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Purvis v. Hospice

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Columbia Division

March 30, 2017

Mary Cathy Purvis, Plaintiff,
v.
Lutheran Hospice d/b/a The Lutheran Homes of South Carolina, Inc. and The Lutheran Homes of South Carolina d/b/a Lowman Homes, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiff Mary Cathy Purvis (“Purvis” or “Plaintiff”) filed this action against her former employer, Defendant The Lutheran Homes of South Carolina, Inc.[1] (“Defendant” or “Lutheran”), alleging that she was subjected to discrimination, harassment and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213, and wrongfully denied benefits in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461. (ECF No. 1 at 9 ¶ 69-11 ¶ 94 & 14 ¶¶ 117-127.) Plaintiff also alleges state law claims for breach of contract, breach of contract/detrimental reliance and bad faith failure to pay insurance. (ECF No. 1 at 11 ¶ 95-14 ¶ 127.)

         This matter is before the court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 17.) In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(g) D.S.C., the matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Shiva V. Hodges for pretrial handling. On November 14, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 24) in which she recommended that the court grant Defendant's Rule[2] 56 Motion. (Id. at 12.) Plaintiff filed Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, which Objections are presently before the court. (ECF No. 25.) For the reasons set forth below, the court ACCEPTS IN PART the Magistrate Judge's recommendation and GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND OF THE MATTER

         The facts of this matter are discussed in the Report and Recommendation. (ECF No. 24.) The court concludes, upon its own careful review of the record, that the Magistrate Judge's factual summation is accurate and incorporates it by reference. The court will only reference herein additional facts viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff that are pertinent to the analysis of her claims.

         Defendant is “a not-for-profit ministry of the South Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America” and it “owns and manages five continuing care retirement communities, a non-medical home service and a hospice program.” Lutheran Homes of South Carolina, https://www.lutheranhomessc.org/about-us/ (last visited Mar. 29, 2017). Plaintiff began working for Defendant as an RN case manager or nurse case manager on November 4, 2013. (ECF Nos. 17-3 at 2 & 17-12 at 5:16-19.) At the time of hire, Plaintiff was provided a copy of Defendant's “Employee Handbook for Lutheran Hospice.” (ECF Nos. 21-6 & 17-12 at 4:2-20.) In addition, on November 6, 2013, Plaintiff participated in but did not either pass or fail a physical fitness screening to determine her fitness for the job. (ECF Nos. 17-12 at 8:11-13 & 21-8 at 7:23:6-23.)

         On or around January 12, 2014, Plaintiff broke her right ankle at home in a non-work-related accident. (ECF No. 17-2 at 4:5-10 & 21:6-14.) As a result of this injury, Defendant placed Plaintiff on a medical leave of absence as if she was qualified under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), even though she was not eligible for FMLA leave. (Id. at 21:15-17; see also ECF No. 17-12 at 13:6-14.)

         On May 20, 2014, Shirley Johnson, Defendant's human resources manager for hospice (ECF No. 21-8 at 2:5:11-19), began to complete a Personnel Action Form for the purpose of terminating Plaintiff. (ECF No. 21-14.) On June 30, 2014, Plaintiff provided Defendant's patient care coordinator, Amy Evans, with a note from Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Richard S. McCain, which stated that she could return to full duty. (ECF No. 17-8 at 44:2-21.) Specifically, Dr. McCain wrote in the return-to-work note that Plaintiff had been under his care from January 12, 2014, through June 30, 2014, and that she “can return to work @ Lowman Home full duty.” (ECF No. 21-3 at 2.) Notwithstanding the contents of Dr. McCain's note, Johnson observed Plaintiff on June 30, 2014, wearing a walking boot and holding a cane and perceived her to be “not stable.” (ECF No. 21-8 at 7:25:14-20.) As a result, Johnson, after discussing the issue with Evans, decided that there needed to be clarification to determine if Plaintiff could return to work and perform her job with or without a reasonable accommodation. (Id. at 8:29:22-9:30:9.) Thus, at approximately 8:45 p.m. on June 30, 2014, Johnson called Plaintiff and informed her that she would not be allowed to return to work the next day. (ECF No. 17-2 at 24:7-9.)

