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Weber v. Community Medical Center

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 2, 2017




         Pending before the court is the defendant's motion for summary judgment with respect to all of the plaintiff's claims for relief. (Doc. 45). Based on the court's review of the motion and related materials, the defendant's motion will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following are the undisputed facts material to resolving the defendant's motion for summary judgment.[1] The plaintiff, Elizabeth Weber, worked at the defendant hospital, Community Medical Center (“CMC”), as an x-ray technologist from 1979 to 2005 and as a computerized tomography (“CT”) scan technician from 2005 until her discharge on August 26, 2009. (Doc. 1; Doc. 7). As a CT scan technician, Weber was generally responsible for preparing patients for CT scans and performing the scans. (Doc. 47). Weber recognized that part of her job responsibilities was to show kindness and compassion toward patients at CMC, ensuring they felt comfortable, safe, and secure. (Id.). Weber reported directly to Joan Ewins, who in turn reported to Robert Bonczek. (Id.). In addition to Bonczek, two other CMC managers, Lois Wolfe and Barbara Bossi (collectively, the “CMC management”), were responsible for hiring and firing decisions at the hospital. (Id.).

         In September 2006, at forty-eight years old, Weber was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, and ankylosing spondylitis. (Doc. 1). These conditions caused Weber to suffer from visible head-to-toe skin lesions, swelling of the joints and skin, back and joint pain, and muscle stiffness. (Doc. 52-5). Weber immediately informed Ewins, her direct supervisor, about her medical conditions. (Id.). While the skin lesions were noticeable and apparent to many of Weber's coworkers, the parties dispute whether Bonczek, Wolfe, and Bossi were aware of Weber's medical conditions. (Doc. 47; Doc. 52).

         On January 21, 2009, Weber received an employee performance evaluation from Ewins. (Doc. 52-1). Weber's evaluation first scored her performance on eleven distinct professional traits that CMC seeks in its employees. (Id.). On two of these traits, Weber's listed score was “Role Model (Exceeds Expectations), ” and on the remaining nine traits, her score was “Solid Contributor (Meets Expectations).” (Id.). On the written portion of the evaluation, however, Ewins claimed that “[a]lthough [Weber] has been a very productive employee, I believe she needs to work on her patient skills even further . . . [h]er perception of her actions toward patients may not always be how the patients [are] interpreting their care . . . I would like [her] to try to reevaluate her process with patient care and try to make sure that patients are not feeling rushed.” (Id.). Weber signed the performance evaluation form, acknowledging its assessment. (Doc. 47).

         In early August 2009, the CMC management received in rapid succession three separate complaints from patients about Weber. CMC alleges that these three incidents prompted Weber's eventual discharge from her post, but Weber disputes this and challenges some of the factual circumstances surrounding the alleged incidents. (Doc. 52). On August 4, 2009, the adult daughter of an elderly patient submitted the first complaint, asserting that the CT scan technician who had assisted her father pulled a strip of medical tape off the patient's forehead with enough force to cause him pain and leave a red mark across his head. (Doc. 47-9). Further investigation into this incident revealed that both Weber and another CT scan technician, Gretchen Gabriel, had assisted with this patient's CT scan on the evening in question. (Doc. 47; Doc. 52). Factual disputes thus remain regarding whether it was Weber or Gabriel who actually removed the tape from the patient's forehead. (Doc. 47-11; Doc. 52-5).

         One day later on August 5, 2009, CMC received a second complaint from a trauma patient who had been in a motorcycle accident, alleging that an unspecified CT scan technician “was rough in moving” him, was “rude” and “mean” to him, and “lacked compassion.” (Doc. 47-13; Doc. 47-15). CMC's records indicated that only Weber was scheduled to work in the CT department on the evening when this particular patient was seen, but Weber rebuts this with her own testimony, asserting that another CT scan technician, Stephanie Danchak, had assisted her with this patient's CT scan. (Doc. 52-5). Weber further testified that the “combative” patient was initially “flailing his arms and . . . punching the machine” but ultimately calmed down and cooperated with the procedure. (Id.). While Danchak's own testimony largely corroborates Weber's version of these events, disputes of material fact nonetheless remain on the question of whether Weber acted improperly toward this patient. (Doc. 52-19).

         The next day on August 6, 2009, Weber approached Debbie Powell, a human resources analyst at CMC, for information on whether CMC's employee medical insurance would cover the cost of medications for Weber's ailments. (Doc. 1). Powell's direct supervisor was Wolfe, who was also one of the decision-makers in Weber's eventual termination. (Id.).

         On August 8, 2009, while CMC was still investigating the first two patient complaints against Weber, the hospital received a third complaint from the daughter of a patient who believed that Weber had coerced her into signing a medical consent form for her mentally incapacitated father. (Doc. 47; Doc. 52). She explained that she “felt bullied” into signing the form, especially after Weber purportedly told her to “[j]ust sign the consent!” (Doc. 47-17). Weber suggests that she was simply trying to “reduce” the essential facts surrounding the consent form to the “simplest terms” because the patient's daughter did not “seem to understand” much of what was being said. (Doc. 52-5).

         Shortly thereafter, Bonczek met with Wolfe and Bossi to review the three complaints lodged against Weber, and collectively, the CMC management decided to terminate Weber's employment. (Doc. 47; Doc. 52). The reasons for their decision were summarized in a written notice dated August 26, 2009, which claimed that Weber's “unprofessional, aggressive behavior” was “detrimental to . . . the health care system, ” a “safety risk to . . . patients, ” and a “serious violation of [CMC's] Code of Conduct.”[2] (Doc. 47). Weber's discharge was made effective on August 29, 2009. (Id.).

         Weber maintains that CMC's stated reasons for her termination were a mere pretext for unlawful discrimination based on her age and disability. (Doc. 52). On February 11, 2010, Weber filed timely administrative charges of discrimination with both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”). (Doc. 1). On August 15, 2011, the PHRC issued a finding of “no probable cause” for Weber to pursue remedies against CMC. (Doc. 47). On December 19, 2011, however, the EEOC issued a “Notice of Right to Sue.” (Doc. 1).

         On March 1, 2012, Weber filed the instant action against CMC, bringing both federal and state claims for relief: Count I for alleged discrimination based on age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §623(a); Count II for alleged discrimination based on disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §12112(a); Count III for alleged discrimination based on age in violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. §955(a); and Count IV for alleged discrimination based on disability in violation of the PHRA, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. §955(a). (Id.). On May 8, 2012, CMC filed its answer, (Doc. 7), to the alleged claims for relief. The parties then engaged in fact discovery, and on November 7, 2016, CMC moved for summary judgment as to all counts in Weber's complaint, arguing that CMC is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Weber has failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that her termination resulted from unlawful discrimination. (Doc. 45; Doc. 46). On December 15, 2016, Weber filed her brief in opposition to CMC's summary judgment motion. (Doc. 53). On January 13, 2017, CMC filed a reply brief. (Doc. 56). This matter has been fully briefed and is now ripe for summary judgment.

         II. SUMMARY ...

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