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Jackson v. St. Vincent Healthcare

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

February 24, 2017



          SUSAN P. WATTERS United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Roxanna Jackson filed this action against her former employer, St. Vincent Healthcare, for disability discrimination, age discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful discharge. (Doc. 1-1). Now pending is St. Vincent's motion for summary judgment on all of Jackson's claims. (Doc. 16). As discussed below, genuine issues of material fact exist respecting some of the remaining claims. Accordingly, the Court grants St. Vincent's motion in part and denies it in part.

         I. Statement of Facts

         Roxanna Jackson has had speech and learning disabilities her entire life. (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1 at 51:19-22; Douglas Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-5 at 66:19-20). She went through high school under a special needs program and received her education under a special needs diploma. (Id. at 66:2267:2). She attended a YMCA/YWCA special needs training program to learn self-care skills. (Id.).

         In the mid-1970s, she graduated from high school and applied to St. Vincent Healthcare for a job in central processing ("CP"). (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1, 14:25-15:3). Although Jackson had special needs, her cousin knew St. Vincent's director and explained Jackson's situation. (Douglas Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-5, 65:23-67:25). St. Vincent hired Jackson as a CP aide. (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1, 23:9-10). Jackson delivered sterile trays, linens, and machines throughout the hospital. (Id. at 19:12-21). She washed and sterilized dirty instruments, wrapped them, and occasionally filled carts with items for delivery. (Id. at 19:12-20:5). Although other aides were trained to do more, Jackson was initially limited to these duties because of her disability. (Id. at 23:18-18).

         Six years into her employment, Jackson asked to become a CP tech so that she could make more money. (Id. at 21:17-22:1), CP tech duties included disassembling carts, sterilizing equipment and instruments, wrapping clean supplies and instruments, maintaining records for all instruments, transporting sterilized items, instrument assembly, checking instruments for cleanliness and impairments, checking power equipment, reporting and documenting missing instruments, maintaining instrument coding systems, inventorying equipment status, back orders, and changes and communicating the status to staff, and making sure that all emergency, trauma, and add-on cases are picked and sent to the operating room in a timely manner. (Doc. 19-12). Techs were required to be capable of performing all aspects of the job in the event they had to work a weekend alone. (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1 at 37:15-38:6). Jackson had previously learned and completed all the other tasks as an aide and was knowledgeable in them, so all she needed was training in completing the instrument sets, which she received. (Id. at 25:14-25).

         During her tenure as a tech, Jackson was open with her co-workers about the fact that she had a disability and she experienced various accommodations. For example, although she could perform all of the duties required to be a tech, (id. at 104:22-23; Hoffman Depo., Doc. 19-3 at 21:9-16), her manager, Diane Larson, did not typically have her work with the instruments because of her disability. (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1 at 26:6-10, 26:20-22). Also, Larson and the evening head tech, David Wilcox, would switch Jackson out of instruments to another task if the instrument area was busy or if Jackson did not have a helper. (Id. at 99:14-24; 96:25-97:3). From the time she was promoted in 2006, Jackson worked successfully as a tech; she was never subjected to any discipline whatsoever until 2013. (Smith Depo., Doc. 19-7 at 12:15-24; 29:10-19).

         In 2013, David Dobson became the director of OR, surgical, procedural, and support services, which included oversight of CP. (Dobson Depo., Doc. 19-9 at 4:16-5:9; 7:4-18; 8:10-16). As director, Dobson had control over policies and procedures in CP and he played a role in the discipline of the CP techs. (Id. at 9:22-10:3; 11:4-11; 14:7-25). After meeting Dobson, Jackson told him that she had special needs. (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1 at 49:13-50:12). He told her he had worked with people with special needs before. (Id. at 50:13-15). Dobson promoted Jackson's co-worker, Heather Franzel, to be the CP department manager. (Id. at 9:19-21; Franzel Depo., Doc. 19-6 at 13:22-14:1). Franzel had also worked with Jackson since 2007, and knew she had a disability. (Id. at 15:19-16:4; Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1 at 155:24-156:7).

         Not long after Franzel became Jackson's manager, Franzel told Jackson that she was "going too slow on the instruments." (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1 at 30:1-9). Periodic time trials were implemented to measure the amount of time it took employees to put instrument trays together. (Smith 30(b)(6) Depo., Doc. 19-8 at 58:7-11). According to CP supervisor Amanda Mordhorst, the sole purpose of the time trials was to determine how long employees were taking to complete instrument trays. (Mordhorst Depo., Doc. 19-2 at 26:4-7). These trials were not typical procedure in the CP department. (Franzel Depo., Doc. 19-6 at 53:2-19). Through the trials, Franzel learned how long it took Jackson to complete her instrument trays. (Id. at 54:20-55:13). She contacted Human Resources Manager Annette Hoffman with concerns about the time it took Jackson to process different types of instrument trays. (Hoffman Depo., Doc. 19-3. at 12:8-15).

         Hoffman, Franzel, Mordhorst, and Human Resources business partner Melissa Young met with Jackson and discussed the time Jackson took to complete instrument sets and advised her of the needs of the job and expectations. (Id. at 13:3-11). They discussed retraining with Jackson as a means to meet their expectations. (Id. at 13:8-11). They did not talk about her disability or any restrictions Jackson had. (Id. at 13:25-14:5). On July 24, 2013, Dobson and Franzel met again with Jackson and discussed "high, medium, and low perspectives of Productivity in the Central Processing Department to establish expectations." (Doc. 16-8, ¶ 1; Doc. 19-21). Franzel wanted Jackson to improve her instrument assembly time. (Franzel Depo. Doc. 19-6 at 47:24-48:1).

         On October 10, 2013, Jackson received her first disciplinary notice or "correction action form" regarding her work. (Id.; Doc. 16-8; Doc. 19-21). Specifically, Jackson was advised that "[t]he request to improve your technical skills to be able to maintain the instrumentation area has not been met" and that changes in her "productivity skills" had not occurred. (Doc. 16-8 at ¶ 2). The form also stated, "we asked that if you needed assistance to make us aware and we would provide the training and a means of measure to improve on. To date, there has been only one request to the lead tech and none to [Franzel]. As a result, you have either (sic) not taken on the tasks that would require you to improve your performance, " (Id.). The form was signed by Franzel and St. Vincent's Human Resources Director Kathy Smith. (Doc. 19-21).

         Jackson needed additional time to complete the instrument trays, so she provided Franzel and Dobson a letter dated October 16, 2013, from her doctor, William Phillips, DO. (Jackson Depo. Doc. 19-1 at 57:11-17; Doc. 16-9). In his letter, Dr. Phillips stated that Jackson was special needs and thus required additional time "to learn and perform certain tasks." (Doc. 16-9), He also advised that Jackson was a diabetic with a heart condition and asked that her employer take that into consideration when performing job evaluations. (Id.). Despite the fact that she thought Dr. Phillip's' letter was "vague, " Franzel did not ask for further clarification, nor did she discuss the letter with Jackson, or find out from Jackson what disability or restrictions she might have. (Franzel Depo., Doc. 19-6 at 32:6-20, 33;8-12, 34:21-23). In fact, Franzel never discussed Jackson's disability with her or any restrictions she had. (Jackson Depo. Doc. 19-1 at 33:8-13).

         After receiving Dr. Phillips' letter, Dobson advised human resources of Jackson's potential disability and arranged for a clinical assessment to validate if Jackson did indeed have a disability. (Dobson Depo. 27:21-28:13). Jackson was referred to David R. Gumm, Ph.D., a St. Vincent employee, for a psychological evaluation on November 14, 2013. (Doc. 19-14). Dr. Gumm found that Jackson "functioned in the borderline range of intellectual abilities." (Id. at 3). He noted that she was experiencing work-related stress due to a new manager who was not patient with her, she had relative strength in nonverbal abilities, and she was not confident in her skills regarding sterilization of instruments. (Id. at 4). He suggested that she "might learn best by having things demonstrated to her rather than explained to her orally" and she could benefit from "more repetition" than the typical employee. (Id.). He also suggested that Jackson be allowed to "perform some areas of her job that she has more confidence in, " and that a third party mediator could be helpful to assist her in communicating with her manager. (Id.).

