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Ehling v. Monmouth-Ocean Hosp. Serv. Corp.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 20, 2013

DEBORAH EHLING, Plaintiff,
v.
MONMOUTH-OCEAN HOSPITAL SERVICE CORP., et al., Defendants

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For DEBORAH EHLING, Plaintiff: ERNEST HENRY EHLING, LEAD ATTORNEY, FREEHOLD, NJ 07728.

For MONMOUTH-OCEAN HOSPITAL SERVICE CORP, doing business as MONOC, Defendant: M. ELIZABETH DUFFY, LEAD ATTORNEY, DALY, LAMASTRA & CUNNINGHAM, WHITEHOUSE STATION, NJ.

For VINCENT ROBBINS, individually, STACY QUAGLIANA, individually, Defendants: M. ELIZABETH DUFFY, DALY, LAMASTRA & CUNNINGHAM, WHITEHOUSE STATION, NJ.

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OPINION

WILLIAM J. MARTINI, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Deborah Ehling filed this action against Monmouth-Ocean Hospital Service Corp. (" MONOC" ), Vincent Robbins, and Stacy Quagliana (collectively " Defendants" ). This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. There was no oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Deborah Ehling is a registered nurse and paramedic. Defendant MONOC is a non-profit hospital service corporation dedicated to providing emergency medical services to the citizens of the State of New Jersey. Defendant Vincent Robbins is the President and CEO of MONOC. Defendant Stacy Quagliana is the Executive Director of Administration at MONOC.

Plaintiff was hired by MONOC in 2004 as a registered nurse and paramedic. In July of 2008, Plaintiff took over as President of the Professional Emergency Medical Services Association - New Jersey (the " Union" ). As President of the Union, Plaintiff was regularly involved in actions intended to protect MONOC employees. For example, Plaintiff filed complaints with the Environmental Protection Agency (" EPA" ) and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (" NJDEP" ), reporting that MONOC's use of a disinfectant called Zimek was creating health problems for employees. In response, the EPA issued a removal order requiring MONOC to stop using Zimek. Plaintiff

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also testified in the wage and hour lawsuit of another MONOC employee.

Plaintiff's claims in this case arise out of: (1) an incident involving Plaintiff's Facebook account, and (2) Plaintiff's disciplinary record and medical leave. The Court will summarize the pertinent facts relating to each issue.

A. The Facebook Incident

Facebook is a widely-used social-networking website. The website provides a digital medium that allows users to connect and communicate with each other. Every Facebook user must create a Profile Page, which is a webpage that is intended to convey information about the user. The Profile Page can include the user's contact information; pictures; biographical information, such as the user's birthday, hometown, educational background, work history, family members, and relationship status; and lists of places, musicians, movies, books, businesses, and products that the user likes. A Facebook user can connect with other users by adding them as " Facebook friends." Facebook users can have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of Facebook friends. In addition to having a Profile Page, each user has a webpage called a News Feed. The News Feed aggregates information that has recently been shared by the user's Facebook friends. By default, Facebook pages are public. However, Facebook has customizable privacy settings that allow users to restrict access to their Facebook content. Access can be limited to the user's Facebook friends, to particular groups or individuals, or to just the user.

Facebook provides users with several means of communicating with one another. Users can send private messages to one or more users. Users can also communicate by posting information to their Facebook " wall," which is part of each user's Profile Page. A Facebook " wall post" can include written comments, photographs, digital images, videos, and content from other websites. To create a Facebook wall post, users upload data from their computers or mobile devices directly to the Facebook website. Facebook then saves that data onto its computers (called " servers" ). New wall posts are typically distributed to a user's Facebook friends using the News Feed feature. Users' most recent wall posts also appear at the top of their Profile Pages. A user's Facebook friends can comment on the wall posts, indicate that they " like" the wall posts, or share the posts with other users. Facebook users typically do not post information to their Facebook walls with the intent to delete it later. Instead, Facebook designed its website so that its servers would save this data indefinitely. As more and more wall posts are added, earlier wall posts move lower and lower down on the user's Profile Page, and are eventually archived on separate pages that are accessible, but not displayed.[1]

During the 2008-2009 timeframe, Plaintiff maintained a Facebook account and had approximately 300 Facebook friends. Plaintiff selected privacy settings for her account that limited access to her Facebook

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wall to only her Facebook friends. Plaintiff did not add any MONOC managers as Facebook friends. However, Plaintiff added many of her MONOC coworkers as friends, including a paramedic named Tim Ronco. Plaintiff posted on Ronco's Facebook wall, and Ronco had access to Plaintiff's Facebook wall. Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, Ronco was taking screenshots of Plaintiff's Facebook wall and printing them or emailing them to MONOC manager Andrew Caruso. Ronco and Caruso became friends while working together at a previous job, but Ronco never worked in Caruso's division at MONOC. The evidence reflects that Ronco independently came up with the idea to provide Plaintiff's Facebook posts to Caruso. Caruso never asked Ronco for any information about Plaintiff, and never requested that Ronco keep him apprised of Plaintiff's Facebook activity. In fact, Caruso was surprised that Ronco showed him Plaintiff's Facebook posts. Caruso never had the password to Ronco's Facebook account, Plaintiff's Facebook account, or any other employee's Facebook account. Once Caruso received copies of Plaintiff's Facebook posts, he passed them on to Quagliana, MONOC's Executive Director of Administration.

