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Carter v. Mid-Atlantic Healthcare LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 12, 2017

SHARON S. CARTER, Plaintiff,
v.
MID-ATLANTIC HEALTHCARE, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Goldberg, J.

         This is an age discrimination case. Plaintiff, Sharon Carter, has filed a two-count complaint against Mid-Atlantic Healthcare, LLC (“Defendant” or “Mid-Atlantic”) alleging that she was terminated in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. (Count I) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. § 951 et seq. (Count II). Presently before me is Mid-Atlantic's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, Mid-Atlantic's motion will be granted.

         I. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff began working for Maplewood Manor (“Maplewood”) in June 2005. Maplewood provides long-term nursing and rehabilitation services. Beginning August 2006, Plaintiff served as “Admissions Director, ” which meant that she was responsible for, inter alia, bringing in new patients and processing their paperwork, coordinating with other departments within Maplewood, and reaching out to area hospitals to secure referrals for Maplewood. At the time Plaintiff began her employment, Maplewood was owned and operated by a company named NewCourtland. Plaintiff claims that she worked for several years without receiving any “write ups” or other disciplinary action under NewCourtland's management and ownership of Maplewood. (Compl. ¶¶ 15, 18(a); Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 3-5, 11-12.)

         In July 2011, Defendant Mid-Atlantic purchased Maplewood from NewCourtland, along with four other facilities. Plaintiff continued working at Maplewood as the Admissions Director under Mid-Atlantic's ownership. (Compl. ¶¶ 15, 18(a); Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 11, 12.)

         Beginning in December 2011, approximately five (5) months after Mid-Atlantic acquired Maplewood, Plaintiff was called into “various meetings” that focused on her job performance. For instance, in December 2011, Plaintiff met with Morgan Fogelman, Regional Director of Business Development; Sarah Balmer, Nursing Home Administrator; and another human resources employee. Plaintiff was instructed that Admissions Directors were now expected to do “more marketing, ” and would also have to “meet the Medicare budget each month.” (Compl. ¶ 18(a); Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 13-16, 21-22.)

         On March 1, 2012, Plaintiff again met with Fogelman, Balmer, and a human resources representative, Jennifer Kelly. Plaintiff received a “verbal warning” at this meeting regarding, inter alia, her marketing performance and Medicare goals. (Compl. ¶ 18(b); Def.'s SOF ¶ 24.) In her complaint, Plaintiff acknowledges that “Medicare goals admittedly had not been met[, ]” but alleges that she was being held to unrealistic and unachievable goals given the lack of resources at the Maplewood facility. (Compl. ¶ 18(b).)[2]

         On April 18, 2012, Sarah Balmer met with Plaintiff and informed her that she was being placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) (Def.'s SOF ¶ 25; Def.'s Ex. F.) On April 26, 2012, shortly after being placed on the PIP, Plaintiff again met with Fogelman, Balmer, and Kelly to discuss her job performance. Plaintiff claims that although she disagreed with the “assessment of her alleged shortcomings, [she] attempted to address the stated concerns.” (Compl. ¶ 18(c); Def.'s SOF ¶ 27.)

         In early May 2012, Plaintiff again met with Fogelman, Balmer, and Kelly to review her progress and performance. Fogelman allegedly stated during this meeting that he was unhappy with Plaintiff's quarterly marketing plan (“QMAP”), and that Plaintiff appeared to have an “excuse for everything.” Plaintiff was further advised that she had not been communicating enough with the hospital liaisons. (Compl. ¶ 18(d).)

         On June 13, 2012, Plaintiff met with Fogelman, Balmer, and Kelly to discuss an “Open House” event that was supposed to help increase new admissions to Maplewood. Plaintiff had been tasked with coordinating this event, but nobody showed up. (Def.'s Ex. I; Pl.'s Dep. 125:12-18; 126:4-12.)

         On July 13, 2012, Plaintiff was terminated at the age of fifty-eight (58). (Compl. ¶ 18(f); Def.'s Ex. K; Def.'s SOF ¶ 4.) In the “Disciplinary Action Form” outlining the basis for Plaintiff's termination, Mid-Atlantic (through Balmer, Fogelman, and a human resources representative) indicated that it was Plaintiff's “[f]ailure to meet expectations of PIP dated 4/18/12” and “[p]oor job performance.” (Def.'s Ex. K.) The form additionally states that Plaintiff failed to meet Medicare and HMO census goals, exhibited inadequate communication, and displayed poor “QMAP” and marketing activity quality. Plaintiff refused to sign the form. (Id.)

