JOHN A. GIBNEY, JR., District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Dk. No. 33.) The plaintiff, Brandon Williams, alleges that his former employer, Bon Secours, fired him because he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder related to his military service, in violation of both the Americans with Disability Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. The record, however, provides no evidence to dispute Bon Secours' justification for terminating Williamson: that the veteran made repeated terroristic threats against the lives of his supervisors, requiring his
Williamson is a United States Army veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. In August 2011, Williamson applied for an x-ray technician position with Bon Secours Richmond Health System, Inc., and began work there on an "as needed" basis. (Compl. ¶ 16.)
In July 2012, St. Francis changed Williamson's work schedule from a consistent, full-time schedule to one that changed every two weeks. (Id. at 8.) On September 10, 2012, Williamson emailed Paul Junod, the Administrative Director of Bon Secours Human Resources, explaining that the inconsistent schedule had affected his mental health. (Id.) In response, Junod asked for a doctor's note outlining how exactly to schedule Williamson's work. (Id.) On October 23, 2012, Williamson faxed a note from his doctor to Junod. (PL's Opp'n 5, at ¶ 19.) The note stated that Williamson was receiving treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and that, while he could work full time, he would benefit significantly from a routine daily schedule. (Id. at Ex. 11.) Junod and Williamson then tried to set up a meeting to discuss his work, but scheduling problems kept them from meeting immediately.
Before Junod and Williamson could meet, two nurses at St. Francis, Christina Sykes and June Rice, met with the practice supervisor, Sarah Townshend, to report that Williamson had made several threatening statements about the practice and his supervisors. Rice reported that Williamson had told her that (1) he "wanted to kill Maureen [Paisley] because she talked to [him] mean earlier in the week," and that (2) he "felt like killing Dr. [Jeffrey] Roberts," another of Williamson's supervisors, for a "nasty look" Roberts had given him. (Def.'s Supp. 10, at ¶ 25.) Sykes reported that Williamson had made similar threats about Dr. Roberts and Paisley to her ("you know what you do to your enemies ... you kill them"), and that he had also told her that "this Saturday he was going on top of a tall building," explaining, "how else are you going to kill people?" (Id.)
Townshend relayed this information to Dr. Roberts and Paisley. (Id. at 11, ¶ 29.) Paisley, in turn, told Williamson's other supervisor, Shredl, and alerted Junod to those threats. (Id. at 12, ¶¶ 30-31.) After speaking with Paisley, Junod called Williamson, explained the reports, and told him that he would be suspended pending an investigation. (Id. at ¶ 32.) Williamson denied making any threats. (Id.)
Between November 2 and November 5, 2012, Junod collected written statements from nurses Sykes and Rice, as well as two other employees, Julissa Carey and Beverly Rice, who had also reported hearing Williamson make threatening statements
Sykes reported that three weeks earlier, Williamson entered her office and told her that Dr. Roberts looked at him "like the insurgents did in Iraq, and you know what happens to them!" (Def.'s Supp., Ex. 3.) When Sykes asked him to elaborate, Williamson told her, "I killed them." (Id.) On another occasion, Williamson told her that "Maureen [Paisley] wrote him up for being late and you know what you do to your enemies." (Id.) When Sykes again asked "what?" Williamson explained, "You kill them." (Id.) Sykes also wrote that on a third occasion, Williamson told her that "this Saturday he was going on top of a tall building." (Id.) When Sykes asked, "Why a tall building?" Williamson replied, "How else are you going to kill people?" (Id.)
June Rice wrote that two weeks earlier, Williamson told her that "Dr. Roberts had given him a nasty look earlier that day and it reminded him of the way one of his enemies in the Military had looked at him and he had to kill him." (Def.'s Supp., Ex. 4.) Williamson "then proceeded to say that he felt like killing Dr. Roberts for the way that he glared at him." (Id.) Rice also stated that on the evening of November 1, 2012, Williamson told her, "I wanted to kill Maureen because she talked to me mean earlier in the week." (Id.) During another encounter, Rice wrote, Williamson told her of a good "dream" he had about her, wherein "... You [June Rice] were the only one who survived after our building blew up." (Id.) When asked who blew up the building, Williamson told Rice, "I did." (Id.) Rice also wrote that Williamson was "constantly talking about guns and explosives," and that "anyone he dislikes, disagrees with him or chastises him is the enemy." (Id.)
Julissa Carey reported that Williamson "showed [her] new weapons he has [sic] purchased within the last two weeks." (Def.'s Supp., Ex. 5.) (emphasis added). Carey also stated that Williamson told her "that he will hurt and kill some of the people in government positions," and that he "advised he made a treat [sic] to harm his last superior in the Army." (Id.)
Beverly Rice wrote that on one occasion, "Mr. Williamson spoke to me about threating [sic] his Veteran's hospital therapist and said he could harm her if he wanted too [sic]." (Def.'s Supp., Ex. 6.) Rice also wrote that on another occasion, Williamson approached the front check-in desk and told the employees there, "You guys can drink your own urine." (Id.) When told that those employees didn't want to hear that, "he continued to say it over." (Id.)
