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Sullivan v. Quest Diagnostics LLC

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 21, 2018

Donna Sullivan, Plaintiff,
Quest Diagnostics, LLC, Defendant.


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

         Plaintiff Donna Sullivan was terminated by her employer, Defendant Quest Diagnostics, LLC (“Quest”), and brought suit alleging wrongful termination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the Connecticut Workers' Compensation Act. Defendant moves [Doc. # 38] for summary judgment on all claims, contending that it terminated Plaintiff not for any discriminatory or retaliatory reason, but as a result of an ongoing pattern of patient and client complaints about Plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on all three claims.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff claims that she was wrongfully terminated on the basis of her age, perceived disability, and in retaliation for her filing for workers' compensation benefits. Defendant contends that “the undisputed facts demonstrate that Quest terminated Plaintiff's employment due to numerous patient complaints about Plaintiff and her continued unsatisfactory performance after multiple warnings” and that “[t]here is no evidence that Plaintiff's age, alleged perceived disability or prior workers' compensation claims played any role in Quest's decision to terminate her employment.” (Id. at 1.)

         Plaintiff began working for Quest as a Phlebotomy Services Representative at Quest's Patient Service Center (“PSC”) located in Southbury, Connecticut on May 11, 2009. (Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. [Doc. # 40-2] ¶ 1.) At that time, Plaintiff was 49 years old. (Id.) After a year there, Plaintiff received a requested transfer to Quest's PSC located in Wallingford, Connecticut. (Id. ¶ 11.) As a Phlebotomy Services Representative (and later, as a “Phlebotomy Services Representative II” performing the same job duties), Plaintiff was responsible for collecting a variety of specimens from patients for testing, including blood, urine and stool. (Id. ¶ 3.) Plaintiff was also expected to maintain accurate records, verify patient information and handle associated record-keeping and payment processing. (Id.) In performing her job duties and responsibilities, Plaintiff was required to “greet customers appropriately” and to “treat all customers in a courteous manner.” (Id. ¶ 4.) Plaintiff understood that Quest emphasized the importance of treating customers in a courteous and professional manner, in part, to help patients feel comfortable because “they generally don't like having their blood drawn.” (Id. ¶ 5.) Plaintiff also understood that her job duties required her to “communicate[] appropriately with clients, patients, coworkers, and general public, ” to “demonstrate[] good organization, communication, and interpersonal skills” and to “be able to manage concerns of patients and employees in a professional manner.” (Id. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff further understood that her job duties required her to be “capable of handling multiple priorities in a high-volume setting.” (Id. ¶ 7.)

         Plaintiff acknowledged receipt of her 2011 review on February 23, 2012. (Ex. 7 (2011 Review) to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. # 38-3] at 9.) Plaintiff was evaluated as “achiev[ing] expectations” in the categories of “following policies & procedures, ” “patient interaction & communication, ” “deliver[ing] quality services, ” “specimen collection & processing, ” and “patient information management, ” while she was rated as “excellent” in the categories of “teamwork & collaboration” and “work orientation.” (Id. at 8.) Plaintiff's supervisor at the time, Alison Menard, commented in the written review-in addition to several positive comments-that “Donna has a few rudeness complaints this year and needs to practice the three steps of services with every patient.” (Id. at 9.) Plaintiff's supervisor further commented that “[s]uccess for Donna this year is to be aware of possible negative situations and try and turn them into positive ones.” (Id.)

         On February 13, 2012, a patient complained about the phlebotomist they had just seen at Quest's Broad Street PSC, noting, among other comments, that “I have never been spoken to in such a condescending manner in my life.” (Ex. 8 to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. #38-3] at 14.) On February 22, 2012, Susan Basile, who supervised Alison Menard, forwarded the complaint to Menard. (Id. at 13.) The name “Donna S.” has been handwritten on the printed copy of the email chain that is part of the record, but the record does not reflect the basis for determining that the patient was in fact complaining about Plaintiff, or who made that determination. (Id.) Plaintiff denies that this patient complaint referred to her, and contends that the Broad Street location in Meriden “is not Plaintiff's normal work site and is a work site with a lot of employees.” (Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 16.) At her deposition, however, Plaintiff conceded that she “used to fill in [at different Quest PSCs] all over the place[, ]” including the location in question. (Ex. A (Sullivan Dep.) to Pl.'s Mem. Supp. of Pl.'s Obj. to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. # 40-4] at 12.) Plaintiff testified at her deposition that the language attributed to the offending phlebotomist by the complaining patient in question was “like not even my vocabulary.” (Id. at 9.) Plaintiff did not recall having the interaction in question or Menard raising the issue with her. (Id. at 10.)

         On June 6, 2012, Susan Basile emailed Allison Menard regarding a complaint by a different patient whom Basile had determined “was serviced by Donna Sullivan.” (Ex. 9 to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. #38-3] at 16.) In an email to Dot Burts, Basile wrote that “[w]e have addressed this behavior before in her review and counseling” and that “[w]e are going to the next step of disciplinary action to a summary.” (Id.) In reply, Dot Burts told Basile “[y]ou do realize that you can skip steps depending on the severity of the incident.” (Id.) The next email on the chain is Basile emailing Menard, then Plaintiff's immediate supervisor, telling Menard “[p]lease move to written.” (Id.)

