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Willis v. UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 10, 2015

Catherine WILLIS, Plaintiff,


JOY FLOWERS CONTI, Chief District Judge.

I. Introduction

Defendant UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh ("Children's") moved for summary judgment on the two claims asserted by plaintiff Catherine Willis ("Willis") in her amended complaint (ECF No. 18). Those claims assert age discrimination and hostile work environment[1] under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634 (count 1), and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act ("PHRA"), 43 PA. STAT. §§ 951-963 (count 2). (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 17, 33, ECF No. 18.) For the reasons that follow, Children's motion for summary judgment will be granted.[2]

II. Factual Background

A. Willis's Employment as Lead Neonatal Nurse Practitioner

Willis, a neonatal nurse practitioner, began working for Children's on August 16, 1993, and remained in the neonatal group until her termination on January 13, 2012. (Joint Concise Statement of Material Facts ("JCS") ¶¶ 1, 3, ECF No. 40.) From 2001 to 2011, Willis's title was lead neonatal nurse practitioner. (Willis Dep. 13:4-10, Mar. 21, 2014, ECF No. 30.) During the period at issue in this suit, Willis's direct supervisor was Margaret Lamouree ("Lamouree"), a nurse manager for the newborn intensive care unit ("NICU"). (Id. at 14:9-15:13.) Lamouree's supervisor was Cynthia Valenta ("Valenta"), and Diane Hupp ("Hupp") was the chief nursing officer at Children's. (Id. )

B. Disciplinary Incidents

1. September 5, 2011 - Final Written Warning

On August 19, 2011, a patient that had undergone surgery required an endotracheal tube, and Willis received a phone call indicating she was needed in the patient's room. As Willis walked to the patient's room she passed nurse Amber Wanca ("Wanca") who said to Willis, "the tube must be out." (Id. at 35:5-6.) Willis had complained about Wanca's incompetence in the past and admitted to saying, in the hallway, "that fucking tube better not be out, Ill. [sic] fuckin [sic] kill someone." (Def.'s Ex. 4, ECF No. 30.) The statement was made at approximately 3:00 a.m., and the patient's father was in the room with his child. Willis did not know whether any staff member had heard what she said. (Willis Dep. 39:23-25.)

On September 5, 2011, a final written warning was issued to Willis stating that "[o]n 8/19/2011, several staff members witnessed, and upon questioning, you admit to using inappropriate language including the use of the word fuck' while in close proximity to patients and families." (Def.'s Ex. 3, ECF No. 30.) The final written warning additionally stated that "you will be removed from the lead role and expected to treat both internal and external customers with dignity and respect at all times." (Id. )

Sometime during September 2011, after the issuance of the final written warning, Willis attended a meeting with Lamouree, Valenta, and Hupp. During this meeting, Lamouree and Valenta discussed potential changes to the lead neonatal nurse practitioner position. The changes included more administrative and budgetary duties and fewer nurse-related tasks. (Id. at 16:25-17:4.) Willis believed she was qualified for the job with the proposed changes but stated that she sensed that Lamouree and Valenta "no longer wanted [her] in that role." (Id. at 13:17-19, 17:10-13.) Feeling "coerced, " Willis ostensibly volunteered to step down as lead neonatal nurse practitioner at the meeting in September 2011. (Id. at 17:10-21). Lamouree stated that part of the reason Hupp, Valenta, and she asked Willis to step down was "her treatment of staff" and handling of the schedule for subordinate nurses. (Lamouree Decl. ¶ 9, June 16, 2014, ECF No. 30.) Willis stated that when she stepped down, Children's did not immediately make the changes discussed in the meeting referenced above, and did not immediately put someone in the lead neonatal nurse practitioner role. (Willis Dep. 18:1-13.) Willis signed the final written warning on September 15, 2011. (Id. at 39:23-25.)