         In response to Dr. Gumm's evaluation, St. Vincent appointed Hoffman to be Jackson's mediator to ensure effective communication between Jackson and Franzel. (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1 at 61:20-62:3). St. Vincent also interpreted Dr. Gumm's remaining suggestions as three accommodation requests on Jackson's behalf: that she have things demonstrated to her rather than explained orally, that she be provided with more repetition, and that they explore "other opportunities that she may have an interest in." (Smith 30(b)(6) Depo., Doc. 19-8 at 22:21-23:10).

         After receiving Dr. Gumm's evaluation, Dobson and Franzel never discussed the possibility of allowing Jackson more time to accomplish certain tasks in her job. (Dobson Depo., Doc. 19-9 at 32:5-10) Instead, they placed Jackson into retraining for six weeks, despite the fact that the human resources manager had determined that Jackson could perform the essential functions of her position, and that neither Dr. Phillips nor Dr. Gumm suggested retraining was necessary. (Smith 30(b)(6) Depo., Doc. 19-8 at 23:11-16; Smith Depo., Doc. 19-7 at 26:15-22; 26:23-27:2).

         Jackson underwent retraining from January 20, 2014 to February 28, 2014 with CP Supervisor Amanda Mordhorst. (Franzel Depo., Doc. 19-6 at 39:8-9; Doc. 19-21). According to Franzel, the point of Jackson's retraining was to reteach her the instrument tasks so that she could eliminate mistakes and improve her instrument assembly times. (Id. at 57:21-58:1). Jackson was required to complete more assembly time trials to "help identify where she was less confident in her work, " "[s]o that she could work in those areas quicker." (Smith Depo. Doc. 19-7 at 59:23-25; 61:19-61:5). During retraining, Dobson and Franzel told Jackson that she was going too slowly. (Jackson Depo., Doc. 19-1 at 82:12-13).

         Nevertheless, Jackson did well in retraining. (Mordhurst Depo. Doc. 19-2 at 24:17-25:1). She demonstrated that she was competent in the instrument area. (Id. at 32:18-19). She felt comfortable with and knew how to complete the instrument trays during the retraining program. (Id. at 79:10-12). After the retraining, Jackson felt more comfortable with the instrument trays because she learned a better way to put the instruments on the trays. (Id. at 81:14-15). Nevertheless, Jackson expressed concerns to Hoffman that she was still being asked to work too fast. (Hoffman Depo., Doc. 19-3 at 21:19-21).

         In March 2014, after Jackson had completed the retraining, she received her 2013 performance review. (Franzel Depo., Doc. 19-6 at 45:23-25; Doc. 19-35). In the evaluation, Franzel noted that Jackson was "strong in the decontamination and sterilization areas of the department... very familiar with the SR instrumentation and a great source of knowledge [but] we would like to see [Jackson] improve . .. her instrument assembly times." (Id. at 46:15-47:8; Doc. 19-35). Despite noting that she was still struggling with instrument assembly times, none of Jackson's supervisors considered restructuring her position or altering her job duties in any way. (Mordhorst Depo., Doc. 19-2 at 41:23-42:7).

         On April 9, 2014, Jackson received a "verbal coaching" regarding her training and performance. (Doc. 19-21). On April 16, 2014, Dr. Phillips wrote a second letter to St. Vincent on Jackson's behalf. (Doc. 19-15). Specifically, he stated that Jackson "felt she is being mistreated and harassed as she does her best with her physical limitations to meet the demands of her supervisor. She typically goes home in tears and is not getting the support that she needs to continue to provide diligent, faithful services in her capacity." ...

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