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Lovelace v. Washington University School of Medicine

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

November 13, 2017

SANDRA LOVELACE and STEPHEN LOVELACE, Plaintiffs,
v.
WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE and BARNES-JEWISH HOSPITAL, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RODNEY W. SIPPEL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Sandra Lovelace (“Lovelace”) alleges that Defendants Washington University School of Medicine (“University”) and Barnes-Jewish Hospital (“BJH”) (collectively, “Defendants”) impermissibly retaliated against her under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”). Plaintiff Stephen Lovelace (“Mr. Lovelace”) submits an accompanying loss of consortium claim. University and BJH submitted motions for summary judgment. Based upon a review of the record before the court, I will enter summary judgment in Defendants' favor.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Sandra and Stephen Lovelace (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) present several claims against Defendants. Lovelace alleges that University, her formal employer, improperly retaliated against her under FMLA for taking FMLA leave and under MHRA for complaining about being labeled as a racist and complaining about disability accommodations. Lovelace also pursues FMLA and MHRA retaliation claims against BJH based upon a joint employer theory. Lovelace voluntarily dismissed with prejudice her tortious interference with business expectancy and defamation claims against BJH. Mr. Lovelace brings an accompanying claim for loss of consortium.

         The following facts in this matter are undisputed. Lovelace was employed as a Medical Assistant (“MA”) by University in its Division of Medical Oncology from November 2003 until she was terminated on August 5, 2015. Generally, MAs perform hospital support tasks such as scheduling, answering phones, and placing orders. MAs may be assigned to assist a particular doctor's clinical team or “float” among different clinical teams. Lovelace worked for the clinical team of Dr. Nancy Bartlett from November 2003 until 2007 and for the clinical team of Dr. Steven Sorscher from 2007 until December 2014. From December 2014 until her termination, Lovelace did not have a specific permanent team assignment. Clinical nurse manager Paula Goldberg (“Goldberg”), an employee of BJH, supervised Lovelace from 2007 until Lovelace's employment ended. Dee Brinkley (“Brinkley”), an employee of the University, was promoted to MA supervisor in September 2014, and also supervised Lovelace. Lovelace took FMLA leave twice, first in 2009 and most recently in 2014. Although the record includes references to Lovelace's prior performance, this dispute focuses upon a series of events occurring in 2014 and 2015.

         On December 10, 2014, Lovelace was temporarily assigned to work with Dr. Douglas Adkins' team. That day, Lovelace left early because she was experiencing back pain. Lovelace was absent for several days. On December 16, 2014, Goldberg emailed Lovelace to suggest that she might need FMLA paperwork, copying the University payroll department for assistance. On December 31, 2014, Lovelace applied for FMLA leave, which the University granted. Lovelace periodically provided Goldberg with status updates during her leave. Although Lovelace initially planned to return from leave on February 9, 2015, she emailed Goldberg that morning to let her know that she would not in fact be able to return that day. Goldberg, Brinkley, and lead charge nurse Jodi Thole communicated their frustration with this late notice in a series of emails on February 9, 2015. In one of these emails, Goldberg stated, “I am fine with her burning up her time. If she has surgery then in a month I can hire someone else.” Lovelace had back surgery on February 20, 2015.

         Lovelace returned from FMLA leave on March 4, 2015. Lovelace was subject to work restrictions upon her return, including the need to take periodic breaks to stretch, walk, or stand. Lovelace was again temporarily assigned to work for Dr. Adkins' team. Another MA, Angela Butcher (“Butcher”), had been recently hired for Dr. Adkins' team, and once she had been trained, Lovelace began floating among different teams. From April until July 2015, Lovelace worked with Dr. Manik Amin's team, including nurse Deb Orf (“Orf”), several days a week. Over the next few months, Orf identified several performance and behavioral issues, including that Lovelace failed to adequately complete assigned tasks like scheduling, preparing paperwork, and checking phone messages.

         In April 2015, Goldberg met with Lovelace for an annual performance evaluation. Goldberg and Lovelace discussed Lovelace's recent performance and her transition back to work following her FMLA leave. Lovelace was dissatisfied by her scores in the accompanying written evaluation, and later provided Goldberg with a suggested revised version. Goldberg authorized Lovelace's revisions, enabling Lovelace to receive a raise. In May 2015, Lovelace met with Bob Barczewski (“Barczewski”), a University Director of Business Operations, to voice concerns about Goldberg's treatment of her since she returned from leave. Also in May 2015, Lovelace met with human resources consultant Sandra Sledge (“Sledge”) to discuss the possibility of finding a new job in a different division. At various times, Lovelace sought placement as a MA on specific physicians' teams, but she was never permanently reassigned.

