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Coone v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority

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

February 21, 2018

SONJA COONE, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Sonja Coone worked as a nurse in the Emergency Department at the Chattanooga - Hamilton County Hospital Authority d/b/a Erlanger Health System (“Erlanger”). In December 2015, Erlanger investigated a complaint that plaintiff had violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPPA”), 42 U.S.C. §1320d-1, et seq., when she accessed a patient's medical record and shared that information with the patient's sister, allegedly without the patient's consent. Following an investigation, plaintiff was terminated. Plaintiff claims that she was terminated because of her age and her use of Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave.

         Erlanger has filed a motion for summary judgment [Doc. 26] with supporting briefs, deposition testimony, and exhibits [Docs. 27, 31, 35]. The plaintiff has filed an opposing brief with supporting testimony and exhibits [Doc. 40]. For the reasons set forth herein, the defendant's motion [Doc. 26] will be DENIED.

         I. Relevant Facts

         A. Background

         Erlanger is a large regional hospital that employs approximately 6, 000 employees on several different campuses in Chattanooga, Tennessee and the surrounding region [Doc. 26-2 at ¶ 4]. Erlanger maintains extensive guidelines for employees relating to patient privacy, confidentiality, and compliance with HIPPA [Id. at ¶ 8].[1] Erlanger's Medical Records Authorization policy stipulates, “[a]n authorization must be received from the patient before any PHI is used or disclosed” [Doc. 26-2 at p. 36]. Erlanger requires its employees, including plaintiff, to complete annual training regarding the handling of confidential patient information and compliance with HIPPA [Doc. 26-2 at ¶ 9]. Further, Erlanger's Discipline policy provides that an employee may be terminated for “[c]ertain violations of the hospital's HIPPA guidelines” [Id. at ¶ 9; Doc. 26-2 at p. 81].

         Kevin Spiegel became the Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”) of Erlanger in April 2013. Once he became CEO, Mr. Spiegel emphasized to the Human Resources (“HR”) Department his belief in the importance of patient confidentiality [Doc. 26-2 at ¶ 11]. From 2012 to 2017, Erlanger has terminated nine (9) employees, including plaintiff, for HIPPA violations [Id. at ¶ 12].

         Plaintiff, currently age 53, began working at Erlanger in the late 1980s as a staff nurse on the Medical Surgery Floor and in the Emergency Department (“ED”) [Doc. 26-1 at pp. 18-20].[2] After living in Alaska for several years, plaintiff returned to Tennessee in 2007 and to employment with Erlanger as a nurse with the admissions unit of the intensive-care unit [Id. at pp. 20-21]. This unit changed names several times during plaintiff's tenure and eventually became known as the Clinical Decision Unit (“CDU”) until it merged with the ED in late 2014 [Doc. 26-1 at pp. 22-23]. The CDU was a “sister unit of the emergency room” which functioned as a holding area where patients from the ED who had been stabilized could await admission to an inpatient hospital room [Id. at pp. 25-26; Doc. 26-6 at ¶ 6]. To improve the efficiency of operations in the ED, Erlanger merged the CDU with the ED to improve the flow of patients and to have staff trained to work in both areas [Doc. 26-6 at ¶ 6].

         Beginning in 2007 and every year until her termination, plaintiff used intermittent leave protected by the FMLA to care for her autistic son [Doc. 26-1 at pp. 36-38]. Erlanger uses an outside third-party administrator to verify and process employees' FMLA leave requests and to keep track of an employee's use of FMLA leave [Doc. 26-5 at ¶¶ 3- 4]. Plaintiff informed her charge nurse when she needed to request FMLA leave and she also contacted Erlanger's third-party FMLA administrator [Doc. 26-1 at pp. 40-42]. Plaintiff testified, however, that Erlanger's records of her FMLA usage were not always accurate [Doc. 40-1 at p. 75].

