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Wright v. Providence Care Center, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 24, 2019

SHAWANA WRIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
PROVIDENCE CARE CENTER, LLC and BEAVER VALLEY ASSOCIATES, LLC, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          J. Nicholas Ranjan United States District Judge

         Defendants Providence Care Center, LLC and Beaver Valley Associates, LLC have moved for summary judgment [ECF 65] on Plaintiff Shawana Wright’s various discrimination-based claims. Providence terminated Ms. Wright shortly following her involvement in a heated altercation with a co-worker. The altercation was witnessed by multiple employees, each of whom submitted witness statements. Those statements served as the substantial basis for Providence’s determination that Ms. Wright had engaged in “very serious misconduct” in violation of its established policies. Providence then promptly terminated both Ms. Wright and the other employee involved in the altercation.

         Ms. Wright claims that Providence’s decision to terminate her based on her involvement in the altercation was pretextual. Ms. Wright argues that she was actually terminated due to her various disabilities and in retaliation for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”). She further claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment while at Providence. Based on these core allegations, Ms. Wright asserts violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (the “PHRA”).

         None of the evidence offered by Ms. Wright creates a genuine dispute of material fact or otherwise casts doubt on the undisputed fact that her involvement in the altercation was a serious violation of Providence’s established code of conduct and, thus, a legitimate reason for firing her. The intervening event of the altercation also renders untenable Ms. Wright’s efforts to connect her termination to any protected activity she may have engaged in beforehand. Therefore, the Court will grant Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

         I.FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Ms. Wright’s Employment with Providence.

         Ms. Wright is an African-American woman who was employed at Providence for 13 years as a Licensed Practical Nurse (“LPN”) until her termination on September 27, 2016. [ECF 67, at ¶ 1]. Providence is a rehabilitation and skilled nursing facility with 180 beds located at 900 Third Avenue, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania 15010. [Id. at ¶ 2].

         During her employment, including at the time of her termination, Ms. Wright reported to a number of different supervisors. [Id. at ¶ 3]. In September 2016, Bernadette Mehno was the Director of Nursing at Providence [Id. at ¶ 4], Bobbye Lutz was the Resident Nurse supervisor [id. at ¶ 5], and Raymond DeMarco was the Administrator [id. at ¶ 6]. The chain of command was as follows: Ms. Lutz reported to Ms. Mehno who, in turn, reported to Mr. DeMarco. [Id. at ¶ 7].

         Until the altercation, the parties agree that Ms. Wright was a “fine nurse” and received positive performance evaluations between 2003 and 2014. [ECF 75, at ¶ 16].

         B. Ms. Wright’s Disability and Alleged Poor Treatment.

         Ms. Wright alleges she is disabled because she suffers from allergic asthma, Oral Allergy Syndrome, migraines, depression, and anxiety. [ECF 67, at ¶ 8]. On July 23, 2015, Ms. Wright provided documentation to Providence from her physician regarding her Oral Allergy Syndrome, which causes her to have sensitivity to certain fruits, vegetables, and latex. [Id. at ¶ 12]. Her physician requested that raw bananas not be served to Ms. Wright’s clients while Ms. Wright was in attendance. [Id. at ¶ 13]. According to Providence, it offered a proposed accommodation of switching Ms. Wright to the overnight shift, which she rejected. [Id. at ¶¶ 14-15]. However, Ms. Wright’s direct supervisor, Ms. Lutz, also testified that no one at Providence had an “interactive dialogue” with Ms. Wright about potential accommodations that could be made for Ms. Wright. [ECF 75, at ¶ 28].

         Ms. Wright also asked that latex balloons not be brought near her work area and that she be given time off to deal with disability “flare-ups.” [Id. at ¶¶ 22-23]. Ms. Wright claims that latex balloons were used to celebrate the “employee of the month” despite management’s knowledge of her latex allergy, which caused her to be sick at work. [Id. at ¶ 33]. No specific details regarding these events was provided by Ms. Wright, nor were they corroborated by other witnesses. [Id. at ¶¶ 33-34].

         Ms. Wright further claims that Ms. Lutz “treated her poorly” beginning in 2015. [Id. at ¶ 36]. She claims Ms. Lutz: gave her unwarranted discipline [id. at ¶¶ 38, 53]; gave her a performance evaluation that was worse than she believed she deserved [id. at ¶ 42]; transferred her to a less desirable unit and then transferred her back [id. at ¶¶ 43-49]; called her to be “pulled” from her floor after being reinstated [id. at ¶ 50]; spoke to her in a rude and condescending manner [id. at ¶¶ 58-59]; and ignored her [id. at ¶ 58].