         The underlying complaint discussed in this email chain came to Quest not from the patient, but from Quest's “client”-the referring provider from whom Quest was apparently seeking new business. (Id. at 17.) The officer manager at that provider called someone at Quest, “furious at a [blood] draw that took place” and “frothing at the mouth, demanding the phlebotomist be fired[.]” (Id.) The client “stated that the patient said that the draw was terrible, she is bruised from the shoulders to the elbow, and . . . the phleb made derogatory comments about the doctor and the testing the entire time.” (Id.) The patient complained about the phlebotomist being “very loud, sarcastic, snide, and just uncouth.” (Id. at 18.)

         On June 7, 2012, Menard spoke with Plaintiff about this complaint, in a Summary of Discussion created on June 8, 2012 and signed by Plaintiff on the same day. (Ex. 10 to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. #38-3] at 20.) The Summary of Discussion notes that “[y]our actions resulted in a phone call and letter to be written to the doctor to apologize for your behavior in questioning his ability as a physician and to apologize for the negative manner in which we serviced his patient.” (Id.) The Summary further notes “please be advised that continued unacceptable job performance such as the situation cited above may jeopardize your continued employment with Quest Diagnostics.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff received her 2012 performance review from Ms. Menard on January 29, 2013. (Ex. 11 to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. #38-4] at 6.) For 2012, Plaintiff received an overall rating of “achieves expectations.” (Id. at 5.) For the category of “patient interaction & communications” Plaintiff received a rating of “achieves expectations” and received mixed comments, including “[i]n June Donna received a summary of discussion for a negative interaction with a patient resulting in the MD questioning Quest Diansotics [sic] ability[, ]” “Donna needs to be careful in expressing herself in a negative manner[, ]” and “Donna has received many positive comments regarding the service they receive at the Wallingford PSC.” (Id. at 2-3.) In the “deliver quality services” category, Plaintiff received a “development needed” rating, and the associated comment notes that “Donna had 11 patient impact errors this year[.]” (Id. at 3.) In the manager comments section of the review, Menard wrote:

Success for Donna in 2012 was to be aware of possible negative situations and try and turn them into positive ones. Donna has shown marked improvement in this area but still seems to have challenging situations.
Success for Donna in 2013 is to change all negative situation [sic] into positive ones. Donna must be careful not to show her body language during a difficult encounter as most often this is perceived as being rude, ex: rolling eyes or getting defensive.

(Id. at 4.)

         On February 27, 2013, a patient who was also a former Quest employee complained about the rudeness of the phlebotomist she saw earlier that week, as well as the impropriety of the phlebotomist complaining about Quest as an employer, saying that Quest “sucks, ” and espousing political views. (Ex. 12 to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. #38-4] at 8-9.) The patient described the offending phlebotomist as a “[v]ery negative, nasty woman.” (Id. at 9.) In her deposition, Plaintiff “vaguely” recalled having this conversation with the patient but testified that the patient's summary of their conversation was “not correct.” (Ex. 1 (Sullivan Dep.) to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. # 38-2] at 26-27.) Plaintiff testified that she did not recall telling the patient that Quest “sucks” and that she “wouldn't say that to a patient.” (Sullivan Dep. [Doc. # 40-4] at 16.) Plaintiff recalled discussing Occupy Wall Street with a patient, one of the details included in this patient's narrative complaint, but testified that based on reading the complaint, she thought the patient must have taken her comment about Occupy Wall Street “totally out of context.” (Id. at 16-17; Sullivan Dep. [Doc. # 38-2] at 26-27; Ex. 12 to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 9.) Plaintiff argues in her Local Rule 56(a)2 statement, however, that “this document has not been authenticated and should not be considered on a motion for summary judgment as it contains hearsay[.]”[1] (Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 20.)

         In July or August of 2013, Marisa Hammond became Plaintiff's supervisor. (Id. ¶ 21.) Plaintiff received her 2013 performance review from Hammond in February or March of 2014, which rated Plaintiff's overall performance at “achieves expectations.” (Id.)

         On November 18, 2013, Plaintiff injured herself changing the five-gallon water bottle for the water cooler, which resulted in a feeling of “pulling in [her] low back” and pain “radiating into left buttock/hip area.” (Ex. 15 to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. # 38-4] at 56-57.) Plaintiff started physical therapy and was also briefly treated by an orthopedic doctor. (Sullivan Dep. [Doc. #38-2] at 75-77.) Plaintiff “used to have to leave work and go for physical therapy” and “a few times, [she] had to cancel [her appointment] because there was no coverage” for her at Quest, despite Hammond attempting to accommodate her, by “tr[ying] to get people over there” to cover for Plaintiff. (Id. at 77-78.) Plaintiff was able to go to “most” of her physical therapy sessions, which took place approximately two times per week for five to six weeks. (Id. at 78.) Additionally, Plaintiff took two days off work for a nerve conduction test in her legs, for which she used paid time off. (Id. at 79-80.)

