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Wilson v. St. Luke's Regional Medical Center, Ltd.

United States District Court, D. Idaho

December 16, 2014

REBECCA WILSON, an individual Plaintiff,
v.
ST. LUKE'S REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, LTD., an Idaho corporation; MIKE McGRANE, an individual; KEVIN KRAAL, an individual; ROURKE YEAKLEY, an individual; JAMES PENNINGTON, an individual; and BRANDY BARTHOLOMEW, an individual, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

B. LYNN WINMILL, Chief District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Before the Court is defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 38). For the reasons expressed below, the Court will grant the motion.

FACTS

Plaintiff Rebecca Wilson worked as a flight nurse for Air St. Luke's for approximately ten years. She was fired on December 12, 2011. The "Corrective Action Form" documenting Wilson's termination states that there had been "serious performance concerns regarding recent transport events." Dec. 12, 2011 Corrective Action Form, Dkt. 38-11, at 1. The form references two transports: (1) a November 30, 2011 transport of a maternity patient from Emmett, Idaho to St. Luke's in Boise, Idaho; and (2) a December 4, 2011 transport of a cardiac patient from Burley, Idaho to Utah.

Regarding the November 30, 2011 transport, the form states that Wilson "refused the transport without consultation with medical control and without assessing the patient." Id. Wilson disagrees with this characterization. It is undisputed, however, that Wilson questioned whether she should have been assigned to the transport; she believes the transport should have been assigned to St. Luke's "Maternal/Fetal" team. Plaintiff's Response, Dkt. 46, at 10. Wilson indicates that the pregnant patient was experiencing complications and she did not feel comfortable with her ability to care for a premature baby in the event of a delivery, and, further, that the ambulance she was in did not have the proper equipment to care for a premature baby. Ultimately, another team was assigned to the transport.

As for the December 4, 2011 transport, the form states that Wilson initially "appropriately question[ed]" the decision to send a cardiac patient from Burley, Idaho to Utah, rather than to a closer facility. Dkt. 38-11, at 2. It goes on to state that after being informed that the sending physician and the patient were aware of the risks, Wilson nonetheless "continued to repeatedly question the sending physician regarding the decision to send the patient to Salt Lake City and interven[ed] between the patient, the sending physician, and the receiving physician without having assessed the patient." Id.

Wilson disputes St. Luke's characterization of this transport. She does not dispute, however, that she questioned the advisability of the transport, or that she spoke with the sending physician, Dr. McClain. It is also undisputed that Wilson was not at the patient's bedside, although she had received information about the patient's condition. Ultimately, Wilson's supervisors pulled her and her coworker, Terence McCue, off the transport. Another team - defendants James Pennington and Brandy Bartholomew - then completed the transport.

Shortly after completing the transport, Bartholomew spoke to defendant Dr. Rourke Yeakley. See Transcript, Dkt. 39-5. Dr. Yeakley is a co-medical director for Air St. Luke's and is one of Wilson's supervisors. During her conversation with Dr. Yeakley, Bartholomew criticized Wilson's conduct. She told Dr. Yeakley that she believed Wilson and Wilson's coworker Terence McCue had jeopardized Air St. Luke's business relations with Dr. McClain. She asked Dr. Yeakley if there would be "some follow up." Id. at 4.

The following day, Pennington expressed his concerns about the December 4 transport in an email to Dr. Yeakley, Dr. Kraal (another one of Wilson's supervisors), and various St. Luke's employees. See Dkt. 39-4. Dr. Kraal, who is also a medical director for Air St. Luke's, responded to Pennington's email after listening to the recordings of Wilson's conversations with Dr. McClain and others. Among other things, Dr. Kraal wrote:

I spoke with Dr. McClain last night. After reviewing the tapes I am frankly embarrassed by this incident.... I am struck by number of things displayed by Beckie [Wilson] and Terry [McCue]. First, trying to get dispatch essentially to tell the sending facility issues related to clinical medicine. Second, not having a clue about the patient's condition and deciding what is best for him, despite the decision of a competent and quite thoughtful and compassionate physician who is at the bedside. Third, blatant exag[g]erations if not outright lies regarding transport times. Beckie is so clearly simply trying to get out of this transport it makes me crazy. Fourth, the number of calls back and forth for a very straightforward transport.... I could go on. Frankly, I am furious. I laid in bed last night going over those tapes, and my conversation with Dr. McClain, and had those two been near me they would still be recovering. This is a not tolerable situation for me.
Dr. McClain was intimidated that a Boise ED doc would call him about this. He was grateful that you decided to send the twin fall crew eventually, but as I listen to the tapes I see how Beckie (with the encouragement of Terry) manages to suck more and more people into this. Terry did say one very accurate thing when he was on hold. "allright, that's it. I'm done with this" He is. They both are. We have worked too hard to create a working relationship with our facilities to ever risk those two again. We all know this is a repetitive pattern. I feel badly that they were allowed to work here long enough to do something so blatant.

