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McDaniels v. Group Health Coop.

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

October 29, 2014


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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Venessa McDaniels, Plaintiff: Harold Hudson Franklin, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, RENTON, WA.

For Group Health Cooperative, Non-profit Washington Corporation, Defendant: Sheehan H Sullivan Weiss, LEAD ATTORNEY, Paula C Simon, Portia R Moore, DAVIS WRIGHT TREMAINE (SEA), SEATTLE, WA.

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JAMES L. ROBART, United States District Judge.

This matter comes before the court on Defendant Group Health Cooperative's

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(" Group Health" ) motion for summary judgment on all claims. (Mot. (Dkt. # 13).) Plaintiff Venessa McDaniels brings this action against Group Health, her former employer, alleging a variety of claims, including race, age, and disability discrimination; interference with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ); breach of contract; negligent supervision; and wrongful discharge. ( See generally Ver. of State Court Rec. (Dkt. # 2) Ex. A (" Compl." ).) Having reviewed the record, the applicable law, and the submissions of the parties, and being fully advised, the court finds there are no genuine disputes of material fact and that Group Health is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. As such, the court grants Group Health's motion and enters summary judgment in favor of Group Health on all of Ms. McDaniels' claims.


Group Health is a non-profit healthcare system headquartered in Seattle, Washington. (Wood Decl. (Dkt. # 14) ¶ 3; Compl. ¶ ¶ 3, 5.) Ms. McDaniels, who is African-American, began working for Group Health in January 2010 at Group Health's Capitol Hill campus. (Wood Decl. ¶ ¶ 3, 4; Compl. ¶ ¶ 4, 8.) In October or November 2011, Ms. McDaniels transferred to the OB/GYN and Urology Unit at the Capitol Hill campus (" the Unit" ), where she worked as a Patient Access Representative (" PAR" ). (Wood Decl. ¶ 4; Simon Decl. (Dkt. # 14) ¶ 2, Ex. 1 (" McDaniels Dep." ) at 59:12-14.) Group Health terminated Ms. McDaniels' employment on October 19, 2012. (Wood Decl. ¶ 27, Ex M.)

As a PAR, Ms. McDaniels worked in the front area of the Unit and was responsible for performing a variety of administrative tasks, many of which involved interacting with patients both in-person and over the phone. ( Id. ¶ 6, Ex. D; McDaniels Dep. at 87:11-88:21.) Like the other PARs in the Unit, Ms. McDaniels worked each shift at one of six stations and rotated daily. (Wood Decl. ¶ 7; McDaniels Dep. at 88:22-90:16.) Each station contains a desk, a computer, a keyboard, and a chair. (Wood Decl. ¶ 7; McDaniels Dep. at 90:17-22.) Three of the stations are patient-facing, while three sit behind a thin five-foot wall. (Wood Decl. ¶ 7; McDaniels Dep. at 88:22-89:5.) As of late January 2012, Ms. McDaniels' supervisor in her position as a PAR was Corrine Wood. (Wood Decl. ¶ ¶ 2, 4; McDaniels Dep. at 60:5-9.)

A. Health Issues

During 2012, Ms. McDaniels experienced several health-related issues that impacted her work. In late February 2012, she submitted to Ms. Wood a letter from her primary care physician. (Wood Decl. ¶ 28, Ex. R.) The letter expressed a concern that Ms. McDaniels' desk was too low and requested that Group Health perform an ergonomic assessment of her workstation. ( Id.; McDaniels Dep. at 193:20-194:5.) Within two days of the date of that letter, Ms. McDaniels received an email from Vicki Pasko, an Administrative Specialist for Group Health, asking Ms. McDaniels to fill out a self-assessment to prepare for a formal worksite assessment. (Wood Decl. ¶ 28, Ex. S; McDaniels Dep. at 194:19-195:4.)

On March 19, Michael Hansen, a physical therapist at Group Health, conducted a formal ergonomic worksite assessment for Ms. McDaniels. (Hansen Decl. (Dkt. # 16) ¶ 5, Ex. 1; Wood Decl. ¶ 29.) Mr. Hansen recommended resolving Ms. McDaniels' issues with her workstation by moving her keyboard from the keyboard tray to the top of the desk and then raising her chair. (Hansen Decl. ¶ ¶ 5-6, Ex. 1; McDaniels Dep. at 196:17-197:4.) He did not identify

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any other ergonomic deficiencies. (Hansen Decl. ¶ ¶ 5-8, Ex. 1; McDaniels Dep. at 197:5-8.) In addition, Group Health permitted Ms. McDaniels to designate one chair in the PAR work area as her own. (Wood Decl. ¶ 29; see also Resp. (Dkt. # 20) at 3.)

In April 2012, Ms. McDaniels reported problems with arthritis in her knee and sought intermittent leave under the FMLA to deal with that condition. (McDaniels Dep. at 268:17-269:11.) Group Health granted her request, designating this leave as #1120211 in its system. ( Id.; Wood Decl. ¶ 30, Ex. T.) From March through October of 2012, Ms. McDaniels took approximately 118 hours of approved FMLA leave under leave #1120211. (Wood Decl. ¶ 30, Ex. T.)

