United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga
W. PHILLIPS SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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
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]. 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.
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
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]. 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].
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].
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].
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].
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.].
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].
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].
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
• “You may have gotten away with this family leave
with Yvonne Harris,  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
• “This is not [the] time to have a mental
breakdown and [be] calling out [on] family leave”
[Id. at p. 31].
• Ms. Phillips called plaintiff an “old
woman” and “old fart” [Id. at pp.
• “[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 ...