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Exter v. Wilkes-Barre Hospital Company, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 3, 2014



ROBERT D. MARIANI, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Michaelene M. Exter ("Plaintiff' or "Exter") filed a six-count Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 12) against Defendant Wilkes-Barre General Hospital Company, LLC ("Defendant" or "the Hospital") alleging interference (Count I) and retaliation (Count II) under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., discrimination (Count III) and retaliation (Count V) under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and corresponding violations of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA") (Counts IV, VI), 43 PA. CONS. STAT. § 951, et seq., for discrimination and retaliation on the basis of disability. Presently before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 27). For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Defendant's Motion.

II. Statement of Undisputed Facts

On June 18, 2007, Melinda Torbik-Belleman ("Belleman"), Defendant's Administrative Director of Nursing, hired Plaintiff, a Registered Nurse, as an Administrative Supervisor. (Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("DSOF"), Doc. 28, at ¶¶ 2-3). As an Administrative Supervisor, Exter's responsibilities included "ensuring that the Hospital's staffing needs (particularly in nursing) are met; serving as a resource of patients, patient care providers and staff; and communicating information regarding patient care issues as necessary and appropriate." (Id. at ¶ 7).

On May 20, 2008, Belleman issued Exter her 2007 Annual Performance Review. (Id. at ¶ 10; Def.'s Ex. E, Doc. 28-5), The Hospital's evaluations score employees on a scale of one ("Unsatisfactory") to four ("Exceeds Expectations") based on thirty-four factors. (DSOF at ¶ 11; Def.'s Ex. E). Plaintiff received a two rating ("Needs Improvement") in five categories and a three rating ("Meets Expectations") in the rest of the categories. (Def.'s Ex. E). Because Defendant asserts, as a primary basis for summary judgment, that its reasons for disciplining, and eventually firing, Plaintiff are consistent with deficiencies it identified in her 2007 Performance Review (Br. in Supp., Doc. 29, at 1), the Court reviews this evaluation in some detail.

Of the five "needs improvement" ratings, two related to communication, two to leadership and one to teamwork. (Def.'s Ex. E at 2-3). In each of these areas, Belleman provided comments. ( Id. ). With regard to teamwork, she wrote, Exter "must be more proactive with staff members. If they have an issue or she anticipates an issue, she must go to the area and provide support and guidance to the staff. She must be visible and willing to cooperate with them for the good of the patient." (Id. at 2).

Regarding communication, Belleman wrote, Plaintiff

needs to listen carefully when receiving [a] report and then communicate [it] forward with the same information to assure that everyone is on the same page. Many times information is confused from one point to another because she does not ask questions or because she communicates to the wrong people (non-charge nurses) about unit activity. Michaelene needs to explain decisions to the staff members so that they may understand her rationale and communicate, as indicated, to the patients.

(Id. at 3).

In discussing leadership, Belleman wrote, Exter "needs to communicate more clearly with her peers during report and with the staff members when making rounds to assure that everyone is on the same page in making decisions regarding patient movement and care." (Id. at 4).

On February 6, 2009, Exter requested intermittent FMLA leave. (Def.'s Ex. F, Doc. 28-6). Plaintiff's request form indicates that she had "been treated for [a] major depressive disorder." ( Id. ). Belleman approved Exter's request for intermittent leave on February 16, 2009. (DSOF at ¶ 25). "Between February 19, 2009 and April 28, 2009, Ms. Exter requested, and received, four days of leave which she attributed to her intermittent FMLA." (Id. at ¶ 30).

On April 28, 2009, Belleman issued Exter a Written Reprimand in accordance with the Hospital's Progressive Discipline program. (Id, at ¶ 49; Def.'s Exs. M, N, Docs. 28-13, 28-14). The Reprimand lists "[i]nability to perform to hospital/system standards" as the "reason(s) for conference." (Def.'s Ex. N). In the "documentation" portion of the Reprimand, Belleman wrote,

Michaelene has made multiple errors in cancelling staff according to the policy/bargaining unit contract. She has not adjusted staffing for census fluctuations. She has not documented consistently when she receives call-offs or cancellations from staff, leaving the next shift unaware of the staffing changes. Michaelene has been ill-prepared when contacting the Clinical Directors and Administrators-on-Call. She was unsure of how to convert to the manual process during a computer system down time and did not access the down time procedures to be a resources [sic] for the staff members. She was not aware of what systems were actually down before notifying the Administrator-on-Call.

( Id. )

In addition to the Written Reprimand, Belleman also gave Exter an Improvement Action Plan ("IAP"). (Def.'s Ex. P, Doc. 28-16). The IAP reflected the issues discussed in the Written Reprimand and included a "plan" for each "problem" identified. ( Id. ). Following the Written Reprimand and the IAP, Belleman produced weekly IAPs between April 28, 2009 and May 19, 2009. ( Id. ; Def.'s Ex, Q, Doc. 28-17).

"On May 20, 2009, Ms. Exter received her performance evaluation for 2008-2009." (DSOF at ¶ 64; Def.'s Ex. R, Doc, 28-18). The 2008-2009 Performance Review was "more critical of her performance than" the 2007 Review. (Pl.'s Counterstatement of Facts ("PSOF"), Doc. 37, at ¶ 65).

On June 9, 2009, "Jill Tupper ['Tupper'], a RN at the Hospital who was, at the time, a patient in the Pediatrics Unit (where she was assigned due to a bed shortage) had filed an 'Incident Report/Complaint' against Ms. Exter." (DSOF at ¶ 70; Def.'s Ex. S, Doc. 28-19). According to the Incident Report, Tupper alleged that Exter violated the Hospital's "Core Values" by being "rude and condescending." (Def.'s Ex. S). Specifically, Tupper alleged,

[A]t 10:15 p.m. on June 8, Ms. Tupper called Debbie Harter (a nurse on the Pediatrics Unit) to obtain the in-house phone number to call off of her shift for the following day (since Ms. Tupper was an in-patient at the time). Ms. Harter advised Ms. Tupper that Ms. Exter was on the floor at the time and that she would just relay to her that Ms. Tupper would be unable to work the next day. Ms. Exter, however, told Ms. Harter to tell Ms. Tupper that she needed to call the nursing office and that she (Ms. Exter) would "be back in the office in 15 to 20 minutes."

(DSOF at ¶ 72).

Following the Incident Report, "Ms. Belleman, with the assistance of Lisa Goble [Goble'], then Director Human Resources Information Systems and Payroll, investigated Ms. Tupper's complaint[.]" (Id. at ¶ 73 (internal citation omitted)). On the basis of their investigation, Belleman and Goble determined that Exter had violated the Hospital's Core Values, "a ...

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