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Ann Brandl v. Superior Air-Ground Ambulance Service

April 25, 2012

ANN BRANDL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SUPERIOR AIR-GROUND AMBULANCE SERVICE, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Ann Brandl brings this action against her former employer, Superior Air-Ground Ambulance Services, Inc. ("Superior"). She alleges that Superior violated Title VII when it terminated her for "behaving argumentatively," while similarly situated male colleagues displayed equally argumentative behavior without discipline (Count I). Ms. Brandl also alleges that her termination constituted retaliatory discharge (Court II) and violated the Illinois Whistleblower Act (Count III), because it was carried out in retaliation for her complaints about Medicare violations and her refusal to submit allegedly unsupported invoices to Medicare. Superior has moved for summary judgment, arguing that Ms. Brandl has failed to develop any factual support for a prime facie case of gender discrimination, as well as for her retaliation/Whistleblower Act claims. Superior also argues that Ms. Brandl lacks factual support for her claim for punitive damages. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Superior's Motion as to the Title VII claim (Count I), but grants the motion as to the retaliation/Whistleblower Act claims (Counts II and III).*fn1

I.BACKGROUND

The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise specified. Ann Brandl began working for Superior as a paramedic in 1998. (Def. Rule 56.1(a)(3) Statement (hereinafter "Def. St.") ¶ 16.) She received several promotions and was eventually named Vice President of Operations (Def. St. ¶¶ 18-21.) She served as one of three vice presidents and was supervised by the company's Chief Executive Officer, Dave Hill. (Def. St. ¶ 28.) As a Vice President of Operations, Ms. Brandl reviewed contract terms and service agreements between Superior and various medical facilities and monitored Superior's compliance with Medicare regulations. (Def. St. ¶¶ 54-56.) Ms. Brandl would notify Superior's CEO if she observed any practices that she believed violated Medicare regulations. (Pl. Rule 56.1(b)(3)(C) Statement (hereinafter "Pl. St.") ¶ 16.)

In January 2009, Terry Pahl joined Superior as its new Chief Financial Officer. (Pl. St. ¶ 17.) In the two months between Ms. Pahl becoming CFO and Ms. Brandl's termination, Ms. Brandl notified Ms. Pahl about the following practices she believed violated Medicare regulations: (1) submission of Medicare bills without proper documentation; (2) proposal of lower-than-authorized rates in contracts with Loyola and Illinois Masonic hospitals; and (3) comingling of Medicare client funds. (Pl. St. ¶ 17.)

The parties dispute the legitimacy of Ms. Brandl's Medicare compliance-related complaints. Superior contends, with support in the record, that it did not submit improper Medicare bills, that it was in compliance with Medicare regulations as to the Loyola and Illinois Masonic contracts, and that it was making changes to address comingling of Medicare client funds. (Def. Reply to Pl. St. ¶ 19.) Ms. Brandl contends, also with support in the record, that her complaints were legitimate. (Pl. St. ¶ 17.)

On February 26, 2009, Ms. Pahl and Summer Heil, Superior's General Counsel, met with Ms. Brandl and informed her that she was being terminated for behaving argumentatively. (Pl. St. ¶ 32.) They gave no other reason for the termination at that time. (Id.)

Whether Ms. Brandl was more argumentative than similarly situated male employees is genuinely in dispute. Ms. Brandl points to evidence in the record showing that argumentative and aggressive behavior, such as yelling and profanity, were commonplace among Superior's executive committee and that her behavior was not outside the norm. (Pl. St. ¶¶ 5-6.) Superior points to portions of the record indicating that other members of the executive committee were generally courteous and professional, and it was Ms. Brandl who was occasionally out-of-line. (Def. Rep. to Pl. St. ¶¶ 2-6.)

Superior does not dispute that Ms. Brandl was told that she was being terminated for behaving argumentatively. (Def. Reply to Pl. St. ¶ 32.) It does dispute, however, that Ms. Brandl's argumentativeness was the actual reason for her termination. Superior takes the position that Ms. Brandl was fired because she lied to Superior's CEO, Dave Hill, about the costs associated with implementing a new crew scheduling software program. Mr. Hill testified that Ms. Brandl stated that the software package would cost a total of $30,000-40,000, but Mr. Hill was skeptical and directed Ms. Brandl's staff to prepare a side-by-side comparison of all costs associated with the two software systems under consideration. (Def. St. ¶¶ 36-50.) In viewing that comparison, Mr. Hill learned that the system Ms. Brandl recommended had upfront fees of over $200,000, which she had not disclosed, and it would be much more expensive to implement than the competing software. (Def. St. ¶¶ 40-43.) Mr. Hill stated that the software review incident caused him to lose trust in Ms. Brandl and served as his sole motivation for terminating her employment. (Def. St. ¶¶ 50.)

Ms. Brandl, on the other hand, contends that the software review incident had nothing to do with her termination. She contends that Superior fired her either because she refused to participate in Medicare fraud and/or because of her gender.

II.LEGAL STANDARD

"The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In determining whether factual issues exist, the court does not "judge the credibility of the witnesses, evaluate the weight of the evidence, or determine the truth of the matter. The only question is whether there is a genuine issue of fact." Gonzalez v. City of Elgin, 578 F.3d 526, 529 (7th Cir. 2009).

Rule 56 mandates, however, that the party opposing a motion for summary judgment may not rest on the pleadings or mere speculation. See Springer v. Durflinger,518 F.3d 479, 484 (7th Cir. 2008). It must instead affirmatively demonstrate, through the presentation of admissible evidence, that there is a genuine issue of material fact to be resolved at trial. United States v. 5443 Suffield Terrace, Skokie, Ill.,607 F.3d 504, 510 (7th Cir. 2010). If there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact, the court must view the relevant evidence in the light most ...


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