Fired neonatal doctor loses age discrimination appeal against St. Vincent’s

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A veteran neonatal doctor who claimed she was discriminated against when she was terminated from her longtime position did not prove that she was unlawfully terminated and passed over for a new position based on her age, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held Friday, upholding summary judgment for St. Vincent Hospital.

Dr. Anne Marnocha began working at St. Vincent Hospital on 86th Street in Indianapolis in 1987, joining the hospital to develop its neonatal intensive care unit into a Level III facility that could treat critically ill babies and provide assisted ventilation. During her time at St. Vincent’s, the unit advanced to a Level 4 facility, which could treat babies “in need of the highest level of care.”

In April 2003, Marnocha transferred to the St. Vincent campus in Carmel to run its new perinatal service program, which was intended to become a Level 3 facility. She stayed at the Carmel facility until 2018, when she was terminated.

Prior to Marnocha’s termination, Dr. Hossain Marandi became executive director of the pediatric service line for St. Vincent in Indiana. Marandi determined in June 2017 that there were too many neonatologists on staff and ultimately decided to terminate the Carmel neonatologists. His decision was based partly on the belief that the 86th Street facility could cover Carmel’s NICU, but the Carmel facility could not provide the Level 4 NICU care available on 86th Street.

Thus, 62-year-old Marnocha was terminated on Jan. 5, 2018. However, there was one opening for a neonatologist at the 86th Street facility, and the terminated employees were eligible to apply for the opening.

Marnocha did apply, as did three of the other four neonatologists who were terminated, including Dr. Melissa Landis. Ultimately, the interview panel unanimously agreed that the 35-year-old Landis was the best candidate for the job based on her recent research into Level 4 facility protocols, her positive attitude and her aptitude for patient interaction.

“In stark contrast, the interviewers’ consensus on Marnocha was lukewarm, at best,” Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the unanimous 7th Circuit panel. “… Of particular concern to the interview panel, Marnocha said she did not think much had changed in the fifteen years since she had worked in a Level IV NICU. Furthermore, while crediting Marnocha’s technical competence, panelists raised concerns about her on-the-job interpersonal skills and approach to patient care.”

Also, in his personal notes, Dr. Jeffrey Rothenberg — a panel member and chief medical officer of the 86th Street campus — wrote that Marnocha was “at end of career.” Rothenberg later testified that he “want[ed] to build for 20, 30 years in the future … ,” though he did not recall sharing that view with other panel members.

Landis was ultimately selected for the position at 86th Street, and Marnocha sued the hospital, raising termination and failure to hire claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The Indiana Southern District Court granted summary judgment to St. Vincent on those claims, and the 7th Circuit affirmed Friday.

As to her termination claim, Marnocha argued on appeal that the district court erred in finding that she failed to satisfy the “similarly situated” prong of her prima facie case, and in rejecting evidence that the reasons for her termination were pretextual. Flaum noted in the Friday opinion that the proper comparators here were the neonatologists employed at the Carmel facility, not those employed at 86th Street.

“Even accepting Marnocha’s claims that St. Vincent contemplated transferring Landis to 86th Street as true, there is no ambiguity in the events that transpired: Similarly situated employees under the age of forty were not treated more favorably,” Flaum wrote. “Marandi fired all five Carmel neonatologists and gave all five the identical opportunity to apply for the opening on 86th Street. There is no genuine dispute of fact that the comparators here were treated identically, so summary judgment was proper.”

The 7th Circuit panel likewise rejected Marnocha’s argument that the district court “erred in its application of the similarly situated standard for Reduction in Force … cases outlined in Collier v. Budd Co., 66 F.3d 886 (7th Cir. 1995) … .”

Her failure to hire claim also was defeated on appeal, with the panel rejecting her pretextual age discrimination argument.

“Based on the record, Landis outshone Marnocha in her interview, positioning herself as the better candidate for the 86th Street opening,” Flaum wrote. “… Marnocha has not shown that these legitimate, non-age-related reasons for hiring Landis are pretextual.”

Further, as to Rothenberg’s personal note that Marnocha was “at end of career,” the panel concluded, “Nothing in the record evidences that he steered the interview committee away from Marnocha … .”

Finally, in a footnote, the panel rejected Marnocha’s argument that because the district court mistakenly stated that Rothenberg was not on the interview panel, reversal was warranted. “Typographical errors do not mandate reversal when it is apparent that the district court properly understood the facts and considered the arguments,” Flaum wrote.

The case is Anne Marnocha v. St. Vincent Hospital and Health Care Center, Inc. and St. Vincent Carmel Hospital, Inc., 20-1374.

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