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Singh v. Vanderbilt University Medical Center

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

January 16, 2020

GOBIND SINGH, M.D., Ph.D., Plaintiff,
v.
VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELI RICHARDSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendants' Renewed Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 71). Plaintiff filed a response (Doc. No. 81), and Defendants replied (Doc. No. 83). For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion will be denied.

         I. Renewed Motion to Dismiss

         On January 17, 2019, after reviewing the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, and Defendants' Objections thereto, the Court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of prosecution. See Singh v. Vanderbilt Univ. Med. Ctr., No. 3:17-CV-00400, 2019 WL 254660, at *5 (M.D. Tenn. Jan. 17, 2019). The Court reasoned that “[a]lthough Defendants were prejudiced by the time and resources spent due to Plaintiff's delay, the Court finds it significant that Plaintiff did not act willfully, in bad faith, or with fault in his failure to timely comply with the Court's orders. Additionally, much of the prejudice to Defendants is alleviated with the continuance of the trial date.” Id. at *5.

         In addition to denying Defendants' motion to dismiss, the Court also found that Plaintiff had waived his attorney-client privilege as to communications with his former attorney in this action, Tracey Kinslow, at least in part, [1] based on his inclusion of twenty-three separate communications with Mr. Kinslow, who represented Plaintiff at the time the communication was made, filed in support of his opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss. Defendants thereafter subpoenaed all communications with Plaintiff from Mr. Kinslow, and the subpoena yielded several communications that Plaintiff had not provided to the Court in his previous filings. Specifically, Plaintiff left out an email to his former counsel wherein he stated that “[a]s a heads up, I sent some paperwork and requests to the courthouse after speaking with a few people that may or may not arrive in time, but I am hoping the end goal of buying more time is achieved with it.” (Doc. No. 59 at ¶ 51) (emphasis added). Additionally, in a series of text messages the next day, Plaintiff again indicated that he was attempting to “buy[] time” with the Court because he felt overwhelmed. (Id.).

         Defendants contend that these recently revealed communications undermine Plaintiff's position taken in his opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss that he was essentially a victim of his then attorney's inept representation and that his lackluster participation in the discovery process was not his fault. Defendants contend that “[t]he only logical conclusion to be gleaned from this lack of attachment to Plaintiff's Declaration [i.e., lack of prior filing by Plaintiff of the communications referred in the prior paragraph] is that Plaintiff did not want the Court to view these communications that might have potentially cause his intent to be seen in a different light” and “the Court should not reward this type of gamesmanship[.]” (Doc. No. 72 at 10-11). Therefore, Defendants renew their motion to dismiss for lack of prosecution and request that the Court dismiss this matter based on the prior non-disclosure of communications between Plaintiff and his then-attorney, Mr. Kinslow. (Id.).

         The revelation of these communications does not change the result reflected in the Court's prior Order. The Court does not agree with Defendants that the new communications completely undermine Plaintiff's position taken in his opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss. Although Plaintiff did state in his email to Mr. Kinslow that he sent letters to the Court “to buy time, ” the context of the other communications (text messages) with Mr. Kinslow clearly demonstrate that relationship problems between Plaintiff and Mr. Kinslow existed at the time. In response to Mr. Kinslow's inquiry into Plaintiff's reasoning for sending his letter to the Court, Plaintiff responded:

I'm sorry if you felt blind sighted [sic] that was not my intent by any means (and why I sent you email about this). I am feeling overwhelmed and pressure and I don't have clarity to many questions. Goal was to ask for more time to get help. I feel you might be overwhelmed too [Mr. Kinslow] for many reasons which is why I felt I needed to do something ASAP. . . . We are scrambling here for something important to me without Bryan, which isn't ideal.

(Doc. No. 70-5 at 50-53). The letter Plaintiff sent to the Court did indeed ask for more time to take his deposition. (Doc. No. 25). In the letter, Plaintiff also outlines the issues he had experienced with his former counsel, including Bryan Pieper, his initial counsel whose bar license was suspended in the midst of this lawsuit (Doc. No. 41), and his issue with Mr. Kinslow's non-responsiveness. The newly revealed communications highlight these issues and do not expose any dishonesty, or attempted “gamesmanship, ” in the Court's view. Plaintiff's (public) representations to the Court were not, in the Court's view, inconsistent with his (private) statement to his attorney that he sought to buy time; someone with the kind of problems disclosed by Plaintiff to the Court naturally might seek to buy time to cope with such problems.

