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Shaw v. Beacon Health System, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

July 19, 2019

BENITA SHAW, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Benita Shaw is suing her former employer, Beacon Health System, Inc., for allegedly discriminating against her because of her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She tells me that after successfully working at one of Beacon's hospitals for more than two decades, she was told to reapply for her job then denied the position because Beacon wanted someone who wasn't disabled to do the job. She says this constitutes two violations of the ADA: (1) disability discrimination, and (2) a failure to accommodate. Beacon, for its part, denies any wrongdoing and seeks summary judgment on both claims. Shaw has also moved for summary judgment but only on her the failure to accommodate claim. My review of the evidence in this case shows that there are some big disputed issues of fact which I cannot resolve. Beacon's potential liability must be determined by a jury through a trial on the merits. Accordingly, I will deny both motions for summary judgment.


         Shaw is a Registered Nurse and worked for Beacon at Elkhart General Hospital for more than two decades. She began working at the hospital in 1995 as a Floor Nurse, responsible for taking care of patients. In 1997, she was promoted to Charge Nurse, a position which, in addition to patient care, involved administrative responsibilities for other nurses, assignments and incoming patient evaluations. In 2002, she became a Nursing Supervisor, a mostly administrative and supervisory position. In 2006, she was promoted to Shift Coordinator for Nursing Support Services, which was also primarily administrative in nature and responsible for staffing nurses throughout the hospital on an as-needed basis. In this job, her primary responsibilities were scheduling, payroll, and other administrative tasks to assist the Nursing Director at the hospital. But in the summer of 2017, she was told she would not be retained for the position of Shift Coordinator, the position that she had worked in for approximately 10 years. [See B. Shaw Dep. at 30-35.]

         Throughout her tenure at Elkhart General Hospital, Shaw had a medical condition known as Reynaud's Syndrome. She was first diagnosed with Reynaud's in 1981. This disease causes spasms in an individual's arteries, which then reduces blood flow to extremities, often the fingers. This causes discoloration and numbness, sometimes for minutes but sometimes for hours. These effects are generally triggered by a drop in temperature or otherwise cold conditions. Shaw was also diagnosed with scleroderma in 2005. Scleroderma is a disease which causes the hardening of connective tissue, in Shaw's case around her internal organs. Shaw's scleroderma affects her lungs, making it difficult to breathe in cold temperatures, and it also causes digestive issues which can interfere with her nutrition, causing her to feel fatigued. [B. Shaw Dep. at 20-24.] The combination of these two conditions requires Shaw to be acutely aware of her surrounding temperature and requires her to make efforts to ensure she stays adequately warm.

         As mentioned, when Shaw worked as a Shift Coordinator, her role was strictly administrative in nature. But it is undisputed that the written job description for Shift Coordinator contains additional responsibilities beyond what Shaw performed. Specifically, the “Job Summary” states that a Shift Coordinator is:

Responsible for supporting the Nursing Director of the unit in administrative duties. Will provide leadership by collaborating with members of the health care team to maintain standards for professional nursing practice. Participates in organizational and unit-based performance improvement activities and provides input on standards of care. Able to provide patient care at the bedside or as charge nurse. Applies the nursing process utilizing Relationship Based Care framework. Establishes strong patient family relationships. Collaborates with other professional, clinical and ancillary staff in providing quality care to patients. Displays strong teamwork. Exhibits self-care and self-knowing in order to be empathetic and compassionate with every interaction.

[DE 32-3.] It is further undisputed that while the ability “to provide patient care at the bedside or as charge nurse” was part of the job summary, Shaw did not, in fact, provide bedside patient care or work as a charge nurse while she was Shift Coordinator. Neither party has suggested or presented evidence that Shaw's conditions impacted her ability to perform her administrative responsibilities as Shift Coordinator, which all parties agree constituted the bulk of a Shift Coordinator's professional responsibilities.

