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Kannikal v. Barr

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 21, 2019

JOE A. KANNIKAL, Plaintiff,
WILLIAM P. BARR, Attorney General, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         This case arises from the Bureau of Prisons' ("BOP") alleged discrimination against Plaintiff in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") while he worked as a physician's assistant ("PA") at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania ("FCI Loretto"). Pending before the Court is Defendant William P. Barr's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 120.) The Motion is fully briefed (ECF Nos. 121, 131) and ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion.

         II. Jurisdiction and Venue

         This Court has subject-matter jurisdiction because Plaintiff's Title VII claims arise under federal law. 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Venue is proper because the case was transferred to the Western District of Pennsylvania, where a substantial part of the events giving rise to Plaintiff's claims occurred. 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2), § 1404(a).

         III. Factual Background

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted.[1]

         A. Plaintiff's Initial Employment with BOP and the EEOC Proceeding

         Plaintiff first began working as a PA at FCI Loretto in May of 1988. (ECF No. 127 ¶ 1.) About six months later, BOP granted Plaintiff a hardship transfer to its Correctional Center in Miami, Florida so that he could be near his family and study for his medical boards. (Id. ¶ 2.) In June of 1990, Plaintiff requested a three-month leave of absence to study for the medical examination for foreign medical graduates; when BOP denied his request for a leave of absence, he resigned from the BOP. (Id. ¶ 3.) In 1992, Plaintiff applied for a vacant PA position at FCI Loretto. (Id. ¶ 4.) According to Plaintiff, Jeff Trimbath, the Assistant Health Administrator at FCI Loretto, prevented him from being hired because of discriminatory animus. (Id. ¶ 5.) Mr. Trimbath denied any and all allegations of discriminatory animus. (Id. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and, in a bench decision issued on May 11, 1995, the EEOC found in favor of Plaintiff and ordered that Plaintiff be reinstated as a PA, with back pay and benefits. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.)

         On January 20, 1998, Plaintiff was reinstated as a PA at FCI Loretto. (Id. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff practiced under the supervision of Clinical Director Dr. Daniel Leonard, Health Services Administrator William Schnake, and Mr. Trimbath. (Id. ¶ 10.) Mr. Trimbath supervised Plaintiff's time and attendance, but did not supervise Plaintiff's clinical work or performance; Dr. Leonard had that responsibility. (Id. ¶¶ 54-55.) Mr. Trimbath had no interaction with Plaintiff involving discipline with respect to Plaintiff's clinical skills, evaluations, or revocation of medical privileges. (Id. ¶ 56.)

         Plaintiff began at FCI Loretto on February 3, 1998. (Id. ¶ 11.) Before Plaintiff received his medical privileges, FCI Loretto had to verify his medical credentials. (Id. ¶ 19.) Medical privileges allow a PA to diagnose and treat patients and are granted by the Clinical Director of the Institution, Dr. Leonard. (Id. ¶ 20.) Plaintiff submitted the paperwork necessary to review his application for privileges on February 4, 1998 and, in compliance with BOP policy, Dr. Leonard granted Plaintiff temporary privileges for a 90-day probationary period on February 20, 1998. (Id. ¶¶ 23-24.) The warden of FCI Loretto, James Franco, approved Plaintiff's temporary medical privileges on March 5, 1998. (Id. ¶ 17.)

         B. Plaintiff's Time Off and Leave

         On April 6, 1998, approximately two months after he started working, Plaintiff took extended sick leave until June 1, 1998.[2] (Id. ¶ 28.) On April 6, 1998, Plaintiff called in sick and told Mr. Schnake that he would be at his home in Miami, Florida until Memorial Day.[3] (Id. ¶ 29.) On Monday June 8, 1998, Plaintiff called in sick, stating that he had food poisoning, and did not return to work until June 9, 1998. (Id. ¶ 31.) In addition, on June 10, 1998, Plaintiff requested extended annual leave from July 12, 1998, through August 1, 1998, to visit his ill mother in India. (Id. ¶ 32.) Between February 3, 1998, and June 29, 1998, Plaintiff had used 80 hours of annual leave and 291 hours of sick leave. (Id. ¶ 66.)

