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Nagle v. Comprehensive Women's Health Services, P.C.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 19, 2018

JUDITH NAGLE, Plaintiff
v.
COMPREHENSIVE WOMEN'S HEALTH SERVICES, P.C., Defendant

          MARIANI JUDGE

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         The plaintiff, Judith Nagle, brought this action against her former employer, Comprehensive Women's Health Services, alleging that the medical services provider violated her rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 623 et seq. (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. (ADA) when it terminated her employment in June 2014. Ms. Nagle, who worked in a managerial capacity for the defendant for more than two decades before she was fired at age 53, also alleges that the defendant violated Pennsylvania's Wage Payment and Collection Law, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 260.1 et seq. (WPCL) by refusing to pay her for hundreds of hours of annual and sick leave that she claims to have accrued and rolled over during the course of her many years of employment pursuant to practice custom and practice.

         Following fact discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff's claims. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition, and has been referred to the undersigned for purposes of preparing a report and recommendation. Following review of the briefs and the evidence the parties submitted, it will be recommended that the defendant's motion be denied because disputed issues of material facts are manifold in the record and make summary judgment unwarranted.

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         Judith Nagle was hired by the defendant on July 19, 1993, and was terminated from her employment on June 12, 2014. She thus worked for Comprehensive Women's Health Services for nearly 21 years. During her employment, Nagle served as the practice's “Office Manager, ” the only position she held during the term of her employment. (Nagle Dep. 24:10-25:17.) Ms. Nagle testified that over the course of her employment with the defendant, her duties and responsibilities grew significantly, along with the growth of the practice from 2 employees in 1993 to nearly 50 employees by the time of her termination. (Id. at 28:13-22; 24:5-9; and 104:4-18.)

         During the early period of her employment, Ms. Nagle oversaw the front desk, telephones, handled scheduling of follow-up appointments, submitted claims to insurance, handled precertification of surgical services, and was responsible for other general office administrative matters. (Nagle Dep. at 27:14-28:3.) Several years into her employment, Ms. Nagle became responsible for handling accounts receivable, payroll, and human resources matters. (Id. at 28:20-29:21.) Ms. Nagle also assisted the practice by advertising for open jobs, reviewing applications and interviewing applicants, and was involved in hiring new staff, as well as processing unemployment paperwork for separated employees. (Nagle Dep. at 30:6-33:13.) Near the end of her tenure with the practice, Ms. Nagle testified that she was essentially responsible for supervising all staff and overseeing the practices overall business operations. (Nagle Dep. at 30:6-33:13.)

         The growth of the practice, and the expansion of Ms. Nagle's responsibilities for managing a growing office, among other factors, led to a restructuring that occurred between November 2013 and January 2014. This restructuring was, in part, taken because it was determined that Ms. Nagle was performing too many job responsibilities and needed help to alleviate what had become a substantial burden on a single manager. (Nagle Dep. at 56:5-15; 78:12-13; 89:12-90:7; Krewson Dep. at 59:2-13; 62:12-23.) According to Ms. Nagle, she initially welcomed the restructuring but soon feared that she was the employee who was likely to be pushed out as part of a plan to distribute her job duties among other, younger, and less experienced staff. (Nagle Dep. at 184:21-185:13.)

         Prior to the reorganization, managerial administrative office functions were handled by two management employees, Ms. Nagle and Regina Tutko, the Assistant Office Manager and Operations Manager. (Doc. 28, Ex. 3, Certification of Regina Tutko, ¶ 7(B).) Ms. Nagle and Ms. Tutko worked together for approximately 13 years in this shared managerial role. Ms. Tutko left the practice in late 2013, thus making the need for a restructuring of office responsibilities more apparent. One of the principal physicians in the practice, Dr. Zimmerman, brought his wife, Lisa Zimmerman, in to assist with the restructuring.

         Prior to the office reorganization, Ms. Nagle handled all human resources job functions for the practice. (Nagle Dep. at 28:20-29:12-21; 30:6-33.) As part of the restructuring, the defendant hired Meredith Boris to take on human resources jobs, thus removing these tasks from Ms. Nagle's direct responsibility. Ms. Boris was hired in September 2013. (Id. at 56:15-57:19; 82:19-21; Doc. 28, Ex. 1, at ¶ 7(C).)

         The practice also hired Becky Jacoby to be the new Finance or Billing Manager. (Nagle Dep. at 58:20-59:2.) Prior to Jacoby's hiring, Ms. Nagle handled all billing matters, and oversaw several employees in this administrative department; after Jacoby was brought on all management and billing matters were transferred to Jacoby. Ms. Jacoby was hired on November 4, 2013. (Doc. 28, Ex. 1, at ¶ 7(C).)

         A third new employee, Adrienne Schreffler was hired and put in a new management role within the bookkeeping department. In this newly created position, Ms. Schreffler took over job duties that were once handled by Ms. Nagle, including payables, daily deposits, and corresponding with physicians, in addition to other bookkeeping matters. (Nagle Dep. at 80:7-20.) Ms. Schreffler was hired on November 1, 2013. (Doc. 28, Ex. 1, at ¶ 7(C).)

