United States District Court, D. Vermont
ASHLEY M. LAREAU, Plaintiff,
NORTHWESTERN MEDICAL CENTER, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
William K. Sessions III District Court Judge
Ashley Lareau claims that Northwestern Medical Center
(“NMC”) fired her, at least in part, because of a
disability. Now before the Court is NMC's motion for
summary judgment on all claims. For the reasons set forth
below, the motion is denied.
parties have each submitted statements of material fact with
respect to NMC's motion for summary judgment. For
purposes of that motion, the material facts will be viewed in
a light most favorable to Lareau, as she is the non-moving
party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380
October 2014, Lareau applied for a position at NMC in the
Patient Access Department. On November 26, 2014, NMC offered
her a position as a Patient Access supervisor contingent upon
successful completion of pre-employment testing, including a
health screening. Lareau disclosed during the health
screening that she had epilepsy and suffered from seizures.
The screening was performed by Doreen Benoit, who determined
that Lareau would be able to perform the essential functions
of the job.
started her new job on December 1, 2014. Her initial
supervisor was Latayvia Law. After Law left NMC in April
2015, Lareau reported to Chief Financial Officer Ted Sirotta.
Lareau made Sirotta aware of her epilepsy, and the two of
them discussed related limitations, including Lareau's
ability to drive. That same month, Lareau was promoted to
interim Patient Access Manager. The promotion was based on
merit and included a substantial pay raise.
Lareau's time as a manager, NMC was going through a large
construction project. Consequently, in addition to her usual
duties overseeing over sixty employees and tracking cash
collections, Lareau was required to attend weekly meetings to
discuss the physical design of the new department. Also, when
NMC undertook upgrades to its electronic medical records
system, Lareau was required to provide regular support for
her staff. Lareau wore a pager so that she could be contacted
at all times, and submits that she was dedicated to NMC
twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
October 2015, Lareau was named the permanent Patient Access
Manager and received another substantial raise. While there
was some concern expressed about her lack of leadership
experience, Lareau received supportive endorsements from,
among others, NMC Chief Executive Officer Jill Bowen. At the
time of her promotion, NMC contemplated providing her with
ongoing training and development, including long-term
January 2016, Lareau received an appraisal of her work
performance for the year 2015. The comments in the appraisal
complimented Lareau on her performance as the interim manager
and her strong start in her new position. The majority of the
appraisal was completed by CFO Sirotta, who wrote a lengthy
letter summarizing Lareau's strengths. Areas for
improvements were also identified, although there is a
factual dispute about whether those areas pertained to Lareau
individually or to the Patient Access Department generally.
Lareau contends that some of the perceived deficiencies were
due, at least in part, to inadequate staffing. The appraisal
also expressed management's concern that Lareau would be
asked to meet the demands of the new managerial position
while attending school to complete her bachelor's degree.
The appraisal rated Lareau's performance as “solid,
” which warranted a pay raise of 2.5%.
Bovat became the Director of Hospitality Services in January
2016. NMC concurrently restructured its departments so that
the Director of Hospitality Services oversaw the Patient
Access Department. As a result, Lareau began reporting
directly to Bovat, who in turn reported to CIO Joel Benware.
Because the Patient Access Department connects closely with
billing services, Lareau communicated her concerns about the
new reporting structure. Naomi Wright, a human resources
advisor, has testified that it is traditional for the Patient
Access Manager to report to the CFO rather than the CIO. ECF
No. 132-15 at 3. Lareau also did not want Bovat as her
immediate supervisor because Bovat had no experience with
patient access, and thus could not mentor her in her new
believed from the outset that Bovat held animosity toward
her. She cites comments by Bovat about Lareau's lack of a
bachelor's degree, and that despite not having a
four-year degree Lareau had the higher salary of the two.
Defendants note that even assuming such animosity,
Bovat's criticisms were not related to Lareau's
epilepsy or seizures. Lareau asks the Court to view
Bovat's animosity in the context of subsequent
discriminatory acts, including Bovat's practice of
keeping track of Lareau's illness and reporting to
Benware when Lareau was upset or crying.
suffered three seizures on January 14, 2016, and was in the
hospital for two days thereafter for evaluation. There is a
factual dispute about whether Bovat and Benware were aware of
the seizures. Lareau testified in her deposition that she
believed her husband called NMC to notify her workplace of
her absence, and explained that the absence was due to a
seizure. ECF No. 132-3 at 22. Her husband has confirmed
making that phone call. ECF No. 132-39 at 1.
an appointment with a Physician's Assistant in late
January, Lareau informed Benware and Bovat that she would be
filing for intermittent leave under the Family Medical Leave
Act (“FMLA”) due to recent changes in her health.
ECF No. 132-3 at 25. Lareau testified that after her
discussions with Benware and Bovat, Bovat followed up with
“lots of questions” about how much time Lareau
would be missing, and how much work she was planning on
completing. Id. at 47-48. When Lareau informed
Benware and Bovat that surgery was possible, they reportedly
“asked a lot of questions about what does that mean,
what does that look like for your work, how much time are you
going to be missing.” Id. at 48.
March 2016, Benware suggested that a development plan be put
in place for Lareau. NMC's Vice President of Human
Resources Tom Conley instead recommended a Performance
Improvement Plan (“PIP”), which can be used by
the employer to establish a record prior to an employee's
termination. Conley has described the implementation of a PIP
as “punitive.” ECF No. 132-17 at 9.
are factual disputes about the reasons for the PIP.
