Stockton v. Christus Health Se. Tex., CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:15-CV-333

CourtUnited States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court of Eastern District Texas
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 1:15-CV-333
Decision Date03 February 2017




February 3, 2017


Pending before the court are Plaintiff Susan Stockton's ("Stockton") Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (#20) and Defendant Christus Health Southeast Texas's ("Christus") Motion for Summary Judgment (#21). Having considered the pending motions, the submissions of the parties, the pleadings, and the applicable law, the court is of the opinion that summary judgment in favor of Christus is warranted.

I. Background

Christus is a not-for-profit healthcare system with several facilities in southeast Texas. One such facility is Christus Hospital St. Elizabeth ("St. Elizabeth" or "the Hospital"), an acute care and trauma center located in Beaumont. Stockton, a registered nurse ("RN"), began working at the Hospital in 1996. She remained employed by the Hospital for 18 years during which time she served in various departments. Most recently, Stockton worked as an RN in the Hospital's OB-GYN Surgery Department ("the Department"). The Department is a specialized unit in which female patients undergo particularized obstetrical and/or gynecological surgical procedures, including emergency cesarian-section procedures. Other departments in which she worked

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include the cardiovascular intensive care unit, the general post-anesthesia care unit, and the radiology department.1

Stockton has degenerative stenosis, which caused her extreme back pain. As a consequence, she opted to have back surgery to treat her condition. On April 9, 2014, Stockton submitted a request for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") for the surgery, which had been scheduled for April 22, 2016. To discuss this request, Brenda Munoz ("Munoz"), the Department's Manager of Surgery, and Human Resources Manager Martha Worthy ("Worthy") scheduled a meeting with Stockton for April 14, 2014. At that meeting, Munoz and Worthy informed Stockton that an RN in the Department was already on medical leave and that another RN, Katie Stewart ("Stewart"), had requested medical leave for the same time. Munoz and Worthy explained that they were asking both Stockton and Stewart if it was possible for either of them to reschedule her surgery in order to avoid having three RNs out at the same time. The meeting concluded without a resolution of the staffing issue.

Later that same day, while still at work, Stockton fell and injured her right shoulder. She was seen in the emergency room and diagnosed with a fractured humerus. Because of the severity of her injury, Stockton required immediate FMLA leave. Accordingly, she filed a claim for benefits under the Hospital's Occupational Injury Assistance Plan ("OIAP").2 Stockton was on leave from April 14, 2014, through July 27, 2014. During that time frame, the Hospital held

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Stockton's position open and divided the workload among other RNs. Thereafter, her treating physician, Dr. Marshall Hayes ("Dr. Hayes"), released her to return to work with several restrictions—namely, Stockton could not lift more than 10 pounds or reach overhead with her right upper extremity. On July 28, 2014, Stockton returned to work under a Transitional Duty Plan ("TDP"). The TDP included a "light duty" role, which restricted Stockton's duties to clerical tasks in the Department's pre-op area. Additionally, the TDP limited her work schedule to day shifts and weekdays.

The Hospital provided Stockton with detailed instructions regarding the TDP. Specifically, the TDP documents stated that her transitional light duty status was "temporary" and would "not exceed 90 calendar days from the effective date of [the] plan." Further, the paperwork notified Stockton that, at the end of the 90 days, she had to be able to either: (1) return to her regular duty; or (2) if she had been placed on permanent restrictions, perform the essential functions of her position with or without a reasonable accommodation. If she failed to comply with either requirement, Stockton was subject to termination.

While she was on light duty, physicians continued to evaluate Stockton's shoulder. Dr. Hayes conducted a follow-up exam and recommended an MRI of her shoulder. The Hospital, however, referred Stockton for an independent medical examination ("IME"). The IME was performed by Dr. Zvi Kalisky ("Dr. Kalisky") on September 16, 2014. On October 20, 2014, Dr. Kalisky issued a report finding that Stockton was permanently restricted from lifting more than 20 pounds and from reaching with her upper right extremity. Dr. Kalisky, thus, released Stockton to return to work with permanent restrictions. Stockton notified the Hospital that she would be seeking another medical opinion and intended to appeal Dr. Kalisky's determinations.