         Nonetheless, Shaw received what she calls “informal accommodations” throughout her tenure at Beacon. She could keep a space heater at her desk, keep a microwave and refrigerator in her office (to avoid the cafeteria which apparently was quite cold), work from home at times, and park near the hospital instead of the employee parking lot (to avoid walking in from the cold and be able to remote start her vehicle from inside). [Shaw Dep. at 202-204.] Beacon also says that Shaw's condition was accommodated by not having her perform any of the hands-on patient care component of her job duties. [Roberts Aff. ¶ 11.[1] According to Beacon, this is reflected in her 2017 performance review in which she had high marks generally but an “N/A” rating under “Patient Care Delivery.” [See DE 32-2.]

         Shaw disputes this. She says instead that the evidence shows that Shaw did not perform this aspect of her job description because she only worked less than full time (64 hours per pay period). Her supervisor conceded that because she didn't work full time, Shaw did not have time to perform patient care on top of her other responsibilities. [See Roberts Dep. at 21-24.] In any event, the parties agree that she did not perform this aspect of her job description prior to her termination in summer 2017, but they dispute why.

         The end of Shaw's employment with Beacon began with an “organizational restructuring” of the hospital announced in June of 2017. [Spear Aff. ¶ 9.] Financial losses at the hospital from decreased patient admissions and reimbursements, necessitated a reduction in the number of “nursing leadership positions” including Shift Coordinators. This then created the need for Shift Coordinators to be more efficient, i.e., perform all the tasks listed in the job summary. This included being able to fill in as a treating nurse, such as a Charge Nurse, Nursing Supervisor or Patient Flow Coordinator. The job summary was unchanged, but Shift Coordinators would also have to begin working full time, although their primary responsibilities would remain administrative. [Roberts Dep. at 46, 53, and 102.]

         This is where parties' stories really begin to diverge. On June 21, 2017, Shaw was told about the restructuring and that she would need to re-apply for her job. [Shaw Dep. 68-69.] Shaw began to think things over and determine whether she would be able to competently perform the job in its expanded role, specifically whether she would be able to fill in as a Patient Flow Coordinator or a Nursing Supervisor (the position Shaw held from 2002-2006). [Id. at 68.]

         On June 26, 2017, Beacon says Shaw informed her supervisor Deanna Roberts that she was not going to apply for the job “because she would not perform the essential functions of the job because the position required physical exertion and direct-hands on patient care.” [Roberts Aff. ¶ 16.] Nonetheless, Roberts says she encouraged Shaw to shadow a Nursing Supervisor to see whether Shaw could possibly still do the job. [Id. at ¶ 17.] After shadowing a Nursing Supervisor for four hours on June 28, Beacon says that Shaw became physically ill and reported to Roberts “that the job shadowing experience made her so sick that her lips and nose began to bleed.” [Id. at ¶¶ 18-20.] The following day, Roberts, Shaw and another member of Beacon management met. Shaw told them that “she physically could not work as a Nursing Supervisor or Patient Flow Coordinator.” [Id. at ¶ 21.] But despite apparently telling Beacon that she could not physically do the job, Shaw applied for and interviewed for the Shift Coordinator position on July 11, 2017. Three days later, she learned she didn't get the job. [Id. at ¶¶ 22, 25.]

         Shaw tells a story different from Beacon's. She admits that after learning that she would need to reapply and that the Shift Coordinator position would have additional responsibilities she had not previously done, she had some trepidations. Nonetheless she says she decided to try to continue on the job. So, she undertook the shadowing of a Nursing Supervisor on June 28, 2017 to see if she could do it. Afterward, she thought she could. Shaw says that Beacon mischaracterizes the toll the four-hour shadowing experience had on her. In her opposition brief, she says that her lips only began to bleed seven hours after she did the shadowing and that it was wholly unrelated to her Reynaud's nor caused by shadowing a Nursing Supervisor. But curiously, Shaw fails to cite any deposition or affidavit testimony supporting her version of events on this point [see DE 36 at 2-3], and so I cannot credit her version what happened there. In any event, Shaw confirms that after shadowing, she applied for the Shift Coordinator position, which seems to contradict Roberts statement that Shaw definitively told her that she couldn't do the job. After all, who would tell their supervisor one day they can't do a job and then apply for that very same position a few days later?