Defendants contend that Bovat had spoken to Lareau earlier in
2016 about performance issues, including not only management
skills but also time management problems and resistence to
mentoring. Defendants submit that the PIP was put in place
after Lareau failed to demonstrate improvement in those
areas. Lareau notes that criticisms about time management and
mentoring are not evidenced in the personnel record. In a
related argument, she contends that NMC's procedures for
a PIP were not followed as she was not given any prior
written notice of alleged failures.
testified that a PIP is an action pursuant to which an
employee tries to make improvements within 90 days. ECF No.
132-3 at 34. It is undisputed that when Lareau first received
the PIP and reviewed it, she understood that failure to meet
the specified expectations could lead to termination. Lareau
met in March 2016 with Bovat, Benware, and HR advisor
LaRocque to discuss the PIP. She did not raise any issues at
that time about her epilepsy, seizures, or FMLA requests. Nor
did Lareau make any request for an accommodation.
Friday, April 8, 2016, Lareau had a seizure in the NMC
cafeteria. The seizure occurred on the last day of Patient
Access Week, which was an important time for the Patient
Access Department. After her seizure, Lareau recalls waking
up in a hospital bed at NMC and being visited by Bovat.
Lareau went home that same day after receiving treatment, and
returned to work the following Monday.
April 12, 2016, Lareau submitted an FMLA Certification of
Health Care Provider form to Louise Rocheleau, NMC's HR
benefits specialist. The form, completed by Advanced Practice
Registered Nurse (“APRN”) Lindsay Schommer,
stated that Lareau had epilepsy; that her epilepsy did not
make her unable to perform any of her job functions; that
Lareau would need time off in the future to undergo
evaluation as a surgical candidate; that she would need time
off for work-ups; that she would need a day off after any
seizure; that sleep deprivation and excessive stress could
exacerbate her condition; and that reasonable accommodations
should be made as necessary. ECF No. 120-15 at 2.
about April 22, 2016, Lareau had a follow-up meeting with
Bovat to update the PIP. During that meeting, Lareau again
did not reference her epilepsy, seizures, or any related
driving limitations. Similarly, Bovat never told Lareau that
her alleged performance deficiencies were related to
epilepsy, seizures, or driving limitations.
met with Bovat again in June 2016 to discuss the PIP. While
Lareau did not ask for any accommodations during that
meeting, she contends that the PIP listed scheduling
difficulties and project management issues that bore on her
disability and her upcoming leave. After the June 2016
meeting, a third version of the PIP was allegedly drafted,
though Lareau disputes whether she ever received the June
June PIP identified performance progress in a variety of
areas as “incomplete.” Those areas included
management of people; communication with team members; time
management; project management; initiative; and
professionalism. The June PIP also identified several areas
in which Lareau allegedly failed to meet performance
deadlines. Lareau contends that these allegations of failure
are contradicted by an August 16, 2016 email from Bovat to
CIO Benware summarizing Lareau's progress on the PIP. The
email stated in part that “Ashley continues to develop
as a Manager at NMC. She has met our minimum requirements for
most items listed above that were in need of immediate
improvement.” ECF No. 132-16 at 10-11. Bovat titled the
email “Closing March 90 Day Performance Improvement
Plan, ” id. at 3, which was consistent with
Lareau's understanding that the PIP was closed.
7, 2016, Lareau submitted a “Request for Leave of
Absence” form to Rocheleau requesting FMLA leave
starting on June 28, 2016 and ending on July 7, 2016. ECF No.
120-16. Her April 12, 2016 FMLA Certification form stated
that the treatment schedule and recovery period for each
appointment would be six to twelve months. While NMC contends
that it granted Lareau's FMLA request, Lareau notes that
she was terminated from her job within the six to twelve
month recovery period.
11, 2016, APRN Schommer submitted a Fitness for Duty Report
pertaining to Lareau. The Report stated that Lareau should
resume work part-time as tolerated; that she might require
additional time to make up for missed work or participate in
career development programs; that she would have a lower
threshold for avoiding seizures if she was sleep deprived or
under stress; and that patients with epilepsy, as protected
by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)
and the FMLA, have the right to “reasonable
accommodations free from undue discrimination or
repercussions.” ECF No. 120-17 at 2. APRN Schommer
reported that Lareau could perform the essential functions of
her job, but again noted that she should increase her hours
only as tolerated. Id. at 1. APRN Schommer further
opined that Lareau should be able to return to work full-time
in the near future, and that the seizures were extremely
rare. Id. at 2.
testified that she did not share the July 2016 Fitness for
Duty Report with either Bovat or Benware, and instead kept it
in a confidential benefits lock box. Lareau's FMLA form
and request for leave of absence were also allegedly kept
confidential. Lareau contends that although NMC procedures
required that personnel files and benefits files be
maintained separately, NMC nonetheless produced those
documents in response to a discovery request for her
personnel file. Rocheleau testified that if the benefits
files, complete with personal health information, were
included in Lareau's personnel file, that inclusion would
have been a mistake. ECF No. 120-31 at 10.
also notes that Rocheleau never discussed ADA accommodation
requests with her, and did not engage in any interactive
process concerning the ADA-related information on the Fitness
for Duty Report. After Lareau's ...