Pennsylvania Judge Orders Summary Judgment for Defendant in Age Discrimination Suit

On Monday, Judge Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of defendant Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals (TJUH) after a former employee alleged she was unlawfully terminated because of her age.

The plaintiff began working at TJUH in 2000 as a nuclear medicine technologist (NMT), when she was 45 years old. The court recounted that the plaintiff was “generally well-regarded” by her fellow employees and her supervisor; however, in 2013, the plaintiff “made several serious errors,” including injecting a patient with the wrong drug, mislabeling images, and making imaging and dosing errors. The plaintiff again injected two separate patients with the wrong drug, one of the incidents in January 2015 and one in November 2015. After the November 2015 erroneous injection, the physician of the patient who received the injection recommended that the plaintiff be terminated from her position — but she ended up receiving a final warning, pursuant to the hospital’s disciplinary policy. The court noted that the plaintiff has owned up to these errors and does not argue that the discipline resulted from age discrimination.

In January 2016, the plaintiff was terminated after she admitted to falsifying a number to enter into a system that prints results of quality control tests of the equipment used by NMTs, the judge explains, noting that the plaintiff does not argue that her employer’s stated reason for terminating her was “not a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” — but she does argue that the stated reason “was a pretext for age discrimination.” A piece of evidence the plaintiff points to is a remark she heard made by a supervisor in late 2015 that the supervisor “wished (the plaintiff) would just retire,” the court noted.

The judge explained that it is the burden of the plaintiff to find evidence that the stated reason of her termination was a pretext for age discrimination “not merely that the employer’s proffered reason was wrong, but that it was so plainly wrong that it cannot have been the employer’s real reason.” The plaintiff argued that the reason she was terminated was pretextual because “(1) Plaintiff had a strong employment record prior to being supervised by (her supervisor) and was in training at the time of the QC test incident that lead to her termination; (2) (the supervisor’s) remark that she wished Plaintiff would ‘just retire’ supports an inference of discrimination; and (3) Jefferson treated similarly situated, younger employees who committed the same misconduct as Plaintiff more favorably,” according to the court.

The court found that each element of the plaintiff’s argument fails. Regarding her “strong employment record” before being under the supervisor’s supervision, the judge noted that the plaintiff’s disciplinary history “indisputably” reaches back years before she was under the supervisor’s supervision, with Chief NMT being the one handling her discipline before 2015. Further, the supervisor could have terminated the plaintiff after an attending physician recommended it, but instead opted to issue a final warning, the judge explained.

The supervisor’s remark about wishing the plaintiff would retire was cited by the plaintiff as supporting an inference that TJUH wanted her dismissed because of her age; the court found this insufficient evidence to support the plaintiff’s claim, as the comment was made in late 2015 while the plaintiff’s termination came in early 2016, “and the record is devoid of any evidence suggesting that the comment ‘was related to the decisional process’ to terminate” the plaintiff.

On the plaintiff’s third argument that her employer did not discipline her younger colleagues as severely under allegedly the same misconduct, the judge found that the type of misconduct among the plaintiff and two others was distinct and the other two employees in question “had no disciplinary records”; thus, the existence of the plaintiff’s prior disciplinary record and the others’ absences of record are what contributed to the discrepancy, the judge stated.

Summary judgment was granted to the defendant on all the plaintiff’s claims, including the alleged violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

The plaintiff is represented by Sidney L. Gold. The defendant is represented by Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg.