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Kinghorn v. The General Hospital Corp.

United States District Court, District of Massachusetts

July 1, 2014

BRIAN KINGHORN, Plaintiff,
v.
THE GENERAL HOSPITAL CORPORATION a/k/a MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

DOUGLAS P. WOODLOCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Brian Kinghorn, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, brought this action against his former employer, Massachusetts General Hospital (“MGH”), under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 121101 et seq., alleging that MGH discriminated against him by failing to provide him with a reasonable accommodation and terminating his employment. MGH now moves for summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

The following facts are undisputed, except where noted.

In the Spring of 2010, Plaintiff, then a recent graduate of a Master’s program in statistics at Columbia University, applied for a position as a full-time Bioinformatics Specialist in MGH’s Biostatistics Center. The Biostatistics Center provides statistical support to various research groups within MGH, and a Bioinformatics Specialist performs statistical analysis of research data using a statistics program called SAS. An advertisement for the position emailed to Plaintiff boasted that the Biostatistics Center “provide[s] an excellent environment for professional growth and training” and that the Center was “glad to hire good students who want to spend two years getting practical experience before going into a Ph.D. program.”

MGH requested Plaintiff’s references, and, after receiving positive recommendations from them, arranged an in-person interview at the Center. In an internal email regarding the interview process, the Center’s Director, Dr. Dianne Finkelstein, expressed her view that in-person interviews are essential to screen for “weirdness.”

On May 27, 2010, Plaintiff met individually with Elizabeth Smoot, Dr. Eric Macklin, Dr. Doug Hayden, Dr. Hang Lee, Dr. Finkelstein, and his would-be supervisor, Dr. David Schoenfeld. Each interview was scheduled for between twenty and forty minutes. Plaintiff met with Finkelstein for less than five minutes. In internal discussions among Plaintiff’s interviewers, Plaintiff was described as “personable, soft-spoken, and clear in his communication.” He was said to be candid and forthright about his abilities, and admitted that he lacked experience with two types of software codes used regularly by the Center. Everyone who interviewed Plaintiff, with the exception of Dr. Finkelstein, was impressed with him. Dr. Finkelstein thought Plaintiff was “somewhat green” and wanted to “use [the Center] to work for 2 years and then go for a PhD.” She expressed doubt that Plaintiff was “PhD material” and stated: “I wonder if we can get a better candidate. I no longer have a high respect for Columbia’s MA program. I think it is just their cash cow.” Dr. Schoenfeld disagreed, stating that he was “somewhat impressed by [Plaintiff] and [hadn’t] seen anyone better.”

Despite Dr. Finkelstein’s reservations, MGH offered Plaintiff the job sometime in early July. Plaintiff was hired to replace Ms. Smoot, who had been working on the Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (“ARDS”) Project. Because Smoot was leaving in early August, Dr. Schoenfeld encouraged Plaintiff to start as soon as possible in order that Smoot would have more time to train him.

Plaintiff began work at MGH on July 26, 2010. At the time, Dr. Schoenfeld was on vacation. Plaintiff spent his first day attending MGH’s new employee orientation, where he received information about many MGH policies and procedures, including the MGH Standards of Behavior, which he read and signed. After attending the orientation, Plaintiff then went to MGH’s Employee Assistance Program, where he met with a counselor to seek assistance in finding a psychotherapist in the Boston area.

Plaintiff first went to the Biostatistics Center on the afternoon of July 27, after a day and a half of employee orientation. On July 28, Plaintiff met with Ms. Smoot to begin his training. Although the plan was for Smoot to train Plaintiff prior to leaving her position a few weeks later, Plaintiff and Smoot did not get along. According to MGH, Plaintiff was very resistant to her training and suggestions, and when he was unable to successfully run the programs he was instructed to learn, he began trying to “fix” and “re-write” them. From Plaintiff’s perspective, Smoot was too busy to train him properly, quickly grew impatient, and became increasingly hostile in her interactions with him.

The next day, July 29, Plaintiff and Ms. Smoot got into a heated argument. Plaintiff yelled at Smoot and lost his temper. A staff member notified Nancy Ringwood, the ARDS Project Manager. Ms. Ringwood intervened and separated the two. She then met with Plaintiff, who continued to be angry and hostile. He said to Ringwood: “I don’t even know who you are; you just walked in here.” Ringwood reminded him that they had met at a staff meeting the previous day. Plaintiff described Smoot’s training as “terrible” and complained that he was not receiving an adequate orientation. Ringwood also met with Ms. Smoot, who was visibly upset. Smoot reported that Plaintiff was refusing to do anything she had requested and was being openly hostile.

Ringwood telephoned Dr. Schoenfeld, who was on vacation, to advise him of the situation. Dr. Schoenfeld suggested that another employee, Dr. Eric Macklin, assist in Plaintiff’s training. Ringwood also spoke with Human Resources and Carolyn Hintlian, Senior Administrative Manager of the Biostatics Center, to discuss the situation. On July 30, Hintlian and Human Resources Manager Patricia Sheehan discussed the situation and decided that they and Dr. Macklin would meet with Plaintiff to address his behavior.

Hintlian and Macklin met with Plaintiff on the morning of July 30 for approximately two hours. During this meeting, Plaintiff voiced his frustration with the training he was receiving. At the conclusion of the meeting, Plaintiff handed Hintlian and Macklin a letter disclosing that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, which is an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The purpose of the letter was to “explain the differences and challenges [faced by Plaintiff] along with the accommodations that may be necessary due to [his] condition.” The letter explained that Plaintiff had difficulty reading nonverbal signs and “conceptualizing, understanding, or predicting emotional states in other people, ” and that he had “a need for rigid structure and routine and can be upset by change.” In the letter, Plaintiff offered several “suggestions to promote a more positive work environment.” Plaintiff implored his colleagues to: “[u]nderstand that I am listening even though I might not be looking at you”; “provide specific, detailed instructions of my work assignments”; and “[p]lease be patient with me when assigning a task as I may need to ask many questions before it is clear to me and I can fully understand.” The letter also explained that Plaintiff “may respond to stress by sitting alone for a while.” Plaintiff testified at his deposition that the letter was a form letter he found on the internet and copied verbatim, but nothing on the face of the letter indicates it was anything other than a communication of his own.

Prior to July 30, Plaintiff had not disclosed his Asperger’s Syndrome, except to the Employee Assistance Program, which is “walled off” within MGH and cannot reveal employee disclosures without permission. Under the “Special Accommodations” section of a pre-placement screening form that Plaintiff submitted to Occupational Health prior to beginning his employment, Plaintiff answered “No” to the question: “Do you have any health condition(s) that may interfere with your ability to perform your basic job duties in a healthy and safe manner?” Plaintiff also left blank a space for “additional comments.”

Ms. Sheehan of Human Resources met with Plaintiff on the afternoon of July 30. At the time of their meeting, she had not spoken with Hintlian or Macklin, and was thus unaware of Plaintiff’s Asperger’s Syndrome. During the meeting, Plaintiff was hostile, argumentative and angry. He characterized his co-workers as “dumb asses, ”[1] and was extremely upset that his supervisor, Dr. Schoenfeld, was not present for the start of his employment. Plaintiff told Sheehan that he “hated it here.” Sheehan advised Plaintiff that MGH had wanted to terminate him due to his behavior over the previous few days and that if he wished to continue his employment, he would need to start behaving appropriately. Plaintiff responded by saying he hated Sheehan and hated his job. Plaintiff then handed Sheehan a copy of the letter detailing his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Sheehan asked Plaintiff why he had not disclosed his diagnosis earlier, and he responded that ...


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