Babb v. Maryville Anesthesiologists P.C., 110619 FED6, 19-5148

Docket Nº:19-5148
Opinion Judge:KAREN NELSON MOORE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Party Name:Paula E. Babb, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Maryville Anesthesiologists P.C., Defendant-Appellee.
Attorney:James H. Price, W. Allen McDonald, Michael R. Franz, LACY PRICE & WAGNER, P.C., Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellant. Howard B. Jackson, WIMBERLY LAWSON WRIGHT DAVES & JONES, PLLC, Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before: MOORE, McKEAGUE, and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:November 06, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Paula E. Babb, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Maryville Anesthesiologists P.C., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 19-5148

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

November 6, 2019

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville. No. 3:17-cv-00242-Thomas W. Phillips, District Judge.

ON BRIEF:

James H. Price, W. Allen McDonald, Michael R. Franz, LACY PRICE & WAGNER, P.C., Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

Howard B. Jackson, WIMBERLY LAWSON WRIGHT DAVES & JONES, PLLC, Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Before: MOORE, McKEAGUE, and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

KAREN NELSON MOORE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, your employer can't fire you because they think you are disabled, even if, in fact, you are not disabled. But Paula Babb contends that her former employer-Maryville Anesthesiologists, P.C.-did just that, i.e., it fired her because it thought she was visually disabled, even though, in reality, she is not visually disabled. Maryville Anesthesiologists wholeheartedly disagrees, and asserts that it fired Babb, not because of any visual disability (whether real or not), but, rather, because Babb committed two "clinical errors" that placed her patients at grave risk of injury. Thus, the central question in this litigation is a familiar one in employment discrimination law: why, exactly, did Maryville Anesthesiologists fire Paula Babb? The district court agreed with Maryville's narrative, and accordingly granted it summary judgment. But, because we think the district court overlooked too many genuine factual disputes in reaching that conclusion, and also improperly excluded expert testimony favorable to Babb along the way, we REVERSE the district court's grant of summary judgment and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

This case arrives to us on summary judgment, and so we consider the facts in the light most favorable to Babb, drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor. Ferrari v. Ford Motor Co., 826 F.3d 885, 891 (6th Cir. 2016).

Paula Babb is a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist ("CRNA") who has practiced anesthesiology for over a decade. R.24-12 (Babb Resume) (Page ID #714-17). In June 2015, Babb began working as a CRNA at Maryville Anesthesiologists, P.C. ("Maryville"), a small practice group that does the bulk of its work at a local hospital called Blount Memorial. R.24-1 (Babb Dep. at 42) (Page ID #288); R.15-11 (Robertson Dec. ¶ 3) (Page ID #161).

Babb's tenure at Maryville began uneventfully, with Babb's supervisors reporting no problems with her work. However, approximately a month into her employment, one of Maryville's physician-owners, Dr. Cheryl Coleman, observed Babb "placing her face very close to a computer screen," and asked Babb why she was doing that. R.15-4 (Coleman Aff. ¶ 3) (Page ID #153). Babb informed Dr. Coleman that she suffered from a "degenerative retinal condition" that made it hard for her to read certain screens and medical records. R.24-1 (Babb Dep. at 41-42) (Page ID #287-88); R.24-3 (Babb Dec. ¶¶ 10-11) (Page ID #551-52). But, Babb reassured Dr. Coleman, this disorder did not affect her ability to do her job. R.24-1 (Babb Dep. at 41-42) (Page ID #287-88).

Dr. Coleman relayed this fact to Dr. Candace Robertson, the Maryville physician-owner responsible for personnel decisions, and added that, as she understood it, Babb "would be blind in ten years." R.24-2 (Robertson Dep. at 105-07) (Page ID #491-93). For her part, Babb denies telling Dr. Coleman that she "would be blind in ten years," and further attests that, in any event, that assertion is "not true." R.24-3 (Babb Dec. ¶ 11) (Page ID #552). Rather, in Babb's view, her condition merely means that she needs to hold written records "close to [her] eyes" to be able to read them; it does not inhibit her ability to read medical records as a matter of course, or impact her ability to perform anesthesiology. Id. ¶¶ 10-11 (Page ID #551-52).

In any event, not long after Dr. Robertson received this initial report from Dr. Coleman, two other Maryville physician-owners, Dr. Daniela Apostoaei and Dr. Gaelan Luhn, e-mailed Dr. Robertson with similar concerns regarding Babb's vision. R.15-11 (Robertson Aff. ¶¶ 5-6) (Page ID #161). Admittedly, the e-mails do not make clear the seriousness of Babb's vision issues-for instance, Dr. Luhn's e-mail acknowledges that he wasn't sure if Babb failed to read a certain medical record because of her eyesight or because of poor handwriting-but, nonetheless, following this series of reports Dr. Robertson decided to hold a meeting with Babb to discuss her vision. Id. ¶ 7 (Page ID #161, 166).

