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Shepherd v. Gannondale

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 22, 2014

GANNONDALE, Defendant.


ROBERT C. MITCHELL, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Sharon L. Shepherd, brings this action against Defendant, her former employer, Gannondale, alleging claims of religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (Title VII), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. §§ 951-63 (PHRA), arising out of its alleged refusal to accommodate her beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness and her discharge from employment as a Fiscal Supervisor on June 13, 2013.

Currently pending before the Court for disposition is a motion for summary judgment, filed by Defendant. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.


Shepherd began working for Gannondale on October 19, 2011. (Sabol Dep. at 16:14-16.)[1] She directly reported to Executive Director Nancy Sabol. (Sabol Dep. at 11:3-5; Shepherd Dep. at 62:3-4.[2]) Shepherd was hired as a "Fiscal Clerk II, " and was responsible for completing payroll, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and other bookkeeping functions. (Sabol Dep. at 15:10-15; Pl.'s App. Ex. 3.[3])

On June 8, 2012, Shepherd was promoted to the position of Bookkeeping Supervisor. (Sabol Dep. at 20:20-23; ECF No. 29 Ex. 4.) On September 12, 2012, Shepherd's title changed to Fiscal Supervisor. The titles were used interchangeably. (ECF No. 29 Ex. 5; Sabol Dep. at 22:9-19.) Her last day of employment with Gannondale was June 13, 2013. (Shepherd Dep. at 83:17-21.)

Gannondale is a non-profit corporation and a ministry of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, which provided holistic and therapeutic residential care for young women placed by the court. (Sabol Dep. at 8-9 & Ex. 1; Sabol Decl. ¶ 6.[4]) Nancy Sabol was employed by Gannondale for approximately 30 years and last served as the Executive Director of Gannondale until June 27, 2014. (Sabol. Decl. ¶¶ 2-3; Sabol Dep. at 5-6.) Gannondale ceased all operations on June 30, 2014. (Sabol Dep. at 6-7; Sabol Decl. ¶ 4.) Shepherd's positions did not require her to interact with the young women placed at Gannondale's facilities. (Sabol Dep. at 22:23-23:2.)

Plaintiff has been a practicing member of the Jehovah's Witness faith for more than twenty years. She is a baptized Witness, and attends Congregation meetings two days per week. (Shepherd Dep. at 30-31.) As a Jehovah's Witness, Shepherd does not vote, does not participate in politics, and tries to remain neutral and separate from worldly governments. (Shepherd Dep. at 43:14-20.)

The Sanctuary Model

During its last several years of operation, and prior to Shepherd's employment there, Gannondale had, at the invitation of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, implemented the "Sanctuary Model of Trauma Informed Care" (the "Sanctuary Model"). (Sabol Dep. at 29-31; Sabol Decl. ¶ 7.) Gannondale was certified by the Andrus Institute in New York as a Sanctuary Model organization on March 25, 2011. (Sabol Dep. at 30-31; Sabol Decl. ¶ 8.)

The Sanctuary Model "represents a theory-based, trauma-informed, evidence-supported, whole culture approach that has a clear and structured methodology for creating or changing an organizational culture." See Sabol Decl. ¶ 9. Central to the philosophy of the Sanctuary Model is the premise that:

Trauma-informed change requires a change in the basic mental models upon which thought and action is based and without such change, treatment is bound to fall unnecessarily short of full recovery or fail entirely. The change in mental models must occur on the part of the clients, their families, the staff, and the leaders of the organization. See Sabol Decl. ¶ 10; Sabol Dep. at 49.

Gannondale's website provides that:

Sanctuary is a clinical and organizational model which recognizes the inherent vulnerability of all individuals and social systems to adversity, loss and change. According to the Sanctuary Model website (, the Sanctuary Model responds with a core belief that every individual and system has the capacity to transcend this vulnerability and overcome the impact of these potentially traumatic experiences.

(ECF No. 29 Ex. 7.)

Community Meetings

Also central to the Sanctuary Model are "community meetings." These meetings are not intended merely as a therapeutic tool for clients in a treatment setting, but are also meant to involve staff and organizational leaders in establishing the "whole organization" implementation of the Sanctuary Model. See Sabol Dep. at 37, 40 & Ex. 7; Sabol Decl. ¶11.[5]

Although 100% attendance was not required, all staff members, including office staff, were expected to participate in community meetings whenever possible. (Sabol Dep. at 40; Sabol Decl. ¶ 12.) At community meetings, participants were asked three questions:

a. How are you feeling?
b. What is your goal for the day?
c. Who can help you achieve that goal?