         Thus, upon review of all the communications, the Court stands by its prior finding that “Plaintiff did not act willfully, in bad faith, or with fault in his failure to timely comply with the Court's orders.” Singh, 2019 WL 254660, at *5. The communications reviewed in totality reveal serious issues with his former counsel during the discovery process. Additionally, it is the Court's strong preference to resolve lawsuits on the merits, rather than dismissals under Rule 45, except in the most extreme of circumstances. See Beil v. Lakewood Eng'g and Mfg. Co., 15 F.3d 546, 552 (6th Cir. 1994) (“Dismissal is the sanction of last resort.”); see also Joseph Muller Corp. Zurich v. Societe Anonyme De Gerance Et D'Armement, 508 F.2d 814, 825 (2d Cir. 1974) (explaining that dismissals for failure of the plaintiff to prosecute the action are largely a matter for the district court's discretion (citing Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 633 (1962))). Therefore, the Court will deny Defendants' Renewed Motion to Dismiss.

         II. Motion for Summary Judgment

         In the alternative, Defendants seek summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's remaining claims: Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) claim based on theories of failure to accommodate, discrimination, and retaliation; and state law claims of defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship.

         UNDISPUTED FACTS [2]

         On July 1, 2014, Plaintiff, Gobind Singh, M.D. (“Plaintiff”), began an Ophthalmology residency as a postgraduate year two resident (“PGY-2”) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (“VUMC”). (Doc. No. 94 at ¶ 1). At all times relevant hereto, Dr. Paul Sternberg served as the Chair of the Ophthalmology Program and Dr. Laura Wayman served as an Associate Professor, Vice Chair for Education, and Director of Resident Education. (Id.). Dr. Donald Brady served as the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education in addition to the National Residency Match Program Designated Institutional Official for VUMC. (Id.).

         In October 2014, Plaintiff began experiencing fatigue, trouble breathing, and trouble concentrating. (Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 12). On October 13, 2014, Plaintiff received a diagnosis of vestibular stenosis[3] and subsequently took medical leave to undergo nasal surgery on December 3, 2014. (Doc. No. 94 at ¶ 2). After the surgery, Plaintiff's symptoms did not improve and instead became worse. (Id.).

         In December 2014, Plaintiff met with Dr. Wayman and Dr. Sternberg to discuss ongoing issues.[4] (Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 22). After this meeting, Dr. Wayman referred Plaintiff to VUMC's Faculty and Physician Wellness-Work Life Connections Employee Assistance Program (“EAP”), telling the EAP director that there were “deficits in the client's fund of knowledge, work ethic, and sense of responsibility.” (Doc. No. 94 at ¶ 3; Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 23). Dr. Wayman informed Plaintiff that his attendance at the EAP sessions was mandatory. (Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 24). Plaintiff believed the purpose of the EAP referral was to accommodate his disabilities, and he reported his medical symptoms to the EAP doctor, Chad Buck, M.D. (Id. at ¶ 25). A January 28, 2015 email from Dr. Buck to Plaintiff explained that the impetus for the referral was performance issues, i.e., that referral was “more about the need to improve [Plaintiff's] knowledge base than anything about interpersonal problems.” (Doc. No. 94 at ¶ 3; Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 26).[5]

         On March 24, 2015, Plaintiff was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. (Doc. No. 94 at ¶ 7). In April 2015, Plaintiff informed Dr. Wayman of his hypothyroidism diagnosis when he requested an accommodation to wear extra layers under his surgical attire to prevent his body and hands from shivering. (Id.). Dr. Wayman denied the requested accommodation because the extra layer of clothing would compromise the sterile field in the operating room. (Id.). Dr. Wayman allowed Plaintiff to wear additional clothing outside of the operating room. (Id.).

         On May 26, 2015, Dr. Wayman informed Plaintiff that he (Plaintiff) was being placed on probation. (Id. at ¶ 4). As part of his probation, Plaintiff was required to attend scheduled meetings with Dr. Wayman and two other doctors in the Ophthalmology Department, which were slated to last until August 31, 2015. (Id.).

         On June 15, 2015, Dr. Wayman informed Plaintiff that he was being placed on suspension based on an alleged patient interaction that occurred on June 8, 2015. (Id. at ¶ 5; Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 42). On June 22, 2015, Plaintiff informed Dr. Brady of his health issues. (Doc. No. 94 at ¶ 8). The next day, Dr. Brady sent Plaintiff an email stating, “Also, related to the medical issue that you disclosed to me yesterday, if you believe you need any accommodations to your residency program going forward, please contact the []Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services[] [(“EAD”)] office at 322-4705.” (Id.). On June 24, 2015, Dr. Brady upheld Plaintiff's suspension, extended his probation, and either revoked his promotion, or decided to not promote him to PGY-3.[6] (Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 48).

         On July 24, 2015, Plaintiff incorrectly administered an injection to a patient. (Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 49). On July 29, 2015, Dr. Wayman placed Plaintiff on a second suspension. (Doc. No. 94 at ¶ 6). Plaintiff never returned to work. (Doc. No. 94 at ¶ 12).

