Category Archives: Medical Industry Litigation

US Supreme Court Rules for Employee on “Cat’s Paw” Theory

The Unit­ed States Supreme Court recent­ly unan­i­mous­ly issued a major vic­to­ry for employ­ees under “USERRA”, the Uni­formed Ser­vices Employ­ment and Reem­ploy­ment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. § 4301 et seq., on the “cat’s paw” the­o­ry in employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion claims. The deci­sion was in Staub v. Proc­tor Hos­pi­tal, — U.S. — (March 1, 2011) (opin­ion at Google Schol­ar). Jus­tice Scalia wrote the opin­ion for the unan­i­mous court. Jus­tice Ali­to wrote an opin­ion con­cur­ring in the judg­ment, which Jus­tice Thomas joined. Jus­tice Kagan did not par­tic­i­pate in the deci­sion.

What is the “Cat’s Paw” Sce­nario?

Drew's kitty-cat, HannaSo, what the heck is the “cat’s paw” the­o­ry? Does it explain why my cat, pic­tured at the left, is star­ing so intent­ly at you?

First, to define “cat’s paw” in a non-legal con­text, the Webster’s Online dic­tio­nary defines a “cat’s paw” as: “A per­son used by anoth­er to gain an end.” The term aris­es out of a fable in which a a shrewd mon­key tricks a cat into pulling roast­ing chest­nuts out of a fire—the cat gets its paw burned, and the mon­key gets the chest­nuts and scam­pers away unhurt.

Con­tin­ue read­ing US Supreme Court Rules for Employ­ee on “Cat’s Paw” The­o­ry

Cleveland jury awards $900,000 against hospital in age discrimination case

Ellen Simon, an attor­ney in Cleve­land who authors the excel­lent blog, Ellen Simon’s Employ­ee Rights Post, recent­ly tried an age dis­crim­i­na­tion claim for plain­tiff Glo­ria Parks (a phle­botomist) against Cleveland’s Uni­ver­si­ty Hos­pi­tals Case Med­ical Cen­ter.

Ms. Parks had worked for the hos­pi­tal for 30 years when she was fired over a med­ical mis­take involv­ing her­self and anoth­er much younger employ­ee. The hos­pi­tal fired Ms. Parks, but not the much younger employ­ee.

The jury returned a ver­dict in favor of the plain­tiff (Ms. Parks) for $450,000 for her eco­nom­ic loss and $450,000 for “oth­er com­pen­sato­ry dam­ages”, accord­ing to Ms. Simon’s blog arti­cle. Based on the lim­it­ed infor­ma­tion I have so far, it looks like the “oth­er com­pen­sato­ry dam­ages” was an award for emo­tion­al dis­tress, The jury did not award puni­tive dam­ages.

So the ver­dict totals $900,000, and Ms. Simon will file a request for attor­neys’ fees’ fees and expens­es. While it is not clear from the arti­cle so far, I sus­pect the case was assert­ed for age dis­crim­i­na­tion under Ohio’s Fair Employ­ment Prac­tices Act (and not the fed­er­al ADEA).

Con­tin­ue read­ing Cleve­land jury awards $900,000 against hos­pi­tal in age dis­crim­i­na­tion case

Sorry boss, I didn’t know you were having sex in the office!!

The West Vir­ginia Supreme Court recent­ly issued an opin­ion deal­ing with one of those stereo­typ­i­cal­ly awk­ward sit­u­a­tions, where an employ­ee alleged­ly stum­bles into a room where the boss is hav­ing sex with a co-work­er. The deci­sion was  Roth v. DeFe­lice­Care, Inc., – W. Va. –, — S.E.2d –, 2010 WL 2346248 (June 8, 2010) (per curi­am). It was a 3–2 deci­sion, in which the 3-vote major­i­ty con­sist­ed of Jus­tices Robin Davis, Mar­garet Work­man, and  Thomas McHugh. Jus­tices Menis Ketchum and Brent Ben­jamin dis­sent­ed, and Jus­tice Ketchum wrote a dis­sent­ing opin­ion.

The Facts–Sex at Work

These are the facts accord­ing to the com­plaint in the law­suit: Tri­cia Roth was a res­pi­ra­to­ry ther­a­pist work­ing at DeFe­lice­Care, Inc. in Ohio Coun­ty, West Vir­ginia, and she was about to go on vaca­tion. She was direct­ed by Leslie DeFe­lice (the male boss/owner) to come to work some­time dur­ing the week­end pre­ced­ing her vaca­tion in June 2006. She was not told a spe­cif­ic time to come to work dur­ing that week­end. When she came to work as ordered, she “observed Defen­dant [Leslie] DeFe­lice and/or Michelle Kel­ly par­tial­ly clothed and in a com­pro­mis­ing posi­tion”. Mr. DeFe­lice instruct­ed Ms. Roth to go into a con­fer­ence room and wait–meanwhile Mr. DeFe­lice and the oth­er employ­ee got all their clothes back on. Mr. DeFe­lice then talked to Ms. Roth and told her to for­get about what she had just seen, and threat­ened Ms. Ross with the loss of her res­pi­ra­to­ry ther­a­py license and the loss of her employ­ment.

