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Saah v. Thumel

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 7, 2017

NICOLE SAAH, Plaintiff,
v.
CARROLL L. THUMEL, D.V.M. AND MARY BETH SOVERNS, D.V.M., P.A. d/b/a Countryside Veterinary Clinic, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Nicole Saah (“Plaintiff” or “Saah”) has brought this action against Defendants Carroll L. Thumel, D.V.M. and Mary Beth Soverns, D.V.M., P.A. (d/b/a Countryside Veterinary Clinic) (“Defendant” or “Thumel/Soverns, P.A.”) and Countryside Veterinary Clinic, Inc.[1], alleging pregnancy discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation for protected activity in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”), the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq. (“ADA”), the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, Md. Code Ann., State Gov't §§ 20-601, et seq. (“MFEPA”), and the Howard County Human Rights Act, Howard County Code §§ 12.200, et seq. See Compl., ¶¶ 105-120, ECF No. 1.

         Currently pending before this Court is Defendant Thumel/Soverns, P.A.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18).[2] The parties' submissions have been reviewed, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated herein, Defendant Thumel/Soverns, P.A.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Specifically, Plaintiff has failed to present any evidence that she suffered a “disability.” Accordingly, Defendant's Motion is granted with respect to all claims [both discrimination and retaliation] under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, but not pregnancy alone. Additionally, Defendant's Motion is granted with respect to Plaintiff's disability discrimination claim under the Howard County Human Rights Act, which prohibits both disability discrimination and pregnancy discrimination. Judgment shall be entered for Defendant Thumel/Soverns, P.A. as to those claims.[3] However, Defendant's Motion is denied as to both Plaintiff's pregnancy discrimination and retaliation claims, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Howard County Human Rights Act. A genuine issue of material fact remains as to liability on those claims. Finally, Defendant's Motion is granted with respect to Plaintiff's request for punitive damages. Judgment shall be entered for Defendant as to Plaintiff's request for punitive damages, and Punitive damages will not be awarded in this case.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Plaintiff Saah's Employment with Defendant Thumel/Soverns, P.A.

         In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, this Court reviews the facts and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); see also Hardwick ex rel. Hardwick v. Heyward, 711 F.3d 426, 433 (4th Cir. 2013). In October of 2007, Plaintiff Nicole Saah (“Plaintiff” or “Saah”) was hired as a veterinary assistant by Defendant Carroll L. Thumel, D.V.M. and Mary Beth Soverns, D.V.M., P.A. (d/b/a Countryside Veterinary Clinic) (“Defendant” or “Thumel/Soverns, P.A.”), a veterinary clinic in Howard County, Maryland. See Compl., ¶¶ 7, 22, ECF No. 1. Doctor Carroll Thumel (“Dr. Thumel”) and Doctor Mary Beth Soverns (“Dr. Soverns”) are the co-owners of Thumel/Soverns, P.A. Thumel Dep., p. 5, ECF No. 18-14. As a veterinary assistant, Saah's duties included assisting veterinarians during animal examinations, assisting with x-rays, cleaning animal cages, walking and feeding animals, administering medications, injections, and fluids to animals, and performing some lab work. See Soverns Dep., p. 303, ECF No. 18-15.

         II. Plaintiff Saah's Job Performance

         Michelle Grap (“Grap”) has been the Thumel/Soverns, P.A. practice manager and Saah's supervisor since 2012. Grap Dep., p. 10, ECF No. 18-13. When Saah was a new employee, she received training on all office policies, including policies related to employee break time, work hours, clocking in and out of the employee tracking system, calling in sick, performance reviews, grounds for dismissal, and the Hospital Manual. See Saah Dep., p. 49, ECF No. 18-12; Soverns Dep., p. 293-294, ECF No. 18-15. Saah admits that she violated these policies at various times during her employment with Thumel/Soverns, P.A, including using her cell phone during work hours and eating in the office during work hours. Saah Dep., p. 70-72, ECF No. 18-12. Grap contends that she spoke regularly to Saah about her violations of the company's cellphone policy and made Dr. Soverns aware of these discussions. Grap Dep., p. 90-91, 325, ECF No. 18-13. Additionally, on May 7, 2012, Dr. Thumel had a one-on-one meeting with Saah to discuss her chronic lateness, and her practice of repeatedly clocking in on the time clock in the morning and walking to a nearby Dunkin Donuts store, then eating breakfast in the office instead of performing assigned tasks. Saah Dep. p. 77-78, ECF No. 18-12. Saah was late to work on several occasions, and has indicated that it was discussed with her in her 2010 annual review and in subsequent annual reviews. Id. at 86.