         At her deposition, Plaintiff did not indicate any specific ways in which Hammond had interfered with her ability to receive workers' compensation benefits, but she testified that she began to feel “harassed” and criticized for patient complaints starting around this same time. (Id. at 80-81.) With respect to these complaints, Plaintiff said, “I think a lot of it is blown up.” (Id. at 81.) Plaintiff “felt like [she] was being targeted.” (Id.)

         In August or September of 2014, a “floating” phlebotomist position reporting to Hammond became available. (Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 27.) In that position, the phlebotomist would “float” between various Quest locations overseen by Hammond. (Id.) The float phlebotomist role is viewed as a path to a leadership position within Quest and an employee in the role is expected to assist with training and mentoring other phlebotomists and to have a high level of competence with difficult procedures, including pediatrics, geriatrics and special needs patients. (Id.)

         Hammond was the hiring manager for this position. (Ex. 13 (Hammond Dep.) to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. # 38-4] at 22.) When filling this type of position, Quest looks first at internal applicants. (Id.) Three then-current employees applied-Zander Mitchell, Paula Fernandez, and Plaintiff. (Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 28.) Hammond testified that Paula Fernandez removed herself from contention for the job, and that Hammond conducted two interviews with the remaining candidates-Zander Mitchell and Plaintiff. (Hammond Dep. [Doc. # 38-4] at 23-24.) Hammond testified that she interviewed Plaintiff at Plaintiff's work site for approximately 45 minutes and that she did not know if the interview was conducted at that time because there was a lull in Plaintiff's work that day or it she “actually scheduled the time.” (Id. at 24.) Plaintiff denies that she was ever interviewed:

So I put in for that position and was e-mailing Marisa back and forth, back and forth. And they were like dragging their feet on it. What I think is they were dragging their feet on it to give Zander some more time so that his six-month -- it looked like he was there for six months anyway.
And so I wasn't hearing anything from the job. Never got interviewed. Never got a call from human resources. And then she came into the office one day and told me that she gave Zander the job, against policy. He wasn't there for six months.

(Sullivan Dep. [Doc. # 40-4] at 59.)

         Hammond testified that after the interview, which Plaintiff denies occurred, she “just felt the motivation was not . . . what [she] she was looking for.” (Hammond Dep. [Doc. # 38-4] at 25.) Hammond testified that Plaintiff asked “about the money” and generally provided “answers [that] were not solid as far as . . . experience with helping other employees and training and mentoring.” (Id.) Hammond claimed that it “just didn't feel to [her] like [Plaintiff was providing] very thought- out . . . responses” and that Plaintiff “didn't really have a lot to say when [Hammond] asked her about . . . how she might support employees or different ideas that she might come up with to help improve different situations at a patient center.” (Id. at 25-26)

         Hammond testified that she interviewed Zander Mitchell at either her office or the PSC at which Mitchell worked, at which time Mitchell had been there for four to five months. (Id. at 26.) Hammond interviewed Mitchell for “35 to 45 minutes” and that she thought he was a good fit for the position. (Id.) Hammond testified that she decided to offer the position to Mitchell, rather than Plaintiff for multiple reasons: (1) “he had the experience of floating previously when he was in Florida[, ]” (2) he had been “exposed to very, very high volumes, more than any of my [Hammond's] sites it seemed, 250-plus patients[, ]” (3) Mitchell stating that “he was used to working very long hours . . . and so I was not concerned about the amount of flexibility or hours that he could work if needed[, ]” (4) “he had served as a safety officer and was very . . . excited about being able to come up with different safety ideas and present it to our team, ” (5) his previous manager gave him an “excellent rating” in his annual performance review and recommended him for floating, (6) the number of positive patient reviews he received, (7) the “very successful performance” that Hammond herself had observed, and (8) while working at the Middletown PSC he provided services for “one of the largest clients that [Quest has] in Connecticut, Pro Health Physicians . . . who is a multi-million-dollar client . . . and he had the client contact aspect too and was very successful with keeping [the client] happy[.]” (Id. at 46-47.)

         On October 9, 2014, Hammond emailed a group of employees, including Plaintiff, to announce the hiring of Mitchell for the float position. (Ex. 16 to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. # 38-5] at 2.) Hammond noted that

Zander has been with Quest for 3 years and brings with him float experience. He previously was an acting float in Florida and handled many of the float and some group lead responsibilities. He worked in facilities drawing over 200 patients a day and has been very successful in his role in Middletown.


         At oral argument, Plaintiff conceded that any age discrimination claim on the basis of Defendant's purported failure to hire or promote her into the floater position was time-barred, but argued that Hammond's selection of a younger employee for the role provided evidence supporting Plaintiff's claim that her termination was based on age discrimination.

         On October 14, 2014, a patient (who was also a Quest employee) e-mailed Hammond about a negative experience she had at Quest's Wallingford PSC. (Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 34.) The patient told Hammond that she had overheard two phlebotomists, one of whom was Plaintiff, using profanity to discuss how “terrible Quest was” and how “miserable ...

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