U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA -- A former employee of a Chester County hospital system alleging illegal discrimination and wrongful termination under a variety of federal and state laws has had her claims dismissed in federal court.

On Tuesday, Judge Michael M. Baylson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted a dismissal motion from defendants New Lifecare Management and New Lifecare Hospitals of Chester County, applied towards the charges brought by Elizabeth Hammett.

Baylson ruled the “extraordinary” amount of time that elapsed between Hammett’s termination, the filing of her complaint and service of process led to the dismissal of Hammett’s claims.

Hammett was terminated by the defendants on Sept. 20, 2013 and received a right-to-sue notice from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about two months later -- but Hammett’s complaint was not officially filed until more than one year later, on Dec. 1, 2014, and official service was not processed until Jan. 18 of this year.

Therefore, the defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss, for lack of jurisdiction. Though Hammett admitted the court would be within its discretion to dismiss her complaint, she credited the failure to effectuate timely service to her counsel and “not for good cause,” and argued the court should permit additional time for service due to the circumstances of the case.

Baylson did not agree.

“Although counsel takes responsibility for the delay, a client cannot be blameless when a docket is silent for over a year. The named parties must exercise at least minimal diligence to ensure that their case is moving forward,” the judge wrote.

Hammett brought discrimination and wrongful termination claims against the defendants under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and state tort wrongful discharge.

The defendants allege Hammett’s claims should be dismissed because of prejudice, due to six employees relevant to their defense leaving their employment in 2013 and 2014; unreliable memories from the individuals pertinent to the case, since more than two years have passed since Hammett’s last day of work; Hammett failed to have the summons re-issued during the 10 months that followed the expiration of the initial 90-day time period for service in March 2015; and Hammett offered no reason or explanation for the significant time delay.

Though Hammett does not claim good cause for the litigation-related delays, she argued some of her claims will be time-barred if the case is dismissed, which courts weigh in favor of plaintiffs; that the defendants received actual notice of the suit in December 2014 when Hammett sent the request for waiver of service with the complaint attached; that the defendants also received information about the nature of the case during the EEOC process; and finally, that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit favors decisions on the merits.

“If the court grants defendants’ motion, both parties agree that at least three of plaintiff’s five claims will be time-barred (ADA, ADEA, and state wrongful discharge),” Baylson wrote.

Such a decision would leave only the PHRA and FMLA claims remaining.

“The fate of the remaining two claims is disputed by the parties. Plaintiff argues that her FMLA claim would survive even if the Court grants defendants’ motion because the complaint alleges willful conduct, which has a three-year statute of limitations. Defendants do not confront this argument in their reply brief, but in the opening brief they argue that the two-year statute of limitations applies to the FMLA claim,” the judge wrote.

He continued, “Plaintiff has one final claim, under the PHRA. Defendants argue that plaintiff failed to satisfy the administrative prerequisites for this claim; plaintiff disagrees.”

However, the facts that the delay in this case amounted to more than one year and six employees of the defendants’ with knowledge relevant to this case left their employ since Hammett’s termination, convinced Baylson to dismiss Hammett’s claims.

“Although the fact that some of plaintiff’s claims will be barred weighs in plaintiff’s favor, it does not compel the Court to deny the motion to dismiss,” Baylson said. “Given that plaintiff has offered no reason for failing to timely serve defendants and the substantial length of time that plaintiff delayed, the Court exercises its discretion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims without prejudice.”

The plaintiff is represented by William T. Wilson of MacElree Harvey in West Chester.

The defendants are represented by Stephanie K. Rawitt and Amy C. Lachowicz of Clark Hill in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-06803

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com.

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