Judge clears way for ex-worker’s suit against St. Vincent

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

St. Vincent Healthcare is being sued by a longtime employee who said she was fired unfairly and retaliated against.

A federal judge has cleared the way for Billings woman’s wrongful termination lawsuit against St. Vincent Healthcare.

In ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Watters granted one motion for summary judgment filed by St. Vincent but denied all its other claims, allowing Roxanna Jackson’s lawsuit against the hospital to proceed to trial.

Watters granted St. Vincent’s request to dismiss Jackson’s retaliation claim under Montana law, but denied its request to dismiss Jackson’s claims of disability discrimination, age discrimination, wrongful discharge and retaliation under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Jackson originally filed the suit in Yellowstone County District Court on Oct. 14, 2015, but St. Vincent moved the case to federal court less than a month later, on the grounds that it was partly based on the federal ADA.

In her lawsuit, Jackson said she graduated from high school in Billings in the mid-1970s and was hired not long after that as a central processing aide at St. Vincent, charged with delivering sterilized trays, instruments and machines throughout the hospital.

Jackson said she went to high school under a special needs program and graduated with a special needs diploma, and that St. Vincent hired her knowing of her speech and learning disabilities. In a “statement of facts” based on documents and depositions, Watters said other aides were trained to do additional duties, but Jackson “was initially limited to these duties because of her disability.”

Jackson was later promoted to central processing tech and performed all required duties, except that she had some problems putting together instrument trays. Watters said Jackson’s then-manager, Diane Larson, “did not typically have her work with the instruments because of her disability.”

Jackson was never subjected to any discipline until 2013, when David Dobson became director of surgical, procedural and support services, which included oversight of central processing. Dobson discussed Jackson’s disabilities with her, and he subsequently promoted Jackson’s co-worker, Heather Franzel, to be the central processing department manager. Franzel had worked with Jackson since 2007 and also knew she had a disability, Watters said.

Shortly after Franzel was named to head the department, she told Jackson she was “going too slow on the instruments,” after which periodic time trials were instituted to see how long it took workers to assemble instrument trays.

Franzel went to the head of human resources with her concerns about how long Jackson needed to complete that task, and Franzel and several other employees met with Jackson to talk about retraining her. At no time, Watters said, did anyone mention Jackson’s disability or any restrictions Jackson had.

On Oct. 10, 2013, Jackson received her first “correction action form,” or disciplinary notice. Three days later, Jackson gave her supervisor a letter from her doctor, William Phillips, who stated that Jackson had special needs and required extra time “to learn and perform certain tasks.” He also asked St. Vincent to take into consideration that Jackson was a diabetic with a heart condition.

In response to that letter, Jackson was evaluated by a doctor at St. Vincent to validate her claim to have a disability. That doctor concluded that Jackson “functioned in the borderline range of intellectual abilities,” and “that she was experiencing work-related stress due to a new manager who was not patient with her.”

Dobson and Franzel never discussed with Jackson the possibility of giving her more time to complete certain tasks and instead placed her in a retraining program, even though neither Jackson’s doctor nor the St. Vincent doctor who evaluated her suggested retraining was necessary, Watters said.

In March 2014, after completing her training, Jackson received her job performance review for 2013, which noted that she still needed to improve her instrument assembly times. “Despite noting that she was still struggling with instrument assembly times,” Watters wrote, “none of Jackson’s supervisors considered restructuring her position or altering her job duties in any way.”

In April of that year, Jackson’s doctor wrote to St. Vincent again, saying his patient “felt she is being mistreated and harassed as she does her best with her physical limitations to meet the demands of her supervisor. She typically goes home in tears and is not getting the support that she needs to continue to provide diligent, faithful services in her capacity.”

Starting a little more than a month later, Watters said, Jackson began receiving write-ups, every few weeks, regarding her performance.

Jackson was fired on Aug. 27, 2014. The statement of facts said that while other jobs at St. Vincent for which Jackson was qualified were open, the possibility of another job was not discussed with her, and there was no talk of giving her more time to complete certain tasks.

Watters ruled against St. Vincent on several specific claims, one being that Jackson was not a “qualified individual” as defined by the ADA. St. Vincent basically argued that because Jackson could not perform “essential functions” of her job, she did not meet the definition of “qualified.”

Watters, however, pointed out that Jackson’s pre-2013 employment history “was completely free of any discipline whatsoever,” and so the question of whether “rapidly assembling instrument trays is an essential or marginal function of the job” is best left for a jury to answer.

Watters also rejected St. Vincent’s request for summary judgment regarding Jackson’s claim that her firing for poor performance was simply a pretext for discrimination based on age and disability.

Referring again to Jackson’s long employment with no disciplinary problems, Watters said that the evidence “casts doubt on St. Vincent’s purported reason for terminating Jackson’s employment.” Watters also said that it is disputed whether St. Vincent made any attempt to find Jackson another in-house job, and that furthermore that “a jury could find from the evidence that the accommodations St. Vincent provided were not, in fact, reasonable, and were outright discriminatory.”

St. Vincent also made the argument that as a charitable corporation, it is exempt from the Montana Human Rights Act for purposes of discrimination claims because it is not considered an “employer” under Montana statute.

Watters said in response, “This argument is frivolous. … Under the plain language of the statute, a charitable corporation that provides accommodations or services to non-members is an employer. St. Vincent provides services to non-members. The argument fails.”

Jackson’s lawsuit, filed by Eric Holm, of the Billings law firm Sather & Holm, asks for unspecified damages.

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