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Hancock v. Washington Hosp. Center

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 7, 2012

Selena Y. HANCOCK, Plaintiff,
v.
WASHINGTON HOSPITAL CENTER, Defendant.

Page 19

Karen A. Khan, The Khan Law Group, PLLC, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

David C. Tobin, Desmond T. McIlwain, Tobin, O'Connor & Ewing, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ROBERT L. WILKINS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Selena Hancock (" Hancock" ) suffers from Polyradiculopathy and Polyneuropathy, conditions impacting the nerve roots of her lower spine. She was formerly employed by Defendant Washington Hospital Center (" WHC" or the " Hospital" ) as a Medical Assistant, and she now brings this action alleging that WHC unlawfully failed to accommodate her disability and wrongfully terminated her employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, Hancock pursues the following remaining claims against WHC: (1) Failure to Accommodate under the ADA (Count I); (2) Disability Discrimination in Violation of the ADA (Count II); (3) Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count IV).[1] This matter is presently before the Court on WHC's Motion for Summary Judgment.

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(Dkt. No. 20). For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that WHC's Motion must be GRANTED in PART and DENIED in PART.

BACKGROUND

The facts surrounding Hancock's claims are not terribly complicated, but they are disputed in some important respects. Selena Hancock was employed by Washington Hospital Center as a Medical Assistant from May 1999 until her termination, which either occurred on December 21, 2007, or June 10, 2008, depending on whose version of events is credited. ( Compare Dkt. No. 20-3 (" Def.'s Stmt." ) at ¶ 22, with Dkt. No. 22-1 (" Pl.'s Stmt." ) at ¶ 29). [2]

As a Medical Assistant, Hancock's duties included registering patients, triaging patients, billing, patient referrals, assisting nurses, cleaning exam rooms, stocking and ordering supplies, answering telephones, and more. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 2). As particularly relevant here, both parties agree that Hancock's triage responsibilities— which entailed preparing patients to be seen by a physician, escorting patients to the exam room, and taking and recording patients' information in their charts— were considered an essential aspect of her position. ( Id. at ¶ 3).

In June 2006, Hancock began experiencing sharp pains in her stomach and was advised by her physician to go directly to the emergency room. (Pl.'s Stmt. at ¶ 1).[3] Following a sonogram, doctors discovered that Hancock had five fibroid cysts and four cysts in her rectum. ( Id. at ¶ 2). Hancock underwent surgery to have those

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cysts removed, and she began to suffer from complications during her recovery. ( Id. at ¶¶ 3-19). After several appointments over the course of a few weeks, Hancock's doctors determined that additional surgery was necessary and ultimately performed a total hysterectomy. ( Id. at ¶¶ 20-21). During that procedure, Hancock's spine was apparently punctured, and she suffered nerve damage that left her disabled. ( Id. ). Hancock was diagnosed with Polyradiculopathy and Polyneuropathy, conditions that limit her ability to walk and lift. ( Id. at ¶¶ 23-24). She also suffers from a permanent limp that precludes her from walking long distances and necessitates the use of a cane when walking. ( Id. ).

Following surgery, Hancock was discharged from her hospital stay in mid-August 2006, and she returned to work in late October 2006 with work restrictions that prohibited her from performing heavy lifting or manual labor for one month. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 8). It appears WHC accommodated these restrictions, and Hancock does not argue otherwise. The record does not contain any information about Hancock's ability to work from November 2006 through the following October, but it seems that she was able to perform the essential functions of her job without issue. On October 15, 2007, however, Hancock was placed on " light duty" work restrictions for several weeks until November 7, 2007— specifically, " no lifting, bending," " no triage," and " no lifting over twenty pounds." ( Id. at ¶ 13; Pl.'s Stmt. at ¶ 25). While WHC seems to have generally accommodated these restrictions, Hancock claims that she was forced to triage patients during this time period. (Pl.'s Stmt. at ¶ 25). Beginning on November 5, 2007, Hancock's only restriction was that she could not lift more than twenty pounds, and that restriction was effective until December 5, 2007. ( Id. at ¶ 26). Thereafter, on November 21, 2007, Hancock was again restricted from performing triage duties for approximately four weeks, until December 24, 2007. ( Id. at ¶ 27). Despite this, Hancock claims that she was again forced to continue triaging patients during this period. ( Id. ).

