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Farmer v. HCA Health Services of Virginia, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

December 12, 2017

DELCIE T. FARMER, Plaintiff,
v.
HCA HEALTH SERVICES OF VIRGINIA, INC., d/b/a HENRICO DOCTORS' HOSPITAL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT)

          HENRY E. HUDSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This action arises from HCA Health Services of Virginia, Inc., d/b/a Henrico Doctors' Hospital's ("HDH") alleged failure to hire, failure to accommodate, and wrongful discharge of Delcie T. Farmer ("Farmer"). Farmer, an individual suffering from a latex allergy, alleges that HDH's actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), as amended, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of an individual's disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. This case is presently before the Court on HDH's Motion for Summary Judgment. Both parties have filed memoranda and exhibits supporting their respective positions. The Court heard oral argument on November 20, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that there are material issues in dispute precluding an award of summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         The gravamen of Farmer's Complaint is her assertion that HDH, based on alleged hospital practice or policy, denied her employment in their Pre-Admission Testing ("PAT") Department because of her prior history of latex allergy, without any bona fide individual assessment to determine if her condition could be reasonably accommodated. Farmer further maintains that HDH took no steps to quantify the presence of airborne latex particles in the PAT Department or determine if such particles could be controlled by reasonable remedial measures.

         HDH counters that Farmer's allergy, which was purportedly in remission, did not constitute a disability under the ADA. Furthermore, the hospital emphasizes that the record evidence revealed no reasonable accommodation for Farmer's latex allergy in a hospital where latex gloves were used in some departments at the time she applied for the position. Relying on the testimony of Farmer's own allergist and prior medical history, HDH contends that employing Farmer in a non-latex free hospital could seriously endanger her health.

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the record shows that "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The evidentiary basis on which such motions are resolved may include depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). As the United States Supreme Court held in Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., the relevant inquiry in a summary judgment analysis is "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party-here, Farmer. Id. at 255.

         Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the opposing party has the burden of showing that a genuine dispute exists. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson, 477U.S. at 247-48. A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; JKC Holding Co. LLC v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001). A genuine issue concerning a material fact only arises when the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is sufficient to warrant a reasonable jury to return a verdict in that party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         To defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must rely on more than conclusory allegations, "mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another[, ]" or the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" concerning a material fact. Stone v. Liberty, 105 F.3d 188, 191 (4th Cir. 1997) (internal citations omitted). In meeting this burden, the nonmoving party must "go beyond the pleadings" and present affidavits or designate specific facts in depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). That being said, the non-moving party cannot create a genuine issue of material fact by presenting a self-serving affidavit that contradicts their own prior deposition testimony. Rohrbough v. Wyeth Labs., Inc., 916 F.2d 970, 975-76 (4th Cir. 1990).

         Because HDH challenges Farmer's entitlement to prosecute her claims under the ADA, the Court must turn first to whether she is disabled as contemplated under that statute. Perhaps the most persuasive evidence is the testimony of Farmer's treating allergist, Jeffrey L. Schul, M.D. ("Dr. Schul"), who unequivocally testified in his deposition that Farmer's allergy, which in his opinion is incurable, if rekindled could endanger her health. According to Dr. Schul, as well as HDH's own expert, Dr. Bob Geng ("Dr. Geng"), latex exposure could adversely affect Farmer's breathing and immune system function, both of which qualify as major life activities or bodily functions under the ADA. 42 U.S.C. § 12102. HDH acknowledges that Farmer "has a severe latex allergy and when exposed to latex, she has reactions that can be life-threatening." (Def.'s Mem. Support Mot. Summ. J. 28, ECF No. 25.)

         Given the clear potential for reoccurrence if Farmer is subjected to airborne latex particles, the fact that her condition was diagnosed by Dr. Schul as being in remission has little bearing on the disability analysis, at least at this stage of the proceedings. See Class v. Towson Univ., 806 F.3d 236, 244 (4th Cir. 2015).

         As highlighted during oral argument, there are a number of marginal, non-case dispositive facts at issue. The Court's task at this juncture is to focus on material facts- those essential to critical elements of Farmer's case and on which she will "bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322. The Court's role at this stage is not to weigh the evidence, but simply to determine whether a genuine dispute exists, making it appropriate for the case to proceed to trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

         Farmer, a registered nurse, had been previously employed by HCA Health Services ("HCA") at other affiliated hospitals beginning around 2005. Early in her employment with HCA, Farmer experienced severe allergic reactions to airborne latex particles, limiting her access to certain areas of her assigned hospital and periodically requiring her to work from home. Furthermore, as an added safeguard measure against latex exposure, HCA converted a closet within the hospital into a small office equipped with an air filtration system. In 2007, Farmer's treating physician, Dr. Schul, wrote a letter indicating that she was still suffering from a latex allergy and should avoid exposure. (Def.'s Mem. Support Mot. Summ. J., Exh. 15.)

         In 2009, while Farmer was employed by HCA, she experienced a respiratory reaction to poinsettias, which apparently have leaves containing a substance akin in composition to latex. Similarly, in early 2010, Farmer was treated for a rash attributed to wearing rubber shoes containing latex material. (Pl. Dep. 73-79, ECF No. 25-1.)

         In April 2010, Farmer transferred to Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center, also a part of the HCA system. The Spotsylvania hospital had been designated as a latex safe facility. Farmer apparently experienced no serious allergic reactions while working in that environment. In August 2015, Farmer applied for, and was offered, a position in the PAT Department at HDH. The employment offer was subject to a pre-employment background investigation and a health assessment. During her interview, Farmer did not disclose her latex allergy. In the context of HDH's hiring process, her allergy was first revealed during her health assessment on September 3, 2015.[1]This assessment included a latex-specific RAST test which confirmed that Farmer's allergy was still active.

         According to Farmer's proffered evidence, when HDH's Director of Employee Health and Safety, Judith Justison ("Justison"), saw Farmer's name on a health screening form on September 3, 2015, a decision was made to rescind the offer of employment without further investigation. This decision, Farmer contends, was based solely on the fact that she had an open workers' compensation claim with HDH, entered June 21, 2007, finding that her latex allergy was an ...


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