         There is no dispute that each of the new hires brought on in the fall of 2013 were substantially younger than Ms. Nagle. Ms. Boris is 22 years younger, Ms. Jacoby is 12 years younger, and Ms. Schreffler is 11 years younger. In addition to their age differences, Ms. Nagle has attested that each of the new employees was less qualified than she with respect to each of their duties. Ms. Boris was hired to be in charge of the Human Resources department, but had no prior experience in this area, had not worked in a medical office before, and was previously working as a swimming coach. (Boris Dep. at 13:10-17; 12:21-13:2.) Ms. Nagle also points to evidence that could show that Ms. Boris was regarded by a number of other staff members as lacking the knowledge necessary to perform her new job functions. (Doc. 28, Ex. 3, Certification of Regina Tutko at ¶ 5; Ex. 11, Certification of Roxanne Hoffman at ¶9.)

         Likewise, Ms. Nagle asserts that Ms. Schreffler had only minimal experience handling bookkeeping and accounting matters, having done some limited bookkeeping for a hair salon and previously coordinating inventory in a clothing store. (Schreffler Dep. at 9:17-11:5.) It appears she may have been looking for a front-end office job, but was nevertheless hired for more of a managerial role by Dr. Zimmerman because he knew her from a school their children mutually attended. (Id. at 11:18-12:15.)

         Ms. Nagle has attested that following this office restructuring, and the redistribution of many of her responsibilities to other less experienced individuals, she also began experiencing persistent mistreatment in the office. (Nagle Dep. at 157-158.) She claims that she attempted to raise concerns with Drs. Zimmerman and Krewson many times about the new arrangement and the way she was being treated, and the fact that the new staff were now only reporting to the physicians and not to her, as she had initially been told they would. (Nagle Dep. at 182:3-17; 186:2-6.) Ms. Nagle also reports that she was moved out of her office and into a remote location in the office, leading to the impression that she and others shared that the physicians intended to push her out of the practice and have her responsibilities redistributed among younger employees. (Doc. 28-2 at ¶ 21.)

         Ms. Nagle's suspicions were further piqued by two age-related comments that were either directed at her personally or were otherwise made in her presence during the period following the restructuring. Thus, on January 20, 2014, while reviewing financial documents with Dr. Zimmerman, he told her directly “you're getting old.” (Nagle Dep. at 164:3-11; 165:13-15.) Just two months later, in March 2014, Dr. Krewson was overheard saying that he wanted a “young” staff, something that Ms. Nagle took to be a reference to her. Accordingly, whatever the meaning behind each of these statements, Ms. Nagle overheard them within a short period of time that overlapped with the restructuring of the medical practice, the transfer of many of Ms. Nagle's work to new, younger, and less experienced employees, and a growing sense that the restructuring had really become an effort to marginalize Ms. Nagle and push her out.

         Around this same time, Ms. Nagle began experiencing heightened anxiety and started treating with a psychologist after getting a referral from Dr. Krewson. (Krewson Dep. at 50:13-51:5; Nagle Dep. at 176:11-21.) She also began taking medication prescribed by a Nurse Practitioner to help address her feelings of anxiety. Nevertheless, Ms. Nagle began experiencing physical manifestations of her anxiety, including uncontrollable vomiting, hyperventilation, and shaking. (Nagle Dep. at 172:19-173:8.) Ms. Nagle specifically brought these matters to the attention of Drs. Zimmerman and Krewson, and tied her anxiety to the mistreatment she believed she was experiencing. (Id. at 164:1-23; 203:1-10.)

         Ms. Nagle's anxiety and resultant physical impairments continued, and on May 16, 2014, while at work, she suffered a panic attack that Dr. Zimmerman witnessed. (Nagle Dep. at 147:9-18; 199:23-200:9; Boris Dep. at 5:14-17.) Afterward, Ms. Nagle informed Dr. Zimmerman that she was going to see her psychologist and her Nurse Practitioner, and left work early that day. (Id. and 203:11-17.) Days later, Ms. Nagle told the doctors that her prescription for Zoloft had been increased and that she had also been prescribed Lorazepam, an anxiety medication. (Nagle Dep. at 203:18-24.)

         Around this same time, Ms. Nagle presented Drs. Zimmerman and Krewson with a note from a Nurse Practitioner with whom she had been treating, putting Ms. Nagle on a five-day medical leave from May 16, 2014, through May 23, 2014. (Doc. 28, Ex. 6, Medical Note.) Notably, during the week that she was to be off of work Ms. Nagle met with both Drs. Zimmerman and Krewson to complain about her feelings that she was being mistreated at work. Following this meeting, the doctors informed Ms. Nagle that they were eliminating her job, and were considering other positions for her within the practice, with a likely pay decrease. (Nagle Dep. at 213:1-214:3-21; Zimmerman Dep. at 69:21-70:23.) Dr. Krewson advised Ms. Nagle to take some time off of work and decide whether she would be willing to work in a reduced role. This time away from work thus spanned Ms. Nagle's medical leave and a pre-planned vacation that had been approved through June 6, 2014. (Nagle Dep. at 214:22-25.) It appears that at Dr. Krewson's suggestion, Ms. Nagle's vacation was extended through June 12, 2014. During this time, Ms. Nagle had no contact with any management at the practice. (Nagle Dep. at 217-218.)

