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Litzinger v. Allegheny Lutheran Social Ministries

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 20, 2017

ROBIN LITZINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
ALLEGHENY LUTHERAN SOCIAL MINISTRIES, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KIM R. GIBSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         For 28 years, Robin Litzinger worked as a licensed practical nurse for Allegheny Lutheran Social Ministries, until she was fired on July 22, 2014. Litzinger suffers from a back injury and cardiac problems, and in December 2015 she sued Allegheny Lutheran for discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq. (“ADEA”), and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. (“ADA”). She alleges that she was fired because of her age-she was 59-years-old when she was fired-and because of her heart problems. Allegheny Lutheran has now moved for summary judgment on both counts. It argues that Litzinger fails to state a prima facie claim of discrimination under either the ADEA or the ADA. Further, Allegheny Lutheran argues that it had a legitimate reason for firing Litzinger, and that she has not shown that this reason is a pretext for discrimination.

         Allegheny Lutheran is correct on all points. The Court will therefore grant its motion for summary judgment.

         I. Facts[1]

         On January 6, 1986, Litzinger began working for Allegheny Lutheran as a licensed practical nurse at its Hollidaysburg facility. Allegheny Lutheran is a faith-based, not-for-profit organization that serves West Central Pennsylvania by providing various social services, including senior-living services. Allegheny Lutheran operates several senior-living communities as well as short- and long-term-care facilities, including the Lutheran Home at Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. Lutheran Home is a long-term-care facility-otherwise known as a nursing home-that provides care for approximately 89 residents. It was Litzinger's job to care for these residents; her duties included checking on ill residents, handling their medications, and assisting with their feeding and bathing. From approximately 2004 until she was fired in 2014, Litzinger reported to Eva Pope, the director of nursing at the Lutheran Home.

         Litzinger suffers from some medical problems. She testified that between late 2011 and 2016 she regularly saw a chiropractor for a back injury. Also beginning in 2011, Litzinger submitted some medical documentation to Allegheny Lutheran in connection with her back injury. That documentation-four disability-release forms and a letter from her chiropractor- imposed limited work restrictions for set durations. Specifically, the disability-release forms recommended that Litzinger not lift, push, or pull more than 25 pounds, and that she not work more than 8 hours per day or more than 40 hours per week, all for periods of 4 weeks. The letter from Litzinger's chiropractor-dated February 10, 2014, and written in response to a letter from Allegheny Lutheran inquiring about Litzinger's job restrictions-also strongly recommended that she not be required to work more than an eight-hour shift. The letter from Litzinger's chiropractor imposed no temporal limit on that restriction. Litzinger testified that, although she was required to work more than eight hours per day once or twice after she submitted her medical documentation, Allegheny Lutheran honored her work restrictions.

         Litzinger also has coronary-artery disease, and in November 2013 she suffered a major heart attack.[2] She thereafter requested to take leave from Allegheny Lutheran under the Family and Medical Leave Act so that she could complete a cardiac-rehabilitation program. In connection with that request, she submitted a note from her cardiologist, which stated that she would remain off from work until at least her next follow-up. Allegheny Lutheran approved Litzinger's FMLA leave and she missed six to eight weeks of work. Litzinger's doctor approved her to return to work-without restrictions-effective January 13, 2014, and she did return later that month. In returning to work, Litzinger required no accommodations as a result of her heart attack or in connection with her coronary-artery disease. Allegheny Lutheran was not provided with any documentation regarding her cardiac issues other than her FMLA request, the note submitted in connection with that request, and the January 2014 note. After she returned to work Litzinger did have conversations related to her cardiac issues with two of her supervisors. At one time she asked Pope whether it would be permissible if she placed her medicine cart in a set area instead of pushing it around because pushing the cart was making her uncomfortable. Pope told her that would be fine. At another time Litzinger had a conversation about her coronary- artery disease with Debra Husick-a resident-nurse supervisor-during which Husick told her to take it easy and that Husick was concerned for her. Other than those two conversations, Litzinger had no discussions with any supervisor at Allegheny Lutheran about her cardiac issues and no supervisor ever made any critical comment about those issues.

         Litzinger received several disciplinary warnings during her employment with Allegheny Lutheran. Four of the incidents underlying those warnings-all of which involved allegations of unprofessional and discourteous conduct-occurred between 2010 and her firing in 2014. Although the allegations in most of those incidents were found to be unsubstantiated, Litzinger was counseled and warned regarding her conduct after each incident. In addition, Litzinger regularly received training on topics relevant to her position, including residents' rights and resident abuse and neglect. Between 2012 and when she was fired, Litzinger took eight courses that touched on these topics.

         In January 2010, Litzinger received a first written warning.[3] The report for this incident explains that the warning was given because Litzinger got into an argument with a supervisor about a nurse-aide assignment. (ECF No. 18-9 at 11.) In addition to being warned, Litzinger was required to take inservice training on work ethic and attitude. She completed that training a week later.