         Cathryn Phillips became the Clinical Director of the Center for Emergency Services in March 2014 [Doc. 26-6 at ¶ 3]. Ms. Phillips had the authority to hire, fire, and discipline employees who worked in any of the Emergency Services Departments on Erlanger's campuses [Id. at ¶ 5]. While Ms. Phillips claims a “vague recollection” that plaintiff had some need for family leave, she was not involved with plaintiff's requests or approvals for FMLA leave [Id. at ¶ 10].

         Jeneen Carman became the Director of the Baroness campus ED on October 26, 2015 [Doc. 26-3 at ¶ 4]. In this position, Ms. Carman reported to Ms. Phillips and all of the nurses, charge nurses, and assistant nurse managers of the ED reported to Ms. Carman [Id. at ¶ 5; Doc. 26-1 at p. 81]. Ms. Carman had the authority to hire, fire, and discipline nurses [Doc. 26-3 at ¶ 5]. However, Ms. Carman has never terminated an employee without consulting Erlanger's HR Department [Id. at ¶ 5].

         B. Plaintiff's Relationship with Cathy Phillips Ms. Phillips placed plaintiff on a work improvement plan (“WIP”) in January 2015. Plaintiff and Ms. Phillips have differing versions of how that came to be. Ms. Phillips states that, when the CDU and ED merged, plaintiff was resistant to working in the ED [Id. at ¶¶ 7-8]. Several Assistant Nurse Managers complained to Ms. Phillips that plaintiff repeatedly refused to work in the ED and constantly requested to be placed in the CDU [Id. at ¶ 8]. After several months of communicating regarding issues pertaining to her need to care for all types of trauma patients, Ms. Phillips made the decision to place plaintiff on a WIP [Id.].

         Plaintiff claims that the WIP was an effort to force her to quit due to her use of FMLA leave [Doc. 40-1 at pp. 38-39]. In February 2015, shortly after she received the WIP, plaintiff complained to Dee Kennedy, Employee Relations Representative in HR, that she was “given a hard time” and “chastised” by Ms. Phillips for taking family leave [Id. at pp. 25, 54]. Plaintiff asked how to file a grievance, but Ms. Kennedy said, “Well, there's nothing I can do about that” and that she would support Ms. Phillips [Id. at pp. 26, 54]. Plaintiff also complained to Ms. Carman, who did not respond verbally but “her body language” indicated she “was not going to dispute or go against” Ms. Phillips [Id. at pp. 27-28].

         After plaintiff was placed on a WIP, her performance improved significantly and Ms. Phillips gave her a positive performance evaluation in July 2015, commenting that plaintiff “has shown drastic improvement in her time management and communication skills” and “consistently gives great patient care and is a great resource to new staff” [Doc. 26-6 at ¶ 9, Ex. B].

         As part of her case, plaintiff relies on numerous statements allegedly made by Ms. Phillips that demonstrate her bias against older employees and employees who use family leave. Specifically, plaintiff claims Ms. Phillips made the following statements:

• “You may have gotten away with this family leave with Yvonne Harris, [3] but you won't get away with it with me” [Doc. 40-1 at pp. 30, 52].
• Ms. Phillips referred to plaintiff's use of FMLA leave as “mental health breaks” [Id. at p. 80].
• “This is not [the] time to have a mental breakdown and [be] calling out [on] family leave” [Id. at p. 31].[4]
• Ms. Phillips called plaintiff an “old woman” and “old fart” [Id. at pp. 47-48, 77].
• “[T]he older nurse[s] that's calling out for family leave, it's got to stop and they've got to go. The ER is not for older nurses. It is for young nurses” [Id. at p. 39].
• “The older nurse[s], that are taking FMLA leave … they're going to go” [Id.].
• “I know you're getting older and you have problems with your memory. You may need to write this down” [Id. at p. 46].
• “[I]t had to stop, that the ER was for young nurses, not old nurses, and that taking family leave was not going to be tolerated” [Id. at p. 42].
• “Any nurse that has family leave, they're going” [Id. at p. 20].
• “[T]he ER was set up for younger nurses, not older nurses; … the older nurses … like a bunch of old farts, we didn't know what we were doing” [Id. at p. 40].
• “[I]f they put a younger nurse back there [in the CDU], it was a waste of a perfectly good ...

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