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Amour v. Lawrence & Memorial Corp.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 12, 2016

DIANE ST. AMOUR, Plaintiff,
v.
LAWRENCE & MEMORIAL CORP., LAWRENCE & MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, Defendants.

          RULING ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Diane St. Amour worked at defendant Lawrence & Memorial Hospital (the Hospital), a subsidiary of defendant Lawrence & Memorial Corp. She alleges that defendants subjected her to sex-based discrimination in the form of a hostile work environment, retaliation, and constructive discharge in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and failed to accommodate her actual or perceived disability of hypertension in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. She also alleges violations of the state law counterparts to Title VII and the ADA, as well as other state law claims.

         Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all counts (Doc. #82), and plaintiff has moved for summary judgment on her ADA claim (Doc. #87). For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that triable issues of fact remain as to plaintiff's Title VII retaliation claim and plaintiff's failure-to-accommodate claim.

         Background

         Plaintiff worked as a medical technologist in the chemistry laboratory at the Hospital. In 2007, the Hospital's chemistry and serology departments merged, causing tension amongst employees who would soon be required to cross-train one another. Several male and female employees in the newly merged laboratory treated plaintiff quite poorly; they openly questioned her competency and were often short-tempered, harsh, and confrontational about work-related issues. This workplace aggression affected employees other than plaintiff, men and women alike.

         Gary Lowe was understood by management to be particularly aggressive at work. Among other inappropriate actions, Lowe suggested that “corporal punishment” be applied to lab employees who showed incompetence, and said that he would “go postal” because of the lab merger and that he wanted to “shake sense into” other, less able employees. He made derogatory comments to other employees, including telling a male employee that the employee was too fat for his lab coat and otherwise cursing in the lab. He also physically displayed his anger, at times slamming objects down when he got frustrated and exclaiming that his coworkers were “idiots” or “stupid.” Lowe's actions had other violent undertones, whether actual or perceived.[1] Lowe had received coaching by management to remedy his inappropriate tone and comments during cross-training with employees of the newly merged lab. Yet during plaintiff's cross-training with Lowe, he became vocally impatient and frustrated.

         Plaintiff claims that she fell victim to sexual harassment at the hands of Lowe from several incidents. She felt harassed by Lowe's telling of blonde jokes, at least several of which were sexual in nature. Though plaintiff was offended by most of these blonde jokes (she was blonde), she at times participated in the banter surrounding them and otherwise faltered in indicating to Lowe that she was offended. Plaintiff felt particularly harassed by an incident in which Lowe referred to plaintiff's lab initials, “LAB.STD”-standing for Laboratory, St. Amour, Diane-and said loudly that plaintiff was the “sexually transmitted disease of the lab.” Plaintiff also felt harassed because of several physically intimidating incidents involving Lowe. During one of Lowe's angry discussions with a coworker, Don Tobin, plaintiff ended up as collateral damage, getting pushed about 6 to 8 inches, though she did not fall down or otherwise get hurt. During another incident, Lowe was frustrated about a centrifuge and elbowed her, though, again, plaintiff was not hurt. At least once, Lowe invaded plaintiff's physical space by getting close and making a hand gesture close to plaintiff's face that suggested that a “good slap” was in order to get plaintiff to work harder.

         Other employees contributed to plaintiff's discomfort at work, among them Don Tobin and Lynne Burns. Plaintiff was called “bamboo, ” a nickname plaintiff had adopted during prior work in a different department because it was the name of her hair dye, though she became offended when a coworker said it sounded like the name of a stripper or a “bimbo.” Management also knew that Lowe, Tobin, and Burns were aggressive at work.

