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Vaughn v. Parkwest Medical Center

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

February 7, 2017

LORI VAUGHN, Plaintiff,
v.
PARKWEST MEDICAL CENTER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Plaintiff Lori Vaughn brings this action against her former employer, Parkwest Medical Center. Vaughn suffered two work-related injuries during her employment and was terminated by Parkwest after exhausting leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Vaughn alleges that Parkwest discriminated against her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing to rehire her.[1] The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

         Vaughn contends that Parkwest failed to consider her for vacant nursing positions and failed to engage in an interactive process to determine whether reasonable accommodations could be made to allow her to return to work as a nurse at Parkwest.

         Parkwest contends that Vaughn was not qualified to perform the essential functions of the nursing jobs she applied for at Parkwest. Further, because Vaughn failed to request a reasonable accommodation, Parkwest had no obligation to participate in an interactive process.

         I. Statement of Facts

         Vaughn started at Parkwest in 2003 as a student nurse associate and, after receiving a nursing degree, became a Clinical Nurse I. She was assigned to the Cardiology/Renal/Pulmonology unit on the third floor of Montvue Tower (3 Montvue) at Parkwest. Her average day involved caring for five to six patients, medication pass, assisting patients to the bathroom, feeding and turning patients, filling other patient needs, charting, and reporting. All nurses at Parkwest, both Clinical and LPNs, must meet Type A Physical Requirements, which necessitate frequent bending, walking, sitting, and standing 33% or more of the time as well as lifting up to 50 pounds occasionally, 20 pounds frequently, and 10 pounds regularly.

         In 2005, Vaughn hurt her back helping move a patient. She was treated by Dr. Paul Johnson for lumbar strain and was released without restrictions to return to work. Dr. Johnson assigned Vaughn a 5% permanent impairment and she received a lump sum settlement of $12, 505.80 as part of a workers' compensation claim in 2006.

         Vaughn continued to work on 3 Montvue and became a Shift Leader. In 2010, Vaughn was asked to step down from the Shift Leader role because of concerns about her leadership. Instead of stepping down, Vaughn transferred to LeConte Medical Center effective June 13, 2010.

         Six months after transferring to LeConte, Vaughn injured her neck and back on December 29, 2010, when a chair went out from under her. Dr. Johnson diagnosed her with right-sided disc herniations at ¶ 4 and C5-6 as well as an aggravation of her previous lumbar strain. Vaughn continued working at LeConte and advanced to a Clinical Nurse III in the Critical Care Unit.

         Vaughn returned to Parkwest on September 17, 2012, performing the same duties as she had previously on 3 Montvue. Two months after returning to Parkwest, Vaughn took FMLA leave on November 27, 2012 for a hysterectomy. Three days after returning from surgery, Vaughn left to get surgery for her neck on January 14, 2013. She was released on March 12, 2013 with temporary restrictions of “no climbing, pulling, pushing, repetitive stooping, bending, no lifting more than 10 pounds.” Vaughn could not work as a nurse with these restrictions but briefly worked a desk job at Fort Sanders Medical Center. Since she had not been released to return to work without restrictions and didn't have a follow-up appointment with Dr. Johnson until May 14, Parkwest terminated Vaughn's employment on March 22, 2013. Vaughn had exhausted all available FMLA leave plus an additional 30 days of personal leave. Parkwest notified Vaughn she would be eligible for rehire if released to return to work.

         Seven months after her termination, Dr. Johnson released Vaughn without any work restrictions as to her cervical spine on October 22, 2013. Dr. Johnson also assigned Vaughn a 7% permanent anatomical impairment. While she was out of work, Vaughn received $33, 800.43 in temporary total disability benefits from January 14, 2013 through October 22, 2013.

         On the day of her release, Vaughn submitted applications for two Clinical Nurse III jobs at Parkwest, including one in the Emergency Department. These jobs had the same Type A Physical Requirements as her previous position as a Clinical Nurse III on 3 Montvue. Vaughn interviewed for the Emergency Department job on November 12, 2013. According to Vaughn, at the time of her interview, Department Manager, Tammy Wood, said she wanted to hire Vaughn, discussed pay with her, and told her she would hear from somebody in Human Resources. Wood does not remember the interview, but stated that she did not have authority to extend an offer of employment. Vaughn didn't get the Emergency Department job, but Parkwest offered her a Clinical Nurse III position on 3 Montvue on January 27, 2014. In response to the offer, Vaughn stated she wanted to check with Dr. Johnson before accepting the position. Randall Carr, HR Director for Parkwest, advised her the offer would not be open long because the hospital needed to fill the position.

         Vaughn emailed Carr two days later, saying she had missed a January 28th doctor's appointment and had rescheduled the appointment for February 18th. Vaughn went on to state that at her last appointment with Dr. Johnson, he stated it would be best if she did not work as a floor nurse, and she wanted to clarify with him if it would be advisable to return to work as a floor nurse. Vaughn wrote that she would contact Carr following her next appointment with the doctor.

         Later that same day, Vaughn applied for two other Clinical Nurse III jobs at Parkwest with the same Type A Physical Requirements as the 3 Montvue job. After applying for the jobs, Vaughn emailed Carr a second time stating she had applied for the jobs and was interested in either of the two positions. She did not give Carr an answer about the 3 Montvue job.

         The next day Vaughn requested a note from Dr. Johnson's nurse stating that it would not be in her best interests to go back to floor nursing. She received a note dated January 30, 2014, stating back pain would prevent her from working as a floor nurse. When Dr. Johnson was asked whether he told Vaughn it would be best not to return to work as a floor nurse, he testified that she clearly had restrictions which “probably don't qualify her to return to work as a floor nurse.” He further opined that as a floor nurse, she would have to lift more than fifty pounds: “If you have to sheet slide a patient, even with a coworker, you've got to be - you've got to limit your patient's weight to a hundred pounds, and last I checked, most inpatients are at least double a hundred pounds.” Dr. Johnson stated that even if Vaughn's functional ...


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