After Junod received the four written statements, he discussed them with Shredl, as well as Bon Secours' Vice President for Human Resources and Bon Secours' in-house counsel. (Pl.'s Opp'n 21-22; Def.'s Supp. 15.) Junod concluded that Williamson was a threat to the safety of Bon Secours' patients and employees and decided to terminate him, explaining that:
(Def.'s Supp., Ex. H, at 145.)
On November 5, 2012, Junod notified Williamson of his termination. (Id. at 16.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Summary judgment is appropriate where, on the basis of undisputed material facts, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Importantly, to defeat summary judgment, Williamson (as the non-moving party) may not rest upon conclusory allegations, the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence," or the appearance of some "metaphysical doubt" concerning a material fact but, instead, must set forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548; Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).
Williamson asserts three claims against Bon Secours, each reliant on the sum total of Williamson's factual assertions: (1) a "failure to accommodate" claim under the ADA; (2) a "discrimination" claim, also under the ADA; and (3) a "discrimination" claim brought under USERRA. The Court, as discussed more fully below, must dismiss each. First, Bon Secours responded appropriately under its ADA obligations when Williamson first requested a reasonable (work scheduling) accommodation for his PTSD. Second, Williamson cannot show that Bon Secours' stated reason for terminating Williamson was pretext for an actual, discriminatory motive. Finally, there is absolutely no evidence that Bon Secours based its decision to fire Williamson — in any part — on his past military service.
Failure to Accommodate Claim (ADA)
Williamson's claim that Bon Secours failed to provide a reasonable accommodation to remedy his PTSD-driven disability requires him to show: "(1) [he] was an individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA; (2) the employer had notice of [his] disability; (3) with reasonable accommodation, [he] could perform the essential functions of the position; and (4) the employer refused to make such accommodations." Haneke v. Mid-Atl. Capital Mgmt., 131 Fed.Appx. 399, 400 (4th Cir.2005) (quoting Rhoads v. FDIC, 257 F.3d 373, 387 n. 11 (4th Cir.2001)). Williamson alleges facts sufficient to satisfy elements (1), (2), and (3). Williamson's claim hinges, then, on the final element: whether Bon Secours "refused to make" a reasonable accommodation for Williamson.
Williamson argues that Bon Secours did so by breaching its obligation to participate fully and promptly in the ADA-mandated "interactive process" between employer and employee by (1) delaying that process by requesting a doctor's note, and (2) terminating his employment rather than accommodate his disability.
1. Request for Doctor's Note
The ADA — as detailed in regulations and the Department of Justice's advice to employers — acknowledges the necessity of a genuine give-and-take between an employee seeking a change to the employer's procedures or practices and an employer who must balance the particular needs of that employee with its business model and other, less-needy employees.
Once the employee has made a discernible request for accommodation — as Williamson did in his September 10 email to Junod — the burden shifts to the employer to "request additional information that the employer believes it needs." Id. Bon Secours did just that, promptly replying to Williamson's request by asking him to provide a doctor's note outlining exactly how his schedule should change. That action, far from constituting a breach of Bon Secours' duty to operate in good faith, falls squarely in line with the ADA's expectations for employers:
PTSD is a psychological disturbance that manifests in vastly different forms, along a broad spectrum of relative intensity.
The ADA does not protect employees who make terroristic threats against the lives of their fellow employees — even if those threats are the unfortunate byproduct of the employee's disabling mental illness.
Discrimination Claim (ADA)
Williamson alleges that Bon Secours' discriminated against him by firing him because of his PTSD, in violation of § 12112(a) of the ADA. Williamson cannot provide evidence demonstrating that Bon Secours' proffered explanation for its decision to fire Williamson — namely, that it believed that he had threatened the lives of his co-workers, causing no small amount of workplace concern — was pretext, and so Count 2 fails.
In order to prevail on his unlawful discrimination claim, Williamson must show that he: (1) had a qualifying "disability;" (2) was "qualified" for his job; and (3) Bon Secours' termination of was driven by discriminatory intent (re: Williamson's PTSD).
1. McDonnell-Douglas framework applies
An ADA plaintiff can establish intent to discriminate by (1) providing direct or circumstantial evidence of the defendant's discriminatory motivation, or (2) establishing a prima facie case of discrimination and subsequently proving that the defendant's proffered rationale for the adverse employment decision in question "is actually a pretext for discrimination." Hill, 354 F.3d at 284-285.
Williamson does not provide evidence — direct or circumstantial — demonstrating that the ultimate decision-maker in his case, Paul Junod, made the decision to fire him based on anything other than genuine concern for the safety of Bon Secours' patients and staff, prompted by Junod's receipt and review of several oral and written reports of Williamson's threatening statements. Accordingly, Williamson must follow the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas.
