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Lareau v. Northwestern Medical Center

United States District Court, D. Vermont

July 8, 2019

ASHLEY M. LAREAU, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHWESTERN MEDICAL CENTER, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          William K. Sessions III District Court Judge

         Plaintiff 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.

         Background

         The 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 (2007).

         In 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.

         Lareau 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.

         During 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.

         In 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 mentorship.

         In 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%.

         Lisa 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 managerial position.

         Lareau 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.

         Lareau 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.

         After 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.

         In 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.

         There 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.

         Lareau 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.

         On 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.

         On 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.

         On or 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.

         Lareau 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 draft.[1]

         The 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.

         On July 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.

         On July 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.

         Rocheleau 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.

         Lareau 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 ...


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