         In the months leading up to Plaintiff's termination, at least three other employees-all over the age of 40-were also terminated. (See Pl.'s Exs. V, W.)

         On July 16, 2012, Lenora Vaughn assumed the role of Admissions Director for Maplewood, directly replacing Plaintiff. Lenora Vaughn was fifty-four (54) years-old at the time of her hiring. (Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 40-41; Def.'s Exs. L, M.)

         Plaintiff filed her two-count complaint on May 8, 2014, alleging that Mid-Atlantic's conduct violated the ADEA and PHRA. Regarding her termination, Plaintiff generally alleges that she was “blamed for problems beyond her control, ” and that Mid-Atlantic “embarked on a determined course to fire [her].” (Compl. ¶ 18(f).) In other words, Plaintiff disputes that poor work performance was the real reason for her termination. Following a period of discovery, Mid-Atlantic filed a motion for summary judgment, which is currently before me. Mid-Atlantic argues that: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of age discrimination under federal or state law; and (2) Plaintiff cannot demonstrate that Mid-Atlantic's facially legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for Plaintiff's termination were pretextual.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute, and that judgment is appropriate as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once a properly supported motion for summary judgment has been made, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986).

         An issue is “genuine” if a reasonable jury could rule in favor of the non-moving party based on the evidence presented. Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006). A factual dispute is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the appropriate governing law. Id. at 423. The non-moving party cannot avert summary judgment with speculation or conclusory allegations, but rather must cite to the record. Ridgewood Bd. of Educ. v. N.E. for M.E., 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). On a motion for summary judgment, the court considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Under the ADEA and the PHRA, an employer is prohibited from taking adverse employment actions against an employee “because of” the employee's age.[3] The phrase “because of” signifies that age must be more than a “motivating factor” in the employer's action and, therefore, “mixed motive” claims under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989) are unavailable. Gross v. FBL Fin. Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 175-80 (2009). As such, to establish a disparate-treatment claim under the ADEA or the PHRA “a plaintiff must prove that age was the ‘but-for' cause of the employer's adverse decision.” Id. at 177-78; Tomasso v. Boeing Co., 445 F.3d 702, 704-05 (3d Cir. 2006). Where, as with the case before me, a plaintiff has not produced direct evidence that age was the cause of her employer's course of action, the familiar burden-shifting analysis of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) applies. See Smith v. City of Allentown, 589 F.3d 684, 690-92 (3d Cir. 2009).

         Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, an employee must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Burton v. Teleflex Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 426 (3d Cir. 2013). A plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of age discrimination by demonstrating that “(1) she is forty years of age or older; (2) the defendant took an adverse employment action against her; (3) she was qualified for the position in question; and (4) she was ultimately replaced by another employee who was sufficiently younger to support an inference of discriminatory animus.” Id. “There is no hard-and-fast rule covering what a plaintiff must show in order to establish the McDonnell Douglas prima facie showing. Rather, the precise elements of a plaintiff's prima facie case may vary with the particular circumstances” of each case. Fasold v. Justice, 409 F.3d 178, 185 n.10 (3d Cir. 2005) (quotations and citations omitted).

         Once a plaintiff establishes her prima facie case, the burden of production then shifts to the defendant to articulate a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for the adverse employment action. Id. This “relatively light” burden is met “if the employer provides evidence, which, if true, would permit a conclusion that it took the adverse employment action for a non-discriminatory reason.” Id. At this stage, “[t]he proffered reason need only raise a genuine issue of fact as to whether the employer acted impermissibly.” Shellenberger v. Summit Bancorp, Inc., 318 F.3d 183, 189 (3d Cir. 2003).

         If the employer offers a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision, the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff to “provide evidence from which a factfinder could reasonably infer that the employer's proffered justification is merely a pretext for discrimination.” Burton, 707 F.3d. at 426. “At all times, however, the burden of persuasion rests with the plaintiff.” Smith, 589 F.3d at 690.

