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Nadeau v. Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital

United States District Court, D. Vermont

June 13, 2016

JAMES NADEAU, Plaintiff,


          William K. Sessions III District Court Judge.

         Plaintiff James Nadeau claims that his former employer, Defendant Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital (“Hospital”), discriminated against him on the basis of a disability. Nadeau also claims retaliation in breach of an implied employment contract, and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The Hospital has moved for summary judgment on all three claims, arguing that Nadeau was fired from his job because of performance and behavioral issues. For the reasons set forth below, the motion for summary judgment is granted and this case is dismissed.

         Factual Background

         Nadeau suffers from Crohn’s disease, which is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (“IBD”). While his disease at times causes cramping and bloody stools, it can also result in a loss of appetite, low energy, and fatigue. Symptoms of Crohn’s disease may be aggravated by diet and increased stress. Following surgery in the 1990s, Nadeau was able to function without medical attention or medication until he suffered a flare-up in late 2011. He suffered another flare-up in the fall of 2012, which he attributes to work-related stress.

         Nadeau began working for the Hospital in September 2006. His first position was as a supply handler at a Hospital warehouse in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Nadeau also performed work for the Hospital periodically in other locations, including his home in Vermont. In early 2007, he was promoted to the position of supply supervisor. Until 2012, he had received positive reviews and had never received any verbal or written warnings with regard to his work performance.

         In April 2012, Katrina Geurkink began working for the Hospital as Manager of Organizational Effectiveness for the supply chain. Her duties included managing the Lebanon warehouse. With her background in organizational development, Geurkink was responsible for employing a management methodology known as Lean Sigma Six. According to Geurkink’s affidavit, Lean Sigma Six is a method used to improve organizational performance, relying on a disciplined, collaborative approach to identify and eliminate wasteful processes.

         Nadeau reported directly to Geurkink, and their warehouse offices were across the hall from each other. The two had occasional one-on-one meetings, both formal and informal. According to Nadeau, Geurkink typically limited the content of those meetings to day-to-day responsibilities, and it was often hard to have discussions about other topics, including his health. Geurkink asserts that she met with Nadeau more than any of her other direct reports.

         Soon after assuming her managerial position at the Hospital, Geurkink came to believe that Nadeau had trouble prioritizing tasks, managing his time, and satisfying deadlines. She expressed her concerns to her immediate supervisor, David Walker, and to Nadeau’s former supervisor, David Fittro. Walker and Fittro informed Geurkink that they had made similar observations.[1] Walker also revealed that Nadeau had occasionally acted in an unprofessional manner, including angry outbursts. According to Geurkink, Walker expressed doubts about whether Nadeau continued to be a good fit for a supervisory position given that the focus of the position was shifting toward process improvement, problem solving, and team building.

         During the spring and summer of 2012, Geurkink spoke with Nadeau about his work performance. In his deposition, Nadeau testified that Geurkink shared with him certain task lists and deadlines, noted his difficulties with meeting deadlines, and made clear the expectations going forward. ECF No. 40-30 at 33 (Nadeau Dep. at 132-33). In addition to feedback about his performance, Geurkink gave Nadeau a book about Lean Six Sigma and time management. The parties agree that Nadeau did not read the book, with Nadeau explaining that reading at work would have taken time away from his other tasks, and that he was “unwilling to read the book at home.” ECF No. 45-2 at 2 (Nadeau Aff., ¶ 9).

         Geurkink has testified that during their meetings, Nadeau at times became angry and confrontational. Nadeau denies these characterizations, but confirms that he became defensive when faced with Geurkink’s criticisms. After one particular discussion in June 2012, Geurkink sent an email the next day to David Walker, reporting that Nadeau had “apologized for yesterday and was calm, clear and professional.” ECF No. 40-2 at 1. Walker responded that he was glad things had “progressed, ” and reassured Geurkink that she was “doing exactly what needs to be done to set professional standards.” Id. Nadeau acknowledges apologizing to Geurkink around that time. ECF No. 40-30 at 33 (Nadeau Dep. at 128-29).