(Sabol Dep. at 37-38; Shepherd Dep. at 27; Ehrensberger Dep. at 7-8;[6] Sabol Decl. ¶ 13.) In the context of community meetings for office staff, such as Shepherd, these questions were typically asked of employees by a coworker. (Sabol Dep. at 39, 43; Sabol Decl. ¶14.) In Gannondale's administration building, where Shepherd worked, community meetings were held four days per week. (Sabol Dep. at 38:18-39:15.)

Gannondale states that there was no "right" or "wrong" answer to these questions. (Sabol Dep. at 45-48, 96-97; Ehrensberger Dep. at 30-33; Sabol Decl. ¶15.) Answers were not written down, recorded, or graded. (Sabol Decl. ¶ 16.) No employee was told what to say, although employees were sometimes encouraged to relate their answer to one of the "Seven Commitments" of the Sanctuary Model. (Sabol Dep. at 45-48, 96-97; Ehrensberger Dep. at 30-33; Sabol Decl. ¶ 17.) Gannondale states that there was no discipline or punishment for not answering a question, or for answering (or not answering) a question in a particular way. (Sabol Dep. at 45-48, 96-97; Ehrensberger Dep. at 30-33; Schumacher Dep. at 12-13;[7] Sabol Decl. ¶ 18.)

Plaintiff responds that, in the Fall of 2012, Director of Mission and Ministry Pearl Jeffries began directing that the "feeling" and "goal" must be tied to the monthly commitment. She corrected employees for stating an incorrect goal, and had them restate the goal. (Shepherd Dep. at 49:14-20; Shepherd Decl. ¶ 3.[8]) Plaintiff notes that, while employees were not told explicitly what to say, their answers did need to fit within those parameters. (Shepherd Decl. ¶¶ 2-3.) She states that no one ever gave her the option of attending community meetings without participating in them. (Shepherd Dep. at 104:11-16; Yaple Dep. at 28:24-29:2.)

Sabol admitted that Shepherd's job descriptions made no reference to the Sanctuary Model or community meetings and that Shepherd could perform her job duties as listed on the job description without attending the meetings. (Sabol Dep. at 49:7-18.) However, Sabol stated that the purpose of "community meetings" was to "build community" and "to help people become more attuned to their feelings." (Sabol Dep. at 40:12-23.) Gannondale states that not attending community meetings in some form or fashion would limit an employee's participation in the Sanctuary Model as a whole, as well as participation in the organization that was Gannondale. (Sabol Dep. at 49-51; Sabol Decl. ¶ 19.)

Sabol could not identify any documents explaining what a "community meeting" is, and did not know whether Gannondale ever gave its employees any documents explaining community meetings. (Sabol Dep. at 37:24-38:1, 39:23-25.) Plaintiff notes that Gannondale produced no documents in discovery explaining what a "community meeting" is; why attendance is important; how often they must occur; or even identifying the three questions "how are you feeling?, " "what is your goal for the day?, " and "who could help you achieve that goal?" as being part of the Sanctuary Model.

According to Sabol, the goal stated by the employee at a community meeting should not be "task-related." For example, an employee should not give a goal such as "I'm going to get my paperwork done, " or "I'm going to reconcile all the accounts receivable today." (Sabol Dep. at 46:4-24.)

The Seven Commitments are:

a. a commitment to nonviolence;
b. a commitment to emotional intelligence;
c. a commitment to social learning;
d. a commitment to open communication;
e. a commitment to democracy;
f. a commitment to social responsibility; and
g. a commitment to growth and change. See Sabol Decl. ¶ 20; Sabol Dep. at 34; Shepherd Dep. at 28-29 & Ex. 1.

The Seven Commitments are the pillars of the Sanctuary Model, and are essential to its implementation. Sabol stated that they are not simply intended for clients in treatment. "The Seven Commitments apply to everyone. Organizational leaders must be fully committed to the process of the Sanctuary Model for it to be effective - that means the Board of Directors, Managers and Staff. If the organizational leaders do not get on-board, it will not work." See Shepherd Dep. Ex. 1; Sabol Decl. ¶¶ 21-22.