2. January 3, 2012 - Confrontation with NICU Leadership Staff

A disagreement between Willis and another member of the nursing staff led to Willis becoming frustrated with that unexperienced nurse's alleged lack of urgency. (Id. at 42:22-25.) The incident began when the less experienced nurse intended to find another nurse to start an IV on a patient. Willis did not believe there was time to wait, and she put the IV in herself. (Id. at 41:5-22.) Afterwards, Willis went to speak with the clinical leaders, Bonnie Landgraf and Sherry Rosato, to express her concerns about the incident with the IV and the nursing staff's overall lack of experience. (Id. at 43:3-4.) The NICU supervisor, Missy Locke ("Locke"), was nearby, and Willis raised her voice so that Locke could hear and join the conversation. (Id. at 43:22-44:14.) Willis denies yelling during this conversation. (Id. at 42:20-22.)

Lamouree sent an email to Jenelle Taylor ("Taylor"), a human resources consultant, on January 11, 2012, summarizing a conversation she had with Willis about the incident on January 3, 2012. (Def.'s Ex. 5, ECF No. 30.) In the e-mail, Lamouree explained that Willis voiced concerns that the level of inexperience among the nurses was having an adverse effect on the patients. (Id. ) Lamouree stated that Willis "[went] back to the clinical leaders office area because she wanted them to know that these newer nurses did not have sufficient knowledge to recognize the urgency of the situation and did not have the skills to start the IV." (Id. ) Lamouree told Willis that the clinical leaders were offended by how Willis treated them. Willis replied that she felt "she needed to make a point about how inexperienced some of our staff were." (Id. ) When Lamouree asked Willis if she could have handled the situation without yelling, Willis replied, "Nevermind, I'm always wrong, " and left the room. (Id. ) Except for Lamouree's characterization of Willis's speech involving yelling, Willis acknowledged that Lamouree's summary of the incident was accurate. (Willis Dep. 51:18-54:10.)

3. January 11, 2012 - Leaving Shift Without Completing History and Physical on Patient

Willis received a patient on January 11, 2012, and spoke with the patient's parents; however, she "did not perform a history and physical nor did she complete admission orders other than neosure and a pulse ox order, which are not inclusive of routine admission orders on a NICU baby per neonatologist and NICU director." (Ex. 6, ECF No. 30.) The nurses were separated into blue and green teams; the patient was admitted to the blue team. Willis was assigned to the green team, and Holly Bernardi ("Bernardi") was assigned to the blue team. (JCS ¶ 40.) When asked why neither the orders were placed nor the history and physical completed, Willis responded during a phone call with Hupp, detailed in an internal memo, that she thought she had placed the orders. (Id. ) Willis testified, however, that the patient involved was not hers and that Bernardi knew Willis was only putting in admission orders and would not be conducting the history and physical. (Willis Dep. 57:10-11.) Willis stated that it was commonplace for admission orders to be completed by one nurse and the history and physical requirement to be completed by a nurse arriving for the next shift. (Id. at 57:22-25.) According to Hupp's summary, when Hupp asked Willis whether she had informed the incoming shift that a history and physical still needed to be done, Willis said it was "very busy" and she was unable to say to whom she reported off. (Ex. 6, ECF No. 30.) On January 12, 2012, Willis provided a description and response to this incident in an email to Hupp; Hupp forwarded the email to Taylor in human resources. Id.

C. Termination

On January 13, 2012, Willis attended a staff meeting conducted by Hupp during which she announced that the neonatal nurse practitioners would receive a ten percent increase in compensation and that Stephanie Disilvio ("Disilvio") would serve as interim lead neonatal nurse practitioner. (Willis Dep. 84:6-85:9, 87:1-9.) Following this staff meeting, Willis was called into another meeting with Hupp, Valenta, and Lamouree. Willis received a termination letter citing the final written warning from September 2011 and the incidents on January 3, 2012, and January 11, 2012, as reasons for termination. (Def.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 30.) Willis and Hupp signed the termination letter on January 13, 2012. (Id. ) At the time of ...

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