         As of August 2012, Geurkink was not seeing improvements in Nadeau’s time and task management. She therefore began maintaining a list of tasks that Nadeau was to perform within certain deadlines. According to Geurkink, between August 9, 2012 and November 27, 2012 Nadeau failed to meet established deadlines approximately 65% of the time.

         Geurkink avers that in addition to missing deadlines, Nadeau provided her with inaccurate information and bore responsibility for delivery delays that required the Hospital to cancel surgeries. Nadeau disputes whether those delays were his fault.

         In late August 2012, Nadeau submitted a request for leave to take a vacation day on November 23, 2012, the day after Thanksgiving. He also requested vacation time before and after Christmas and the New Year. Given that the Hospital was going to be opening a new outpatient facility in November 2012, Geurkink contends that she was uncertain about staff coverage needs and was therefore unable to immediately grant Nadeau’s requests.

         On November 5, 2012, Geurkink informed Nadeau that she was unlikely to approve all of his leave requests. She asked Nadeau if he had a preference, and he informed her that he preferred to take time off around Christmas. On November 12, 2012, Geurkink allowed Nadeau to take two days off on November 15 and 16. According to Geurkink, Nadeau did not attribute this leave time to any medical issues. Nadeau does not recall whether he informed Geurkink of the reason for his absence. ECF No. 40-30 at 39 (Nadeau Dep. at 152). He now submits that he was forced to miss work due to an intestinal flare-up that required hospitalization, and that the flare-up was caused by work stress.

         Geurkink was aware that Nadeau suffered from Crohn’s disease, which she understood to be a form of intestinal disorder. She did not consider Nadeau to be disabled. Her affidavit states that Nadeau never requested any sort of accommodation, never reported any job limitations, and did not appear to be limited by his disease.

         Nadeau submits that Geurkink knew more about his disease than her testimony suggests. His affidavit reports that he informed Geurkink when one of his medications was affecting his work efficiency. ECF No. 45-2 at 3 (Nadeau Aff., ¶ 15). In November 2012, he reportedly told Geurkink that his health was “going downhill” and that his medications were ineffective. ECF No. 40-30 at 38 (Nadeau Dep. at 147-48). In response, Geurkink encouraged him to “get better” and to “do what [he] needed to do.” Id. (Nadeau Dep. at 148). As discussed below, Nadeau took an extended medical leave shortly thereafter.

         Despite Geurkink’s apparently sympathetic response to his illness, Nadeau was frustrated by his inability to discuss his health issues with her. He testified in deposition that when he tried to discuss his health in November 2012, Geurkink insisted that he schedule a special meeting to do so. Id. (Nadeau Dep. at 146-47). Given that he and Geurkink were already meeting once or twice per week to discuss work-related issues, Nadeau did not see the need to schedule an additional meeting. Accordingly, he did not follow up on Geurkink’s suggestion.

         Nadeau’s only requested accommodation with respect to his illness was access to a bathroom. Id. at 38 (Nadeau Dep. at 148). Such access was generally provided, although bathrooms were not available at one of the locations where he attended meetings. Nadeau did not inform Geurkink that bathroom access at the meeting location was a problem. Id. at 39 (Nadeau Dep. at 150). Nadeau now claims that he was unaware he could request a an accommodation that might improve his work performance. ECF No. 45-2 at 3 (Nadeau Aff., ¶ 12).

         On November 14, 2012, Geurkink told Nadeau that he would need to work the day after Thanksgiving, as the new facility was going to be open that day. Geurkink was reportedly balancing the vacation needs of other employees, some of whom were experiencing difficult family issues. Nadeau responded with frustration, stating that he had always been given that day off. He did not cite any medical reason for requiring leave around Thanksgiving.

         Geurkink spoke with her supervisor about Nadeau’s behavior and was advised to contact Human Resources. She did so on November 19, 2012, and scheduled a meeting with Senior Employee Relations Specialist Steve Woods. That same day, and unbeknownst to Geurkink, Nadeau contacted Human Resources as well, explaining that he had plans to visit family during the Thanksgiving holiday and that he disagreed with management’s ability to dictate his vacation days.