         In early July 2015, Goldberg and Brinkley spoke with several nurses and physicians about Lovelace's problematic performance and behavior. Dr. Brian Van Tine allegedly reported that Lovelace, who is Caucasian, previously made a statement to the effect that Butcher, who is African-American, did not like working with white people. On July 10, 2015, Goldberg wrote an email to Sledge, summarizing various performance issues. Goldberg stated that she believed she had “enough” to fire Lovelace, but planned to provide a verbal warning only, and requested guidance. On July 13, 2015, Goldberg met with Lovelace and Brinkley to discuss these issues and provide a verbal warning. At this meeting, Lovelace was upset by the criticism conveyed, complained that she was being labeled a racist, and stated that she “was not letting it go.” The following day, Lovelace met with Sledge to complain of the alleged racist labeling and FMLA retaliation. Sledge undertook an investigation of Lovelace's claims. Lovelace, displeased with Sledge's progress, reiterated her complaints directly to human resources manager Leanne Stewart (“Stewart”) on July 21 and 24, 2015. With respect to the FMLA retaliation claim, Stewart ultimately concluded that there had been no change in Lovelace's terms and conditions of employment following her return from leave.

         On July 31, 2015, Brinkley and Sledge scheduled a follow-up meeting with Lovelace. Goldberg was on vacation on this date. Brinkley provided Lovelace with a checklist of MA duties to facilitate discussion regarding performance issues. The discussion of performance upset Lovelace, so she asked to go home. Sledge answered affirmatively and Lovelace left the room. A few minutes later, Brinkley went to check on Lovelace at her cubicle. In front of several co-workers, Lovelace jumped up and loudly told Brinkley, “don't touch me, ” “get away from me, ” and “you're evil.” Brinkley left to inform Sledge about the disruptive confrontation. Sledge went to Lovelace's cubicle to tell her to go home, and threatened to call Protective Services. Lovelace gathered several items and asked Sledge whether she was being fired. Sledge responded that she was not. That evening, Sledge wrote an email to Barczewski reporting the incident and advising that Lovelace be placed on leave. On August 2, 2015, Barczewski called Lovelace to notify her that she was being placed on administrative leave. On August 3, 2015, Stewart and Lovelace spoke about the incident. On August 4, 2015, Sledge, Stewart, Brinkley, and Goldberg met to discuss how to proceed with respect to Lovelace, and agreed to recommend termination. On August 5, 2015, Barczewski decided to terminate Lovelace. He sent a termination letter informing Lovelace that her behavior in the July 31 incident was “not reflective of behavioral expectations.” He also called Lovelace to notify her of the termination.

         Lovelace brought this suit following her termination, asserting that Defendants impermissibility retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave and in response to her complaints about the racism allegations and post-surgery accommodations. Both University and BJH submitted motions for summary judgment as a matter of law. To the extent that their arguments are substantially similar, I will address the issues together.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Lynn v. Deaconess Medical Center, 160 F.3d 484, 486 (8th Cir. 1998) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis of its motion and identifying those portions of the affidavits, pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file which it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). When such a motion is made and supported by the movant, the nonmoving party may not rest on his pleadings but must produce sufficient evidence to support the existence of the essential elements of his case on which he bears the burden of proof. Id. at 324. In resisting a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff has an affirmative burden to designate specific facts creating a triable controversy. Crossley v. Georgia Pacific Corp., 355 F.3d 1112, 1113 (8th Cir. 2004). The Eighth Circuit refuses to apply a heightened summary judgment standard to employment discrimination cases. See Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1043 (8th Cir. banc. 2011) (holding that there is no “discrimination case exception” to the application of summary judgment, as district courts should not “treat discrimination differently from other ultimate questions of fact.”).

         In the absence of direct evidence of discrimination, courts employ the burden shifting analysis of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green,411 U.S. 792 (1973) (Title VII case).[1] Under the burden-shifting analysis, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of intentional discrimination. McDonnell, 411 U.S. at 802; Bashara v. Black Hills Corp.,26 F.3d 820, 823 (8th Cir. 1994). If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, a presumption of discrimination is established and the burden of production shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. McDonnell, 411 U.S. at 802. The defendant employer need not persuade the court that the articulated reason was the basis of its action; rather, it must simply provide some evidence of a non-discriminatory reason or reasons for its action. St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks,509 U.S. 502, 509 (1993). Upon the proffer of such evidence, the presumption of discrimination established by the prima facie case “simply drops out of the picture.” Id. at 510-11. The burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to prove that the employer's explanation was really a pretext for discrimination. Wierman, 638 F.3d at 993. A rejection of the employer's proffered non-discriminatory reason by itself or combined with elements of the prima facie case may be enough to establish, but does not compel, an inference of intentional ...


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