         Despite these admitted policy violations, many of which occurred in Saah's first few years of employment, Saah's written performance reviews from both 2012 and 2013 [the years immediately prior to her termination, discussed infra] were overwhelmingly positive. Specifically, Doctors Thumel and Soverns rewarded Saah's performance in 2013 with a “96/100” points on the performance review scale and a $0.96 per hour raise. 2013 Review, ECF No. 22-5. On her 2013 performance review, Saah received a 10/10 for “Attendance.” Id. The comments section for “Attendance” read “Perfect!” Id. Saah also received a 10/10 under categories labeled “Attitude, “Ability to do Job, ” “Helpful, ” “Represents Countryside Well at All Times, ” “Promotes our Products and/Services” “and “Attendance at Meetings.” Id. The 2013 review noted Saah's tardiness, but deducted only 3 points. Id. In contrast, Saah has indicated that the clinic temporarily reduced the wage rate of another employee in 2013 as a sanction for her chronic tardiness, effectively suspending a recently awarded raise. Saah Dep., p. 152-53, ECF No. 18-12. There is no indication that Thumel/Soverns, P.A. ever took this measure against Saah. Additionally, Defendant has provided no documentary evidence of inadequate job performance by Saah following the 2013 performance review. In fact, Doctors Thumel and Soverns have admitted that Saah's performance was unchanged after her 2013 performance evaluation. See Soverns Dep., p. 93, ECF No. 18-15; Thumel Dep., p. 261, ECF No. 18-14.

         III. Plaintiff Saah's Pregnancy

         In May of 2013, Saah informed Thumel/Soverns, P.A. that she was pregnant. Saah Dep., p. 157, ECF No. 18-12. Saah spoke directly to Grap, who subsequently informed Dr. Soverns about a week later. Id. at 157-58. According to Saah, Grap was “surprised” by the news, and Dr. Soverns never congratulated her, but asked Saah how she was going to handle working and being in school at the same time as having a baby. Id. at 158; Statement of Nicole Saah, p. 12, ECF No. 20.

         Dr. Soverns has indicated that Thumel/Soverns, P.A. has a long-standing policy and practice concerning pregnant employees. See Soverns Dep., p. 308, ECF No. 18-15. Pursuant to that policy, pregnant employees are directed not to perform chemotherapy, take x-rays, empty litter boxes, or lift heavy objects, and are encouraged to ask for help whenever it is needed. Id. Additionally, Thumel/Soverns, P.A. has promulgated a nondiscrimination policy. See Employee Handbook, ECF No. 22-25.

         During the final three months of her employment, Saah asked co-workers for assistance in lifting animals, lifting heavy objects, and performing x-rays. Saah Dep., p. 226, ECF No. 18-12. Saah did not ask for any additional accommodations beyond those routine precautions. Id. at 309. Saah has indicated that no clinic employee ever denied her requests for help. Id. at 226. However, Saah has stated that from October of 2013 through December of 2013, the final months of Saah's pregnancy, Grap would roll her eyes when Saah asked for assistance, and would not jump up to help her. Id. at 174. Additionally, Brooke Schaper Floyd, a fellow clinic employee, recalls Grap saying that she thought Saah was “taking advantage of her pregnancy.” Floyd Dep., p. 110-111, ECF No. 22-11.

         IV. The Incident on December 9, 2013

         On December 9, 2013, Saah was standing at a computer outside of a closed office door at the clinic when she overheard a conversation inside that office. Saah Dep., p. 178-82, ECF No. 18-12. Saah could hear people talking inside and couldn't understand much of what they said, but heard them mention the name of another employee, Jacklyn Sink. Id. Saah proceeded to walk down the hall to an employee break room where fellow employees Lauren Hess, Brooke Schaper Floyd, and Heidi Previll were eating lunch. Id. at 182-84. Saah claims that she stated to her fellow employees that she had overheard Grap, Dr. Soverns, and Dr. Thumel talking in the office, and had heard Jacklyn's name mentioned, but didn't know what it was about. Id. at 185-87. Of the employees present in the break room at that time, Previll and Hess recall Saah saying that Grap was “talking shit” about people. Previll Decl., ¶ 2, ECF No. 18-5; Hess Decl., ¶ 2, ECF No. 18-6. However, Floyd recalls Saah saying only that Jacklyn was in trouble and had done something wrong. Floyd Dep., p. 30-32, ECF No. 18-17. Later that day, Previll approached Grap, told her about Saah's statement, and indicated that it made her feel uncomfortable.

         That evening, Grap called Saah on the telephone to discuss the incident. Saah Dep., p. 193-94, ECF No. 18-12. Grap asked Saah if she had told the employees in the break room that Grap was “talking shit.” Grap Dep., p. 244, ECF No. 18-13. According to Grap, Saah responded, “Yeah, I said that.” Id. at 249. However, Saah denies making this statement and also denies making the underlying “talking shit” comment. Saah Dep., p. 193-94, ECF No. 18-12. Instead, Saah claims that while on the phone with Grap, she confronted Grap about the way in which she had been treated in the final months of her pregnancy. Saah stated, “I feel like you've been treating me a little unfairly having to go and ask for help and you know, you sigh and roll your eyes and take forever to come help me, and that's a little frustrating to me. I don't understand why . . . you've been treating me like that[, ]” to which Grap responded that Saah was “Lazy.” Saah Dep., p. 194-95, ECF No. 18-12. According to Saah, she then asked Grap, “Lazy why? Because I'm pregnant and I need help with things[?]” Id. Grap responded, “[m]aybe lazy is not the word I should use.” Id.

