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Foster v. Jennie Stuart Medical Center, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

September 20, 2013

STEPHANIE FOSTER APPELLANT
v.
JENNIE STUART MEDICAL CENTER, INC; DEBBIE BAUER; AUSTIN MOSS; AND TERRY PEEPLES APPELLEES AND LISA OLIVER APPELLANT
v.
JENNIE STUART MEDICAL CENTER, INC; DEBBIE BAUER; AUSTIN MOSS; AND TERRY PEEPLES APPELLEES

APPEAL FROM CHRISTIAN CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE JOHN L. ATKINS, JUDGE ACTION Nos. 10-CI-01429, 10-CI-01430

BRIEFS FOR APPELLANTS: Kenneth W. Humphries Hopkinsville, Kentucky

BRIEFS FOR APPELLEES: C. Thomas Miller Paducah, Kentucky

BEFORE: CLAYTON, STUMBO AND THOMPSON, JUDGES.

OPINION

CLAYTON, JUDGE:

This appeal stems from summary judgment orders entered against Stephanie Foster and Lisa Oliver. Both filed suits against Jennie Stuart Medical Center (hereinafter "JSMC"), Debbie Bauer, [1] Austin Moss, [2] and Terry Peeples[3] (hereinafter collectively "the individual appellees") after their employment was terminated. Foster appeals from summary judgment orders, which dismissed her claims for defamation and the denial of termination appeal rights, as well as the dismissal of all claims against the individual appellees. Oliver appeals from summary judgment orders dismissing her claims for wrongful termination, defamation, and the denial of termination appeal rights, as well as the dismissal of all claims against the individual appellees. We find some of these issues were not ripe for summary judgment; therefore, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

Foster and Oliver were registered nurses at JSMC. On February 20, 2010, an anonymous e-mail was sent to the Kentucky Board of Nursing. The e- mail reported suspected nursing practices that were outside the scope of acceptable standards and created an unsafe environment at the hospital. It also noted that unsafe practices had been reported to senior staff at JSMC but nothing had been done to resolve the issues. Finally, the e-mail stated that there had been manager retaliation against members of the JSMC staff, which created a hostile work environment, and that this harassing behavior had been reported to the JSMC administration but nothing had been done to resolve the situation.

On February 22, 2010, the e-mail was forwarded to JSMC for it to investigate the matters. An investigation began on that day. The investigation was conducted by Debbie Bauer and Austin Moss. Multiple members of the JSMC staff were interviewed. According to Foster's and Oliver's allegations, the investigation was not initiated to rectify the complaints listed in the e-mail but to find the sender or senders of the e-mail.

On February 26, 2010, Foster and Oliver were called into Moss's office, advised they were being terminated immediately, and were to be escorted from the hospital premises. When Foster asked why they were being terminated, she was told that "it was in the best interests of the institution" or words of similar import.

Foster and Oliver believed they had been fired because of the e-mail. They both filed civil complaints against the appellees for unlawful retaliation in violation of Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 216B.165(3), [4] common-law wrongful termination, JSMC's refusal to comply with employee appeal rights, defamation, punitive damages, and special damages. The cases were eventually consolidated. It was not until after the lawsuits had been filed that it was disclosed that Foster had actually sent the e-mail.

Following limited discovery, JSMC filed motions for summary judgment. JSMC moved to have Bauer, Moss, and Peeples dismissed as defendants, moved to dismiss Foster's claims for denial of appeal rights and defamation, and to dismiss all of Oliver's claims. On March 31, 2011, the trial court entered orders granting all of JSMC's motions for summary judgment. The only claims left were Foster's claims for whistleblower retaliation and common-law wrongful termination. The trial court subsequently denied Foster's and Oliver's motions to alter or amend. These appeals followed.

There are five issues before us in this consolidated appeal. Three of them concern both Foster and Oliver. The other two are only relevant to Oliver. We will first discuss those unique to Oliver.

The standard of review on appeal of a summary judgment is whether the trial court correctly found that there were no genuine issues as to any material fact and that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure (CR) 56.03 . . . . "The record must be viewed in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment and all doubts are to be resolved in his favor." Steelvest, Inc. v. Scansteel Service Center, Inc., Ky., 807 S.W.2d 476, 480 (1991). Summary "judgment is only proper where the movant shows that the adverse party could not prevail under any circumstances." Steelvest, 807 S.W.2d at 480, citing Paintsville Hospital Co. v. Rose, Ky., 683 S.W.2d 255 (1985). Consequently, summary judgment must be granted "[o]nly when it appears impossible for the nonmoving party to produce evidence at trial warranting a judgment in his favor[.]" Huddleston v. Hughes, Ky.App., 843 S.W.2d 901, 903 (1992).

Scifres v. Kraft, 916 S.W.2d 779, 781 (Ky. App. 1996). "Because summary judgment involves only legal questions and the existence of any disputed material issues of fact, an appellate court need not defer to the trial court's decision and will review the issue de novo." Lewis ...


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