In June 2012, Ms. McDaniels fell at work when she attempted to sit down but missed her chair. (Wood Decl. ¶ 31; McDaniels Dep. at 201:19-202:2.) She claims that this incident caused sciatica, a condition that involves pain along the sciatic nerve in the hip and thigh. (McDaniels Dep. at 205:13-21; Webster's New World Dictionary 1202, " sciatica" (3d ed. 1988).) On June 28, Physician Assistant (" PA" ) Jonathan Green evaluated Ms. McDaniels. (Wood Decl. ¶ 32; Simon Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. 3 (" Green Dep." ) at 16:5-17.) In light of that evaluation, PA Green recommended that for two weeks Ms. McDaniels take a five-minute walking break every hour. (McDaniels Dep. at 210:2-10; Green Dep. at 18:9-24; Wood Decl. ¶ 32, Ex. U.) Group Health allowed Ms. McDaniels to take these walking breaks through August 20, 2012. (Wood Decl. ¶ 33, Ex. W; Green Dep. at 31:15-25.) PA Green also estimated that Ms. McDaniels might experience flare-ups in pain once every two weeks that would require her to miss a day of work. (Wood Decl. ¶ 35, Ex. Y.)

In connection with her alleged sciatica, Ms. McDaniels requested intermittent FMLA leave, which Group Health allowed under leave #1179780, as well as workers compensation. ( Id.; McDaniels Dep. at 274:18-21, 276:17-277:8; Adelfio Decl. (Dkt. # 17) ¶ 4.) Group Health approved the majority of Ms. McDaniels' leave requests under leave #1179780 for a total of 103.75 hours of approved FMLA leave from August through October 2012. (Wood Decl. ¶ ¶ 36-37, Ex. Y; Simon Decl. ¶ 10 (table of leave hours and dates).)

On several occasions, however, Group Health did not give Ms. McDaniels the leave she requested. At least twice, Ms. McDaniels requested FMLA leave to go to massage or other medical appointments during working hours, but Group Health told her to reschedule because the Unit was already going to be short-staffed at that time. (McDaniels Decl. (Dkt. # 20-1) Ex. H.) In addition, on two occasions, Ms. McDaniels took time off work that she labeled as FMLA leave but which Matrix, Group Health's outside leave administrator, later designated as unexcused absences. (Wood Decl. ¶ 37, Ex. Y; McDaniels Dep. at 277:13-280:20.) Group Health did not punish Ms. McDaniels for either of those occurrences or for any other absences from work. (McDaniels Dep. 166:1-25; Wood Decl. ¶ 36.)

As part of managing Ms. McDaniels' workers compensation claim, Group Health attempted to confirm that Ms. McDaniels could continue to perform her current job. (Wood Decl. ¶ 33.) To that end, Jennifer Adelfio, a risk management representative at Group Health, sent PA Green a description of the PAR job requirements along with an adjusted schedule that reflected the limitations from his evaluation. (Adelfio Decl. ¶ ¶ 2, 5, 6, Ex. A.) In response, PA Green confirmed that Ms. McDaniels could indeed work as a PAR with those limitations.

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( Id. ¶ 6, Ex. A; Green Dep. at 20:21-21:17.)

Ms. Adelfio then sent a form letter to Ms. McDaniels to confirm that she would be continuing at her job but with the limitations specified by PA Green. (Adelfio Decl. ¶ 7, Ex. B.) Due to features of Group Health's automated workers compensation system, this form letter referred to a " temporary job offer." [1] ( Id. ¶ ¶ 6-7, Ex. B.) Realizing that this language might give the wrong impression, Ms. Adelfio sent Ms. McDaniels and Ms. Wood an email in which she explained that Ms. McDaniels was staying in her current position. ( Id. ¶ 7.) When Ms. McDaniels responded in a way that indicated that she nevertheless thought that she was being transferred, Ms. Adelfio sent several more emails reiterating that Ms. McDaniels' job was not changing and that the letter's language was just a formality. ( Id., Ex. C; Wood Decl. ¶ 34.) In any event, Group Health did not transfer Ms. McDaniels. ( See Resp. at 3-4.)

B. Discipline

Ms. McDaniels' employment with Group Health was governed by Group Health's human resources policies and procedures, as well as a Collective Bargaining Agreement between Group Health and the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local No. 8, AFL-CIO (" the Union" ). (Wood Decl. ¶ 5, Exs. B, C.) Early in her employment, Ms. McDaniels underwent mandatory training on Group Health's policies, including its Code of Conduct, Standards of Employee Conduct, attendance and absenteeism policy, and telephone and internet use policy. ( Id. ¶ 9, Ex. C; McDaniels Dep. at 61:17-64:16.) As a result, she understood that honesty was an expectation and condition of her employment. (McDaniels Dep. at 75:4-79:3.) She also understood that dishonesty could lead to termination under Group Health's discretionary discipline policy. ( Id. at 72:23-73:25, 78:10-79:3.)

Ms. McDaniels also received two trainings on Group Health's emergency response policies. ( Id. at 64:17:65:14, 94:3-25; Wood Decl. ¶ 11, Ex. H.) Part of those policies is a system of codes that can be called out over the facility's intercom system to warn employees of different kinds of emergencies. (Wood Decl. ¶ 10, Ex. G.) One of those codes is a " code gray." ( Id.) It signifies " crisis intervention/combative person" and alerts security of the need for " immediate manpower support to prevent harm to patients or others." ( Id.) Manuals outlining these policies and codes are located throughout the Capitol Hill campus, including in the Unit. ( Id.)

During her employment with Group Health, Ms. McDaniels incurred formal disciplinary action on five occasions. ( See id. ¶ 12, Exs. I-M.) On March 9, 2011, she received a written warning for revealing confidential patient information. ( Id., Ex. I; McDaniels Dep. at 95:16-96:18.) That warning was removed from her file after three months pursuant to an agreement with the Union. (Wood Decl. ΒΆ 12; McDaniels Dep. at 97:16-23.) Then, on March 28, 2012, she received a second written warning, this time for using the phone and Internet for personal purposes during work hours. (Wood Decl. P 12, Ex. J; McDaniels Dep. at 98:1-110:2.) ...

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