On June 8, 2009, Plaintiff posted the following statement to her Facebook wall:

An 88 yr old sociopath white supremacist opened fire in the Wash D.C. Holocaust Museum this morning and killed an innocent guard (leaving children). Other guards opened fire. The 88 yr old was shot. He survived. I blame the DC paramedics. I want to say 2 things to the DC medics. 1. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? and 2. This was your opportunity to really make a difference! WTF!!!! And to the other guards....go to target practice.

After MONOC management was alerted to the post, Plaintiff was temporarily suspended with pay, and received a memo stating that MONOC management was concerned that Plaintiff's comment reflected a " deliberate disregard for patient safety." In response, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (" NLRB" ). After reviewing the evidence, the NLRB found that MONOC did not violate the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB also found that there was no privacy violation because the post was sent, unsolicited, to MONOC management.

B. Plaintiff's Disciplinary Record and Medical Leave

MONOC disciplines employees in accordance with a " point" system. According to MONOC's written disciplinary policy, an employee who commits an infraction (such as being late to work) is given one point. Points accumulate if there are further infractions, and points accumulate more quickly if an employee commits the same infraction multiple times. Accumulating a certain number of points results in a disciplinary action. A MONOC employee who accrues seven, eight, or nine points is suspended, and an employee who accrues ten or more points is terminated. An employee can appeal any disciplinary action.

During the seven years that Plaintiff was employed at MONOC, Plaintiff developed an extensive disciplinary record. Plaintiff received six warning notices for lateness, and eleven additional warning notices for violations of MONOC policy, including unauthorized late swipe-outs, excessive call-outs, failing to have sufficient paid time off to cover hours not worked, refusing 9-1-1 calls, and failing to submit the proper documentation for her ambulance shifts. In 2010, after receiving numerous warning notices, Plaintiff began to accrue disciplinary points. Plaintiff steadily

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continued to accrue disciplinary points throughout 2010 and 2011.

During her employment at MONOC, Plaintiff also took numerous medical leaves. The Family and Medical Leave Act (or " FMLA" ) entitles employees to take up to twelve weeks of medical leave to recover from serious health conditions. Plaintiff took five continuous FMLA leaves for five different medical conditions, and also took intermittent FMLA leave over the course of approximately two years. Despite taking numerous medical leaves, Plaintiff frequently missed the deadlines for submitting FMLA paperwork, submitted paperwork that was incomplete or inaccurate, or failed to submit paperwork altogether. Nevertheless, MONOC granted Plaintiff all the FMLA leave that she requested, alerted Plaintiff when her paperwork was insufficient, sent her forms two or three times when she missed the deadlines, and even applied FMLA leave retroactively when she failed to make a timely request.

For example, on May 8, 2011, Plaintiff was dispatched to respond to a 9-1-1 call for a critically ill twenty-month old child. Plaintiff refused to do the emergency transport and placed her unit out of service, citing " FMLA reasons." On May 20, 2011, MONOC sent Plaintiff the FMLA paperwork, and asked for clarification on her medical condition. Plaintiff did not respond. Two weeks later, MONOC sent the paperwork to Plaintiff again, and Plaintiff responded by submitting a partially-complete form that did not contain any information from her doctor. MONOC followed up by asking Plaintiff to have a doctor sign the form, but Plaintiff never responded. Shortly thereafter, on June 8, 2011, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this case.

Throughout this time period, Plaintiff continued to accrue disciplinary points for committing infractions such as arriving late to work. By July 2011, Plaintiff had accrued eight disciplinary points. On July 15, 2011, Plaintiff was issued a two-day suspension. However, MONOC's upper management (including Quagliana) determined that the suspension should be stayed so that Plaintiff could continue working. This meant that all disciplinary action would be put on hold for one year and then removed from Plaintiff's record, provided that Plaintiff did not accrue any more points. On July 17, 2011, just two days after her suspension was stayed, Plaintiff skipped her evening shift to attend a " metaphysical seminar" featuring purported psychic medium James Van Praagh. When asked why she was not coming to work, Plaintiff cited " FMLA" reasons. In the following days, Plaintiff continued to be late to work, and by July 22, 2011, she had accumulated a total of twelve disciplinary points. Plaintiff was then issued a notice of termination. However, MONOC's upper management determined that the termination should be stayed. Thus, neither the suspension nor the termination was ever enforced.

On August 18, 2011, Plaintiff filed a nine-count Amended Complaint in this case. On September 9, 2011, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss.

In October 2011, Plaintiff exhausted her twelve weeks of FMLA leave. Plaintiff told MONOC that she needed additional medical leave at that time, so she was offered a ninety-day personal leave of absence. MONOC sent Plaintiff the leave of absence forms twice, extending the deadline each time, but Plaintiff did not fill out the forms. Eventually, Quagliana filled out the forms herself and then approved them. Plaintiff's leave of absence was set to expire on January 18, 2012. On January 2, 2012, Plaintiff informed MONOC that she would not be returning to work

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until the end of March 2012. Plaintiff was informed that she could not take additional leave unless she filled out reasonable accommodation forms. MONOC sent Plaintiff the reasonable accommodation forms twice, but Plaintiff never completed them. Because Plaintiff never returned to work and never filled out the reasonable accommodation forms, ...


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