Supreme Court reverses decision in age discrimination suit

By Kyla Asbury | Apr 18, 2016

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ruled that a circuit court erred in granting summary judgment in a discrimination and wrongful discharge lawsuit.

In July, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold a ruling by Taylor Circuit Judge Alan Moats, which dismissed Martha Knotts’ lawsuit against Grafton City Hospital.

Allan Karlin, Knotts’ attorney, petitioned the court for a rehearing and other agencies, including AARP, the United Mine Workers of America and the state Employment Lawyers Association, also filed amicus briefs asking the court to reconsider.

The court issued its new decision April 14, in which they ruled the opposite way.

Justice Menis Ketchum authored the majority opinion.

Knotts appealed the July 8, 2014, order of Taylor Circuit Court granting Grafton City Hospital’s motion for summary judgment in her wrongful discharge lawsuit, according to the opinion

“In the instant appeal, we address the following issue—whether, in an age discrimination case, this Court should adopt the ‘substantially younger’ rule articulated by the United States Supreme Court in O’Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp. … After review, we answer that question in the affirmative,” the opinion states. “We therefore reverse the summary judgment order of the circuit court and remand this case to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

In 2005, the hospital hired Knotts to work as a housekeeper and she worked in the hospital for seven years until 2012 when she was fired.

On April 2, 2012, Knotts was working near the emergency department when she recognized a patient being brought in as Rebecca Green, who had previously lived with Knotts for approximately one year and testified that Knotts was like a mother to her.

Upon seeing Green, Knotts asked her if she was ok and what was the problem and a nurse named Brooke Davis admonished Knotts for making inquiries regarding the patient’s condition, alleging that those inquiries were a violation of the hospital’s patient confidentiality policy.

Following this interaction, Davis took Green into the emergency department and Knotts walked into the hallway outside of the emergency department where she saw Green’s teenage son, Cordale, who was crying, and she asked him if everything was okay.

Knotts claimed that Cordale replied, “Mom’s sick,” and this second communication was also overheard by Davis and Davis filed a formal incident report regarding the two communications.

Upon receiving the incident report, Tammy Barcus, the hospital’s HIPAA compliance officer began an investigation, but did not interview Knotts, and, following the investigation, she recommended Knotts’ employment be terminated.

On April 3, 2012, Knotts employment was terminated and she filed a grievance to challenge the termination and the administrator upset Knotts’ termination.

On Aug. 31, 2012, Knotts filed a lawsuit against the hospital alleging wrongful termination on the basis of her age and in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act. The circuit court agreed with the hospital that Knotts failed to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination and granted its motion for summary judgment

Knotts then appealed the circuit court’s summary judgment order to the Supreme Court.

“Applying our holding to the present case, we note that in attempting to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination, Ms. Knotts presented evidence of numerous ‘substantially younger’ replacement and comparison employees,” the opinion states. “The circuit court, relying on Young, did not give any weight to this evidence. We find that remanding this case to the circuit court and allowing it to assess Ms. Knotts’ prima facie argument in light of our holding herein is appropriate.”

The Supreme Court said the court takes no position on whether summary judgment will be appropriate on remand; rather, it finds that the circuit court is in the best position to consider whether summary judgment is appropriate in light of all of the evidence presented by the parties.

“The circuit court’s July 7, 2014, summary judgment order is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Knotts is represented by Karlin of Allan N. Karlin & Associates.

Grafton is represented by Mario R. Bordogna and Julie A. Moore of Steptoe & Johnson PLLC.

W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 14-0752

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Organizations in this Story

Aarp Steptoe and Johnson LLP United Mine Workers of America Coal Miners PAC West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

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