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Fredericks v. Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

January 8, 2014

CAROL J. FREDERICKS, Plaintiff,
v.
ADVENTIST LA GRANGE MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, a/k/a ADVENTIST HEALTH SYSTEM/SUNBELT, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JAMES F. HOLDERMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Carol J. Fredericks ("Fredericks") alleges that defendant Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital (the "Hospital") terminated Fredericks's employment because of her age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). Pending before the court is "Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, " (Dkt. No. 27), which has been fully briefed by the parties. For the reasons set forth below, the Hospital's motion for summary judgment is granted and judgment is entered in favor of the Hospital on Fredericks's ADEA claim.

BACKGROUND

Fredericks was employed by the Hospital as a Radiographer/Radiography Services Technician for almost 35 years-from August 1976 until March 23, 2011. (Dkt. No. 29 ("Def.'s SMF") ¶ 1; see also Dkt. No. 32 ("Pl.'s Add'l Facts") ¶ 1.) At the time of her termination on March 23, 2011, Fredericks's direct supervisor was Karen Brown ("Brown"). (Def.'s SMF ¶ 17.) Brown, in turn, was supervised by Mike Kaitson ("Kaitson"), the Director of the Hospital's Radiology Department. ( Id. ) Brown became Fredericks's supervisor on September 6, 2010. ( Id. ¶ 18.) Brown's immediate predecessor was Kay McMahon ("McMahon"). ( Id. )

It is undisputed that, prior to her termination, Fredericks was disciplined on multiple occasions for alleged violations of Hospital policy, as detailed below. The Hospital maintains an Employee Handbook, which includes a section titled "Rules of Conduct" and stresses the importance of practicing "outstanding customer service" and complying with the Hospital's policies and procedures. ( Id. ¶¶ 5, 8, 9.) The Hospital also maintains a customer service program called "SHARE, " which provides "Standards of Behavior" relating to customer service. ( Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) In the Hospital's Rules of Conduct, employees are informed that failing to "comply with the expectations for customer service excellence (SHARE)" and the Hospital's policies and procedures are violations of the Hospital's Rules of Conduct and will result in discipline, up to and including termination. ( Id. ¶¶ 8-9.)

On March 11, 2010, [1] Fredericks was written up by McMahon for "yelling in a pt. area" and "not perform[ing] exams in a timely fashion." (Def.'s Ex. A-26.) As described in both McMahon's report of the incident and in Fredericks's declaration in support of her lawsuit, Fredericks was returning from her lunch break when Joey Maher ("Maher"), lead tech, asked Fredericks to "hurry" and do a portable chest x-ray on a full cardiac arrest patient in the E.R. ( Id .; see also Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 11.) Fredericks, who still had a few minutes left on her break, responded that she needed to wash her hands. (Def.'s Ex. A-26; Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 11.) Fredericks does not dispute that she yelled "I don't hurry" in a patient area during this incident, although she does dispute generally that she was loud or disrespectful at work. (Dkt. No. 31 ("Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s SMF") ¶ 23; see also Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 15.) Fredericks stated in her sworn declaration that it was Maher who "rudely and disrespectfully screamed" at Fredericks, and that Maher used Fredericks as a "fall guy or scapegoat" to cover up the fact that Maher did not fill the request immediately when it came in. (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 15.) Fredericks admits that the discipline she received with respect to the March 11, 2010 incident was not because of her age. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 24.)

Almost a year later, on January 20, 2011, Brown met with Fredericks to discuss an incident in which a patient complained that Fredericks gave the patient unsolicited medical advice about the patient's kidney stones while performing an x-ray exam. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 25; see also Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 12.) Fredericks characterizes this discussion as a "conversation" in which Brown sought only to inform Fredericks of the patient's complaint. (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 12.) Although Brown told Fredericks that the discussion would not be in Fredericks's "permanent record, " ( id. ¶ 12), [2] it is undisputed that Brown also completed a "counseling and corrective action documentation" form with respect to the January 20, 2011 incident, signed by both Brown and Fredericks on January 21, 2011, describing the discussion as a "verbal counseling" issued to Fredericks for violating patient safety and ethical standards by working outside the scope of her authority as a Radiographer, and stating that "[a]ny further incidences of this behavior will not be tolerated and may result in additional disciplinary actions up to and including termination." (Def.'s Ex. A-27; see also Dkt. No. 35 ("Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Add'l Facts") ¶ 12; Def.'s SMF ¶ 25.) Fredericks disputes that she actually gave the patient any medical advice, but does not dispute that the patient made this complaint to Brown. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s SMF ¶ 25.) It is Fredericks's belief that Brown wrote up this incident "for the sole purpose of terminating [Fredericks] because of her age." (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 13.)

