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Beamon v. Yale New Haven Hospital Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 13, 2017

ROBERT BEAMON, Plaintiff,
v.
YALE NEW HAVEN HOSPITAL INC., Defendant.

          RULING GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS COUNT FOUR

          Janet Bond Arterton, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff Robert Beamon brought this action against Defendant Yale-New Haven Hospital, Inc. ("YNHH") alleging employment discrimination based on race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Count One), retaliation in violation of Title VII (Count Two), retaliation in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (Count Three), and retaliation in violation of § 31-51a of the Connecticut General Statutes (Count Four). Defendant now moves [Doc. # 24] to dismiss Count Four. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion is granted.

         I. Facts Alleged

         Plaintiff alleges the following facts in his Amended Complaint [Doc. # 20]. He had been employed by Defendant since November 2011 as a surgical technician and had a productive work record through 2014. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5, 8.) On June 5, 2014 he assisted with a brain surgery on a seven-year-old child. (Id. ¶ 9.) During the procedure, Plaintiff "reached over to grab a line as part of his normal process," but was elbowed by the surgeon, Dr. Derek Steinbacher (the "Doctor"). (Id. ¶¶ 10, 13-14.) Plaintiff initially thought the contact was accidental, but when he "attempted to connect the line again, Dr. Steinbacher physically interfered again, but this time a bit harder." (Id. ¶¶ 14-15.) Finally, when Plaintiff attempted to connect the line a third time, "Dr. Steinbacher jabbed him hard in his abdomen," after which Plaintiff yelled to ask what Dr. Steinbacher thought he was doing and requested that he not hit him again. (Id ¶ 19.) At that point, the Facilitating Nurse in the room "asked the Plaintiff to back away from the field [and] not to pass Dr. Steinbacher any scalpel blades" and after being relieved by another technologist, Plaintiff and the nurse left the operating room. (Id.)

         Plaintiff reported the assault to the Charge Nurse and Department Manager, after which he met with the Medical Director of Peri-Operative Services and the Patient Services Manager for Peri-Operative Services. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 18-19.) He was reportedly advised that "it would be best for him to 'forget' the incident." (Id. ¶ 19.) At some point thereafter, Plaintiff learned that Dr. Steinbacher had "verbally assaulted" minority coworkers in the past, and that "there were concerns regarding his anger and inappropriate behavior in other contexts."[1] (Id.) Five days after the incident, Plaintiff "reported the patient safety issue, . . . Dr. Steinbacher's assault and the lack of response from [YNHH] up to that point" to YNHH's CEO, Vice President of Compliance, and Chief of Staff, along with Plaintiffs manager and Human Resources. (Id. ¶ 22.) Plaintiffs email stated: "I understand that the Hospital may lose money if a surgeon has to be put on leave or dismissed but the patients['] safety and that of employees who work at this Hospital should supersede that." (Id. ¶ 30.)[2]

         In response to this report, Plaintiff was advised that an investigation was underway. However, Dr. Steinbacher was not placed on leave and was permitted to continue performing surgeries. (Id. ¶ 23.) "Based on the situation, [Plaintiff] consulted with his physician and was placed on a leave of absence pending the outcome of the investigation" because he "was uncomfortable participating in surgical procedures with a surgeon who was unable to physically control himself and make the patient's safety and well-being the priority." (Id. ¶ 24.) During his absence, Plaintiff "made multiple inquiries of the Hospital [Human Resources] department and the management team regarding the investigation," including "his concerns regarding safety of employees and patients and the assault, but was either ignored or told that the investigation was ongoing." (Id. ¶ 25.)