         Nadeau’s email to Human Resources stated that in denying his leave request for the day after Thanksgiving, Geurkink had cited his absences on November 6, 7, 15, and 16. As those prior absences were health-related, Nadeau’s email expressed dismay that Geurkink would “throw my illness in my face that I took time off for it.” ECF No. 40-13 at 2. Nadeau also noted that he had been having difficulty securing time with Geurkink to discuss various issues, including his illness and his perceived work overload. Id.

         On November 20, 2012, Steve Woods spoke with Nadeau about his complaints. During that meeting, Nadeau did not state or suggest that Geurkink was discriminating against him. Woods subsequently looked into the question of post-Thanksgiving leave and found that Geurkink had legitimate business reasons for denying Nadeau’s request.

         Nadeau left work early without permission on November 23, 2012 - the day for which his leave request had been denied. Nadeau claims that he informed Geurkink that morning that he would be leaving early. When Geurkink tried to reach him on his cell phone, he declined to answer and did not return her call. On November 26, 2012, Nadeau sent Geurkink an email informing her that he would not accept any one-on-one meetings with her until Human Resources had finished investigating his concerns.

         On November 27, 2012, Geurkink issued Nadeau a written warning with regard to his work performance. The warning documented incidents going back several months, and listed corrective actions that Nadeau needed to accomplish within established deadlines. Those actions included developing a time management system, showing improvement in meeting deadlines, and acting in a professional and respectful manner. Nadeau claims that Geurkink issued the written warning in retaliation for his communications with Human Resources on November 19.

         That same day, Steve Woods met with Geurkink and Nadeau to discuss the written warning. Nadeau reports that the discussion with Woods and Geurkink covered his time management issues, albeit in the context of what he perceived as insufficient staff support. Nadeau further submits that he raised concerns about the additional workload being assigned by Geurkink, and the effect of his deteriorating health on his management abilities. ECF No. 45-2 at 4 (Nadeau Aff, ¶ 23). Nadeau claims that he ultimately asked to be relieved of his supervisory role, citing workload, under-staffing, and his health. Id. According to Nadeau’s affidavit, Woods referred him to the Family Medical Leave Act. Id. (Nadeau Aff., ¶ 24).

         The question of Nadeau’s workload was explored during his deposition. Nadeau testified that his workload increased in 2008 or 2009 after another supervisor, June Brown, left the Hospital: “[w]hen June Brown left, I was the only one there. So I basically oversaw everything at that point.” ECF No. 40-30 at 22 (Nadeau Dep. at 85); see also Id. at 28 (Nadeau Dep. at 107-08). After Brown’s departure, Nadeau found himself in charge of a print shop, linen services, the “Third World” building, and a storage center known as the “210 tunnel.” Id. at 22 (Nadeau Dep. at 85). In 2011, he became involved in preparations for a new facility at Heater Road.

         After a flare up of his IBD in 2011, Nadeau expressed workload concerns to his then-supervisor, David Fittro. Nadeau did not communicate to Fittro that his concerns were related to a medical condition. Id. at 20 (Nadeau Dep. at 74). When Geurkink was hired in 2012, Nadeau hoped that she would review his tasks and reassign some of the duties he had inherited from June Brown. Id. at 32 (Nadeau Dep. at 124). Instead, Geurkink allegedly added to his duties, requiring him to generate new reports; partially manage the Heater Road facility; supervise the metro cart maintenance plan; organize fire drills; direct communications with vendors; and place monthly orders as needed. ECF No. 45-2 at 2 (Nadeau Aff., ¶ 8).

         On or about December 3, 2012, Nadeau informed Geurkink and Woods that he would be taking time off due to a medical issue. Geurkink informed Nadeau that any corrective action deadlines would be put on hold while he was out on leave, and that new deadlines would be established once he returned. She also reminded Nadeau ...

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