At this meeting, which occurred on October 30, 2015, Babb "tearful[ly]" explained to Dr. Robertson and Dr. Wilma Proffitt (another Maryville physician-owner) that, approximately ten years prior, an ophthalmologist in Chattanooga had diagnosed her with a degenerative eye condition. Id., Ex. 3 (Page ID #166). But, again, Babb insisted that the disorder did not affect her ability to do her job, and that her vision was otherwise "stable." Id.; accord R.24-1 (Babb Dep. at 53-62) (Page ID #299-308). In response, Drs. Robertson and Proffitt first reassured Babb that, vision issues notwithstanding, she was a "good fit" and was "doing well." R.24-1 (Babb Dep. at 58, 62) (Page ID #304, 308). Then, the two physicians asked Babb to schedule an appointment with her ophthalmologist and report back, which Babb agreed to do. R.15-11 (Robertson Aff. ¶ 7, Ex. 3) (Page ID #166). Dr. Robertson, in turn, asked Babb if she had "disability insurance" (Babb did) because, in Dr. Robertson's words, she thought Babb "might have a disability." R.24-2 (Robertson Dep. at 71) (Page ID #457). And, finally, after the meeting's conclusion, Dr. Robertson e-mailed her fellow physician-owners to tell them that, because they "all kn[e]w that" an ophthalmologist couldn't issue an opinion definitively "clearing" Babb to practice anesthesiology (because ophthalmologists generally do not make those kinds of calls), Babb's situation might require them to "talk to [their] attorney." Id. at 73- 74 (Page ID #459-60); R.15-11 (Robertson Aff. ¶ 7, Ex. 3) (Page ID #166).

The months of November and December did not go much better for Babb. Indeed, in an unfortunate catch-22, it appears that, because Babb occasionally began asking other CRNAs to read hospital monitors for her-pursuant to Drs. Proffitt's and Robertson's instructions, and to ensure that she wasn't misreading any vital data-Babb's "vision problems" appeared even more acute to her colleagues. R.24-3 (Babb Dec. ¶ 12) (Page ID #552). Accordingly, at least one CRNA and one Blount Memorial nurse reported further concerns about Babb's vision to Maryville physician-owners in the weeks following the October 30 meeting. R.24-6 (Aycocke Dep. at 43-45) (Page ID #618-20); R.15-10 (Price Aff. ¶ 7) (Page ID #160); see also R.15-13 (Wilson Aff. ¶ 3) (Page ID #177) (describing Babb's "difficulties with her vision" as "common knowledge among the CRNAs"). These concerns, in turn, made their way onto Babb's annual evaluations, which were penned by Maryville physician-owners sometime between December 2015 and January 2016. See R.24-11 (Babb Evaluation at 3) (Page ID #713) (stating, among other things, "[I am] worried about her eyesight," and "I see her questionable ability to see reflect on how surgeons and the medical staff lack accepting her"); see also R.24-2 (Robertson Dep. at 120-22) (Page ID #506-08) (providing background on the evaluation process).[1]

Notably, however, in late December 2015, while Dr. Proffitt was conversing with a Blount Memorial nurse named Charles Price about Babb's vision problems, Dr. Proffitt learned that Babb had apparently committed an error completely unrelated to her vision back in October 2015. R.24-5 (Price Dep. at 43-46) (Page ID #568-71). As Price explained it, Babb had been assisting him during the surgery of an obese patient, but, near the end of the surgery, Babb began to wake the patient up too early, before the patient had been placed on the proper bed. R.15-10 (Price Aff. ¶ 4) (Page ID #160); R.19 (Updated Price Aff.) (Page ID #190). This error purportedly caused the patient nearly to fall off the operating table (also called a "fracture table"). Id. On January 2, 2016, Dr. Proffitt relayed Price's "fracture table" story (and Price's vision concerns) to Dr. Robertson, and further requested that Dr. Robertson "include these events in Paula Babb's personnel file." R.15-11 (Robertson Aff. ¶¶ 9-10, Ex.4) (Page ID #161, 167).

And, adding fuel to the fire, just a few days later-on January 5, 2016-Dr. Luhn emailed Dr. Robertson to inform her that, prior to a "robotic arm" surgery he...

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