         On June 17, 2014 Plaintiff suggested that his concerns were not being taken seriously because of his race (id. ¶ 6, 25), and on June 19 he reiterated his distress about Dr. Steinbacher's continued presence at the hospital (id. ¶ 30). More than a month later, on July 31,2014, Defendant terminated Plaintiffs employment because he supposedly had not completed the paperwork required to take a leave of absence. (Id. ¶ 26-27.) Although Plaintiff explained "that he still needed information from his employer to complete the FMLA paperwork and that he was simply following the directions that Defendant's FMLA administrators had provided him," his request for reconsideration was denied. (Id. 27.)

         II. Discussion[3]

         A. Connecticut General Statutes Section 31-51q

         In Count Four, Plaintiff alleges that "Defendant's conduct in subjecting Plaintiff to discipline and discharge constitutes a violation of § 31-51 q of the Connecticut General Statutes."[4](Am. Compl. ¶ 34.) Section 31-51q extends the protections of the First Amendment to private sector employees and imposes liability on private employers, in addition to government employers. See Schumann v. Dianon Sys., Inc., 304 Conn. 585, 599 (2012).[5] In order to benefit from protection of the statute, an employee's expression must have been both on a matter of public concern and motivated by a desire to speak out as a citizen. Cotto v. United Technologies Corp., 251 Conn. 1,17 (1999).

         "An employee's speech addresses a matter of public concern when the speech can 'be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social or other concern to the community.'" DiMartino v. Richens, 263 Conn. 639, 667 (2003) (quoting Connick v. Myers 461 U.S. 138, 150 (1983)); see also City of San Diego, Cal. v. Roe, 543 U.S. 77, 83-84 (2004) ("[P]ublic concern is something that is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public at the time of publication."). The critical question is whether the employee's speech was calculated to redress personal grievances or whether it had a broader public purpose. Ruotolo v. City of New York, 514 F.3d 184, 189 (2d Cir. 2008); see also Cappiello v. Fitzsimmons, No. CV030478253S, 2005 WL 2009569, at *5 (Conn. Super. Ct. Aug. 3,2005) (Section "31-51q applies to situations where the employee is motivated to champion the rights of others as a concerned citizen rather than airing a personal grievance.")). It is a court's responsibility to determine, as a matter of law, which topics are considered to be of public concern. Daley, 249 Conn, at 782; see also Munafo v. Metro. Transp. Auth., 285 F.3d 201, 211 (2d Cir. 2002) ("The issue of whether the plaintiff has asserted a violation of a constitutional right at all is a purely legal question.") (internal quotation marks omitted). But, it is within the province of the jury to determine whether an employee's statements address such a topic by "looking to the content, form and context of the particular statements in question." Daley v. Aetna Life & Cas. Co., 249 Conn. 766, 782 (1999) (citing Connick, 461 U.S. at 147-48).

         Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot meet the threshold "public concern" requirement of Section 31-51q because his claims are "clearly personal in nature, arising from a single, isolated event purportedly occurring in YNHH's operating room on June 5, 2014" and therefore that Plaintiffs Count Four must be dismissed. Plaintiff, however, contends that his "memorandum expressing safety concerns constitutes an exercise of free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Sections 3, 4 and 14 of Article First of the Constitution of the State of Connecticut." (Am. Compl. ¶ 33.) Therefore, the question posed by this motion to dismiss is whether, as a matter of law, Plaintiffs speech as alleged in the Complaint plausibly relates to a topic of public concern protected by Section 31-51q.[6]

         B. Plaintiffs Complaint Alleges Only a Single Isolated Workplace Incident

         Plaintiff claims his speech is protected because it pertained both to employee and patient safety, both of which he asserts are topics of public concern. Defendant recognizes that in some circumstances patient and employee safety in a hospital may be a matter of public concern,[7] but argues that in this case, Plaintiffs speech was purely personal in nature because his Complaint "details [only] a single encounter on June 5, 2014 during which Dr. Derek Steinbacher supposedly 'elbowed' and 'jabbed' [Plaintiff] in the operating room." (Def.'s Reply at 2.) The focus of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss then, is on the personal nature of the speech, which Defendant posits cannot ...


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