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Craig v. Merrimack Valley Hosp.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 18, 2014


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For Theresa Craig, Denise Rundle, Plaintiffs: Matthew J. Fogelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Fogelman & Fogelman, Newton, MA.

For Merrimack Valley Hospital, Diane Lovallo, Defendants: Jeffrey A. Dretler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Fisher & Phillips LLP, Boston, MA; Katharine A. Crawford, Fisher & Phillips, LLP, Boston, MA.

For Kathleen M MacDowell, Dracut, MA 01826, Defendant: Katharine A. Crawford, Fisher & Phillips, LLP, Boston, MA.

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Plaintiffs Theresa Craig and Denise Rundle filed this action in Massachusetts state court, alleging claims for defamation, intentional interference with contractual relations, and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from the circumstances surrounding the termination of their employment as nurses at Defendant Merrimack Valley Hospital (" MVH" ). The defendants removed the case to this court, and now move to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) on grounds that Plaintiffs' claims are preempted bye the federal Labor Management Relations Act (" LMRA" ), and otherwise fail to state a claim on which relief may be granted. Plaintiffs oppose the motion to dismiss and seek remand to state court. For the reasons explained below, I will deny Defendants' motion to dismiss on preemption grounds except as it pertains to the claim against MVH for defamation by conduct, and will grant Plaintiffs' request to remand the remaining claims to state court.


For purposes of this motion to dismiss, I take as true all well-pleaded facts in the operative pleading (Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint and Jury Demand; Doc. No. 24) and draw all reasonable inferences arising therefrom in Plaintiffs' favor. Phoung Luc v. Wyndham Mgmt. Corp., 496 F.3d 85, 88 (1st Cir. 2007).

A. The Parties

Ms. Craig and Ms. Rundle were both employed as nurses at Merrimack Valley Hospital in Haverhill, Massachusetts; Ms. Craig began working there in December 2005, and Ms. Rundle in April 2003. Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 8-9. Throughout the majority of their tenures, until approximately early 2011, Ms. Craig and Ms. Rundle consistently received " glowing" performance reviews and were considered model employees. Id. at ¶ 10. In 2010, Ms. Rundle received an employee of the month award. Id. Through the years, both nurses were

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steadily praised and given salary increases. Id. at ¶ 11. As of May 2011, Ms. Craig and Ms. Rundle were earning approximately $50 per hour. Id. at ¶ 13.

Typical duties for Ms. Craig and Ms. Rundle included walking rounds, listening to shift reports, conducting patient assessments, administering medication, performing medical treatments, attending rounds with doctors and social workers, taking and transcribing doctors' orders, reviewing laboratory and other diagnostic results, dealing with families, alerting management of staffing concerns, initiating incident reports, and entering computer data. Am. Compl. ¶ 12.

At all times relevant to the present dispute, Defendant Diane Lovallo was the Director of Nursing at MVH. Am. Compl. ¶ 14. Defendant Kathleen MacDowell was Plaintiffs' direct supervisor, having assumed that position when their previous supervisor, Stacy Steeves, terminated her employment with MVH at the end of 2009.[1] Id. at ¶ ¶ 15, 16. Ms. Craig and Ms. Rundle reported directly to Ms. MacDowell (as they had previously to Ms. Steeves), who in turn reported to Ms. Lovallo. Id. at 16.

According to Plaintiffs, Ms. Steeves engaged in conduct that was detrimental to patient care and safety, violated HIPAA regulations, breached patient confidentiality, and falsified payroll information. Am. Compl. ¶ 19. Despite the fact that the Massachusetts Nurses Association (" MNA" ) strongly encourages the use of forms to identify unsafe staffing - in part because they are designed to protect nurses from liability - both Ms. Steeves and Ms. Lovallo discouraged nurses from filing reports detailing concerns over patient safety. Id. at ¶ ¶ 20-21.

In the summer of 2009, Ms. Rundle and another nurse, Amy Rock, reported to Ms. Steeves that they witnessed a Certified Nursing Assistant (" CNA" ) pulling back the thumb of a dementia patient and another CNA yelling at the same patient. Am. Compl. ¶ 17. One of the CNAs involved in the alleged abuse was a friend of Ms. Steeves. Id. Ms. Steeves reported this incident to Ms. Lovallo. Id. In response, Ms. Lovallo disparagingly coined the phrase " the summer girls," to refer to Ms. Craig, Ms. Rundle, Ms. Rock, and to another nurse, Kristine Ferrera, in connection with their involvement in reporting the alleged abuse. Id. at ¶ 18.

Ms. Steeves then undertook a campaign of harassment and threats against Ms. Craig, Ms. Rundle, Ms. Rock and Ms. Ferrara, including posting comments on Facebook. Am. Compl. ¶ 23. Among Ms. Steeves' Facebook posts was a comment stating: " I want to bash [Craig's] teeth down her throat" to which another co-worker responded " Don't worry, I'll blow them all away with an AK-47." Id. at ¶ 23. Ms. Steeves yelled at Ms. Ferrera regarding unsafe staffing forms. Id. at ¶ 24. She told Ms. Ferrara, " If you don't like it, don't let the door hit you in the ass." Id. The plaintiffs felt that Ms. Steeves was able to " paralyze the staff with her fear tactics, which were reinforced and supported by Ms Lovallo." Id.