         A. Plaintiff's Prima Facie Case

         Mid-Atlantic does not dispute that Plaintiff was over forty (40) years of age at the time of her termination, that she was qualified for the position of Admissions Director, or that Plaintiff's termination on July 13, 2012 constituted an adverse employment action. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 6.) It is the final element-replacement by a sufficiently younger employee to support an inference of discriminatory animus-which Mid-Atlantic argues Plaintiff has failed to establish. (Def.'s Mot. Summ J. 6.)[4]

         With respect to what age differential will be considered sufficient as a matter of law (i.e., sufficiently younger), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated that “there is no particular age difference that must be shown, but while different courts have held ... that a five year difference can be sufficient, ... a one year difference cannot.” Showalter v. Univ. of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 190 F.3d 231, 236 (3d Cir. 1999) (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

         Mid-Atlantic emphasizes that Plaintiff's replacement, Lenora Vaughn, was fifty-four (54) years-old, and thus just four (4) years younger than Plaintiff. (Id.) Mid-Atlantic cites to a footnote in the Third Circuit's decision in Narin v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist. for the proposition that an age difference of seven (7) years, without more, is insufficient to establish a prima facie case because such a gap is not “materially” different for purposes of the “sufficiently younger” element. 206 F.3d 323, 333 n.9 (3d Cir. 2000). Mid-Atlantic further cites to multiple district court cases within this circuit acknowledging that the “sufficiently younger” element generally requires an age difference of “at least five years.” See e.g., Reap v. Cont'l Cas. Co., 2002 WL 1498679, at *15 (D.N.J. June 28, 2002) (“Courts generally agree that satisfaction of the sufficiently younger element of a prima facie ADEA case requires proof of an age difference of at least five years.”); Martin v. Healthcare Bus. Res., 2002 WL 467749, at *5 n.7 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 26, 2002) (“For purposes of a prima facie ADEA case, the fourth element contemplates an age difference of at least five years.”).

         In addition to the cases cited by Mid-Atlantic, several other decisions within this circuit have concluded that an age differential of less than five years is insufficient-as a matter of law-to establish the final element of a prima facie case of age discrimination. See e.g., Knox v. Fifth Third Bancorp, 2014 WL 359818, at *13 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 3, 2014) (observing that the plaintiff's replacement was “approximately four-years younger, ” and such an age difference is “insufficient to raise an inference of discriminatory action … for purposes of the ADEA”); Fitzpatrick v. Nat'l Mobile Television, 364 F.Supp.2d 483, 491 (M.D. Pa. 2005) (recognizing that a “four-year age difference is insufficient to raise an inference of discriminatory action”); Lloyd v. City of Bethlehem, 2004 WL 540452, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 3, 2004) (“The case law in this Circuit consistently holds that an age gap of less than five years is, as a matter of law, insufficient to establish fourth element of the prima facie test.”); Gutknecht v. SmithKline Beecham Clinical Labs., Inc., 950 F.Supp. 667, 672 (E.D. Pa. 1996), aff'd, 135 F.3d 764 (3d Cir. 1997) (“Although no uniform rule exists, it is generally accepted that when the difference in age between the fired employee and … her replacement is fewer than five or six years, the replacement is not considered ‘sufficiently younger, ' and thus no prima facie case is made.”).

         In her Response, Plaintiff first highlights that the age differential between she and Lenora Vaughn is really 4.5 years. (Pl.'s Resp. 7.) Plaintiff emphasizes that there is no “magic number” with respect to an age differential that the Third Circuit has articulated to be sufficiently younger as a matter of law, and therefore, summary judgment is not appropriate based on the age differential at issue in this case. (Pl.'s Resp. 8.)

         In support of this argument, Plaintiff cites to two Third Circuit cases: Steward v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 231 F.App'x 201 (3d Cir. 2007) (non-precedential) and Sempier v. Johnson & Higgins, 45 F.3d 724 (3d Cir. 1995). In Steward, the court declined to adopt “a bright-line rule that a 6.75 year average age difference between a fired plaintiff and those who assume his job duties is, as a matter of law, insufficient to give rise to an inference of age discrimination.” 231 F. App'x at 209 (emphasis added). Similarly, in Sempier, the court looked at the “combined differences in age” between the plaintiff and the two other employees to which a substantial portion if the plaintiff's job duties were delegated. 45 F.3d at 730 (emphasis added). One of the employees had been four years younger than the plaintiff, and the other ten. The court observed that the combined differences in age were “clearly sufficient to satisfy the fourth prong of a prima facie case[.]”[5] Id.

         Plaintiff further cites to other district court decisions which have declined to conclude that an age differential of less than five years is insufficient, as a matter of law, to satisfy the “sufficiently younger” element. See e.g., Von Rudenborg v. Di Giorgio Corp., 2011 WL 4594220 (D.N.J. Sept. 30, 2011) (concluding that the plaintiff had satisfied the “sufficiently younger” element of his prima facie case despite his replacement being only three years younger); Robinson v. Matthews Int'l Corp., 2009 WL 735876 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 20, 2009), aff'd, 368 F. App'x 301 (3d Cir. ...


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