         After several months of tension at work, plaintiff began to experience physical manifestations of her stress and discomfort. Though she had a history of essential hypertension beginning in August of 2006, she began to experience levels of hypertension after the lab's merger in 2007 that could no longer be adequately controlled by the four prescription medicines she took. On September 11, 2007, plaintiff's blood pressure reached a height of 209/88, causing her to seek emergency treatment at the Hospital for her hypertension, as well as for acute headaches, neck pain, nausea, vomiting, and sleep issues. After her hospitalization, plaintiff saw several doctors who opined that stress contributed to and likely caused at least some of her symptoms.

         Though the LAB.STD incident occurred on September 28, 2007, plaintiff waited several days to complain about it to her supervisor on October 2, 2007, and followed up with a formal complaint on October 5, 2007. Meanwhile, on October 16, 2007, plaintiff's doctor prescribed her medical leave from work because her hypertension was worsening.[2] He attributed the worsening of her symptoms to plaintiff's hostile, stress-inducing, and thoroughly unhealthy work environment, which he communicated to the Hospital. Plaintiff's counsel, too, informed the Hospital that plaintiff's stressful work environment caused plaintiff to “suffer physical, emotional and psychological harm, some of which has required medical intervention and management on a continuing basis.” Doc. #84-36.

         Plaintiff suggested that the Hospital alter her schedule so that she would no longer have shifts with Lowe, who was the main cause of plaintiff's stress. But by that time, the Hospital had undertaken and completed its investigation of the LAB.STD incident and concluded that, although morale was very low in the department, no sexual harassment had occurred. The Hospital instructed Lowe and Tobin not to retaliate against plaintiff for complaining about the incident and then declined plaintiff's request to switch work schedules to avoid contact with Lowe, explaining that to do so would have lent truth-in the Hospital's view-to plaintiff's claim that Lowe had sexually harassed her.

         After almost two months on leave, plaintiff returned to work in December 2007. She again asked her supervisor whether she could modify her work schedule to avoid contact with Lowe and Tobin, and she offered up at least one coworker who could trade weekends with plaintiff to accomplish this. Her request was again denied, because the laboratory director had received assurances from Lowe that his behavior would not be an issue, because accommodating plaintiff's schedule would invite other employees to express dissatisfaction about their schedules, and because the sexual harassment investigation had revealed no wrongdoing. After several weeks back at work, plaintiff had several uncomfortable interactions with coworkers other than Lowe, including her supervisor, Barbara Naillis, and Burns. At least one incident prompted plaintiff to file a complaint with HR. But the stressful conditions continued, culminating in plaintiff's admission to the hospital on December 28, 2007, for dangerously high blood pressure.

         On advice of her doctor, who attributed plaintiff's worsening condition, again, to workplace stress, plaintiff took another leave of absence. Her doctor recommended that she return to work only if she would be assigned to an alternative position, report to a new supervisor, and be treated in a respectful, professional fashion. Eventually, plaintiff's FMLA leave expired, she secured employment at a different hospital, informed the Hospital that she took their failure to improve workplace conditions as a “constructive discharge, ” and left. Plaintiff did not need any accommodations when she started her new job.

         Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities on February 29, 2008. She filed this lawsuit on July 1, 2009. She alleges that she was subject to sex-based discrimination in the form of a hostile work environment, retaliation, and constructive discharge in violation of Title VII, failure to accommodate her actual or perceived disability of hypertension in violation of the ADA, and several state law claims. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all counts (Doc. #82), and plaintiff has moved for summary judgment on her ADA claim (Doc. #87).

         Discussion

         The principles governing a motion for summary judgment are well established. Summary judgment may be granted only if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam). “A genuine dispute of material fact exists for summary judgment purposes where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is such that a reasonable jury could decide in that party's favor.” Zann Kwan v. Andalex Grp. LLC, 737 F.3d 834, 843 (2d Cir. 2013). The evidence adduced at the summary judgment stage must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and with all ambiguities and reasonable inferences drawn against the moving party. See, e.g., Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866; Caronia v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 715 F.3d 417, 427 (2d Cir. 2013). All in all, “a ‘judge's function' at summary judgment is not ‘to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)).

         Joint ...


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