         On September 4, 2015, Plaintiff contacted VUMC's EAD, through his legal counsel at the time, Richard J. Braun, requesting a reasonable accommodation. Attorney Braun's email reads in relevant part:

I have been retained to represent Dr. Singh, a resident in Ophthalmology who has experienced some medical issues which have impacted his performance and concentration and which have now created the potential for serious discipline. I will try to attach the letter from his treating physician or will fax it to Nancy soon. Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, we are requesting a reasonable accommodation that at such time as his physician certifies Dr. Singh is fit for duty that his shifts be limited to 12 hours in duration with 12 subsequent hours off duty until such time as he is fully recovered.
We also request that any reference to potential discipline or performance issues be expunged from his record.
Let me know if you have any questions.

(Id. at ¶ 9). On September 2, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a letter from Dr. Howard Baum regarding his diagnosis of hypothyroidism in March 2015 which stated, in part: “[i]n retrospect, in the months before his diagnosis, he may have suffered from decreased energy and decreased concentration which could have interfered with job performance.” (Id. at ¶ 10). Additionally, Plaintiff submitted a letter from Dr. Scott Stephan dated September 3, 2015, indicating a diagnosis of vestibular stenosis with a corrective surgery on December 3, 2014. (Id.).

         On September 11, 2015, Damian Marshall, a Specialist with VUMC's EAD office, sent an email to Plaintiff that explained the accommodation process and provided to Plaintiff a Request for Reasonable Accommodation Form. (Id. at ¶ 10). On September 21, 2015, Plaintiff submitted to the EAD office a Request for Reasonable Accommodation Form (“First Request Form”) prepared by Dr. Baum. Dr. Baum indicated via the First Request Form that Plaintiff's condition had been resolved as of July 1, 2015, and that Plaintiff would need not accommodations “going forward.” (Id. at ¶ 11). Defendants denied Plaintiff's request made in the First Request Form on September 25, 2015, on the stated grounds that Dr. Baum did not indicate a need for accommodations going forward. (Id.).

         On October 22, 2015, Plaintiff submitted another Request for Reasonable Accommodation Form (“the Second Request Form”). The Second Request Form, prepared by Dr. Susan Henley, requested several specific accommodations: 1) no “working without breaks for longer than 8 hours, could work an additional 4 hours after a 1 hour break”; 2) no working “longer than a 24 hour shift as long as appropriate breaks are given throughout one hour of rest for every six hours of work.” (Id. at ¶ 11). Defendants denied the Second Request Form on the stated grounds that Plaintiff was suspended, and therefore not working at the time, and that thus there was no way to implement an accommodation. (Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 68). Three months later, on February 25, 2016, Defendants made a final decision to move to the Corrective Action of Immediate Dismissal. (Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 68). Dr. Wayman informed Plaintiff of his termination. (Id.). Plaintiff appealed the termination decision, but it was upheld after review through the appeal process. (Id.).

         On April 21, 2016, Plaintiff applied for a new residency at New York Medical Center. (Doc. No. 95 at ¶ 74). As part of the hiring process, Dr. Brady sent to New York Medical Center a letter specifying the rotations Plaintiff completed, his disciplinary history, and the results of his June 2015 evaluations on which he had received low scores. (Id. at ¶ 75). The letter did not include any information about Plaintiff's accommodation requests or complaints to the EAD. (Id. at ¶ 76). After receiving the letter, New York Medical Center withdrew its offer to Plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 80).

         On March 1, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this Court, asserting four claims against both Defendants:[7] an ADA claim based on theories of failure to accommodate, discrimination, and retaliation; a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”); a state law claims of defamation; and a state law claim of tortious interference with a business relationship. (Doc. No. 1). On May 13, 2019, upon the parties' request, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's Title VII claim with prejudice. (Doc. No. 77). Defendants have moved for summary judgment as to the remaining federal (ADA) claim and the two state law claims.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). “By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). In other words, even if genuine, a factual dispute that is irrelevant or unnecessary under applicable law is of no value in defeating a motion for summary judgment. See Id. at 248. On the other hand, “summary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine[.]'” Id.

         A fact is “material” within the meaning of Rule 56(c) “if its proof or disproof might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A genuine dispute of material fact exists if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Harris v. Klare, 902 F.3d 630, 634-35 (6th Cir. 2018). The party bringing the summary judgment motion has the initial burden of identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute over material facts. Pittman v. Experian Information Solutions, Inc., 901 F.3d 619, 627-28 (6th Cir. 2018). If the summary judgment movant meets that burden, then in response the non-moving party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 628.

         A party asserting that a fact cannot be or genuinely is disputed-i.e., a party seeking summary judgment and a party opposing summary judgment, respectively-must support the assertion by citing to materials in the record, including, but not limited to, depositions, documents, affidavits or declarations. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). The court should view the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Pittman, 901 F.3d at 628. Credibility judgments and weighing of evidence are improper. Hostettler v. College of Wooster, 895 F.3d 844, 852 (6th Cir. 2018). As noted above, where there is a genuine dispute as to any material fact, summary judgment is not appropriate. Id. The court determines whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper jury question. Id. The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the ...


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