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Holley v. United Methodist Homes, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 15, 2018

SHARON E. HOLLEY, Plaintiff
v.
UNITED METHODIST HOMES, INC., a/k/a UNITED METHODIST HOMES FOR THE AGING, Defendant

          Mariani, Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Martin C. Carlson, United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This is a civil action brought by Sharon Holley against her former employer, United Methodist Homes, Inc., alleging that the defendant unlawfully terminated her employment because of her age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 623 et seq. The defendant maintains that the plaintiff was terminated not because of her age but because of a string of violations related to the handling of resident medication that occurred in the spring and summer of 2015. The defendant further argues that there is insufficient evidence in the record to show either that age was the “but for” reason the plaintiff was fired, or to suggest that the defendant's proffered reason for terminating her employment was pretextual or cover for invidious age-based discrimination. Following the close of discovery, the defendant has moved for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that the motion be granted and the case closed.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Sharon Holley was born in 1955. (Holley Dep. at 16:20-21.) She began her employment with United Methodist Homes (UMH) in 2008 at the company's facility in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, where she was hired to work as an LPN. (Def. SMF ¶ 4.) In December 2013, she was promoted to be the facility's Director of Nursing. (Id. ¶ 5.) In this role the plaintiff was responsible for monitoring resident medication and administration systems, among other duties. (Id. ¶ 6.) As the Director of Nursing the plaintiff was responsible for monitoring campus compliance with regulations, laws, UMH policies and procedures, and codes of conduct, and for reporting any potential violations immediately. (Id. ¶ 7.) The plaintiff was also responsible for following all established UMH policies and procedures. (Id. ¶ 8.)

         Although the plaintiff at times seems to dispute whether she was counseled or disciplined during the course of her employment, it is clear that in 2014 she was put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and in 2015 was subject to discipline multiple times leading up to her termination. For example, on June 26, 2014, the plaintiff was placed on a PIP that noted, among other things, that the plaintiff was “responsible for ensuring that all residents within the facility are receiving the care necessary to maintain them at their highest levels. This means that proper notification and documentation of resident conditions are necessary.” (Doc. 13, Ex. D.) Other areas of concern that were specifically identified in the PIP include effective communication with staff, the ability to reprimand staff members when appropriate, the ability to take charge of the facility as necessary, and proper documentation and communication regarding resident issues. (Id.)

         In addition, due to a variety of issues identified during an internal audit, UMH issued a goal-setting chart that noted areas where improvement was needed with respect to the management of the facility, including the handling of controlled substances, medication errors, failure to attach physical monitors to appropriate medications, issues with discharged resident chart completion, the scanning and saving of doctor's orders, and ensuring expiration dates were present on all patient medications. (Def. SMF ¶ 22.) The plaintiff, who agrees she bore supervisory authority in these areas, signed this goal-setting chart on July 21, 2014. (Def. SMF ¶ 23.)

         The parties also agree that as part of her job duties, the plaintiff was responsible for compliance oversight and the proper documentation and administration of residents' medications. (Doc. 13, Ex. C; Def. SMF ¶ 17.) Ultimately, multiple shortcomings in this area provide the defendant's asserted reason for terminating the plaintiff's employment.

         In 2015, the plaintiff contends that her employment relationship materially changed with the hire of Annette Chickey, who became her immediate supervisor. (Compl. ¶12.) Shortly after Ms. Chickey came on board, the plaintiff contends that her job title was changed from Director of Nursing to Nursing Supervisor, and she further contends that she was assigned additional floor duties on top of her administrative obligations, and states that some of the her responsibilities changed. (Holley Dep. at 13:6-14:1.) When asked to describe what else changed, the plaintiff testified that she felt uneasy working with Ms. Chickey and, by way of explanation, said that Ms. Chickey was “scrutinizing my every move and [was] just making things difficult for me.” (Holley Dep. at 31:19-20.) These are the only things that the plaintiff claims changed with respect to her job duties after Ms. Chickey was hired, and the plaintiff concedes that she did not complain to anyone about how she felt under Ms. Chickey's supervision. (Id. at 32:2-7.)

