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Lemmons v. Georgetown University Hospital

May 4, 2006

LASHAWN LEMMONS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

LaShawn Lemmons ("the plaintiff") brings this action against Georgetown University Hospital ("Hospital") and Debbie Ellerby ("the defendants"),*fn1 alleging that they engaged in racial and religious discrimination and retaliation against her in the course of her employment as a laboratory technologist with the Hospital, in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code § 2-1401 et seq. (2001), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (2000) ("Section 1981"). Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl.") ¶¶ 1-2. The plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as compensatory and punitive damages. Id. at 7. Currently before the Court is the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defs.' Mot."). Submitted in connection with the defendants' motion are the Plaintiff's Opposition to the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl.'s Opp.") and the Defendants' Reply in Further Support of their Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defs.' Reply"). For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the defendants' motion for summary judgment, and remands the plaintiff's remaining claim to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

I. Background

The following facts are not in dispute. The plaintiff, a resident of Washington, D.C., began her employment with Georgetown University Hospital's Microbiology Laboratory as an at-will, part-time laboratory technologist in 1999. Defs.' Mot. ¶ 1; Defs.' Mot., Exhibit ("Ex.") 1 (Plaintiff's Deposition) at 18, 57 ("Pl.'s Dep."). In April 2001, the plaintiff was given an additional part-time position in the Hospital's Chemistry Laboratory. Defs.' Mot. ¶ 4; Am. Compl. ¶ 12. Both laboratories have work stations known as "benches," on which various diagnostic tests are performed on specimens received from patients. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 2 (Declaration of Debbie Ellerby) ("Ellerby Decl.") ¶ 4; Pl.'s Dep. at 85. The plaintiff was not, and is not, trained to perform all of the tasks associated with each of the benches in the Microbiology and Chemistry Laboratories. Defs.' Reply at 5; Pl.'s Opp. at 5 ¶¶ 5-6.

A. The plaintiff's Harassment Complaint

In the spring of 2002, the plaintiff spoke to her supervisors, Marcia Betaharon and Zahra Fakhraei, regarding what she perceived to be the improper storage of tuberculosis ("TB") samples in the Hospital's main laboratory incubator. Defs.' Mot. ¶ 12; Am. Compl. ¶¶ 15-16. In May 2002, "[w]hen no action was taken . . . to remedy the improper handling and storage of the TB samples," Am. Compl. ¶ 17, the plaintiff submitted a memorandum to defendant Ellerby and other Hospital personnel, alleging that she was being harassed by Betaharon, Defs.' Mot. ¶ 18; Am. Compl. ¶ 18.*fn2 Specifically, the plaintiff stated:

For the past several months, I have been the target of some very deliberate and cruel harassment devices employed by senior Team Leader, Marcia Betaharon. On more than one occasion, Mrs. Betaharon has violently lashed out at me in a most offensive and vile manner. I find her language coarse, abusive, insulting, and inappropriate. I have also repeatedly overheard Mrs. Betaharon blatantly gossiping about me with other employees. She further demonstrates her inability to adhere to the standards of professional conduct by communicating important issues with me through notes or other employees. . . . Marcia Betaharon is increasingly using her power as Team Leader to unjustifiably criticize and complain about my work performance in such a way as to question the validity of my skills as a Microbiology Tech. It is an almost weekly occurrence that Zahra [Fakhraei] approaches me with work quality issues raised by Marcia Betaharon.

Pl.'s Opp., Ex. F (May 22, 2002 letter from LaShawn Lemmons to Sharon Novak, Debbie Ellerby, Zeni Evangelista, and David Garvin) at 1. Nowhere in the plaintiff's memorandum did she intimate that the harassment she described was racially-based or racially-motivated. See generally id. In fact, the plaintiff later testified that she did not believe that Betaharon was harassing her on account of her race.*fn3 Pl.'s Dep. at 57.

The plaintiff's allegations of harassment were investigated by the Hospital. See Defs.' Mot. ¶¶ 21-24; Pl.'s Opp., Ex. L (May 28, 2002 letter from Sharon Novak to LaShawn Lemmons); Pl.'s Opp., Ex. P (July 15, 2002 letter from Randy Gadson to LaShawn Lemmons). As a result of this investigation, in July 2002 Ellerby discovered for the first time that the plaintiff was not fully trained as a laboratory technologist in the Microbiology Laboratory. Defs.' Mot. ¶ 25; Pl.'s Opp. ¶ 25; Defs.' Mot., Ex. 14 (July 31, 2002 letter from LaShawn Lemmons to Debbie Ellerby); Pl.'s Opp., Ex. M (August 5, 2002 letter from Debbie Ellerby to LaShawn Lemmons). Having ascertained that all other laboratory technologists were trained on their benches, Ellerby Decl. ¶ 7, Ellerby met with the plaintiff to request that she receive the appropriate training on the Microbiology benches, Pl.'s Opp., Ex. M; Ellerby Decl. ¶¶ 6-8.*fn4 Rather than accede to the additional training, in August 2002 the plaintiff expressed an interest in resigning from her position as a laboratory technologist in the Microbiology Laboratory and working exclusively in a full-time capacity in the Chemistry Laboratory. Pl.'s Opp. at 9 ¶ 25; Defs.' Mot., Ex. 16 (August 30, 2002 letter from Debbie Ellerby to LaShawn Lemmons) at 1. In response, Ellerby told the plaintiff that she would need to be fully trained on the benches in the Chemistry Laboratory in order to become a full-time laboratory technologist in that department. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 16 at 1. Alternatively, Ellerby offered to transfer the plaintiff into the "newly developed job description of Accessioning Technologist," which would allow the plaintiff to retain all of her job duties in the Microbiology Laboratory without undergoing any further training. Id. The position of accessioning technologist was one pay grade below that of laboratory technologist, but the plaintiff would "continue to be paid at the same hourly rate" if she chose to transfer to the new position. Id.

