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O'Brien v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 27, 2019

NILDA O'BRIEN, Plaintiff,
LEHIGH VALLEY HEALTH NETWORK, INC., d/b/a Lehigh Valley Hospital; and LEHIGH VALLEY HOSPITAL, INC., d/b/a LVHN - Muhlenberg, Defendants.


          Joseph F. Leeson, Jr., United States District Judge


         Plaintiff Nilda O'Brien asserts two claims that arose after she was discharged from her position with Defendants Lehigh Valley Health Network and Lehigh Valley Hospital (collectively, “LVHN”). First, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she alleges discrimination, retaliation, failure to accommodate, and creation of a hostile work environment. Second, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), O'Brien alleges interference with and retaliation for her attempt to invoke her right to medical leave. LVHN moves to dismiss O'Brien's FMLA claims of interference and retaliation pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss is granted in part and denied in part.

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         O'Brien was employed by LVHN as a Technical Partner beginning in May 2017. Her responsibilities included assisting patients with the bathroom, emptying catheters, feeding, drawing blood, and diagnostic studies of patients. During her employment at LVHN, O'Brien suffered from Crohn's Disease, among other health conditions.

         In June 2017, shortly after starting, O'Brien notified her supervisors at LVHN of her condition and the need for intermittent time off from work due to Crohn's Disease, which occasionally limited her ability to work or required hospitalization.[2] O'Brien requested intermittent leave under the FMLA in June 2017, September or October 2017, November 2017, and in early 2018. Each of these requests were denied, and O'Brien was notified that she was not yet eligible for FMLA leave at those times. O'Brien also notified LVHN of her intent to take intermittent leave when she became eligible for FMLA benefits in May 2018.

         Because of her medical condition, O'Brien was periodically absent from work. In the amended complaint, she explains how from October 2017 to January 2018, on four occasions her medical condition caused her to miss work. Though these instances of absenteeism were related to her medical condition, LVHN still issued “occurrences, ” a form of employee discipline, and “formally” disciplined her three times.

         In the beginning of March 2018, O'Brien complained to her supervisor about what she perceived to be discriminatory treatment over the absenteeism caused by her medical condition and asked that it stop. Further, O'Brien threatened to escalate her complaints of disability discrimination to other managers at LVHN if the alleged discriminatory treatment did not stop. Two days later, O'Brien was terminated from her employment at LVHN. LVHN notified her that she was terminated because she failed to properly assist a patient. O'Brien alleges she was actually terminated due to her disability and because of her requests for intermittent leave under the FMLA.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a court to dismiss a complaint for its “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The Rules generally demand “only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 786 (3d Cir. 2016) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal quotations omitted)).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). In rendering a decision on a motion to dismiss, this Court must “accept all factual allegations as true [and] construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 233 (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002) (internal quotations omitted)). Only if “the ‘[f]actual allegations . . . raise a right to relief above the speculative level'” has the plaintiff stated a plausible claim. Id. at 234 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Id. (explaining that determining “whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense”). The defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that a plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Congress passed the FMLA in 1993 to help employees balance workplace demands with their own family and medical needs. 29 U.S.C. § 2601(b). The FMLA entitles eligible employees to up to twelve weeks of leave in connection with a serious medical condition. Id. § 2612(a)(1)(D). The FMLA contains two provisions intended to protect the rights provided in the statute. First, employers may not interfere with or deny attempts to exercise rights provided by the FMLA. Id. § 2615(a)(1). This is known as the interference provision. Second, employers may not “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against” an employee who has invoked his or her right to FMLA leave. Id. § 2615(a)(2). This is known as the retaliation provision. O'Brien asserts claims under both protective provisions. Each claim will be discussed in two parts, separately assessing the claim as it relates to the periods before and after O'Brien would have become eligible.

         A. LVHN's motion to dismiss O'Brien's FMLA interference claim

         To state a claim for interference under the FMLA, the plaintiff must allege that: (1) the employee was eligible; (2) the employer was subject to FMLA requirements; (3) the employee was entitled to FMLA leave; (4) the employee provided notice of their intent to take FMLA leave; and (5) the employee was denied benefits. Ross v. Gilhuly, 755 F.3d 185, 191-92 (3d Cir. 2014).

         LVHN argues that O'Brien's FMLA interference claim must fail because she was not eligible for FMLA leave at any time when she requested it. O'Brien responds that employers may be liable for FMLA interference when ...

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