         On May 22, 2015, Ms. Chickey issued a disciplinary write-up to the plaintiff for her failure to follow up on a doctor's orders regarding the administration of a resident's medication, which led to the patient receiving medication for five extra days after the medication had been discontinued. (Def. SMF ¶ 26; Doc. 13, Ex. I.) Ms. Chickey advised the plaintiff that she deemed the plaintiff's failure to document and administer resident medication unacceptable, and that she expected similar misconduct would not be repeated. (Def. SMF ¶ 27; Doc. 13, Ex. M ¶12.) The plaintiff signed this written warning. (Doc. 13, Ex. M.)

         On June 8, 2015, the plaintiff received another disciplinary write-up from Ms. Chickey relating to a failure to follow through with completion of a new resident's admission, at which time the plaintiff had left the new resident's medication on the counter of the nursing station for other staff members to log and store. (Def. SMF ¶ 28; Doc. 13, Ex. J.) The plaintiff explains this event by noting that while she did hold supervisory responsibility in this area, she had delegated the task of reconciling the medication labels and the medication orders to another nurse. (Pl. Response to Def. SMF ¶ 28.) Moreover, the plaintiff asserts that the mix-up was not her fault because the medication bottle was empty, and had been left out so that a refill could be obtained, which a physician over whom the plaintiff had no supervisory authority failed to do timely. (Id.) According to the plaintiff, she “did everything in her power to get the medication refilled for the patient.” (Id.) Nevertheless, there seems to be no dispute that the new resident's medication ultimately was misplaced and was either lost or was otherwise missing, and that this was an area that ultimately fell to the plaintiff as the responsible supervisory employee. (Def. SMF ¶ 29; Pl. Response to Def SMF ¶ 29.)

         The June 8 write-up was designated as a “Second Written Warning, ” and the plaintiff was advised that any further performance deficiencies of the nature described in the warning would be grounds for termination. (Doc. 13, Ex. J; Doc. 13, Ex. B, Dep. of Sharon E. Holley at 43:2-9.)

         Finally, on August 19, 2015, the plaintiff received what would be her final disciplinary write-up for (i) failing to report a medication episode to the facility Administrator; (ii) failing to follow through with respect to the new resident admission process, again leaving this for other staff to complete; and (iii) failing to organize medications, causing medication to “disappear.” (Doc. 13, Ex. K.) The plaintiff has an explanation for this incident as well, although in her explanation she seems to agree that medication ultimately did go missing, though she once again attributed the charged oversight to the failure of other subordinate staff. (Pl. Response to Def. SMF ¶ 32.) As a result of this incident, the new resident's family complained and expressed concern about her care, and there is no dispute that the resident did not receive an appropriate dose of medication at the appropriate time. (Id.) Following this last violation of UMH policies and Ms. Chickey's written warnings, Ms. Chickey terminated the plaintiff's employment, citing as reasons performance deficiencies in the area of medication administration and documentation. (Doc. 13, Ex. M ¶ 27.)

         When asked whether she knew of any other UMH employee who had not been terminated after making more than one error with respect to resident medication administration, the plaintiff conceded that she did not. (Holley Dep. at 49:18-23.) Nevertheless, the plaintiff believes that the real reason she was terminated is that she was 60 years old at the time she was fired, and because she was replaced by a younger person named Michelle Masemierski.[1] (Id. 46:2-26; 47:1-14.) The plaintiff also claims that she is aware of two other employees who were discriminated against on the basis of their age, although the evidence on this score is both murky and limited. One of these employees, Nancy Rowker, was terminated for what UMH has consistently maintained was abuse of a resident. (Def. SMF ¶ 43.) Ms. Rowker also filed a federal lawsuit in this Court alleging age-based discrimination, but that lawsuit has since been dismissed after the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of UMH. (Holley Dep. at 48:16-23; Civil Action No. 3:16-CV-2174 (M.D. Pa.) (Doc. 17.)

         The second individual allegedly discriminated against on the basis of age is identified only as “Joanne, ” and there is no evidence in the record as to her age or the reason she was terminated, and the only information that has been made available is that “Joanne” worked as a day-shift aide, and thus held an employment position substantially different from the plaintiff. (Holley Dep. at 49:11-17; Def. SMF ¶¶ 45-46.) The plaintiff conceded that several older employees remained employed with UMH, though during her deposition the plaintiff claims Ms. Chickey told her that she was going to terminate them as well. (Def. SMF ¶ 47; Holley Dep. 48:8-12.) The record is scant as to the identities of these employees, what positions they may have held, and whether they do, in fact, remain employed by the defendant.

         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 ...


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