On January 27, 2011, Brown issued Fredericks a written warning for violating the Hospital's SHARE Standards of Behavior. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 29; see also Def.'s Ex. A-28.) The warning was based on a complaint that Brown received regarding an incident in Dr. Zelby's operating room, where Fredericks was assisting. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 30.) According to the complaint, Fredericks made three unsuccessful attempts to take a satisfactory image, when Dr. Zelby asked Hospital staff to request additional help for Fredericks. ( Id. ) When Fredericks learned of this request, she loudly yelled at a nurse, "So you called for help?" and abruptly left the room. ( Id. ) The written warning states that, "despite counseling, Carol continues to challenge authority and is loud and disrespectful to staff." ( Id. ¶ 29.) Again, Fredericks disputes generally that she was loud or disrespectful at work, and asserts that the accusation against her was "false." (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 29-30; see also Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶¶ 14-15.) Fredericks does not dispute that Brown received the underlying complaint, however, and Fredericks admitted in her deposition testimony that Brown had no reason to believe that the complaint was false. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 31; see also Def.'s Ex. A ("Fredericks's Dep.") at 91:13-92:19.)

On February 9, 2011, Brown noted in Fredericks's personnel file that she had verbally counseled Fredericks about gossiping about her (Fredericks's) co-workers and not repeating negative remarks, in reference to Brown's belief that Fredericks told another employee that Brown had been "really reaming out" a co-worker. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 34.)

On February 16, 2011, Brown gave Fredericks a "Performance Evaluation" for 2010, rating Fredericks as low in almost every category, and noting that Fredericks "can be loud and harsh." (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 4; Def.'s SMF ¶ 38; see also Def.'s Ex. A-12.) Brown also gave Fredericks a "Standards of Behavior Performance Evaluation" that same day, in which Brown noted that Fredericks "uses a very loud, harsh tone with staff and patients; Carol is very loud and talks about issues to anyone who will listen. She can be disrespectful of others; Carol is often heard talking very negatively about staff and physicians; shows a lack of respect for staff; Carol can be somewhat disrespectful and inappropriate." (Def.'s SMF ¶ 38; see also Def.'s Ex. A-12.) Fredericks felt the February 16, 2011, performance evaluation was both inaccurate and degrading. (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶¶ 4-5.)

Also on February 16, 2011, Brown put Fredericks on a "Work Improvement Plan, " based on Fredericks's "continuing behavior and job performance issues." (Def.'s SMF ¶ 35; see also Def.'s Ex. A-29.) The Work Improvement Plan stated, "Carol is too loud, disrespectful of other staff. She lacks [consistency] in her imaging abilities, Carol must refrain from doing personal things during work such as puzzles." (Def.'s SMF ¶ 35.) Pursuant to the Work Improvement Plan, Fredericks was subject to a 90-day probationary period, and was instructed that possible consequences of future misconduct were suspension and termination. ( Id. ¶ 37.) Again, Fredericks disputes generally that she was loud or disrespectful at work. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s SMF ¶ 35.)

Six days later, on February 22, 2011, Fredericks met with Don Russell ("Russell"), from the Hospital's Human Resources Department, to complain that she was being harassed by Brown, based on "unjustified" disciplinary actions and Brown's broken promise to keep discipline "off the record." (Def.'s SMF ¶ 39; Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶¶ 6-7.) Fredericks did not complain to Russell that Brown's harassment was based on age. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 39.) Russell advised Fredericks to "work it out on [her] own." (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 7.)[3]

On March 1, 2011, Brown noted in Fredericks's personnel file that she had verbally counseled Fredericks about "the importance of speaking more quietly" in patient areas after Fredericks was heard loudly discussing a movie. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 40.) Again, Fredericks does not dispute that Brown made this note, but disputes generally that she was loud or disrespectful at work. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s SMF ¶ 40.)

On March 16, 2011, Fredericks was assigned to x-ray a boy's right hand. (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 18.) The boy's mother complained about Fredericks's performance, and Brown ultimately concluded that during the incident Fredericks "appeared to ignore [the mother's] request for more shielding" for her son due to his existing thyroid problem. (Def.'s Ex. B-6; Def.'s SMF ¶ 42.) According to Fredericks, she had already double-shielded the boy prior to taking the x-ray, and "the boy's mother never suggested the double shielding." (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶ 22.) Fredericks testified at her deposition that the boy's mother was "very combative with [Fredericks]" and other Hospital staff, that she disregarded Fredericks's request to stay in a waiting room until the x-ray was completed, and that she "became ballistic" and ultimately "requested another tech to complete the x-ray." ( Id. ¶¶ 18-21, 23.) Brown noted in Fredericks's personnel file that the mother and the patient subsequently left for another hospital. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 42; see also Def.'s Ex. B-6.)

Fredericks was terminated on March 23, 2011, on the stated grounds that Fredericks had exhibited poor patient care and unacceptable standards of behavior in connection with the March 16, 2011 incident, which occurred while Fredericks was on her Work Improvement Plan. (Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 41, 43; see also Def.'s Ex. B-7.)

At the time of her termination, Fredericks was fifty-six years old. (Dkt. No. 28 ("Def.'s Mem.") at 1, n.1; see also Def.'s SMF ¶ 2.) Fredericks was replaced by younger employee Shelley Molfese ("Molfese"), and it is Fredericks's belief that Brown and Kaitson discriminated against Fredericks because of her age. (Pl.'s Add'l Facts ¶¶ 8, 27; Def.'s SMF ¶ 48.)[4] Fredericks is not aware of any derogatory or discriminatory comments regarding her age made by Brown or anyone else at the Hospital. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 49.) Fredericks acknowledged at her deposition that Brown's discharge decision was motivated, at least in part, by patient and co-worker complaints regarding Fredericks's job performance. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 52; ...


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