Defendant states that Shepherd received training on the Sanctuary Model when she began employment at Gannondale, and received additional training at various times after that. (Shepherd Dep. at 26-27; Sabol Decl. ¶ 23 ECF No. 31 Ex. K at 29-31.) Plaintiff responds that, while she received training on the Sanctuary Model in general, she never received training on community meetings. (Shepherd Dep. at 26:10-16, 24-27:4, 45:14-21; Shepherd Decl. ¶ 1.)

Sabol states that the Sanctuary Model and the seven commitments are also discussed in Gannondale's Employee Handbook which was provided to Shepherd at the time of her hire. (Sabol Decl. ¶ 24 ECF No. 31 Ex. K at 1-2.) Plaintiff notes that The Handbook contains the following paragraph on the Sanctuary Model:

Gannondale employs the Sanctuary Model of Organizational Development. To that end, we strive to live up to the following commitments: nonviolence, open communication, social learning, social responsibility, emotional intelligence, shared governance and growth and change. Residents, staff, administration and the Board of Trustees work together to create a safe environment, where past traumas can be healed.

(Gannondale Employee Handbook at 5.)[9] She notes that The Handbook contains no other reference to the Sanctuary Model, and contains no reference to community meetings.

Shepherd attended community meetings, without objection, for approximately a year. (Shepherd Dep. at 27-28, 60; Sabol Dep. at 43; Schumacher Dep. at 11-12; Sabol Decl. ¶ 26.) She set goals for herself and, as a supervisor, helped other employees set goals and evaluated them on their ability to attain those goals. (Shepherd Dep. at 59; Sabol Dep. at 42, 49-50; Sabol Decl. ¶ 25.)

Defendant indicates that, beyond community meetings, Shepherd also participated in various activities, trainings, and meetings that involved various aspects of the Sanctuary Model. (Sabol Dep. at 51-52; Sabol Decl. ¶ 26.) Plaintiff notes that these were "team meetings" which did not focus on a monthly commitment to the Sanctuary Model. (Sabol Dep. at 51:5-52:12.)

Plaintiff Stops Attending Community Meetings

In the Fall of 2012, Gannondale's Director of Mission and Ministry, Pearl Jeffries, directed the employees to focus on a different "commitment" of the Sanctuary Model each month, and required that the goal stated at the community meeting relate to that particular "commitment." (Shepherd Dep. at 49:14-22; Shepherd Decl. ¶ 2.) Plaintiff states that employees were handed a page on the "commitments" every month in advance so they could study it and be prepared for the meetings. (Shepherd Dep. at 50:7-12.) When the community meetings were first implemented, there was no focus on a monthly commitment. (Sabol Dep. at 44:15-17.) Sabol admitted that the focus on the monthly commitment was not required by the Sanctuary Model itself. (Sabol Dep. at 45:12-15.)

Plaintiff contends that, if an employee stated a goal that did not relate sufficiently to the "commitment, " Gannondale's managers would correct that employee and require him or her to restate the goal. (Shepherd Decl. ¶ 3.) Defendant responds that employees were encouraged to state a goal in relation to a commitment, but it was not a requirement. (Sabol Dep. at 45:16-21.)

Plaintiff states that, prior to the introduction of the "commitments" in the Fall of 2012, no one had explained the Sanctuary Model to her in full. Once the "commitments" became part of the "community meetings, " she looked into the Sanctuary Model and believed there was too much anti-Christian content for her to be a part of the "community meetings." (Shepherd Dep. at 45:14-21.)

Shepherd learned that the Sanctuary Model references religious leaders and adulterers, such as Buddha, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi.[10] Shepherd, on the other hand, believes in the Bible and in God's word, rather than the words of those individuals. (Shepherd Dep. at 38:2-13.) Shepherd did not feel comfortable with the Sanctuary Model because it relies on governments and other religions. (Shepherd Dep. at 41:12-15.)

Shepherd received a paper from Gannondale on "growth and change, " which stated something along the lines that individuals can change society and culture through their actions. (Shepherd Dep. at 50:18-22.) She testified that these ideas contradict her faith because she believes that Armageddon is coming, and there is nothing anyone can do to ...

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