         C. Ms. Wright’s FMLA Leave and Return to Work.

         In March 2016, Ms. Wright provided documentation to Providence from her physician for other conditions, including migraines, depression, and anxiety. [ECF 67, at ¶ 16]. This documentation stated that Ms. Wright is “unable to perform any job function during flare-up due to multiple symptoms arising from diagnosis.” [Id.]. As a result, Ms. Wright exercised her rights under the FMLA and was away from work from March 17, 2016 through July 11, 2016. [Id. at ¶ 18]. According to Ms. Wright, while on leave, Ms. Lutz repeatedly called her, asked her to submit to certain medical testing, and encouraged her to return to work early. [ECF 75, at ¶¶ 65-68].

         On May 6, 2016, Ms. Lutz wrote an email expressing a preference that only two of five employees then out on FMLA leave would return. [Id. at ¶ 81]. Ms. Wright infers that Ms. Lutz was “speaking in code to her own management that there was no desire for Wright to return to work” without citing any evidence of record to support that inference. [Id.]

         On July 11, 2016, Ms. Wright returned to work without any restrictions. [ECF 67, at ¶ 21]. Ms. Wright claims that Ms. Lutz had a “bushel of bananas” delivered to the nurses’ station the day that she returned from FMLA leave. [Id. at ¶ 69]. The bananas were immediately removed. [ECF 75, at ¶ 70]. That same day, Ms. Wright claims Ms. Lutz told her “she did not believe [Ms. Wright] was able to work and should instead go out on Social Security Disability.” [Id. at ¶ 76]. Ms. Wright’s testimony is somewhat vague regarding this alleged statement. For example, Ms. Wright states that she cannot “recall exactly” whether Ms. Lutz even used the terms “quit” or “resign” in the context of the statement. [ECF 75-7, at ¶ 4].

         D. The Altercation.

         On September 23, 2016, Wright admits that she got into a verbal altercation with a co-worker named Debra Sawyer. [ECF 67, at ¶¶ 31-32, 36]. Ms. Sawyer is not disabled. Several employees either witnessed or heard the altercation and provided written statements. [Id. at ¶ 35]. By some accounts, Ms. Wright’s yelling could be heard from another floor. [Id. at ¶ 34]. One witness said Ms. Wright had to be separated from Ms. Sawyer. [Id.]. Providence’s management admitted that Ms. Wright “never struck anyone, never verbally threatened anyone, and never used any profane language.” [ECF 75, at ¶ 89].

         The Providence Care Center Employee Handbook (“PCC Handbook”) “establishes work rules for each employee to follow.” [ECF 67, at ¶ 22]. The PCC Handbook provides that:

All employees are expected to conduct themselves in a dignified manner and to observe the basic rules of good conduct while working for [Providence]. These rules involve the exercise of common sense and appropriate conduct in dealing with a supervisor, fellow employees, and residents. Employees are expected to follow instructions and do the work assigned.

[Id. at ¶ 24]. The PCC Handbook lists examples of general misconduct, “serious misconduct, ” and “very serious misconduct.” [Id. at ¶ 25]. The PCC Handbook characterizes “fighting, assault or any other disorderly conduct” as very serious conduct. [Id. at ¶ 26]. The “first offense of … very serious misconduct” may result in discharge. [Id. at ¶ 27].

         Ms. Wright conceded that her altercation constituted “disorderly conduct” in violation of Providence’s policies. [Id. at ¶¶ 38-39]. In light of this “very serious misconduct, ” Providence terminated Ms. Wright on September 27, 2016. [Id. at ¶ 42]. Providence also terminated Ms. Sawyer’s employment due to her involvement in the altercation. [Id. at ¶ 43]. According to Defendants, three supervisors were involved in the decision to terminate Ms. Wright: Ms. Lutz, Ms. Mehno, and Mr. DeMarco. [Id. at ¶ 41].

         Following Ms. Wright’s termination, a union grievance hearing was held. Both Ms. Wright and her former union representative, Denise Cox, participated in the hearing. [ECF 68-15]. According to the minutes of the proceeding, neither Ms. Wright nor Ms. Cox mentioned alleged discrimination or retaliation during that hearing. [Id.].