That multi-tiered process requires Williamson to first establish a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination by "proving a set of facts which would enable the fact-finder to conclude, in the absence of any further explanation, that it is more likely than not that the adverse employment action was the product of discrimination." Ennis, 53 F.3d at 58. Williamson must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that "(1) [he] was in the protected class; (2) [he] was discharged; (3) at the time of the discharge, [he] was performing [his] job at a level that met [his] employer's
When deciding Bon Secours' motion for summary judgment, the Court must resolve all genuine factual disputes and inferences in favor of the non-moving party — here, Williamson. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962) (per curiam). Accordingly, the Court accepts Williamson's claim that he did not make the statements at issue, and proceeds on the assumption that the employees who reported those statements to Paul Junod did so knowing that they were false.
Viewed in this positive light, Williamson can establish his prima facie case. Bon Secours does not dispute that Williamson was (1) in the protected class and (2) discharged. Williamson has provided evidence that his job performance (again, in the assumed absence of those threats) met Bon Secours' expectations, satisfying element (3).
Accordingly, the burden shifts to Bon Secours "to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action." Hill, 354 F.3d at 285. Bon Secours' burden is one of production, not persuasion: the Court need not be convinced of the veracity of Bon Secours' proffered rationale, only that it suffices as a permissible explanation.
Bon Secours has produced direct evidence to support its permissible rationale for terminating Williamson: (1) the testimony of the decision-maker, Paul Junod, as to how and why he reached his decision, and (2) the written statements Junod relied upon.
2. Failure to Demonstrate Pretext
Saddled now with the burden of persuasion, Williamson could succeed by either (1) proving that Bon Secours was more likely motivated by a discriminatory reason than the hospital's proffered explanation, or (2) showing that Bon Secours' explanation "is unworthy of credence." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256, 101 S.Ct. 1089. Williamson can do neither.
Williamson argues that Bon Secours' actual motivation concerned Williamson's PTSD and his related request for accommodation. Allegations unsupported by factual proof, however, cannot survive a motion for summary judgment. Williamson has not disputed that Paul Junod was the ultimate, actual decision-maker with regard to his termination; has not disputed Junod's testimony that he relied on the four written statements described above; and has not produced evidence to demonstrate that Junod did not actually believe the reliability and veracity of those written accounts. Williamson has not produced a
Williamson's argument, instead, amounts to two collateral attacks: (1) that Bon Secours' investigation was flawed and inadequate, and (2) that the supervisors and fellow employees are not credible witnesses. First, pointing to flaws in Bon Secours' investigation, however, does "not help [Williamson] establish that the reasons given for [his] termination were not the actual reasons." Bonds v. Leavitt, 629 F.3d 369, 386 (4th Cir.2011). Second, the credibility of witnesses (and the alleged bias of non-decision-makers) does not detract from the central issue before the Court: the credibility of the decision-maker's stated rationale.
Discrimination Claim (USERRA)
Williamson's third and final claim asserts that Bon Secours terminated his employment because of his military service, in violation of USERRA. Because Williamson produces no evidence to support this allegation, the Court will dismiss the claim.
In order to prevail on a USERRA claim, "there must be an initial showing by the employee that military status was at least a motivating or substantial factor in the [employer] action, upon which the [employer] must prove, by a preponderance of evidence, that the action would have been taken despite the protected status." Sheehan v. Dep't of the Navy, 240 F.3d 1009, 1014 (Fed.Cir.2001). A plaintiff can use direct or circumstantial evidence in order to make the initial showing that would then shift the burden of proof to the employer. See FPC Holdings v. NLRB, 64 F.3d 935, 942 (4th Cir.1995).
Williamson's claim fails at the first hurdle. He does not present any evidence — direct or circumstantial — to show that Bon Secours' decision to fire him was in any way connected to his military service.
The first factor cuts against Williamson. Bon Secours knew of Williamson's military service before it hired him —
Williamson's second basis for his allegation that Bon Secours harbored an anti-military bias — that the statements considered by Bon Secours' human resources director mentioned Williamson's military service — is equally baseless. The reports Junod read showed an unhinged employee deliberately couching his threats in a military context: because Dr. Roberts looked at Williamson "like the insurgents did in Iraq," one such statement reads, Dr. Roberts would suffer the same violent fate at Williamson's hands. It is perverse and illogical to argue that placing death threats within a military context provides — under any law — corresponding immunity from sanction. USERRA is intended to safeguard a service member's job while that service member serves his country. Williamson's claim, however, would treat that well-intentioned law as a "get-out-of-jail-free" card, absolving any misconduct that refers to or touches past military service.
Accordingly, Williamson does not even approach the requisite "initial showing" that his military service motivated or influenced Bon Secours' decision to fire him.
For the reasons above, the Court GRANTS the defendant's motion for summary judgment.
The Court shall enter an appropriate order.