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Walker v. University of Maryland Medical System Corporation

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

May 30, 2013



CATHERINE C. BLAKE, District Judge.

Now pending before the court is a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, filed by the University of Maryland Medical System Corporation ("UMMS"), the University of Maryland Medical Center ("UMMC"), Dr. Renee Fox, and Jennifer Fitzgerald, (collectively, the "defendants") against plaintiff Beverly Walker ("Ms. Walker"). Ms. Walker alleges that she was terminated from her position at UMMC based on her race and age in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). She also brings a claim of defamation under Maryland common law. The issues in this case have been fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons stated below, the defendants' motion to dismiss, construed as a motion for summary judgment, will be granted.


Beverly Walker began working for UMMC as a full-time staff nurse in 1985.[1] After obtaining her nurse practitioner certificate in 1992, she worked both full-time and half-time at UMMC until she accepted a full-time nurse practitioner position at UMMC in 1998. Ms. Walker worked as a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner at UMMC for fourteen years, regularly scheduled on the night shift, until her termination in October 2011. In addition to working at UMMC, Ms. Walker worked part-time at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center as a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner.

On October 14, 2011, Ms. Walker performed a physical examination on an infant ("Baby Doe") who had been admitted two days earlier. Baby Doe had pulmonary hypoplasia, a fatal condition marked by severe respiratory and kidney distress. Baby Doe, with two umbilical tubes and three chest tubes, was attached to a cardiorespiratory monitor, a pulse oximeter, and a neonatal high frequency oscillator. Baby Doe's mother, who was present in the examination room along with the infant's father, two family friends, and the family's priest, asked Ms. Walker if she could hold Baby Doe. Ms. Walker consulted by telephone with the attending neonatologist, Dr. Jocelyn Leung, concerning the plan of care for the infant.

According to Ms. Walker, Dr. Leung agreed to allow the family to hold Baby Doe but specifically instructed Ms. Walker to change the infant from the high frequency oscillator to a conventional ventilator. (Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ 20.) Ms. Walker also claims that she questioned changing the ventilator, noting that a slower ventilator could cause a more rapid deterioration of the infant's condition and even hasten his death. ( Id. at ¶ 21.) Dr. Leung insisted on the change. ( Id. )

As the nurse practitioner assigned to the NICU that evening, Ms. Walker supervised two nurses, Sondra Hayudeni and Sarah Schlotterbeck. At midnight, Ms. Walker attended a meeting with Fellow Sheela Morthy, the two nurses, Baby Doe's parents, and the family priest. Baby Doe's condition and prognosis, including the changing of the ventilator and the possibility he could arrest, was explained to the parents. Baby Doe's parents insisted on being able to hold him, so Baby Doe was moved to a small, isolated room, where, in the presence of the two nurses, the infant's parents, and the priest, Ms. Walker changed the ventilator and wrapped the infant to transfer him to his mother. Because of the length of the IV tubing, Baby Doe could not reach his mother. Ms. Walker instructed Nurse Hayudeni to flush and heparin lock the IV fluids to keep the sites viable for re-attachment, and to transfer the infant to his mother for a few minutes. Baby Doe remained incubated and continued to be ventilated by the conventional ventilator.

Soon afterward, Ms. Walker was paged for her immediate assistance elsewhere in the NICU. The two nurses remained in the room attending to Baby Doe. Approximately twenty minutes later, Ms. Walker was walking past the doorway to Baby Doe's room when the family priest beckoned her. Ms. Walker reentered the room to find Baby Doe's mother still holding him. Baby Doe had turned blue. The respirator mask was still on his face and he remained incubated. Baby Doe's father, the priest, and the two nurses were also in the room.

Ms. Walker immediately auscultated for a heartbeat three separate times, but she could not find one. Ms. Walker contacted Fellow Moorthy to inform her that Baby Doe had died. She then returned to Baby Doe's room, and, at the parents' request, removed the endotracheal tube so they could clearly see his face. The parents and the priest left the floor shortly afterward and the two nurses took a break. Ms. Walker completed the administrative notations required in the event of the death of a patient. She finished her shift on the morning of October 15th, and worked two more shifts the next two evenings.

On or about October 21, 2011, Ms. Walker received a call from Jennifer Fitzgerald, the lead nurse practitioner at the NICU. Ms. Fitzgerald informed Ms. Walker that she was suspended and on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into Baby Doe's death. At some point during or after the investigation, Ms. Walker provided a signed, handwritten statement in which she acknowledged discontinuing IV medications prior to leaving Baby Doe's room. (ECF No. 6, Ex. A, 3.) Ms. Walker also admitted that "the fact that the IV fluids [were] on hold completely [slipped her] mind." ( Id. ) Finally, Ms. Walker stated that she "should have given the nurses parameters of when to call [her]" and "should have had better focus on [her] sickest patient." ( Id. at 4.) On October 26, 2011, Ms. Walker attended a meeting with Ms. Fitzgerald and Carmel McComiskey, where she was terminated. Ms. Walker claims that Ms. Fitzgerald and Ms. McComiskey accused her of negligence that caused Baby Doe's death, as well as of issuing an unauthorized Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order on the infant. (ECF No. 1, ¶ 60.) She also claims the two women threatened her with filing criminal charges if she protested her termination. ( Id. at ¶ 61.) Following Ms. Walker's termination, UMMS and UMMC hired Jenny Dukes, a white female under age 40, to replace her.

In February 2012, Dr. Renee Fox, an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, contacted the Maryland Board of Nursing ("BON") regarding Ms. Walker's conduct the evening of Baby Doe's death. Ms. Walker claims that Dr. Fox accused Ms. Walker of the same conduct alleged by Ms. Fitzgerald and Ms. McComiskey. ( Id. at ¶ 64.) Dr. Fox was not present in the hospital when Baby Doe died and was not in Ms. Walker's chain of command. After Dr. Fox's call, BON launched an investigation, which included a personal interview with Ms. Walker in late June 2012. The defendants all participated in the BON investigation.

On April 13, 2012, Ms. Walker filed an EEOC claim against UMMC, alleging race and age discrimination stemming from her termination. She filed suit in this court on October 25, 2012, bringing claims of race and age discrimination under Title VII and the ADEA, as well as common law defamation.


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