On December 20, 2007, Hancock apparently provided WHC with an updated occupational health form that placed her on " modified duty" and restricted her from performing triage duties for approximately two weeks, until January 2, 2008. ( Id. at ¶ 28). After receiving that form, Hancock's supervisor, Shava Russell, indicated that WHC " could not accommodate [those] recommended restrictions" and signed her name on the report. ( Id. ). The next day, Ms. Russell sent Hancock an email stating, " Selena, Please clean out your locker, turn in your headset, badge, and locker key before leaving today." ( Id. at ¶ 29). Shortly thereafter, Ms. Russell held a meeting with Hancock and Renee Nesmith, another WHC employee,[4] during which Hancock contends that she was terminated. ( Id. ). According to Hancock's testimony, Ms. Russell said that the Hospital would pay her long-term disability, and Hancock also testified that she was told, " You're going to need all the money you can get, so you need to work out through the rest of the day because you will no longer work here after today in this office." (Dkt. No. 22-4 at Ex. 2, Hancock Dep. at 86:9-88:16). Approximately one week later, on December 28, 2007, WHC received an additional " Occupational Helth

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[sic] Medical Referral" form, which described Hancock's restrictions as: " no pushing, no pulling, no lifting over 20 pounds, no triage ... until further notice." (Dkt. No. 20-2 at Ex. 19).

WHC maintains that Hancock was not terminated in December 2007. Instead, the Hospital contends that Hancock was placed on a leave of absence on or about December 21, 2007, after WHC determined that it could not accommodate her triage restrictions. WHC also asserts that Ms. Russell consulted with her supervisor, Bradley Kappalman, prior to making that determination. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 16). Based on the record, however, it was not until December 26, 2007— several days after determining that WHC declined to accommodate Hancock's " triage" restrictions— that Ms. Russell contacted Mr. Kappalman, stating, " I did not accommodate Selena's restricted duty AGAIN." (Dkt. No. 20-2 at Ex. 20) (emphasis in original). The following day, December 27, Mr. Kappalman responded, " Question. Why can we not accommodate her light duty? Don't we always need staff on the telephone?" ( Id. ). Ms. Russell responded, " If I only utilize her on the phones (long-term), then it sets me up to have to make likewise accommodations for other staff members in the future. What do you suggest?" ( Id. ). Thus, the evidence strongly suggests that Ms. Russell did not discuss Hancock's restrictions with Mr. Kappalman until several days after Ms. Russell had already determined that WHC would not accommodate Hancock's " triage" restrictions and after she had already communicated that decision to Hancock.[5] Furthermore, in her December 26th email message, Mr. Russell basically admitted that she had already planned to have Hancock move on to a new position if she was not cleared to return to " full duty" by December 24, 2007, which was the expiration date of Hancock's prior medical restrictions. ( Id. ) (" I had explained to her [Hancock] previously that she needed to be cleared to return to work full duty by 12/24/07 or she would have to make other arrangements." ).

Thereafter, WHC contends that Hancock submitted a claim for short-term disability benefits, as Hancock received a letter from Aetna on or around February 13, 2008, indicating that her claim was closed as of January 24, 2008, " based on lack of medical information." (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 18). Other than this letter, however, WHC did not present any other documentary evidence surrounding any potential disability benefits, such as a copy of the applicable disability insurance policy or the application form that Hancock ostensibly completed. On February 26, 2008, WHC sent Hancock a letter advising that her " leave of absence" was expiring on March 8, 2008, and that she " must either return to work by that date or submit additional information." ( Id. at ¶ 19). The letter also advised that, if Hancock failed to do so, WHC would consider Hancock " to have abandoned [her] employment at the hospital." ( Id. ). Hancock did not respond to that letter. ( Id. at ¶¶ 20-21). On June 10, 2008, WHC sent Hancock another letter explaining that her failure to return to work was being treated as " a voluntary termination ...


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