Dec. 6, 2011 email from Dr. Kevin Kraal to Susan Gidding, James Pennington, Michael McGrane, Dr. Roarke Yeakley, and Deb Koch, Dkt. 39-4, at 1.[1]

Shortly after Dr. Kraal wrote this email, Dr. Kraal and Dr. Yeakley withdrew their "approval for Wilson to be credentialed and provide services as EMS personnel for Air St. Luke's." See Dec. 8, 2011 Letter from Kraal and Yeakley to McGrane, Dkt. 38-14. St. Luke's terminated Wilson a few days later.

Wilson responded with this lawsuit against St. Luke's and various individual defendants. She alleges state-law claims for (1) unlawful reprisal in violation of Idaho's Human Rights Act; (2) wrongful termination in violation of public policy; (3) tortious interference with contract; (4) tortious interference with prospective economic advantage; and (5) defamation.

She also alleges a single federal claim - violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 to 12213. Regarding this claim, Wilson says that on November 22, 2011 - roughly three weeks before she was fired - Wilson's coworker, McCue, named her as a witness in his lawsuit against the hospital. In his lawsuit, McCue was pursuing claims that the hospital had violated the ADA. Wilson had also been supportive of McCue in the workplace by, among other things, refusing to downgrade a stellar performance review she had written for him. Wilson alleges that St. Luke's fired her in retaliation for supporting McCue's ADA lawsuit.

LEGAL STANDARD

One of the principal purposes of the summary judgment "is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims...." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). It is "not a disfavored procedural shortcut, " but is instead the "principal tool[ ] by which factually insufficient claims or defenses [can] be isolated and prevented from going to trial with the attendant unwarranted consumption of public and private resources." Id. at 327. "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and the Court must not make credibility findings. Id. at 255. Direct testimony of the non-movant must be believed, however implausible. Leslie v. Grupo ICA, 198 F.3d 1152, 1159 (9th Cir. 1999). On the other hand, the Court is not required to adopt unreasonable inferences from circumstantial evidence. McLaughlin v. Liu, 849 F.2d 1205, 1208 (9th Cir. 1988).

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute as to material fact. Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2001)(en banc). To carry this burden, the moving party need not introduce any affirmative evidence (such as affidavits or deposition excerpts) but may simply point out the absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Fairbank v. Wunderman Cato Johnson, 212 F.3d 528, 532 (9th Cir. 2000).

This shifts the burden to the non-moving party to produce evidence sufficient to support a jury verdict in her favor. Deveraux, 263 F.3d at 1076. The non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show "by her [ ] affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file" that a genuine dispute of material fact exists. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

However, the Court is "not required to comb through the record to find some reason to deny a motion for summary judgment." Carmen v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 237 F.3d 1026, 1029 (9th Cir. 2001) (quotation omitted). Instead, the "party opposing summary judgment must direct [the Court's] attention to specific triable facts." Southern California Gas Co. v. City of Santa Ana, 336 F.3d 885, 889 (9th Cir. 2003).

ANALYSIS

1. Wilson's ADA Claim

Wilson alleges that St. Luke's violated the ADA by unlawfully retaliating against her because she supported her coworker's pursuit of an ADA claim against the hospital. The relevant part of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a), provides that

No person shall discriminate against any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by this chapter or because such an individual made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation proceeding, or hearing under this chapter.

To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under this statute, Wilson must show that (1) she engaged in activity protected by the ADA, (2) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) there was a causal link between the two. Brown v. City of Tucson, 336 F.3d 1181, 1186-87 (9th Cir. 2003). If Wilson establishes a prima facie retaliation case, she will avoid summary judgment unless St. Luke's offers legitimate reasons for the adverse employment action. At that point, under the framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), the burden shifts back to Wilson to demonstrate a triable issue of fact as to whether the proffered reasons are pretextual. See Pardi v. Kaiser Found. Hosps., 389 F.3d 840, 849 (9th Cir. 2004).

For purposes of this motion, defendants concede that Wilson has established a prima facie case of retaliation. See Reply, Dkt. 49, at 5. The burden thus shifts to St. Luke's to offer legitimate reasons for firing Wilson. St. Luke's has met this burden. It has offered evidence that Dr. Yeakley and Dr. Kraal withdrew their approval of Wilson as an Air St. Luke's nurse because they believed she made decisions that either compromised patient care or disrupted Air St. Luke's relationship with other medical providers. See, e.g., Yeakley Depo., Dkt. 39-1, at 46:22 to 47:13; 61:2 to 62:1; Kraal Depo., Dkt. 39-2, at 22:19 to 23:14; 44:10 to 45:9; 60:6-11; 63:2-11; McGrane Depo., Dkt. 39-3, at 15:10-22; 16:9-21; 19:13-16; 32:25-33:7; 82:11-83:6. Further, it is undisputed that, at the time they withdrew Wilson's authorization, neither doctor knew anything about Wilson's involvement in her coworker's pending lawsuit against St. Luke's, or any related fact. See Sep. Stmt. Of Undisputed Facts, Dkt. 38-2, ¶ 16.[2] After Dr. Yeakley and Dr. Kraal withdrew their authorization for Wilson, St. Luke's suspended, and later terminated, Wilson, indicating that there were "serious performance concerns regarding recent transport events" and, further, that because Dr. Kraal and Dr. Yeakly had withdrawn their authorization, Wilson "no longer meets the minimal job requirements for her position...." Corrective Action Form, Dkt. 38-11, at 1.

