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New v. Family Health Care, P.C.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 1, 2019

CHERYL NEW, Plaintiff,
FAMILY HEALTH CARE, P.C., et al., Defendants.



         Pending before the Court is Defendants Family Health Care, P.C.[1] and Dr. Monica Howard's (collectively, “Defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 32. The motion is fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Cheryl New was employed as a Medical Assistant by Defendant Family Health Care, P.C. (“FHC”), a private medical practice, from November 2010 to January 15, 2016. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 3-9, 23. New's duties included administering shots, supplying correct doses of medications, and assisting with routine medical examinations. Id. ¶ 8. Defendant Dr. Monica Howard is a licensed physician in family medicine and one of FHC's five physician-owners. ECF No. 32-5 ¶ 1. In 2014, Dr. Howard became FHC's managing officer. Id.

         On both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve in 2015, FHC closed early, although neither day had been previously scheduled as a holiday for the office. ECF No. 32-5 ¶ 15. FHC still paid its hourly wage employees for a full eight hours of work for each of the days. Id.

         New contends that FHC “manipulated” her time sheets on these two days by crediting eight hours of work instead of giving her four hours of holiday pay, which would have resulted in her receiving compensation for hours marginally in excess of eight per day. ECF No. 32-7 at 16-18, 22-24.

         On January 11, 2016, New emailed FHC administrator, Kevin Day, noting this concern. ECF No. 32-11 at 5. Day responded that the change was to ensure that all employees “would get paid for their regularly scheduled hours” even though the office closed early. Id. Several days later, on January 14, 2016, FHC Practice Administrator, Marie Grimes, emailed New regarding an “accusation” New had purportedly made that morning “in front of several staff members” concerning time sheet changes. ECF No. 37-2 at 1. New responded to Grimes that no “accusations” were made and that, rather, several employees were discussing informally the changes made to their time sheets for the Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve hours. Id.

         Late in the afternoon on that same day, January 14, a patient arrived at FHC to receive a Toradol injection. ECF No. 32-8 ¶ 2. New accompanied the patient to a treatment room and took the patient's vital signs. ECF No. 32-6 (patient log note written by New). New observed that the patient “was experiencing a severe headache/migraine” and had “notably elevated” blood pressure. Id. Because the patient had never taken Toradol before, New asked the patient to wait in the office for thirty minutes after administering the injection “[a]s a safety precaution . . . to ensure that she did not experience any adverse reactions.” Id.; see also ECF No. 32-7 at 6 (New referring to the practice as a “rule if someone's never had a medication before”). New brought the patient's husband to the examination room to wait with her, and New returned to taking calls. ECF No. 32-6. At 5:31 p.m., New clocked out and left for the evening. Id. The patient and her husband remained alone in the empty office. ECF No. 32-7 at 9-10.

         About an hour after New clocked out, she received a text message from a co-worker that “the patient had contacted the after-hours line saying that they . . . were still in the office.” Id. at 10. New returned “to the office within minutes, ” but the patient had left by the time New arrived. ECF No. 32-6. New called the patient's husband and scheduled a follow-up appointment with Dr. Wollman-Rosenwald for the next morning. Id. Dr. Wollman-Rosenwald was informed about this incident that same evening and immediately phoned Dr. Howard. ECF No. 32-8 ¶ 2. The two physicians agreed that the nurse responsible for abandoning the patient should be terminated for “gross dereliction of duty and the potential harm to the patient and the practice.” Id. ¶ 3.

         The following morning, on January 15, 2016, Dr. Wollman-Rosenwald learned that New was the nurse who left the patient unattended. The doctor directed New “to write a Log Note to the official patient file” to document the incident. Id. ¶ 6. Dr. Wollman-Rosenwald also discovered that New had failed to inform her of the patient's high blood pressure at the time of injection. Id. ¶ 4. Needing the consent of a majority of the five physician-owners to terminate New's employment, Dr. Wollman-Rosenwald emailed the other owners at 8:27 a.m., obtaining unanimous agreement by noon. Id. ¶ 5; see also ECF No. 32-9.

         That same morning, around 8:41 a.m., New emailed Grimes on FHC's internal messaging system and attached a letter detailing her concerns about the “changes” made to her time sheets on December 24 and 31. ECF No. 32-11 at 1; see also ECF No. 32-5 ¶ 12. Although New copied Dr. Howard on the email, Dr. Howard “did not see or read” the email that day “or at any time before this suit was filed.” ECF No. 32-5 ¶ 12. At the time the physician-owners agreed to terminate New's employment, none of them were aware of New's wage complaint. Id. ¶ 14; see also ECF No. 32-8 ¶ 9; ECF No. 32-12 ¶ 5; ECF No. 32-13 ¶ 4; ECF No. 32-14 ¶ 4.

         New submitted the patient log note as directed in the afternoon on January 15. Dr. Howard reviewed the document to confirm, in her view, that New committed “gross misconduct.” ECF No. 32-5 ¶ 11. Grimes and Dr. Howard then informed New of the FHC physician-owners' decision to terminate her. Id.; ECF No. 32-7 at 38-39 (New confirming that Grimes said the termination was “due to what happened yesterday”).

         On August 19, 2017, New filed this action against FHC and Dr. Howard, alleging overtime wage violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law (“MWPCL”) and retaliation under the FLSA. Id. ¶¶ 34-37, 44-47. New also alleges that Defendants violated the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (“COBRA”) by providing insufficient notice of her rights to continuing healthcare coverage as required by COBRA. Id. ¶¶ 38-43. FHC and Dr. Howard now move for summary judgment on all counts. See ECF No. 32.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the Court, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, finds no genuine disputed issue of material fact, entitling the movant to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); In re Family Dollar FLSA Litig., 637 F.3d 508, 512 (4th Cir. 2011). “A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings,' but rather must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat v. Balt. Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). “A mere scintilla of proof . . . will not suffice to prevent summary judgment.” Peters v. Jenney, 327 F.3d 307, 314 (4th Cir. 2003).

         Importantly, “a court should not grant summary judgment ‘unless the entire record shows a right to judgment with such clarity as to leave no room for controversy and establishes affirmatively that the adverse party cannot prevail under any circumstances.'” Campbell v. Hewitt, Coleman & Assocs., Inc., 21 F.3d 52, 55 (4th Cir. 1994) (quoting Phoenix Sav. & Loan, Inc. v. Aetna Casualty & Sur. Co., 381 F.2d 245, 249 (4th Cir. 1967)). Where the party bearing the burden of proving a claim or defense “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that ...

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