Ms. Roth then went on vaca­tion. When she got back from vaca­tion and returned to work, she had a meet­ing with Mr. DeFe­lice that didn’t go well. Ms. Roth told Mr. DeFe­lice that she hadn’t told any­one about his sex­u­al encounter at work. Mr. DeFe­lice pro­ceed­ed to fire Ms. Roth because “he did not like how she was dressed” and “he did not like the style[/]color of her hair”.

Ms. Roth Files Suit–Case Dis­missed

Ms. Roth then filed suit on legal the­o­ries cen­ter­ing around sex dis­crim­i­na­tion and sex­u­al harass­ment, and–bada bing!–the case prompt­ly got dis­missed.

Ms. Roth’s com­plaint (the doc­u­ment which starts the law­suit and describes the plaintiff’s alle­ga­tions) focused on the sex­u­al inci­dent I have described above, but also made alle­ga­tions about oth­er sex­u­al harassment–I will dis­cuss those details below.

Con­tin­ue read­ing Sor­ry boss, I didn’t know you were hav­ing sex in the office!!

Can you be sexually harassed behind your back?

It might be obvi­ous, but it seems a bit dif­fi­cult to win on a claim for sex­u­al harass­ment where all of the harass­ment occurs behind your back (and by “behind your back”, I mean sit­u­a­tions where the harass­ing behav­ior occurs when the com­plain­ing employ­ee is not phys­i­cal­ly present to expe­ri­ence or hear what is hap­pen­ing).

The Fourth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals addressed this issue in Pueschel v. Peters, 577 F.3d 558 (4th Cir. 2009), in a unan­i­mous deci­sion writ­ten by Judge Roger Gre­go­ry in which Judges M. Blane Michael and Robert Bruce King joined.

The Fourth Cir­cuit didn’t have much dif­fi­cul­ty reach­ing the con­clu­sion that, for any claim alleg­ing a hos­tile work envi­ron­ment (includ­ing sex­u­al harass­ment), you can’t suc­ceed if all of the mis­con­duct about which you com­plain occurred at work when you were not at work.

Twen­ty Eight Years of Lit­i­ga­tion!!!

This case grows out of an incred­i­bly long his­to­ry of lit­i­ga­tion (includ­ing sev­er­al dif­fer­ent law­suits and appeals (some of which were suc­cess­ful)) filed by Ms. Pueschel against her employ­er, the Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion (“FAA”). The lit­i­ga­tion start­ed in 1981 and end­ed with this Fourth Cir­cuit deci­sion in 2009 (I am not kid­ding, and I am not sure this deci­sion marks the end of all of her lit­i­ga­tion).

Con­tin­ue read­ing Can you be sex­u­al­ly harassed behind your back?

Was the boss “merely crude”, or was he sexually harassing her?

Sex­u­al harass­ment claims fre­quent­ly require judges and juries to dis­tin­guish between “mere­ly crude” behav­ior, which doesn’t vio­late the employee’s rights, and “sex­u­al harass­ment”, which does. The Fourth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals addressed that issue in EEOC v. Fair­brook Med­ical Clin­ic, PA, 609 F.3d 320 (4th Cir. 2010) (opin­ion at Fourth Circuit’s site), and didn’t have a lot of trou­ble con­clud­ing that the con­duct in issue could rea­son­ably be viewed by a jury as sex­u­al harass­ment, rul­ing in favor of the employ­ee. One of the key issues was whether the con­duct was “severe or per­va­sive” enough to con­sti­tute a “hos­tile work envi­ron­ment”.  The unan­i­mous opin­ion was writ­ten Judge J. Harvie Wilkin­son III, joined by Judges Andre M. Davis and C. Arlen Beam (from the Eighth Cir­cuit).

Doc­tor on Doc­tor Harass­ment at Fair­brook Med­ical Clin­ic

Stethoscope Dr. John Kessel was the own­er of Fair­brook Med­ical Clin­ic in South Car­oli­na, and was accused by a for­mer female doc­tor at the clin­ic, Dr. Deb­o­rah Waechter, of sex­u­al­ly harass­ing her. Dr. Kessel was Dr. Waechter’s super­vi­sor. Dr. Waechter worked for him for 3 years and quit, alleged­ly over a broad range of sex­u­al­ly explic­it state­ments made dur­ing most of those 3 years (I’ll dis­cuss the specifics below).

Dr. Waechter’s Law­suit

Dr. Waechter then filed a charge of dis­crim­i­na­tion with the EEOC, alleg­ing that Dr. Kessel’s behav­ior cre­at­ed a “hos­tile work envi­ron­ment”, and the EEOC then filed suit on behalf of Dr. Waechter against Dr. Kessel’s clin­ic under Title VII of the Civ­il Rights Act of 1964.

After dis­cov­ery was con­duct­ed. Fair­brook Med­ical Clin­ic filed a motion for sum­ma­ry judg­ment, and the fed­er­al tri­al judge grant­ed it. The tri­al judge rea­soned that the offen­sive con­duct was “not par­tic­u­lar­ly fre­quent,” most­ly involved “the type of crude jokes that do not run afoul of Title VII,” did not cause Dr. Waechter to miss work or feel “severe psy­cho­log­i­cal stress,” and did not include inap­pro­pri­ate touch­ing or phys­i­cal threats.

Con­tin­ue read­ing Was the boss “mere­ly crude”, or was he sex­u­al­ly harass­ing her?