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Jha v. Shulkin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 27, 2018

DR. ARUNA JHA, Plaintiff,
DAVID J. SHULKIN, [1] Secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs, and Defendant.



         The United States Department of Veterans Affairs employed Plaintiff Aruna Jha as a social worker at the Hines VA Medical Center from 2012 to 2015. Jha alleges that her supervisors in the Spinal Cord Injury division of the VA discriminated against her on the bases of her age and national origin, subjected her to a hostile work environment, and retaliated against her for engaging in protected conduct, in violation of her rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634. Defendant has moved for summary judgment on each of Plaintiff's claims. For the reasons explained here, the motion is granted.


         Plaintiff Aruna Jha immigrated to the United States from India in 1978, when she was 22 years old. (Dep. of Aruna Jha (hereafter “Jha Dep.”) [52-2], at 8, 35, Ex. 1 to Def.'s Statement of Facts (hereafter “DSOF”) [52].) She earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Social Work from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2001, and began working for the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009. (Id. at 7; DSOF ¶ 2.) Jha later applied for a managerial position in the Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) division of the Hines VA Medical Center in Hines, Illinois. (Jha Dep. 18-19; DSOF ¶ 3.) SCI Director Michael Richardson interviewed Jha and hired her as a Clinical Social Work Manager in February 2012, subject to a “probationary period.” (Def.'s Am. Answer to Third Am. Compl. [47], at ¶ 9; DSOF ¶ 3; Jha Dep. 16.)

         Jha's duties initially included supervising a team of four social workers and managing a home health aid program. (Jha Dep. 14.) She did not provide direct social work services to patients in this supervisory role. (Id.) In January 2013, however, before her probationary period ended, Jha “was relieved of her supervisory responsibilities” and “assigned to a line staff capacity” in the SCI division. (DSOF ¶ 4; Jha Dep. 16.) It is not clear from the record who made this decision, or why it was made. Jha remained “at the same grade level” following the change, but she was “given charge of 98 long-term care, home care patients” and was “told that [she] was also the outpatient social worker from that point on.” (Jha Dep. 19-20.) Allyson Vanscoy, one Jha's “prior direct reports, ” replaced Jha as supervisor of the social-work team. (Id. at 17-18.) Vanscoy was under forty years of age at the time and is “non-Asian.” (Def.'s Am. Answer ¶ 17.)

         Jha contacted the equal-employment opportunity office (EEO) at the Department of Veterans Affairs in September 2013. (Pl.'s Statement of Add'l Material Facts (hereafter “PSAMF”) [60-1], at ¶ 44.) It is unclear from the record what prompted this contact, which occurred more than nine months after Jha says she was replaced as social work supervisor. Jha has testified that she spoke with a woman at the Department's EEO office named Lelar Taylor and “expressed to her my concerns about the growing hostility within spinal cord injury and the lack of clarity about my job description in the new position that I had been assigned.” (Ex. 8 to Pl.'s Resp. Br. [58].) According to Jha, she also told Taylor that she “was not filing a written complaint at that time” and that she was “concerned about whether this information of my having visited the EEO's office would be carried back to Dr. Richardson.” (Id.)

         I. Jha's Suspensions from Work

         Jha's working relationship with Richardson and Vanscoy appears to have deteriorated over the next several months. On November 22, 2013, Jha was suspended from work without pay for three days. (PSAMF ¶ 52; Jha Dep. 72.) The parties dispute the circumstances that led to this suspension. Defendant contends that Richardson suspended Jha in November 2013 because of her failure to follow her supervisor's orders. (Def.'s Resp. to PSAMF [63] ¶ 51.) Defendant cites a letter Richardson wrote to Jha in April 2014, which stated, among other things, that Jha's three-day suspension in November 2013 was premised on “two charges of negligent work performance; failure to follow SCI/D Home Care Program standards; failure to follow supervisory directions; and two charges of negligent work performance in [Jha's] documentation of a patient's medical record.” (Richardson Letter of April 4, 2014 (hereafter “April 4 Letter”), at ¶ 5, Ex. 5 to DSOF.) Defendant provided no further details about these incidents. Plaintiff contends that Richardson suspended Jha because of discriminatory or retaliatory animus. (Pl.'s Resp. Br. 6.) The only admissible evidence she cites to support this contention, however, is her own testimony that Richardson once admitted to Jha and others at a staff meeting that he had previously “built a case” against “a doctor who was also Indian.”[2] (Jha Dep. 69-70.) She also testified that she “believe[s] that age may have been a factor” in her interactions with Richardson, “in that . . . I was pretty close to Dr. Richardson in age and his preference may have been for younger people who would accept his leadership style and directives in a more compliant way.” (Id. at 35.) But she has not provided any further detail about why she believes this.