         Shaw interviewed for the Shift Coordinator position on July 11 with a four-person panel, which did not include Roberts. Three of the four interviewers selected Shaw as their top choice for the Shift Coordinator position, and the fourth did not record any recommendation. [Roberts Dep. at 23-76.] Around this same time, Roberts encouraged at least one other Beacon employee to apply for the Shift Coordinator position. Terra Morauski testified that she was asked by Roberts to apply, but she was hesitant to do so because she did not want to compete against Shaw for the job. Specifically, she said, “I am so conflicted[.] I really want to talk to Benita and see what her thoughts are . . . If she truly wants the position I don't think that I can interview as I would be running against her for her own job.” [Morauski Dep. at 12, 17-18.] Morauski decided to interview for the position anyway.

         Prior to either Morauski or Shaw interviewing, Roberts stated in an email that she preferred Morauski for the position. [Roberts Dep. at 76, 83.] After interviews, Morauski was offered the job. She apparently asked Roberts whether if she declined the offer, Shaw would get the job, and Roberts told her no. So Morauski accepted. [Morauski Dep. at 21-22.] The decision was announced on July 14 and Roberts told Shaw that “we are doing this for your health and your stress.” [Shaw Dep. at 211.] In a subsequent email, Roberts also stated that “the influencing factor” in the decision was the need to have a Shift Coordinator cover floor nurse shifts and that previously in “all her duties assigned” Shaw had been a “great” Shift Coordinator. [Roberts Dep. at 76.] Roberts also testified prior to making her decision, she didn't speak with Shaw about possible accommodations which would have allowed Shaw to better fulfill the duties of a Shift Coordinator. [Id. at 84.] Instead, she says she wanted someone who could “fill the role entirely as a shift coordinator and could clinically perform all the duties.” [Id.] But as Shaw notes, since taking the Shift Coordinator position full time, Morauski testified that she had only filled in “here and there” in providing patient care by filling in as a Nursing Supervisor but never worked a full shift. [Mouraski Dep. at 11.] As was the case when Shaw held the same position previously, her focus has been on administrative matters.

         With the door to the Shift Coordinator position closed by July 14, Beacon and Shaw tried to figure out if there was another job she could take within the organization. Shaw met with Lesley Heckaman, Beacon's Employee Health Manager, to discuss possible alternative jobs or formal accommodations for the first time on July 17. [Heckaman Dep. at 16.] During this meeting, Shaw was given a Medical Inquiry Form, to fill out which would formally document her disability. Shaw took the form to her treating physician (Dr. Minnie Enriquez), who filled it out and provided their assessment of Shaw's abilities and confirming her disability. One of the limitations noted in the June 21 statement by Dr. Enriquez is that Shaw was “unable to perform hands on nursing.” [DE 31 at 10.]

         The day after Shaw's meeting with Heckaman, Roberts told Shaw of an opening for the position of a Case Manager. On July 27, Shaw shadowed another Case Manager for half a day and afterwards Shaw stated that while shadowing her hands became severely numb and she said she couldn't do the job properly in that condition. But there is a dispute between the parties as to why exactly Shaw couldn't do the job. Beacon says Shaw simply said she couldn't do the job with her disability and that was the end of the story. But Shaw says the problem was that she could not do the job without an accommodation from Beacon, namely she needed to have access to a heat source and be able to take short breaks to ensure her fingers stayed warm and didn't go numb, similar to what she did to keep warm from 2002 to 2006 when she worked as a Nursing Supervisor. When she shadowed the other Case Manager, she was not given the ...

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