         V. Plaintiff Saah's Termination

         Following her conversation with Saah, Grap sent a series of text messages to Dr. Soverns, informing her that Saah had admitted to making the “talking shit” statement and had shown no remorse.[4] Grap also relayed to Soverns that Saah had complained of being “picked on” and objected that “she [couldn't] tell anyone anything.” Text Messages, ECF No. 18-9. The following day, December 10, 2013, Grap met with Doctors Thumel and Soverns to discuss Saah. Grap Dep., p. 61, 223, ECF No. 18-13. Grap told the doctors what she had heard from Previll and that Saah had admitted to making the “talking shit” statement. Id. at 224. Grap told the doctors what happened in her conversation with Saah. Id. at 224; Soverns Dep., p. 29, ECF No. 18-15. That afternoon, Grap called Saah to inform her that she was terminated from her position. Saah Dep., p. 197-98, ECF No. 18-12.

         Doctors Thumel and Soverns have indicated that clinic management had no plans to discipline, much less fire, Saah as of December 9, 2013. Thumel Dep., p. 6-7, ECF No. 18-14; Soverns Dep., p. 44, ECF No. 18-15. However, the doctors have also indicated that in their December 10, 2013 meeting they discussed Saah's prior violations of clinic policy, and concluded that Saah's eavesdropping outside of a closed office door, then telling co-workers that a manager was “talking shit, ” was the “last straw.”[5] Soverns Dep., p. 19, ECF No. 18- 15; Thumel Dep., p. 29, 30-31, 35, 38-39, 109-110, 171-72, 180, ECF No. 18-14. Dr. Thumel admits that Saah's comments would have violated no company policy if she had merely stated that she “heard Jacklyn's name” and “heard them talking in there, ” which is in fact what Saah claims to have said in the break room. Thumel Dep., p. 93-95, ECF No. 18-14. Additionally, Doctors Thumel and Soverns have both stated that they are unaware of a clinic policy prohibiting disparaging or disruptive comments. See Thumel Dep., p. 99-100, ECF No.18-14; Soverns Dep., p. 274, ECF No. 18-15.

         No one was immediately hired to replace Saah, and other employees filled in to take over her hours. Unemployment Hrg. Record, p. 34, ECF No. 22-10. None of the other assistants were pregnant during this time. Thumel Dep., p. 295, ECF No. 18-14. The only female hired as a veterinary assistant after Saah, Summer Scout Ford, was not pregnant at the time she was hired. Id. at 296.

         VI. Subsequent Proceedings

         Dr. Soverns met with Saah and Saah's mother on December 18, 2013. Soverns Dep. p. 173, ECF No. 18-15. When Soverns raised the issue of Saah's comment in the break room, Saah explained that she had not made the alleged “talking shit” comment and relayed to Soverns her concerns about Grap's attitude toward her in the final months of her pregnancy. She also told Dr. Soverns that Grap had called her “lazy” over the phone when Saah complained to her about her treatment. Saah Dep., p. 194, ECF No. 18-12. In response, Dr. Soverns cited Saah's lateness and eating during work hours as additional grounds for her termination. Saah responded that the lateness issue was not discussed in her 2013 performance review, that other employees were late, and that she ate at work because she needed to eat more during her pregnancy. Roberta's Statement, p. 3, ECF No. 22-17.

         Saah filed a formal charge with the Howard County Office of Human Rights (“HC-OHR”) on April 9, 2014, alleging discrimination based on sex, pregnancy, disability, and retaliation. Compl., ¶¶ 11-15, ECF No. 1. That charge was cross-filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Id. at ¶ 15. The HC-OHR conducted an investigation and ultimately concluded that there was “no reasonable cause” to believe that unlawful discrimination or retaliation had occurred. See HC-OHR Decision and Order, March 27, 2014, p. 18. The EEOC issued Saah a right to sue letter on May 15, 2015. Compl., ¶ 18, ECF No. 1. Saah proceeded to file the pending lawsuit on August 14, 2015, alleging pregnancy discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation for protected activity in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”), the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq. (“ADA”), the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, MD. CODE ANN., STATE GOV'T §§ 20-601, et seq. (“MFEPA”), and the Howard County Human Rights Act, Howard County Code §§ 12.200, et seq.[6] Id. at ¶¶ 105-120.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A genuine issue over a material fact exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When considering a motion for summary judgment, a ...


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