastman to notify her that she would conduct an executive level review of Eastman’s termination. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 57; Pl.’s Facts ¶ 148.) On January 7, 2011, Eastman emailed Yantes and asked Yantes to provide a reason for her termination so she could inform unemployment. (Pl.’s Facts ¶ 149.) Yantes responded on January 7 that she wanted to talk with Eastman directly. Yantes also notified Eastman that she had not been fired for taking a controlled substance without a prescription. (Id. at ¶ 150.) Yantes conducted the executive level review, in which she spoke with Jackson and Eastman, and reviewed emails about Eastman’s termination. (Opp. Ex. F, Dep. of Aly Yantes (Jan. 21, 2013) (“Yantes Dep.”) at 27:1-28:22, 30:18-31:3.) On January 13, 2011, Yantes emailed Eastman to inform her that her December 8, 2010 termination was being upheld by RPS. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 65; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 65.) In her January 13 email to Eastman, Yantes detailed that during her executive review she found no evidence of hostile behavior or harassment by RPS. (Def.’s Facts ¶ 60; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Facts ¶ 60.) Yantes testified in her deposition that Eastman was fired for inappropriate and unprofessional behavior but not for violating the drug policy. (Opp. Ex. F, Yantes Dep. at 54:2-10.) Additionally, Yantes testified that the unprofessional behavior for which she was fired consisted of “the entire way she conducted herself on the call [with Allergan],” including telling the Allergan employees she was on Valium, slurring her words, and saying that she was “knocked off her feet.”[10] (Id. at 73:19-74:17.) Eastman disputes that she slurred her words and that she said she was “knocked off her feet”; facts that I must accept for this purpose. (Opp. Ex. C, Eastman Dep. at 130:9-21, 19.)

C. Eastman’s Back Pain and Medical Treatment Related to That Back Pain

After Eastman’s December 8, 2010 termination from RPS, she continued to seek medical treatment for her back pain. As explained above, Eastman had been experiencing back pain since Thanksgiving 2010, and had been having difficulty walking, bending, moving, lifting her legs, and changing physical positions. (Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 5-8, 27.) While Eastman’s November-through- December-2010 back pain was the worst episode of back pain in her life, Eastman testified that she had had similar but less severe back pain a few times a year for the past two or three years. (Id. ...

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