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Hartman v. Lafourche Parish Hospital

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

August 7, 2017

CHRISTINA HARTMAN
v.
LAFOURCHE PARISH HOSPITAL, ET AL.

         SECTION “H”

          ORDER AND REASONS

          JANE TRICHE MILAZZO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 34) and Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 36). For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED IN PART, and Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED AS MOOT.

         BACKGROUND

         This is an action under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law (“LEDL”). In July 2014, Plaintiff Christine Hartman was hired as a medical staff coordinator for Defendant Lafourche Parish Hospital Service District No. 1 d/b/a Lady of the Sea General Hospital (“LOSGH”) under the supervision of Defendant Bennie Smith. In August 2015, Plaintiff took eight weeks of FMLA leave to undergo a major surgical procedure. In November 2015, she requested additional FMLA leave to care for her husband who had been diagnosed with cancer and renal failure. Smith initially denied this request, mistakenly believing that Plaintiff could not take FMLA leave for two different qualifying events in the same year. However, she allowed Plaintiff to work a flexible schedule. In February 2016, Plaintiff again requested FMLA leave to care for her husband as he underwent a stem cell transplant. This request was granted, and she took leave from February 24, 2016 to April 26, 2016. Plaintiff was terminated immediately upon her return. Smith cited mistakes in paperwork and poor performance as the reason for Plaintiff's termination. Plaintiff brings claims for FMLA interference, FMLA retaliation, ADA discrimination, and ADA and LEDL retaliation.

         Defendants have moved for summary judgment seeking dismissal of all of Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff has moved for partial summary judgment seeking dismissal of certain of Defendants' affirmative defenses. This Court will consider each argument in turn.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”[1] A genuine issue of fact exists only “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”[2]

         In determining whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment, the Court views facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draws all reasonable inferences in his favor.[3] “If the moving party meets the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce evidence or designate specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial.”[4] Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.”[5] “In response to a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the non-movant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate the manner in which that evidence supports that party's claim, and such evidence must be sufficient to sustain a finding in favor of the non-movant on all issues as to which the non-movant would bear the burden of proof at trial.”[6] “We do not . . . in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.”[7] Additionally, “[t]he mere argued existence of a factual dispute will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion.”[8]

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

         Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiff's claims for FMLA interference, FMLA retaliation, ADA discrimination, and ADA and LEDL retaliation.[9]

         I. FMLA Interference

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants interfered with her right to FMLA leave when they denied her second request to take FMLA leave to care for her husband in November 2015. The FMLA allows an employee to take reasonable leave for medical reasons or to care for a family member and prohibits an employer from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise or attempt to exercise FMLA rights.[10] To establish a prima facie interference case, Plaintiff must show that (1) she was an eligible employee, (2) Defendant was an employer subject to the FMLA's requirements, (3) she was entitled to leave, (4) she gave proper notice of the intent to take FMLA leave, (5) Defendant denied the benefits to which she was entitled under the FMLA, and (6) she was prejudiced.[11] Interference claims do not require a showing of discriminatory intent.[12]

         Defendants allege that Plaintiff cannot succeed on her FMLA interference claim because she cannot show prejudice. Defendants allege that despite denying her second FMLA request, Smith allowed Plaintiff to work a flexible schedule so that she could attend medical appointments with her husband. Plaintiff admitted that her husband never missed a medical appointment and that she did not have to hire a caretaker to care for her husband despite the denial of FMLA leave.

         Plaintiff alleges that she suffered prejudice because, despite allowing her a flexible schedule, Smith piled work on Plaintiff right before she intended to leave to bring her husband to the doctor and then “wrote up” Plaintiff for passing her work off to a co-worker. This disciplinary action was then taken into consideration as a “history of work performance issues” when she was ultimately terminated. Plaintiff argues that had she been on FMLA leave as she had requested, she would not have been disciplined. Accordingly, this Court holds that there is a material issue of fact as to whether Plaintiff suffered prejudice when her second FMLA leave request was denied and specifically whether the “write ups” that she alleges occurred as a result of her more flexible schedule contributed to her ultimate termination.[13] Defendants' request for summary judgment on this claim is denied.