         The second incident occurred in October 2010 when a resident's son lodged a complaint against Litzinger for verbally abusing the resident. Allegheny Lutheran submitted a report to the Pennsylvania Department of Health regarding this complaint, which states that the resident's son alleged that Litzinger “yelled at resident, pointed her finger at resident and said to resident, ‘you ring your call bell too much, I can't please you no matter what I do, you want in bed and out of bed, no matter what I do I can't please you, and you are going to pay for it.'” (ECF No. 18-9 at 8.) Pursuant to both Allegheny Lutheran's and the Pennsylvania Department of Health's policies, Litzinger was suspended for one day while this complaint was investigated.

         Allegheny Lutheran's policies prohibit resident abuse. Allegheny Lutheran's team-member handbook defines abuse as “an action which causes physical harm or mental distress to another person. If an action results in unnecessary discomfort to another person, it is considered abuse.” (ECF No. 18-7 at 22.) Under Allegheny Lutheran's policies, “[v]erified evidence that abuse has occurred is grounds for dismissal.” (ECF No. 18-7 at 22.) After investigating the October 2010 complaint, Allegheny Lutheran determined that the allegation of abuse was unsubstantiated and Litzinger returned to work. Although no discipline was imposed on Litzinger for this incident-other than the suspension to investigate-Pope and the facility's administrator met with her and counseled her to be more careful about how she spoke to and treated people.[4] As a result of that meeting, Litzinger also understood that she could be terminated for substantiated allegations of abuse.

         The third incident occurred in April 2013. A hospice aide reported that she had asked Litzinger to assist her with helping a resident go to the bathroom, and that while helping this resident Litzinger became angry with the resident and used profane language, upsetting the resident.[5] Allegheny Lutheran investigated this allegation and interviewed Litzinger, the hospice aide, the social worker who had received the complaint, as well as the resident. During the resident's interview, she “did not state that anything had occurred, ” and when asked said that she was not afraid of Litzinger and had no objection to letting Litzinger continue to care for her. (ECF No. 18-9 at 6.) Allegheny Lutheran thus concluded that the complaint was not substantiated. Nevertheless, Allegheny Lutheran issued Litzinger an “on-the-spot education” about the use of profanity around residents and coworkers.[6]

         The fourth incident occurred in June 2013 when a resident reported that Litzinger had verbally abused her by yelling at her. Allegheny Lutheran suspended Litzinger for three days while it investigated this complaint. Litzinger testified that when she returned to work she met with Pope and the facility administrator and that during this meeting she denied yelling at the resident. (ECF No. 18-6 at 84:18-85:23.) Litzinger testified further that Pope and the administrator told Litzinger that the resident did not want Litzinger to lose her job, and that they said she had to apologize to the resident if she wanted to remain employed with Allegheny Lutheran. (Id. at 85:12-21.) Litzinger then apologized to the resident and this resolved the matter.

         One more incident occurred after June 2013. On July 17, 2014, a resident-whom the Court will refer to as M.S.-reported to two different Allegheny Lutheran employees that Litzinger had threatened her. The facility administrator at that time, Danielle Hale Pettit, and Pope began investigating this complaint the same day. They interviewed Litzinger, M.S., and the two employees to whom M.S. made the report. From their statements, it appears that this incident was prompted by M.S. not wanting to go to an appointment. But Litzinger did not admit to saying anything inappropriate to M.S. In her statement, she said that M.S. had refused to go the appointment and told her to “get the hell out.” (ECF No. 18-11 at 14.)

         After getting Litzinger's statement, Allegheny Lutheran suspended her for three days while it investigated further. Pettit interviewed M.S., who said that Litzinger had told her “[y]ou will be left like an animal and no one would [sic] ever come in here again. I'll see to it that you won't get your meds.” (ECF No. 18-11 at 11.) M.S. further stated that Litzinger went into “a wild rage” and that she felt threatened and never wanted Litzinger to take care of her again.[7] (Id.) Nobody other than Litzinger and M.S. was present when these statements were allegedly made. But the two employees reported-and testified during the course of discovery in this case-that they found M.S. visibly upset and crying, and that M.S. had told them too that Litzinger had threatened to take her medication away.

         Pettit and Pope finished their investigation that same day-July 17, 2014. They concluded that firing Litzinger was warranted. She was terminated effective July 22, 2014. Litzinger's date of birth is December 5, 1954, meaning she was 59 years old when she was fired.

         On August 6, 2014, Allegheny Lutheran listed the opening for Litzinger's former position on its internal website. Lorraine Kiel-another licensed practical nurse who worked for Allegheny Lutheran but on a different shift-applied and was hired for Litzinger's former position. Kiel's date of birth is April 28, 1960, meaning she was 54 years old when she was hired for that position.

         On December 1, 2015, Litzinger filed this lawsuit.

         II. Jurisdiction & Venue

         Because Litzinger's claims arise under federal law, this Court has subject-matter jurisdiction over them pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. And because the events giving rise to Litzinger's claims-namely her employment relationship with Allegheny Lutheran and her firing-occurred in the Western District of Pennsylvania, venue is proper in this district pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2).

         III. ...


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