         Ms. Wright alleges that other LPNs engaged in conduct that could be classified as “very serious misconduct” but were not terminated. [ECF 75, at ¶¶ 121-23]. Ms. Wright provides almost no information regarding the particulars of those other incidents, including the specific employee involved or when the conduct occurred. [Id.]. Defendants counter that, to the extent they even happened, those incidents involved “nursing errors” rather than intentional misconduct and, therefore, are not comparable. [ECF 83, at 13].

         E. Ms. Wright’s EEOC Charges of Discrimination.

         On September 15, 2015, Ms. Wright filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “First EEOC Charge”) alleging that she was “being discriminated against because of [her] race … and [her] disability.” [ECF 67, at ¶ 44]. The EEOC dismissed Ms. Wright’s First EEOC Charge on June 29, 2016. [Id.].

         On October 14, 2016, Ms. Wright filed another Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC (the “Second EEOC Charge”) and cross filed it with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. [Id. at ¶ 48]. According to the Second EEOC Charge, Ms. Wright believed that her termination was “discriminatory (based upon [her] race and/or health) and retaliatory.” [Id. at ¶ 49]. She also alleged discrimination based on race, national origin, retaliation, and a failure to accommodate/hostile work environment. [Id.].

         II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Ms. Wright filed her original complaint on June 7, 2017, asserting claims under the ADA, the PHRA, the FMLA, Title VII, and § 1981. [ECF 1].

         On September 6, 2017, Defendants partially moved to dismiss Ms. Wright’s Complaint on the grounds that many of her claims were either untimely or not encompassed within the scope of her Second EEOC Charge, and, therefore, outside the Court’s subject matter jurisdiction. [ECF 6]. On September 27, 2017, Ms. Wright filed her First Amended Complaint in response. [ECF 12]. Defendants then filed a substantially identical partial motion to dismiss the First Amended Complaint on October 10, 2017. [ECF 14].

         On December 7, 2017, Judge Conti (the previous judge assigned to this case) granted Defendants’ motion in part, dismissing Ms. Wright’s racial discrimination claims in their entirety and dismissing Ms. Wright’s disability discrimination claims to the extent that they are based on conduct occurring prior to December 19, 2015. [ECF 25, at 17]. Judge Conti allowed Ms. Wright to file a Second Amended Complaint following her order.

         On February 15, 2018, Ms. Wright filed her Second Amended Complaint. [ECF 29].

         On March 1, 2018, Defendants, once again, moved to partially dismiss and Judge Conti, once again, granted the motion in part. [ECF 32]. On April 12, 2018, Judge Conti entered an order dismissing Ms. Wright’s FMLA interference claim and her retaliation claims under Title VII and § 1981. [ECF 38].

         Following discovery, on December 13, 2018, Ms. Wright withdrew her remaining racial discrimination claims under Title VII and § 1981. [ECF 63]. All that remains of the Second Amended Complaint are Count I for violations of the ADA, Count II for violations of the PHRA, and Count III for retaliation under the FMLA.

         Defendants timely filed a motion for summary judgment on January 23, 2019 [ECF 65], with a brief in support [ECF 66], and concise statement of material facts [ECF 67]. On March 1, 2019, Ms. Wright filed a response to the motion for summary judgment [ECF 72], a brief in opposition [ECF 74], a counter statement of facts [ECF 75], and a response to Defendants’ concise statement of material facts [ECF 76]. Defendants submitted a reply to Ms. Wright’s counter statement of facts [ECF 82] and reply brief [ECF 83] on March 22, 2019. Defendants’ motion is ripe for disposition.

         III.LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is warranted “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). At summary judgment, the inquiry is whether the evidence presents “a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). In making this determination, a court must “consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” A.W. v. Jersey City Pub. Schs., 486 F.3d 791, 794 (3d Cir. 2007).

         If the moving party shows an absence of material fact, “the non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal memoranda, or oral argument.” Berckeley Inv. Grp. Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). If the non-moving party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial, ” summary judgment is warranted. Celotext Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986).

         With respect to the sufficiency of the evidence that the non-moving party must provide, a court should grant a motion for summary judgment when the non-movant’s evidence is merely colorable, conclusory, or speculative. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. There must be more than “a scintilla of evidence” supporting the non-moving party and “more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Id. at 252, 261 (internal marks omitted).

         IV. DISCUSSION AND ANALYSIS

         A. Disability Discrimination Claims Under the ADA and PHRA.[1]

         1. Applicable ...


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