Given this explanation, the burden shifts to Wilson to show that St. Luke's proffered reasons for firing Wilson were pretextual. Wilson has two ways to establish pretext: She can do so by "directly persuading the court that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that the employer's proffered explanation is unworthy of credence." Stegall v. Citadel Broadcasting Co., 350 F.3d 1061, 1067 (9th Cir. 2003). Additionally, Wilson may rely on either circumstantial or direct evidence. See Godwin v. Hunt Wesson, Inc., 150 F.3d 1217, 1221-22 (9th Cir.1998). "Direct evidence is evidence which, if believed, proves the fact [of discriminatory animus] without inference or presumption.'" Id. (citation omitted). If a plaintiff has direct evidence of a discriminatory motive, a triable issue of fact is created "even if the evidence is not substantial." Id. at 1221. If direct evidence is unavailable, a plaintiff may rely on circumstantial evidence to "to show that the employer's proffered motives were not the actual motives because they are inconsistent or otherwise not believable." Id. at 1222. Circumstantial evidence, however, "must be specific' and substantial' in order to create a triable issue with respect to whether the employer intended to discriminate on the basis of [a prohibited ground]." Id. at 1222.

Wilson has not provided direct evidence that St. Luke's proffered reasons for firing her were pretextual. Nor has she come forward with the "specific and substantial" circumstantial evidence necessary to create a triable issue with respect to whether St. Luke's intended to discriminate against her based on her support of McCue's ADA lawsuit. In her effort to establish pretext with circumstantial evidence, Wilson argues she that she was a proficient nurse; that there was no prior documentation of her failing to meet her job proficiencies; that Dr. Yeakley and Dr. Kraal wrongly withdrew their authorization; and that St. Luke's wrongly relied on this withdrawal in terminating her. See Response, Dkt. 46, at 2-8. Wilson also argues that because defendant Mike McGrane listened to the audio recordings related to the December 4, 2011 transport, at a minimum, he "must have known that Ms. Wilson did not display a lack of proficiencies of her job." Response, Dkt. 46, at 6. Defendant McGrane was the director of Air St. Luke's at the time, and thus was responsible for personnel evaluations.

In advancing these arguments, Wilson often veers into arguing that St. Luke's wrongly terminated a competent nurse. But that is not the question before the Court. Rather, the question is whether St. Luke's honestly believed the reasons for its actions. Thus, if St. Luke's honestly believed Wilson had serious performance issues, and that the withdrawal of authorization resulted in her failure to meet the minimum job requirements, then this is enough. "[C]ourts only require an employer honestly believed its reason for its actions, even if its reason is foolish or trivial or even baseless." Villiarimo v. Aloha Island Air, Inc., 281 F.3d 1054, 1063 (9th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted; holding that the plaintiff's evidence of pretext was insufficient because the plaintiff failed to present evidence that the employer did not honestly believe its proffered reasons for its action).

After examining the evidence in the record, the Court concludes that Wilson has failed to point to any substantial, specific evidence that would allow a rational juror to conclude that St. Luke's harbored a retaliatory motive, or that it was lying when it said Wilson had performance issues and no longer met the minimum job requirements due to the withdrawal of authorization. To the contrary, the undisputed facts show that Wilson was terminated a few days after the December 4, 2011 transport, and that her supervisors - who knew nothing about her support of McCue's lawsuit - concluded that Wilson's conduct warranted corrective action, including withdrawal of their authorization and, ultimately, termination.

Because Wilson has failed to meet her burden at the third phase of the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework, the Court will grant defendants' motion for summary judgment on Wilson's retaliation claim under the ADA.

In addition to alleging retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a), Wilson also alleges "retaliation" under sub-section (b) of Section 12203. See Compl., Dkt. 1, at 8 (Wilson alleges a single claim for "Unlawful Retaliation in Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a) and (b)") (emphasis added). Sub-section (b) does not expressly deal with retaliation, however. Rather, this sub-section makes it unlawful to "coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, or account of his or her having exercised or enjoyed... any right granted or protected by this chapter." 42 U.S.C. § 12203(b). In alleging her single ADA claim, Wilson alleged that St. Luke's conduct related to her suspension and termination "was retaliation and/or coercion, intimidation, and threats...." Compl., Dkt. 1, ¶ 37 (emphasis added).

In opposing defendants' motion for summary judgment, Wilson does not distinguish between sub-sections (a) or (b). Rather, she generally focuses on a retaliation analysis, which would fall under § 12203(a). Further, Wilson does not argue or suggest that, in her case, the outcome or analysis would be different under § 12203(b). Indeed, Wilson does not even separately cite the two sections in her brief. See Response Br., Dkt. 46, at 2-8. Under these ...


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