The plaintiff refused to participate in additional training in both the Microbiology and Chemistry Laboratories "because she feared the training was designed to set her up for termination."*fn5 Pl.'s Opp. ¶ 32. Instead, the plaintiff elected "with great reservations" to transfer to the part-time accessioning technologist position, where she remains to this date. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 15 (September 23, 2002 letter from LaShawn Lemmons to Debbie Ellerby) at 2; Pl.'s Opp. ¶ 36 (stating that the plaintiff "currently works 20 hours per week" as an accessioning technologist); Ellerby Decl. ¶ 11 (stating that the plaintiff's "current title is Accessioning Technologist").

B. The Plaintiff's Refusal to Take a PPD Skin Test

The plaintiff and the defendants also clashed over the Hospital's policy that all District of Columbia employees involved in direct or indirect patient care receive an annual health examination, including a tuberculin Purified Protein Derivative ("PPD") skin test, also known as a Mantoux test.*fn6 Defs.' Mot., Ex. 18 (Georgetown University Hospital Health Policy 501) at 1, 3. The PPD test is designed to detect the presence of the tuberculosis virus. Defs.' Mot. ¶ 44; Pl.'s Opp. at 12 ¶ 44. The plaintiff does not dispute that she is involved in the indirect care of patients and is therefore required, under Hospital policy, to undergo a PPD skin test as part of her annual health clearance. Defs.' Mot. ¶ 44; Pl.'s Opp. at 12 ¶¶ 44-45. Nor does the plaintiff dispute that employees who refuse to take the PPD test may be suspended, discharged, or transferred to a non-clinical position.*fn7 Defs.' Mot. ¶ 47; Pl.'s Opp. at 12 ¶ 47;

In March 2002, Ellerby received notice from Paula Sullivan, the Hospital's Director of Health Services, that the plaintiff's 2002 PPD test was overdue. Ellerby Decl. ¶ 12. Ellerby subsequently notified the plaintiff that her annual health clearance could not be processed until she took the skin test or produced a deferral note from her physician. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 23 (March 6, 2002 memorandum from Debbie Ellerby to LaShawn Lemmons). The plaintiff then submitted a physician's note requesting that the Hospital exempt her "from taking the skin tests for tuberculosis because of medical reasons." Defs.' Mot., Ex. 24 (March 28, 2002 note from Dr. Kumuda Reddy); see also Defs.' Mot. ¶ 51. Accordingly, the Hospital permitted the plaintiff to defer taking the PPD skin test in 2002.*fn8 Defs.' Mot. ¶¶ 51-52.

In April 2003, the Hospital renewed its request that the plaintiff take the annual PPD skin test. Defs.' Mot. ¶ 53; Pl.'s Opp. at 13 ¶ 53. Again the plaintiff produced a note from her physician, which stated simply, "Please exempt [the plaintiff] from tuberculosis skin test."

Defs.' Mot., Ex. 25 (April 24, 2003 note from Dr. Kumuda Reddy); see also Defs.' Mot. ¶ 54; Pl.'s Opp. at 13 ¶ 54. After receiving the physician's note, the Hospital apparently deferred the plaintiff's PPD test once more. Pl.'s Dep. at 180 (stating that PPD test was deferred in April 2003).

In addition to objecting to submitting to the PPD tests for medical reasons, the plaintiff also raised a religious objection to the tests, presenting the Hospital with two letters signed by the Pastor of the Congregation of Universal Wisdom. Defs.' Mot., Exs. 27 and 28 (August 26, 2003 and September 26, 2003 letters from Walter P. Schilling); Defs.' Mot. ¶ 56; Pl.'s Opp. at 13 ¶ 56. The first letter, dated August 26, 2003, stated that under the tenets of the church, "[t]he injection into the body of medication or other matter or substance that defy natural law" is sacrilegious. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 27. The letter then specifically stated that "[t]he Mantoux Test is an intradermal injection of tuberculin and as such . . . [i]t is forbidden." Id. The second letter, dated September 26, 2003, confirmed that the plaintiff belonged to the Congregation of Universal Wisdom, and reiterated that "[n]o member of the Congregation shall have injected, ingested, or infused into the body any foreign materials of unhealthy or unnatural composition." Defs.' Mot., Ex. 28. It is undisputed that the defendants received these letters. Defs.' Mot. ¶ 56 ("[The p]laintiff also presented two letters allegedly signed by the Pastor of her Church. . . . These letters state that Tuberculosis tests are forbidden by the religious tenants [sic] of the Congregation of Universal Wisdom.").

In September 2003, the plaintiff also produced another note from her physician, which requested that she not be given the PPD skin test "due to fear of allergic reaction." Defs.' Mot., Ex. 26 (September 26, 2003 note from Dr. Kumuda Reddy). On November 4, 2003, Paula Sullivan e-mailed Dr. Princy Kumar, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, regarding the plaintiff's refusal to take the PPD test. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 29 (November 4, 2003 e-mail). In the e-mail, Sullivan wrote:

There is an employee who is an indirect patient care provider (lab tech) who has suddenly decided that she is not going to get a PPD because "I don't like putting anything in my body." She also . . . brought a note from her doctor that said "Please excuse Ms. [blank] from the PPD because of her fear of an allergic reaction." I do not think this is appropriate, and feel ...


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