         Tensions between Jha and her supervisors persisted after she returned from her three-day suspension. Jha inadvertently allowed her professional license to expire on November 30, 2013, and then counseled 33 patients before she was able to renew it on December 12.[3](DSOF ¶¶ 15-16.) At some point in December, Richardson and an unidentified “social work supervisor” learned (the record does not say how) that Jha's license was expired at the time she counseled these patients. Richardson and the supervisor contacted each of the 33 patients to notify them of the lapse in Jha's license and to explain that, although “the VA felt there was no associated harm . . . the facility determined that disclosure was the right thing to do.” (DSOF ¶ 17.) Defendant has not suggested that disclosure was required by law. The following month, in January 2014, Jha recorded conflicting information in a patient's medical record and then failed to “redact and revise” the conflicting portions of that record when “her supervisor” directed her to do so.[4] (Id. at ¶¶ 13-14; April 4 Letter ¶ 1(1)-(m).) On February 18, Jha's supervisor directed her to “place a consult for a patient” and to “determine if . . . accommodations were needed” for the patient's annual evaluation. (April 4 Letter ¶ 1(k); DSOF ¶ 12.) Jha did not contact the patient or “place the consult” until March 3, the day before the patient's evaluation was scheduled to occur. (Id.; Pl.'s Resp. to DSOF ¶ 12.) The following week, on March 11, Jha failed to attend a mandatory staff meeting. (DSOF ¶ 10; Pl.'s Resp. to DSOF ¶ 10.)

         On April 4, 2014, Richardson wrote a letter to Jha notifying her of a “proposal” to suspend her again, this time for 14 days. (DSOF ¶ 10; April 4 Letter.) As grounds for the proposed suspension, Richardson cited each of the incidents noted in the paragraph above. (April 4 Letter ¶ 1.) He also cited allegations that Jha had arrived for work several hours late, without permission from her supervisor, on February 26 and 28, 2014; had violated VA's privacy policy by conducting a computer search for patient records authored by Richardson, and then accessed confidential patient information in those files without a legitimate reason; and had violated the VA's privacy policy again on March 5 by printing “progress notes” containing patients' Social Security numbers and other private information, and then leaving those progress notes “unattended in the SCI printing area.” (Id.) Richardson informed Jha of her right to reply orally or in writing to the proposed suspension, and to submit evidence “showing why the charges are unfounded and any other reasons why this proposed suspension should not be affected [sic].” (Id. at ¶ 2.)

         Based on Jha's responses, Richardson “decided to drop” the charges relating to Jha's absences from work and her alleged breaches of VA privacy policies. (Richardson Letter of June 6 (hereafter “June 6 Letter”), 2014, Ex. 7 to DSOF.) He “sustained” the remaining charges, however, and informed Jha that she would be suspended from work from June 16, 2014 through June 29, 2014. (Id.)

         II. Jha's EEO Complaints

         On May 21, 2014, before Richardson issued his final decision regarding Jha's 14-day suspension, Jha filed a formal complaint with the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Employment Discrimination Complaint Adjudication (hereafter “EEO agency”). Jha subsequently amended the complaint twice. None of these administrative complaints are in the record, but the EEO agency's final decision on those complaints lists the claims Jha presented. (Final Agency Decision, April 21, 2015, Ex. 11 to DSOF.) Jha did not present a charge relating to the decision to “relieve” her of her supervisorial duties in January 2013. Rather, her charges, as amended, were limited to her suspensions from work, Richardson's disclosure to patients that she had counseled them without a license, and the following additional events, the facts of which the parties do not seriously dispute.

         a. Respite admission

         In February 2014, a home care nurse (not named in the record) asked Michael Richardson for permission to admit to the hospital a veteran whose roof was leaking due to snow damage. (DSOF ¶ 6.) Richardson denied the request because it would constitute a “respite admission”-that is, an admission not for the purpose of medical treatment, but rather to “provide the veteran with relief from the hazardous conditions at his home.” (Id.) The veteran was nevertheless admitted to the hospital-the parties do not specify by whom-after speaking with a patient advocate. (Id.) At some point during this process-again, the parties do not specify when-Jha spoke with the home care nurse regarding “travel arrangements” for the veteran. (Id. at ¶ 7.)

         The day after the veteran was admitted, Richardson convened a meeting with Jha and “the home care staff” to discuss the SCI division's policy regarding respite admissions. (Id. at ¶ 8.) During this meeting, Richardson asserted that the veteran's admission had been “instigated ...

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