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Cormier v. Genesis Healthcare LLC

Supreme Judicial Court of Maine

December 15, 2015

KAREN CORMIER
v.
GENESIS HEALTHCARE LLC, et al

Argued February 10, 2015.

Page 945

On the briefs: Guy D. Loranger, Esq., Law Office of Guy D. Loranger, P.A., Old Orchard Beach, for appellant Karen Cormier.

James R. Erwin, Esq., and Michelle Y. Bush, Esq., Pierce Atwood LLP, Portland, for cross-appellants Genesis HealthCare LLC and Scarborough Operations LLC.

At oral argument: Guy D. Loranger, Esq., for appellant Karen Cormier.

James R. Erwin, Esq., for cross-appellants Genesis HealthCare LLC and Scarborough Operations LLC.

Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, and HJELM, JJ.

OPINION

Page 946

HJELM, J.

[¶1] In January 2012, Karen Cormier was discharged from employment as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at a nursing home owned by Genesis Healthcare LLC. She commenced this action in the Superior Court (Cumberland County), alleging that she was terminated because she had made complaints about staffing and patient safety, and that Genesis thereby violated the Maine Whistleblowers' Protection Act (WPA), 26 M.R.S. § § 831-840 (2014). The court ( Warren, J. ) granted Genesis's motion for summary judgment, concluding that although Cormier presented evidence that her complaints constituted protected activity, she failed to produce evidence of a causal relationship between the complaints and her termination. Cormier appealed, and Genesis cross-appealed. We conclude that the trial court correctly determined that the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find that Cormier's complaints were protected under the WPA. We also conclude, however, that the record on summary judgment could reasonably support a finding that the adverse employment action was substantially motivated at least in part by retaliatory intent. We therefore vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

[¶2] The summary judgment record contains the following evidence as viewed in the light most favorable to Cormier, who is the non-moving party. See Angell v. Hallee, 2014 ME 72, ¶ 16, 92 A.3d 1154. Genesis is the parent company of Scarborough Operations, LLC, which owns Pine Point Center, a nursing home in Scarborough.[1] Cormier is a CNA who began working at Pine Point Center in 2002. Beginning in 2009, Genesis reduced staffing levels on Cormier's shift so that there were usually three or four CNAs working in her unit, rather than four or five. This meant that CNAs were sometimes unable to get to the residents promptly when they rang their call bells, causing delays both in helping residents use the bathroom and in transferring residents from their beds to chairs or wheelchairs. Cormier believed

Page 947

that these delays put residents at a higher risk for falls because they would try to get out of bed by themselves.

[¶3] In the spring of 2011, Cormier spoke to Michelle Dewitt, the Director of Nursing, regarding her concerns about the staffing levels, stating that she was worried that CNAs would not be able to promptly respond to call bells. Cormier also told a charge nurse " quite a few times" throughout 2011 that residents were upset that call bells were not being answered promptly, and she told two other charge nurses that she was frustrated trying to help all of the residents at the reduced staffing level. In particular, she reported to one charge nurse that she " was concerned about the safety of the residents if I was not able to get to them on time." Finally, on December 28, 2011, after the facility lost power when only three CNAs were working in Cormier's unit, Cormier complained to the nurse educator that there were not enough CNAs to help the residents get up for dinner while also dealing with the power outage.

[¶4] On December 31, 2011, soon after Cormier's most recent complaint, Cormier was approached by Michelle Dewitt because a charge nurse had overheard another CNA talking about Cormier hitting a resident on the hand while caring for her. After meeting with Dewitt, Cormier signed a statement reporting that on December 28, 2011, a resident became combative and that she tried to hold the resident's hand so that the resident could not hit her. Cormier was then informed that she was being suspended pending an investigation into the incident. Later, Cormier realized ...


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