         II. FMLA Retaliation

         Plaintiff alleges that she was fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. “In order to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the FMLA, the employee must show the following: 1) he was protected under the FMLA; 2) he suffered an adverse employment action; and 3) he was treated less favorably than an employee who had not requested leave under the FMLA or the adverse decision was made because he sought protection under the FMLA.”[14]

Retaliation claims under the FMLA are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. . . . If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of retaliation, the burden shifts to the employer to provide a ‘legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision.' If the employer articulates a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision, the burden returns to the plaintiff, who must then be afforded an opportunity to rebut the employer's purported explanation with evidence that the reason given is merely pretextual.[15]

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot show that their legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for her termination-poor performance-is pretext. Defendants argue that Smith had identified problems with Plaintiff's job performance even before she took her first FMLA leave of absence in August 2015. Defendants allege that Smith held a coaching session with Plaintiff in June 2015, and she continued to receive low performance scores at her evaluation in October 2015. During Plaintiff's second leave of absence, another employee, Kristina Hebert, was asked to take over her job duties. Defendants allege that Hebert identified numerous errors in Plaintiff's work, prompting Smith to conduct a review of Plaintiff's work. Smith testified that she discovered more than 100 errors in Plaintiff's work and decided to fire her while she was on her second FMLA leave of absence because of these errors. Smith waited until Plaintiff returned from FMLA leave to terminate her employment so that Plaintiff would not lose benefits during that time.

         Plaintiff's version of events, on the other hand, varies wildly. Plaintiff alleges that while she was on leave, Smith reviewed her work in order to find a reason to terminate her. She alleges that Smith felt that Plaintiff's leave had put her “in a bind.” Plaintiff identifies the following evidence of pretext:

1) Smith failed to follow hospital policy in choosing to terminate Plaintiff. The termination policy, which Smith wrote, required that Smith seek consent of the CEO before firing an employee. Smith admitted that Plaintiff was the only person she could recall firing without the CEO's consent.[16]
2) Plaintiff argues that prior to her initial FMLA leave of absence she received high evaluations, despite what Defendants have alleged.[17]She alleges that when she returned from her initial leave of absence she received a lower evaluation. She alleges that Smith then began to “write her up” more frequently. She alleges that Smith was engaged in a “campaign of constant fault-finding.” 3) Plaintiff alleges that she was treated less favorably than other employees. For instance, she offers evidence that her co-worker, Rhonda Parr, twice inadvertently purged three-years-worth of employee evaluations from hospital's system. Parr offered to resign but was discouraged from doing so. Plaintiff alleges that Parr's mistakes were worse than any of the errors attributed to Plaintiff, yet Parr was not terminated. In addition, while reviewing Plaintiff's work during her absence, Hebert informed Smith that she had made some of the same mistakes as Plaintiff. Hebert was not disciplined.[18]
4) Plaintiff alleges that Smith made derogatory remarks about her leave, stating that she had left her “in a bind.” Plaintiff argues that Smith “chewed her out” for crying at work when she learned of her husband's cancer diagnosis and criticized her for talking about him.
5) Plaintiff argues that the evidence indicates that Smith has attempted to create a paper trial to support her explanation of events. She argues that the written denial of her second FMLA request has mysteriously gone missing, and the remarks regarding the June 2015 coaching session in which Smith alleges she discussed Plaintiff's poor performance were not added to Plaintiff's employee record until around the time of her termination. In addition, Smith's explanation of the meeting has changed from “training on a new process” to “discussing Plaintiff's errors.”
6) Plaintiff correctly points out that temporal proximity between FMLA leave and an employee's termination can be evidence of pretext.[19] Plaintiff was terminated within hours of returning to work from her second FMLA leave.
7) Plaintiff argues that Smith's explanation for why she was terminated and why Smith failed to seek the CEO's consent are amorphous and disingenuous.

         Certainly, Plaintiff has more than carried her burden to show a material issue of fact as to whether Defendants' legitimate non-discriminatory reason is pretext. Defendants submit an army of arguments disputing the above assertions of pretext, all of which simply serve to create more issues of fact. Any one of the aforementioned reasons might have been enough to warrant a denial of summary judgment. ...


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