         Plaintiff left for India to visit his ill mother on July 10, 1998, and returned to work on August 24, 1998. (Id. ¶¶ 75, 93.) Then on September 28, 1998, Plaintiff again took extended sick leave to his home in Miami and did not return to work until December 15, 1998. (Id. ¶¶ 95-96.) The following year, Plaintiff took extended sick leave from March 22, 1999, through May 14, 1999, and leave again from May 17, 1999, through May 21, 1999, to attend a psychiatric conference. (Id. ¶¶ 115-16.)

         C. Plaintiff's Work Performance and Discipline

         During the 90-day probationary period, Dr. Leonard expressed his concern about Plaintiff's performance to Mr. Schnake and Mr. Trimbath, which involved the way he was prescribing medications, his examinations, and the way he was writing up his entries. (Id. ¶¶ 45-46.) Dr. Leonard told Mr. Schnake that he had concerns about the treatment Plaintiff was rendering and that he wanted to fire Plaintiff because he felt Plaintiff's care was inappropriate and not up to FCI Loretto's standards. (Id. ¶ 48.)

         On June 10, 1998, Dr. Leonard issued Plaintiff a three-page memorandum informing Plaintiff that his performance of medical duties was unacceptable, and Dr. Leonard provided specific examples of poor patient care. (Id. ¶ 49.) On the same date, Dr. Leonard placed Plaintiff on a Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP"). (Id. ¶ 50.) During the 30-day PIP period, Dr. Leonard prepared several memoranda about his concerns with Plaintiff's unacceptable medical performance. (Id. ¶ 57.) Dr. Leonard wrote that he did not believe that Plaintiff was using his "opportunity to improve period" to his full advantage. (Id. ¶ 69.)

         On June 29, 1998, Mr. Schnake informed Plaintiff that his excessive use of sick leave was affecting his performance, in that his absence was not allowing him to train with other staff and to gain the necessary experience to function as a PA. (Id. ¶ 65.) On July 6, 1998, Mr. Trimbath issued Plaintiff a letter stating that his pattern of using sick leave "was unacceptable." (Id. ¶ 73.) Mr. Trimbath noted in the letter that Plaintiff had used sick leave "in conjunction with [his] weekends" three times in the past month to visit his family in Miami and the letter ordered Plaintiff to provide medical documentation before using sick leave for the next three months. (Id. ¶74.)

         On July 9, 1998, Dr. Leonard and Mr. Trimbath met with Plaintiff to discuss his progress under the PIP. (Id. ¶ 78.) At the conclusion of the PIP period, which ended on July 10, 1998, Dr. Leonard refused to reinstate Plaintiff's medical privileges. (Id. ¶ 82.)

         On July 11, 1998, Plaintiff wrote to Warden Franco complaining about his unacceptable rating and claimed that his supervisors were retaliating against him and subjecting him to a hostile work environment. (Id. ¶ 83.) Warden Franco responded to Plaintiff's letter, stating that he had reviewed the record and felt that Dr. Leonard's actions did not constitute harassment or reprisal, and that he had been given an opportunity to improve his performance. (Id. ¶ 88.)

         When Plaintiff returned to work on August 24, 1998 after his sick leave, he was given non-medical duties because Dr. Leonard had withdrawn his medical privileges. (Id. ¶ 94.) Upon his return to work after taking extended sick leave from September 28, 1998, to December 15, 1998, Plaintiff performed non-medical duties until March of 1999, because Dr. Leonard had not reinstated his medical privileges. (Id. ¶¶ 95-97.)

         On September 18, 1998, Warden Franco requested that a Focus Review Team assess Dr. Leonard's determination to deny clinical privileges to Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 98.) The Focus Review Team concluded that Plaintiff had made serious errors in five of the ten cases they had reviewed. (Id. ¶ 105.) Dr. Jae Shim, the Clinical Director of BOP's facility in Allen wood, Pennsylvania and member of the Focus Review Team, opined that, based upon the review of the medical records and his conversation with Plaintiff, he "agree[d] with Dr. Leonard's decision to revoke [Plaintiff's] privileges due to medical incompetence." (Id. ¶ 106.)

         On December 21, 1998, Mr. Trimbath issued Plaintiff another leave abuse letter noting that he had "used over 150 hours of sick leave during the past three months" and had not always provided medical excuses for his absences. (Id. ¶ 108.) On December 28, 1998, Plaintiff was interviewed by the Special Investigative Agent at FCI Loretto for misconduct for failing to follow procedure with regard to his sick leave. (Id. ¶ 109.)