         On July 2, 2014, Johnson faxed a request to Dr. McCain to “review the attached job description as well as the physical fitness determination test for Cathy Purvis, to ensure that she is capable of returning to the full function of her job requirements without any restrictions.” (ECF Nos. 21-3 at 1 & 17-8 at 8:15-26.) Thereafter, Johnson engaged in the following exchange with Dr. McCain and his office:

He sent the job description back with nothing written on it, not, you know, no indication that he even reviewed it and he sent the . . . well, I had to call the doctor's office again so the fitness test he sent back to us with everything checked off as pass and the note saying evaluation of potential, well, I wasn't real sure exactly what that means so . . . meant so we had to call the doctor's office again to have him determine whether she would be able to return to the full scope of her job. And, I did say review apparently he went through and did check[] off all the items on the job description, it was only for him to take a look at to say whether or not she would be safely . . . it would be safe for her to put her through the test.

(ECF No. 17-8 at 9:16-25.) Dr. McCain provided Johnson with a “Physical Fitness Determination” that stated that Plaintiff passed the following physical tests: “6-minute walk . . ., lift 20 pounds from the floor to waist and then waist to shoulder x 5 repetitions, carry crate with weights totaling 20 pounds for 30 feet, maintain unsupported Squat for 1 minute and rise to standing position without assistance, and push wheelchair with 200 pounds for 100 feet.” (ECF No. 21-3 at 4.)

         After receiving the information on Plaintiff from Dr. McCain, Johnson and Evans decided that Plaintiff needed to participate in an in-house fitness screening and Evans conveyed that information to Plaintiff on July 3, 2014. (ECF No. 17-8 at 35:21-36:10.) Thereafter, between July 8 and July 10, 2014, Evans made several attempts by phone and in person to contact Plaintiff to schedule the fitness examination but was unsuccessful. (Id. at 36:11-38:13.) Plaintiff denies that she received any calls from Evans or Johnson to schedule the fitness test. (Id. at 46:4-47:8.)

         On July 14, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination (the “Charge”) with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (ECF No. 21-2 at 2.) In the Charge, Plaintiff alleged that she suffered discrimination and retaliation in violation of the ADA and checked boxes for “Retaliation” and “Disability.” (Id.) She stated the following particulars:

I. I am a current employee of The Lutheran Homes of South Carolina, Inc. as a hospice nurse. I have extensive experience as a hospice nurse. Recently I have suffered a heart incident and an injury to my ankle. As a result of the injury I am required to work with a cane and a brace on my foot. That my employer has informed me that I will not be permitted to use any assistive devises [sic] while at work.
II. My employer has harassed my physician regarding my perceived disability and my abilities to perform my position.
III. I am capable of performing any and all requirements of my position with or without accommodation. I have complained to my employer about their actions and failure to return me to work.
IV. The Defendant is treating me differently than other individuals that are not perceived as disabled. My employer has not offered me any explanation for not permitting me using the assistive devices, refusing to return me to work, harassing my physician, or discriminating against me.
V. I believe that I have been discriminated against because of perceived, actual or record of disability in violation of Americans with Disabilities Act. I believe that I have been retaliated against in violation of ADA.”

(ECF No. 21-2 at 2.)

         On July 25, 2014, Defendant informed Plaintiff by letter that her employment was terminated. The contents of the termination letter are as follows:

This letter is to inform you that your employment with Lutheran Hospice has been terminated effective today (07/25/2014). At the time of your Medical Leave on January 13, 2014, you were advised that you did not qualify for Medical Leave under the Family Medical Leave Act due to your length of employment with Lutheran Hospice.
However it is the policy of Lutheran Homes of S.C. to automatically terminate employment, if an employee is unable to return to full active employment status at the conclusion of ...

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