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Goff v. Singing River Health System

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

March 13, 2014

TERESA GOFF, PLAINTIFF
v.
SINGING RIVER HEALTH SYSTEM, DEFENDANT

Page 705

For Teresa Goff, Plaintiff: Robert Nicholas Norris, LEAD ATTORNEY, Louis H. Watson, Jr., WATSON & NORRIS, PLLC, Jackson, MS.

For Singing River Health System, Defendant: Karl R. Steinberger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Stacie Elizabeth Zorn, HEIDELBERG, STEINBERGER, COLMER & BURROW, PA-Pascagoula, Pascagoula, MS.

OPINION

LOUIS GUIROLA, JR., CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Page 706

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

BEFORE THE COURT is the Motion for Summary Judgment [36] filed by defendant Singing River Health System. Plaintiff Teresa Goff has responded, and Singing River has replied. Goff claims that Singing River retaliated or discriminated

Page 707

against her by terminating her employment after she used leave that was protected under the Family Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. After due consideration of the parties' submissions and the relevant law, it is the Court's opinion that Goff has provided sufficient evidence to prove a prima facie case and to demonstrate that Singing River's purported reason for terminating her employment was pretext for retaliation or discrimination related to her use of FMLA leave. Singing River Health System's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied.

Facts and Procedural History

Singing River Health System employed Teresa Goff as a surgery technician at its Ocean Springs Hospital beginning September 2000. She resigned in lieu of termination on February 18, 2011.

Goff testified that her performance reviews were excellent until 2005, when her score suffered a drop because of an excessive number of " unscheduled occurrences and missed punches," meaning that she was " having too many unscheduled absences in accordance with the [attendance] policy." (Goff Dep. 45-46, ECF No. 40-1; Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 9 at 7, ECF No. 36-8). Goff's 2008 evaluation shows that she excelled in performance in every area except attendance and punctuality. Her supervisor noted that she was a valuable member of the team " but needs to work on attendance and punctuality." Another noted that " Teresa has the tools to exceed expectations, but her time and attendance is problematic. We will continue to monitor Teresa's ability to be present and focused in the coming months." (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 19 at 7, ECF No. 37-9). Her 2009 evaluation includes the comments, " Teresa is a member of the Open Heart team which functions as a 'system' team. . . . Teresa needs to work on team building and increasing commitment to the team by decreasing her absences." (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 23 at 7, ECF No. 38-3). Her 2010 evaluation contains comments such as " never sure if Teresa will be coming to work," " often calls on workday mornings with reasons for not coming to work," and " poor communication re: FMLA issues." (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 25 at 3, 4, ECF No. 38-5). Her supervisor's overall comments were that " Teresa has had excessive absences and is frequently out for FMLA unannounced. Due to her absences she has not kept up with her online classes or changes within the department. I hope to see improvement in the coming year." ( Id. at 7). In all, Goff was disciplined twelve times under the attendance policy. (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 2 at 2 (¶ 11), ECF No. 36-1).

On October 1, 2008, Goff was authorized to take intermittent FMLA leave to care for her mother, who was suffering from a serious health condition. ( Id. (¶ 7)). This authorization was renewed on October 1, 2009 and October 1, 2010. ( Id. ). Under Singing River's attendance policy, failure to follow the guidelines for not reporting to duty is considered an " unscheduled occurrence," whether or not the absence is FMLA-related. (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 3 at 1 (¶ 3), ECF No. 36-2). Goff was required to report absences to the Patient Care Manager by leaving a message on the Operating Room Patient Care Manager's voice mail or by notifying the board runner by 6 a.m. that day. ( Id. at 2 (¶ 5)).

Goff received a written conference for her failure to follow this procedure on September 21, 2009. She had to take her mother to the hospital on a day she was scheduled to work, but she did not call Singing River as required. Goff was warned that " [f]urther incidences of similar nature will result in additional disciplinary actions." (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 21, ECF No. 38-1).

Page 708

It is undisputed that Goff did not call Singing River until 7:06 a.m. on February 9, 2011, to inform the patient care coordinator, Jason Ely, that she would be absent. Ely states in his affidavit that he told Goff she was needed for a case that day, and although she told him she would come in, she never showed up. (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 29, ECF No. 38-9).

Singing River terminated Goff because she had accumulated fourteen unscheduled absences between February 9, 2010 and February 9, 2011. (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 3 at 2 (¶ 9), ECF No. 36-2; Ex. 7 at 2-3 (¶ ¶ 8-18), ECF No. 36-6). Singing River's attendance policy provides that accumulating ten unscheduled absences in a rolling twelve month period can result in termination of employment. (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 2 at 2 (¶ 10), ECF No. 36-1).

Goff's supervisor, Debra Taranto, made the recommendation for Goff's termination. (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 3 at 2 (¶ 8), ECF No. 36-2). Ocean Springs Hospital's human resources manager, Carla Pierce, reviewed the recommendation and Goff's attendance record. ( Id. ) Taranto's supervisor, Jury (Wurstner) Powers, the Vice President of Surgical Services, also reviewed Taranto's recommendations for termination. (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 7 at 1 (¶ ¶ 2, 4), ECF No. 36-6). Together, Taranto and Pierce spoke to the Director of Human Resources, Nebo Carter, who approved Taranto's recommendation for Goff's termination. ( Id. )

After her termination, Goff applied for unemployment benefits. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security denied benefits after concluding that she had been discharged for misconduct connected with the work. (Pl. Resp. Ex. B, ECF No. 42-2). On appeal, the Administrative Law Judge determined that Singing River had failed to prove that Goff " was discharged for misconduct connected with the work as defined by Wheeler vs. ...


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