Hill v. Hamilton County Public Hosp.

Decision Date26 April 1999
Docket NumberNo. C97-3109-MWB.,C97-3109-MWB.
Citation71 F.Supp.2d 936
PartiesSusan HILL, Plaintiff, v. HAMILTON COUNTY PUBLIC HOSPITAL, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

Blake Parker, Blake Parker Law Office, Fort Dodge, IA, for Plaintiff.

Thomas W. Foley, Kathryn Atkinson Overberg, Nyemaster, Goode, Voigts, West, Hansell & O'Brien, P.C., Des Moines, IA, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

BENNETT, District Judge.

                TABLE OF CONTENTS
                I. INTRODUCTION .............................................939
                  II. STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ...........................940
                 III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND .......................................942
                  IV. LEGAL ANALYSIS ...........................................943
                      A. The Claims Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ...............943
                         1. The procedural due process claim ...................944
                         2. The substantive due process claim ..................948
                      B. The ADA Claim .........................................949
                      C. The Wrongful Discharge Claim ..........................951
                      D. The False Light Claim .................................951
                      E. The Defamation Claim ..................................952
                   V. CONCLUSION ...............................................954
                

Does an employer violate an employee's due process protection by delaying its notification to the employee that she is under investigation for illegal drug use in the workplace when the delay prevents the employee from procuring an exonerating drug test? This is one of the questions the court must answer in resolving the defendant employer's motion for summary judgment in this employment discrimination lawsuit. In addition to her procedural due process claim, the plaintiff has raised federal claims for purported violations of her right to substantive due process and protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., as well as pendant state law claims for wrongful discharge, false light invasion of privacy, and slander. The defendant has moved for summary judgment on each of plaintiff's claims.

I. INTRODUCTION

This lawsuit arises from plaintiff Susan Hill's discharge from employment as a registered nurse with defendant Hamilton County Public Hospital (the "Hospital") on May 14, 1997. Hill filed her original complaint on November 10, 1997, and filed an amended complaint on April 2, 1998.

Hill's amended complaint sets forth three federal and two state law claims against the Hospital. Hill's first two federal constitutional claims are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.1 In her first claim, Hill alleges that the Hospital deprived her of her property interest in her public employment position by discharging her without due process of law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In her second federal claim, Hill alleges that the Hospital violated her right to substantive due process, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, by conducting an investigation into her alleged conduct that was unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious. Third, Hill alleges a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. ("ADA"). The essence of this claim is that the Hospital falsely regarded Hill as having a disability — drug addiction — which substantially limited her ability to perform a major life function — work — and terminated her in contravention of the ADA. Fourth, Hill alleges that she was wrongfully discharged according to the policies set forth in the Hospital's employee handbook. Finally, Hill claims that the Hospital placed her in a "false light" by asserting that "she is an illicit drug user and abuser." Amended Complaint at ¶ 27. The Hospital answered Hill's amended complaint on April 15, 1998, denying each of Hill's claims and raising a variety of affirmative defenses.

On November 16, 1998, the Hospital filed the present motion for summary judgment. The Hospital contends it is entitled to judgment in its favor on each of the claims raised in Hill's amended complaint. Hill has resisted the motion for summary judgment in its entirety.

Telephonic oral arguments were heard by the court on January 12, 1999. Hill was represented by Blake Parker, The Blake Parker Law Office, Fort Dodge, Iowa. The Hospital was represented by Thomas W. Foley and Kathryn Atkinson Overberg of Nyemaster, Goode, Voigts, West, Hansell & O'Brien, P.C., Des Moines, Iowa. During the arguments, the court granted Hill's request to further amend her amended complaint for purposes of adding a defamation claim. Additionally, both parties were granted time to file supplemental briefs on the issues raised during the oral arguments.

Hill filed a Second Amended and Supplemented Complaint on January 19, 1999, adding a sixth cause of action for slander. The crux of this claim is that the Hospital slandered Hill "by discharging her on the basis that she is an illicit drug user and abuser." Second Amended and Supplemented Complaint at ¶ 37. Hill contends that the Hospital knew or should have known that she would be compelled to disclose the reason for her discharge during job interviews with potential employers. Hill further asserts that the reason set forth by the Hospital for her discharge constitutes slander per se, and was made with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity. The Hospital has also moved for summary judgment on this claim.

II. STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

This court has considered in some detail the standards applicable to motions for summary judgment pursuant to FED. R.CIV.P. 56 in a number of recent decisions. See, e.g., Swanson v. Van Otterloo, 993 F.Supp. 1224, 1230-31 (N.D.Iowa 1998); Dirks v. J.C. Robinson Seed Co., 980 F.Supp. 1303, 1305-07 (N.D.Iowa 1997); Laird v. Stilwill, 969 F.Supp. 1167, 1172-74 (N.D.Iowa 1997); Rural Water Sys. # 1 v. City of Sioux Ctr., 967 F.Supp. 1483, 1499-1501 (N.D.Iowa 1997); Tralon Corp. v. Cedarapids, Inc., 966 F.Supp. 812, 817-18 (N.D.Iowa 1997); Security State Bank v. Firstar Bank Milwaukee, N.A., 965 F.Supp. 1237, 1239-40 (N.D.Iowa 1997); Lockhart v. Cedar Rapids Community Sch. Dist., 963 F.Supp. 805 (N.D.Iowa 1997). Thus, the court will not consider those standards in detail here. Suffice it to say that Rule 56 itself provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

Rule 56. Summary Judgment

(a) For Claimant. A party seeking to recover upon a claim, counterclaim, or cross-claim or to obtain a declaratory judgment may, at any time after the

expiration of 20 days from the commencement of the action or after service of a motion for summary judgment by the adverse party, move with or without supporting affidavits for a summary judgment in the party's favor upon all or any part thereof.

(b) For Defending Party. A party against whom a claim ... is asserted ... may, at any time, move for summary judgment in the party's favor as to all or any part thereof.

(c) Motions and Proceedings Thereon.... The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

FED.R.CIV.P. 56(a)-(c) (emphasis added). Applying these standards, the trial judge's function at the summary judgment stage of the proceedings is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there are genuine issues for trial. Quick v. Donaldson Co., 90 F.3d 1372, 1376-77 (8th Cir.1996); Johnson v. Enron Corp., 906 F.2d 1234, 1237 (8th Cir.1990). An issue of material fact is genuine if it has a real basis in the record. Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394 (8th Cir.1992) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986)). As to whether a factual dispute is "material," the Supreme Court has explained, "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Beyerbach v. Sears, 49 F.3d 1324, 1326 (8th Cir.1995); Hartnagel, 953 F.2d at 394.

Because this is an employment discrimination case, it is well to remember that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has cautioned that "summary judgment should seldom be used in employment-discrimination cases." Crawford v. Runyon, 37 F.3d 1338, 1341 (8th Cir.1994) (citing Johnson v. Minnesota Historical Soc'y, 931 F.2d 1239, 1244 (8th Cir.1991); Hillebrand v. M-Tron Indus., Inc., 827 F.2d 363, 364 (8th Cir.1987), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 1004, 109 S.Ct. 782, 102 L.Ed.2d 774 (1989)); see also Snow v. Ridgeview Med. Ctr., 128 F.3d 1201, 1205 (8th Cir.1997) (citing Crawford); Helfter v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 115 F.3d 613, 615 (8th Cir.1997) (quoting Crawford); Chock v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 113 F.3d 861, 862 (8th Cir. 1997) ("We must also keep in mind, as our court has previously cautioned, that summary judgment should be used sparingly in employment discrimination cases," citing Crawford); Smith v. St. Louis Univ., 109 F.3d 1261, 1264 (8th Cir.1997) (quoting Crawford); Hardin v. Hussmann Corp., 45 F.3d 262 (8th Cir.1995) ("summary judgments should only be used sparingly in employment discrimination cases," citing Haglof v. Northwest Rehabilitation, Inc., 910 F.2d 492, 495 (8th Cir.1990); Hillebrand, 827 F.2d at 364). Indeed, as the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently observed, "[s]ummary judgment seldom should be granted in discrimination cases where inferences are often the basis of the claim...." Breeding v. Gallagher & Co., 164 F.3d 1151, 1156 (8th Cir.1999).

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