         D. Plaintiff's Reassignment and Termination

         On February 2, 1999, Mr. Schnake issued Plaintiff a letter proposing to terminate his employment. (Id. ¶ 111.) The reasons given for Plaintiff's proposed termination were: (1) the removal of his medical privileges, (2) failure to improve while on the PIP, (3) failure to follow instructions concerning his use of sick leave by not providing medical excuses, and (4) his time spent AWOL because he failed to provide documentation for some of his absences. (Id. ¶ 112.)

         On March 3, 1999, Warden Bobby Shearin, who had replaced Warden Franco, issued a memo to Plaintiff assigning him full time to the Inmate Systems Management ("ISM") branch. (Id. ¶ 113.) During his reassignment, Plaintiff's title, pay, and grade all remained the same. (Id. ¶ 114.) Upon his return to work on May 24, 1999 after extended sick leave, he performed non-medical duties until June 2, 1999. (Id. ¶ 117.)

         On June 2, 1999, Warden Shearin issued Plaintiff a Notice of Removal, informing Plaintiff that he was being removed for: (1) his loss of medical privileges, (2) his failure to follow instructions, and (3) his absences without leave. (Id. ¶ 118.) On that same date, Plaintiff and BOP officials entered into a Last Chance Settlement Agreement whereby BOP agreed not to remove Plaintiff for a period of 60 days if Plaintiff improved his performance. (Id. ¶ 120.) The agreement provided that Plaintiff would be required to participate in specific classes and review specific materials. (Id. ¶ 121.) Pursuant to the agreement, Mr. Trimbath was officially removed as Plaintiff's immediate supervisor and Mr. Schnake became his supervisor. (Id. ¶ 122.) The agreement also created a plan wherein Dr. Leonard and Mr. Schnake would provide Plaintiff with close supervision, including observing and training Plaintiff while he conducted mock medical examinations of inmates. (Id. ¶ 123.) Finally, the agreement provided that if Plaintiff's performance did not improve within sixty days he would be terminated. (Id. ¶ 124.)

         Between June 16, 1999, and August 12, 1999, Dr. Leonard and Mr. Schnake met regularly with Plaintiff to observe mock examinations and review medical assessments and assignments. (Id. ¶ 129.) On June 16, 1999, Plaintiff complained that, during one of his mock interviews, Mr. Schnake got angry and stated "BS discrimination." (Id. ¶ 125.) Mr. Schnake admits that he made the statement, but denies that the statement was made to harass or discriminate.[4] (Id. ¶ 126.) On July 12, 1999, Plaintiff wrote to Warden Shearin, complaining about a "hostile, abusive, retaliatory working environment and the harassment and intimidation at the Health Service Department." (Id. ¶ 133.) On July 19, 1999, Warden Shearin responded to Plaintiff's letter and explained, among other things, that he had failed to provide specific instances of "hostile, abusive, retaliatory working environment and the harassment and intimidation at the Health Service Department." (Id. ¶ 136.)

         On August 12, 1999, Dr. Leonard concluded that he would "not give [Plaintiff] privileges under [his] medical license to care for patients at FCI Loretto," based upon his observations of Plaintiff during the Last Chance period. (Id. ¶ 142.) Dr. Leonard found that Plaintiff's medical misjudgments included, but were not limited to: failure to ask about symptoms, failure to perform systematic examinations, failure to accurately describe disease etiology, failure to properly document his examinations, failure to properly perform the auscultation of a patient's aortic valve, failure to properly obtain a patient's blood pressure, inability to identify risk factors for certain medical conditions, inability to identify various causes of certain medical conditions, lack of knowledge in reading EKGs, and incomplete understanding of what parameters are contained in laboratory studies that he ordered. (Id. ¶ 138.)

         On August 26, 1999, Warden Shearin informed Plaintiff that his employment would be terminated on September 3, 1999, due to his failure to demonstrate that he could safely care for the patients he was treating at FCI Loretto. (Id. ¶ 143.) In the termination letter, Warden Shearin highlighted the various medical errors that Plaintiff had made, and noted that Dr. Leonard had determined that Plaintiff did not possess the requisite medical knowledge and was not competent enough to be granted medical privileges under Dr. Leonard's license. (Id. ¶ 144.) Plaintiff's employment was terminated on September 3, 1999. (Id. ...

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