MVH investigated Ms. Steeves' alleged misconduct on or about December 19, 2009; MVH and Ms. Steeves then ended their employment relationship. Am. Compl. ¶ 25. Ms. Lovallo told Ms. Craig that the allegations regarding the Facebook threats should not be discussed, and if the story surfaced, those responsible would be terminated. Id. at ¶ 26. On or about December 15, 2009, Ms. Lovallo told the nurses' union representative, Jim

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Kane, that Ms. Craig and Ms. Rundle had fabricated the entire Facebook story that led to Ms. Steeve's termination and that Ms. Craig and Ms. Rundle, and not Ms. Steeves, were responsible for the Facebook posts at issue. Id. at ¶ 27. Ms. Craig and another nurse were present when Ms. Lovallo made this allegedly false allegation. Id.

Plaintiffs allege that Ms. Lovallo was determined to exact revenge upon them (and the two other " summer girls," Ms. Rock and Ms. Ferrera) because she blamed them for the termination of her friend, Ms. Steeves. Am. Compl. ¶ 28. Ms. Lovallo told Ms. Rundle that she had " unfinished business" to discuss with her, apparently based on allegations that Ms. Steeves had disseminated about Ms. Rundle. Id. at ¶ 32. On or about December 22, 2012, Ms. Lovallo told Ms. Rundle in an intimidating tone that she was going to " get rid of you 'summer girls' one way or another" and that she was " not finished with you 'summer girls' yet." Id. at ¶ 33. Ms. Rundle reported this threatening incident to Ms. Ferrara. Id. at ¶ 34. Ms. Rundle was upset and crying, and Ms. Ferrara helped calm her down so she could go back to work. Id.

On another occasion, Ms. Rundle contacted Ms. Lovallo and informed her that she was scared to walk to her car at night after her shift because of the threats on Ms. Steeves' Facebook page and other incidents, including one involving a secretary whose home mailbox was " blown up" and another involving a woman who had the air let out of her tires. Am. Compl. ¶ 35. Ms. Lovallo told Ms. Rundle that Ms. Steeves was no longer Ms. Lovallo's responsibility, but that she could ask security to walk her out if she so desired. Id. at ¶ 36. Ms. Rundle did not feel comfortable being walked out by security, since one of the security guards was friendly with Ms. Steeves and played a role in the Facebook threats.

Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Ms. MacDowell became part of the scheme of intimidation when she replaced Ms. Steeves as their direct supervisor. Id. at ¶ 29. Ms. MacDowell frequently encouraged Ms. Craig and Ms. Rundle to sneak out for a cigarette, saying she would " look the other way and never tell," despite the fact that smoking while on duty was grounds for immediate termination. Id.

In early 2011, there were several deaths and patient falls at MVH. Rock and Ferrera submitted unsafe staffing forms in connection with these incidents. Am. Compl. ¶ 37. In March 2011, the union representative made a formal request for additional staff. Id. at ¶ 38. Around the same time, an angry Ms. Lovallo came to a staff meeting, which included Ms. Rundle, and said: " You nurses have the highest number of unsafe staffing forms, and it has to stop!" Id. at ¶ 39. Ms. Lovallo told the nurses that " you are lucky to have jobs," and that the " disrespect" for management had to stop. Id.

B. Events Leading to Plaintiffs' Termination

Defendants never disciplined Plaintiffs in any way or expressed any dissatisfaction with their job performance prior to the point at which Plaintiffs raised concerns about Ms. Steeves. Am. Compl. ¶ 31.

On or about February 2011, MVH introduced a new computer system for nurses to update or enter information into patient medical records. Am. Compl. ¶ 40. Certain keys had different functionality than in the past; for example, the F5 key was used to " recall" information while the F12 key would save new information. Id. The nurses were not trained sufficiently on the new system and were not informed of the

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specific functionality of each key. Id. at ¶ 41. The lack of sufficient training and support left the nurses to learn the system on their own and from each other. Id.

Of particular relevance to this case, MVH did not instruct nurses on the function of the F5 key or that it was the policy of MVH's parent company, Steward Health Care, to refrain from using the F5 key. Am. Compl. ¶ 42. Some of the nurses had used the same system at other hospitals, and accordingly, those nurses were more familiar with the system and the function of the F5 key specifically. Id. at ¶ 43. From their colleagues who had some experience with the system, the plaintiffs learned about the F5 key. Id. at ¶ 44, They were not told and did not know that they had to delete something called the " comment box." Id. Plaintiffs contend that use of the F5 key is highly confusing, as it apparently functions to recall the previous shift nurse's patient notes and documentation similarly to a " copy and paste" function. Id. Plaintiffs used the F5 key, and did so without a full understanding of how the key worked or what impact its usage would have. Id. at ΒΆ 45. They had no intent to do anything wrong or dishonest. ...

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