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Mollet v. St. Joseph's Hospital Breese

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 27, 2017

HOLLY MOLLET, Plaintiff,


          MICHAEL J. REAGAN, Chief Judge

         A. Introduction

         Holly Mollet was employed as a certified respiratory therapist at St. Joseph's Hospital in Breese, Illinois from March 2011 through December 7, 2015, when she was fired. She filed suit in this Court in March 2016 alleging that Defendants St. Joseph's Hospital Breese of the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis (“St. Joseph's”) and Hospital Sisters Health System (“HSHS”) discharged her in retaliation for taking Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave in 2015 and for filing claims for unemployment benefits in 2014 and 2015.

         Now before the Court are Defendants' March 31, 2017, motion for summary judgment and supporting memorandum (Docs. 34, 35), to which Plaintiff responded on May 4, 2017 (Doc. 38), and Defendants replied on May 18, 2017 (Doc. 39). For the reasons delineated below, the Court grants the Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         B. Factual Allegations

         In 2002, Holly Mollet began working at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Belleville, Illinois. St. Elizabeth's is a member of the HSHS hospital system. While employed by St. Elizabeth's, Mollet began also working part-time at St. Joseph's Hospital in Breese, Illinois, another member of the HSHS hospital system. In March 2011, she transferred to a position based solely at St. Joseph's Hospital and began working as a certified respiratory therapist assigned to the night shift in the cardiopulmonary department. (Doc. 35-2, p. 12-15). During her scheduled shifts, she was the only certified respiratory therapist on duty. Id.

         When Mollet transferred to St. Joseph's, she was given an HSHS Colleague Handbook that contained the hospital's policies for employees, including policies addressing attendance and leave procedures. (Doc. 38-1, p. 205). The handbook included a policy for disciplining employees who have routine and chronic occurrences of unscheduled absences. (Doc. 38-1, p. 238-40). Unscheduled absences are defined as the “[f]ailure to report for a scheduled shift or consecutive shifts, whatever the reason, including a medically verified illness.” Id. at 238. FMLA leave-related absences are exempted from the policy.

         Unscheduled absences remain on an employee's record for twelve months. If an employee has three unscheduled absence occurrences within twelve months, the employee receives coaching, or a verbal warning, from a supervisor. After five occurrences, the policy calls for written counseling of the employee. After seven occurrences, corrective action is taken, and the employee is given a final written warning. If an employee has eight occurrences in twelve months, the policy calls for termination. An absence for one full day or for multiple days for the same reason is treated as a single occurrence. The attendance policy also provides for termination of an employee who “fails to report to work for three consecutive days without talking to the leader [of their department].” Id. at 239.

         The cardiopulmonary department also has its own policy for employees who are unable to work when scheduled. Employees are required to contact Amy Culpepper, the Director of Cardiopulmonary, or the Department Facilitator to provide notice for unplanned absences. (Doc. 35-2, p. 18-19, 104, 252). During her deposition, Culpepper testified that her department is very small, only 6 or 7 certified respiratory therapists are on staff to provide respiratory and cardiac support to patients in the emergency room and nursery, and ample notification of unplanned absences is necessary for patient safety. Night shift employees like Mollet are required to provide at least three hours' notice for unplanned absences so that the department can ensure adequate staffing. (Doc. 35-2, p. 252).

         Culpepper kept track of her employees' unscheduled absences on an attendance log and on the schedules that she prepared for the cardiopulmonary department. (Doc. 35-2, p. 136). Mollet's first unscheduled absences on Culpepper's attendance log were on October 4, 2012, and November 14 through November 15, 2012. (Doc. 35-2, p. 268). Mollet had unscheduled absence occurrences again on July 2-4, 2013, and January 1, 2014. On January 26, 2014, Mollet filed an unemployment claim with the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), requesting benefits because of reduced work hours. St. Joseph's opposed the claim, writing to IDES on February 3, 2014, that Mollet had opportunities to work additional hours during the period in question but declined to do so. Robert Otrembiak, the Director of People Services, expressed to IDES that St. Joseph's did not understand why the claim was filed. (Doc. 38-1, p. 203). Mollet received unemployment benefits despite the protest by the hospital.

         Mollet had additional unscheduled absences on February 13, 2014, and February 24 through 25, 2014. Having accrued four occurrences in a twelve month period, Mollet received coaching in the form of a verbal warning from Culpepper on March 8, 2014. After the coaching, Mollet had another unscheduled absence on March 18, 2014. She received written counseling and was given a written performance improvement plan warning her that she needed to improve her attendance on March 25, 2014. (Doc. 35-2, p. 279). Mollet was scheduled to attend a training seminar on April 29, 2014. She sent a text message to Culpepper on April 28 that said she would miss the training due to a toothache. Mollet asked if she would be fired. Culpepper told Mollet that the absence would count as an unscheduled absence and that she would check whether she was subject to termination. (Doc. 35-2, p. 271). In a text message sent on April 29, Culpepper told Mollet, “Today is 6th UA. 7 is corrective action, 8 is termination.” (Doc. 35-2, p. 271).

         On May 2, 2014, Otrembiak again protested the award of unemployment compensation to Mollet, writing that he believed she was ineligible for benefits because she was actively employed by St. Joseph's with no break in her employment during the period for which the hospital received a bill. (Doc. 38-1, p. 204). Following an unscheduled absence occurrence from May 20 through 21, 2014, Mollet received a corrective action, a performance improvement plan that contained a final written warning from Culpepper, on May 23, 2014. Mollet had an unscheduled absence on October 1, 2014, but the July 2013 unscheduled absences were no longer on her record. The October 2014 absence was treated as a seventh occurrence. Mollet had an eighth unscheduled absence on December 4, 2014, and, according to the attendance policy, was subject to termination. (Doc. 35-2, p. 267).

         Following the December 2014 absence, Culpepper testified that she decided to terminate Mollet's employment due to the excessive absences. (Doc. 35-2, p. 136). Culpepper told Mollet she was fired by telephone on December 5, 2014. (Doc. 35-2, p. 32, 121). Mollet requested a meeting with Culpepper and Culpepper's supervisor, Jene Bieri, Director of Human Services. (Doc. 35-2, p. 32, 121, 166). Following a conversation Bieri had with Mollet's mother, also a St. Joseph's employee, Bieri and Culpepper, along with Otrembiak and the administrative team, decided to make an exception and convert Mollet's termination to a suspension. (Doc 35-2, p. 166-68).

         Mollet, Bieri, and Culpepper met on December 18, 2014, to discuss Mollet's employment status. Bieri and Culpepper testified that they told Mollet their decision to convert her termination to a suspension was premised on a new requirement that she have no unscheduled absences for one year. (Doc. 35-2, p. 123-24, 169-70). Mollet testified that she was never told that any further absences would result in her termination. (Doc. 35-2, p. 40-41). Mollet was given a final written warning in a written performance improvement plan that documented the suspension. The document noted Mollet's “continued failure to abide by HSHS attendance policy” and that it was expected that Mollet would have “attendance within HSHS guidelines.” (Doc. 35-2, p. 284). It did not state specifically that Mollet would be fired if she accrued any unscheduled absences in the next twelve months. After serving the suspension, Mollet returned to work. Culpepper testified that Mollet ...

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