         At the conclusion of her vacation, on June 12, 2014, Ms. Nagle was informed that her employment with the practice was being terminated. (Doc. 28-2 ¶37.) At this meeting, Drs. Zimmerman and Krewson, along with Ms. Boris, presented Ms. Nagle with a list of issues that the practice cited as reasons justifying her firing. According to Nagle, nobody at this meeting elaborated on any of the issues other than to present her with the list. (Nagle Dep. at 222:7-21.) Ms. Boris confirmed that the only individuals who decided to terminate Ms. Nagle's employment were Drs. Zimmerman and Krewson. (Boris Dep. at 42:12-14.)

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, a court must determine “whether the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and whether the moving party is therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Macfarlan v. Ivy Hill SNF, LLC., 675 F.3d 266, 271 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). A disputed issue is only “genuine” if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis upon which a reasonable factfinder could find for the non-moving party. Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A factual dispute is “material” only if it could affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Doe v. Luzerne Cnty., 660 F.3d 169, 175 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Gray v. York Papers, Inc., 957 F.2d 1070, 1078 (3d Cir. 1992)). The Court is not tasked with resolving disputed issues of fact, but only with determining whether there exist any factual issues that must be tried. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-49.

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Macfarlan, 675 F.3d at 271; Bouriez v. Carnegie Mellon Univ., 585 F.3d 765, 770 (3d Cir. 2009). Where there exist factual issues that cannot be resolved without a credibility determination, the court must credit the non-moving party's evidence over that presented by the moving party. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. However, if there is no factual issue presented, and if only one reasonable conclusion could arise from the record with respect to the potential outcome under the governing law, the court must award summary judgment in favor of the moving party. Id. at 250.

         The court must review the entire record, but in doing so must take care to “disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000). The task for the court is to examine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so onesided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 251-52.

         Furthermore, in cases involving allegations of employment discrimination, such as this one, the foregoing standard of review is applied with special care because the intent and credibility of parties are typically crucial. Conneen v. MBNA Am. Bank, N.A., 334 F.3d 318, 325 n.9 (3d Cir. 2003); see also Doe v C.A.R.S. Prot. Plus, 527 F.3d 358, 369 (3d Cir. 2008) (observing that “summary judgment is to be used sparingly in employment discrimination cases”). In undertaking this review, the Court avoids making credibility determinations and does not weigh the evidence, and instead must take care to accept as true the non- movant's evidence and draw all inferences in his favor. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255; see also Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Age Discrimination

         The ADEA prohibits employers from taking adverse employment action against an employee who is at least 40 years old, 29 U.S.C. § 631(a), “because of such individual's age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a). A plaintiff alleging that she was subjected to adverse employment action, such as a termination, in violation of the Act must show that her “age was the ‘but-for' cause of the employer's adverse action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 177 (2009). It is not enough for a plaintiff to show that her age was a factor that motivated the employer's action, but instead must point to evidence that could support an inference that her age had a “determinative influence” on the decision. Id. at 176. This burden remains squarely with the plaintiff, who may prove her claims through direct or circumstantial evidence. Id. at 177.

         Prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Gross, the Third Circuit had instructed that direct evidence of age discrimination meant “evidence sufficient to allow the jury to find that ‘the “decision makers placed substantial negative reliance on [the plaintiff's age] in reaching their decision to fire him.'” Fakete v. Aetna, Inc., 308 F.3d 335, 338 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Connors v. Chrysler Fin. Corp., 160 F.3d 971, 976 (3d Cir. 1998)). Gross fundamentally changed this and now it is clear that “ ‘substantial negative reliance' on age is not enough [to prove discrimination in violation of the ADEA]; the evidence must be a sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to conclude that age was the determinative, but-for cause of the employee's termination.” Palmer v. Britton Industries, Inc., 662 Fed.Appx. 147, 151 (3d Cir. Nov. 7, 2016).

         Although a plaintiff may seek to prove her claim of age discrimination with direct evidence, such evidence is often unavailable and courts permit proof of age discrimination to be made through circumstantial evidence. When a plaintiff relies on a circumstantial evidence, courts apply the familiar burden-shifting framework announced in McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). The Third Circuit has explained application of McDonnell Douglas in the context of ADEA discrimination claims as follows:

Under McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof and the initial burden of production, having to demonstrate a prima facie case of discrimination by showing first, that the plaintiff is forty years of age or older; second, that the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff; third, that the plaintiff was qualified for the position in question; and fourth, that the plaintiff was ultimately replaced by another employee who was sufficiently younger to support an inference of discriminatory animus. Once the plaintiff satisfies these elements, the burden of production shifts to the employer to identify a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer does so, the burden of production returns to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the employer's proffered rationale was a pretext for age discrimination. At all times, however, the burden of persuasion rests with the plaintiff.

Smith v. City of Allentown, 589 F.3d 684, 689 (3d Cir. 2009) (citations omitted); see also Id. at 691 (holding that this standard does not ...


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