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On or about October 28, 2014, when Stockton's TDP ended, she returned to work. Upon her return, Worthy advised Stockton that she could have an additional 30 days to look for a new position that would accommodate her restrictions. Stockton continued to work in her light duty role during this time. Additionally, Stockton applied and interviewed for several positions at the Hospital. Further, Stockton contacted Dennis LeBlanc ("LeBlanc"), Manager of the Department and her direct supervisor, requesting that he recommend her for another position at the Hospital or consider keeping her "with adjustments to [her] responsibilities." Unfortunately, Stockton was unable to secure another position during this 30-day period, and HR notified her that she could not continue to work in the Department.

On November 20, 2014, before her 30-day extension of light duty ended and shortly after she was interviewed for a new position, Stockton elected to have her previously scheduled back surgery. As a result of that surgery, she was unable to work for three months, or until February 2015. During that time, she obtained benefits through the Hospital's short-term disability plan. On January 6, 2015, Stockton again emailed LeBlanc and informed him that she was still pursuing an appeal of the IME results and asked him to consider "a modification of her job." LeBlanc never replied to this request. While recovering from her back surgery, Stockton also met with Dr. Shawn Figari ("Dr. Figari") to obtain a second opinion on her shoulder injury. Dr. Figari agreed with Dr. Hayes that an MRI was necessary before any determination could be made regarding her restrictions. Thus, on January 9, 2015, Stockton emailed LeBlanc a copy of Dr. Figari's report and asked for his advice on the matter.

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Stockton then personally paid for the MRI.3 On January 14, 2015, after reviewing the MRI, Dr. Figari drafted a new report opining that Stockton did "not have any permanent restrictions in her job requirements" due to her shoulder injury and released her to work "full duty with no restrictions." Stockton hand-delivered this report to the Human Resources Department. Approximately one month later, Stockton emailed LeBlanc and inquired whether her position in the Department was still available. LeBlanc responded that there were no positions available in the Department. On February 23, 2015, Stockton was medically released with no restrictions in connection with her back surgery. Because there were no positions in the Department, however, Stockton was again given 30 days to secure another position. Stockton subsequently applied for two positions, but she was not offered either job. Notably, Stockton did not apply for any other positions at the Hospital after February 2015, even though her former position became available again in June 2015.

At the conclusion of the second 30-day extension, Stockton applied for unemployment benefits with the Texas Workforce Commission ("TWC"). Although Christus maintained that Stockton was still employed by the Hospital, the TWC found that she had been terminated and was eligible for benefits. Thus, Stockton received unemployment benefits until she accepted a part-time RN position in the post-anesthesia unit of The Medical Center of Southeast Texas, in Port Arthur, Texas, in April 2015.

On April 17, 2015, Stockton filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Then, on August 15, 2015, Stockton's husband passed away. Stockton subsequently filed a claim for benefits under the group life insurance policy

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maintained through the Hospital, even though she considered herself terminated by the Hospital and was working in a new position at another hospital. Therefore, instead of paying Stockton's claim, the Hospital retroactively terminated Stockton's employment, effective April 21, 2015.

On August 27, 2015, Stockton filed her original complaint, asserting claims under the FMLA and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"). On November 20, 2015, Stockton amended her complaint to include a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Essentially, Stockton alleges that, by terminating her employment, the Hospital discriminated against her based on a disability and retaliated against her for taking medical leave. On October 21, 2016, Stockton filed the instant motion, seeking partial summary judgment on her ADA claims. Then, on November 21, 2016, Christus filed its cross-motion for summary judgment, in which it contends that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on all claims asserted by Stockton.

II. Analysis

A. Evidentiary Objections

As an initial matter, Stockton objects to several portions of Christus's summary judgment evidence. Specifically, Stockton objects that the witness declarations offered in support of Christus's motion contain inadmissible hearsay and bald assertions of ultimate facts. Evidence offered for or against summary judgment is subject to the same standards and rules that govern the admissibility of evidence at trial. Reeves...

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