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Hurt v. RHA Health Services, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

May 14, 2019




         Plaintiff, appearing pro se, initiated this action in Guilford County Superior Court on August 22, 2017, against her former employer, RHA Health Services, Inc. (“RHA”), alleging wrongful termination based on age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 623, and disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12112. (ECF No. 1-2 at 1-6.) Defendant removed the case to this Court on September 21, 2017, (ECF No. 1), and Plaintiff's age discrimination claim was dismissed by Order of this Court on July 27, 2018, (ECF No. 18). Before the Court are Plaintiff's and Defendant's cross-motions for summary judgment related to Plaintiff's sole remaining claim of wrongful termination based on disability discrimination. (ECF Nos. 22, 27.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted and Plaintiff's motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         RHA operates a network of group homes for people with intellectual, physical, and developmental disabilities throughout North Carolina and the Southeast. (ECF No. 23-1 ¶ 2.) Plaintiff was hired by RHA on January 11, 2016 to serve as a Qualified Professional (“QP”). (Id. ¶ 4.) As a QP, Plaintiff was tasked with ensuring the four group homes under her management “complied with health department regulations, . . . preparing the homes for compliance inspections, and ensuring that the residents' basic needs, including clothing, food, and transportation, were adequately provided.” (Id. ¶¶ 4, 5.)

         On or about March 1, 2016, while Plaintiff was still completing her training, she was excused from work for a skin rash. (Id. ¶ 6.) Although she was initially diagnosed with scabies, Plaintiff was later diagnosed with chickenpox. (ECF No. 23-12 at 7, 13.) She was admitted to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center for a total of twenty-two days, from March 4-14 and March 17-29. (ECF Nos. 23-5, 23-7.) Upon her discharge on March 29, 2016, her treating physician instructed her to “remain out of work until evaluated by her Primary Care Provider within the next 7 business days.” (ECF No. 23-7.) On April 6, Plaintiff's primary care physician instructed her to remain out of work until April 18, 2016. (ECF No. 23-8; ECF No. 23-12 at 17.)

         Throughout March and April, during the period when Plaintiff was experiencing her health problems, she kept RHA informed about her condition and potential return dates. (See ECF No. 23-12 at 7, 10-11; ECF No. 23-1 ¶ 9; ECF No. 28-1 at 1.) During this time, Plaintiff was on “unprotected medical leave” from RHA, because she was not eligible for protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). (ECF No. 23-1 ¶ 7; ECF No. 23- 4.) Further, although Plaintiff's responsibilities were generally being covered by one or two other QP's, “the group homes Plaintiff had been hired to oversee struggled throughout Plaintiff's month-long absence.” (ECF No. 23-1 ¶ 8.) On April 5, after one of the group homes Plaintiff was assigned failed a “mock survey” by the RHA Quality Assurance team, “RHA's HR department made the decision . . . that it needed to fill Plaintiff's position.” (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.) RHA terminated Plaintiff the next day. (ECF No. 28-7.)

         Each of the parties now move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's remaining claim of wrongful termination based on disability discrimination.[1] (ECF Nos. 22, 27.)


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party, and “[a] fact is material if it might affect the outcome” of the litigation. Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568 (4th Cir. 2015). The role of the court is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter” but rather “to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence and “resolve all factual disputes and any competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable” to the nonmoving party. Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)).

         In cases where the nonmovant will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of “pointing out to the district court . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). If the moving party carries this burden, then the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to point out “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) (emphasis omitted)). In so doing, “the nonmoving party must rely on more than conclusory allegations, mere speculation, the building of one inference upon another, or the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence.” Dash v. Mayweather, 731 F.3d 303, 311 (4th Cir. 2013). The nonmoving party must support its assertions by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, ” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1); see Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The judicial inquiry on summary judgment “thus scrutinizes the plaintiff's case to determine whether the plaintiff has proffered sufficient proof, in the form of admissible evidence, that could carry the burden of proof of his claim at trial.” Mitchell v. Data Gen. Corp., 12 F.3d 1310, 1316 (4th Cir. 1993). Where, as in this case, the Court has before it cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court reviews each of them separately to determine if either party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Rossignol, 316 F.3d at 523.


         “Disability discrimination may be proven through direct and indirect evidence or through the McDonnell Douglas[2] burden-shifting framework.” Jacobs, 780 F.3d at 572 (footnote added). Plaintiff does not contend, nor does she appear to point to any direct or indirect evidence of discrimination based on her chickenpox. (See ECF No. 28.) Therefore, the Court will examine Plaintiff's claim under the McDonnell Douglas framework. See Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 959 (4th Cir. 1996) (explaining that in the absence of direct evidence of discrimination, for plaintiff “to prevail then it must be by using the proof scheme established in McDonnell Douglas”.)

         Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the plaintiff has the initial burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, a prima facie case of discrimination. Ennis v. Nat'l Ass'n of Bus. & Educ. Radio, Inc., 53 F.3d 55, 58 (4th Cir. 1995). If the plaintiff succeeds, “the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory explanation which, if believed by the trier of fact, would support a finding that unlawful discrimination was not the cause of the employment action.” Id. Should the defendant satisfy its burden of production, the plaintiff has the final burden to persuade the factfinder that “the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons but were a pretext for discrimination.” Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981).

         To establish a prima facie case for wrongful termination based on disability discrimination, a plaintiff must show “(1) that she has a disability, (2) that she is a ‘qualified individual' for the employment in question, and (3) that [her employer] discharged her (or took other adverse employment action) because of her disability.” Jacobs, 780 F.3d at 572 (alteration in original) (quoting EEOC v. Stowe-Pharr Mills, Inc., 216 F.3d 373, 377 (4th Cir. 2000)). The burden of establishing a prima ...

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