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Lovelace v. Washington University School of Medicine

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 25, 2019

Sandra Lovelace; Stephen Lovelace Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
Washington University School of Medicine; Barnes-Jewish Hospital Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: April 16, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, ARNOLD and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          SMITH, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Sandra Lovelace sued her employers, Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM) and Barnes Jewish Hospital (BJH), claiming they unlawfully terminated her in retaliation for exercising her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA). Lovelace's husband, Stephen, also sued for loss of consortium. The district court[1] granted summary judgment in favor of WUSM and BJH. We affirm.[2]

         I. Background

         WUSM employed Lovelace as a Medical Assistant (MA) from November 2003 to August 5, 2015. MAs assist doctors' clinical teams by performing non-medical tasks such as scheduling, answering phones, and placing orders. Lovelace worked for one doctor's team from November 2003 to 2007 and for a different doctor's team from 2007 to December 2014. Clinical Nurse Manager Paula Goldberg, a BJH employee, began supervising Lovelace in 2007, and MA Supervisor Dee Brinkley, a WUSM employee, also began supervising her in September 2014. In 2009, Lovelace applied for and received FMLA leave without incident. Both Goldberg and Brinkley supervised Lovelace when the instant dispute arose.

         Beginning in December 2014, Lovelace stopped working for a single doctor's team and started "floating" among different teams. Lovelace began to experience problems at work shortly after the switch from a single, permanent team placement to several, temporary placements. On December 10, Lovelace was assigned to work with Dr. Douglas Adkins's team. That same day, Lovelace left early due to back pain. A few days later, after Lovelace had not returned to work, Goldberg e-mailed Lovelace advising her of the potential need to complete FMLA paperwork. Lovelace subsequently applied for and was granted FMLA leave.

         Initially, Lovelace planned to return from leave on February 9, 2015. That very morning, however, Lovelace e-mailed Goldberg that she would not be returning that day. Goldberg forwarded Lovelace's e-mail to Brinkley. The two supervisors expressed frustration at the timing of Lovelace's notice. In one e-mail, Goldberg suggested to Brinkley that she could hire someone else if Lovelace did not return in a month.

         Lovelace had back surgery on February 20. Though the surgery was successful, Lovelace required certain minor work accommodations, such as taking breaks to stand, stretch, or walk. Lovelace returned to work on March 4, and Brinkley assigned her back to Dr. Adkins's team. However, Dr. Adkins's team had recently hired an MA named Angela Butcher, and once Butcher was trained, Lovelace began "floating" among teams again.

         From April to July, Lovelace worked with Dr. Manik Amin and nurse Deb Orf. Lovelace apparently worked well with Dr. Amin's team initially, but Orf soon began reporting issues with Lovelace. Orf stated that Lovelace "would refuse to do tasks, sometimes stating that she did not know how to do them." Statement of Material Facts, Decl. of Debbie Orf at 2, Lovelace v. Washington Univ. Sch. of Med., No. 4:15-cv-01694-RWS (E.D. Mo. Apr. 14, 2017), ECF No. 38-10. Orf reported her concerns to Brinkley, explaining "that it was more challenging to get the work done with Ms. Lovelace than without an MA at all," and in July, she also reported her concerns to Goldberg. Id. at 3.

         During Lovelace's annual performance review in April 2015, Goldberg discussed Lovelace's performance following her return from FMLA leave. Goldberg mentioned Lovelace's frequent absences from her work station, but Lovelace reminded Goldberg about her need to stand, stretch, and walk post-surgery. After their meeting, Goldberg invited Lovelace to revise her evaluation to reflect more positively on her performance, and Lovelace did so. Shortly thereafter, Lovelace met with Bob Barczewski, WUSM Director of Business Operations, to complain about Goldberg's treatment of her since her return. She also met with Human Resources Consultant Sandra Sledge.

         In July 2015, Goldberg and Brinkley discussed Lovelace's performance with several of the hospital's doctors and nurses. During one of these discussions, Dr. Brian Van Tine reported that Lovelace, who is white, allegedly commented that a black coworker, Angela Butcher, did not like working with white people ("the Butcher comment"). On July 10, Goldberg e-mailed Sledge summarizing her concerns about Lovelace. Goldberg expressed her opinion that Lovelace was "not prepared for the demands of the [MA] position," as the position's requirements had "evolved" over time. Resp. to Statement of Material Facts, Ex. 7 at 1, Lovelace v. Washington Univ. Sch. of Med., No. 4:15-cv-01694-RWS (E.D. Mo. June 9, 2017), ECF No. 51-8. She explained that Lovelace's lack of readiness "cause[d] her to avoid work, push work off and have others do the work" and suggested that Lovelace would be more effective in "a less stressful, demanding position in another department." Id. Finally, Goldberg noted that she had "enough to fire [Lovelace]," and while she believed she could issue a written warning, she planned on issuing a verbal warning instead. Id. Sledge advised "pointing out to [Lovelace] the needs of the position and where she is and is not meeting" expectations instead of suggesting a different position, and she encouraged Goldberg to continue accommodating Lovelace's "need for rest times (within reason)." Id.

         On July 13, Goldberg, Brinkley, and Lovelace met to discuss Lovelace's performance and conduct, and Goldberg specifically inquired about the Butcher comment. Lovelace denied making the comment and claimed her supervisors were accusing her of racism. At her deposition, Lovelace admitted that no one had called her a racist and that no "negative comments [were] ever made about [her] race or ethnicity in the workplace." Statement of Material Facts, Dep. of Sandra Lovelace at 20, Lovelace v. Washington Univ. Sch. of Med., No. 4:15-cv-01694-RWS (E.D. Mo. Apr. 14, 2017), ECF No. 38-1. When asked how she had been a victim of racial discrimination, she explained that she "was labeled a racist." Id. at 14.

         Following the July 13 meeting, Lovelace met with Sledge to complain about her supervisors allegedly labeling her a racist. She also claimed her supervisors were retaliating against her for taking FMLA leave. Sledge began investigating Lovelace's claims, but Lovelace, dissatisfied with Sledge's review process, presented her complaints directly to Human Resources Manager Leanne Stewart on July 21 and 24. Stewart ultimately concluded there had been no retaliation.

         Brinkley and Sledge scheduled a follow-up meeting with Lovelace for July 31 to again discuss her performance. Goldberg was not present. Brinkley presented Lovelace with a checklist of her duties to guide the discussion and reiterated the complaints they had received from different teams. The criticism upset Lovelace, and she was unable to discuss the matters with Brinkley or Sledge. She was particularly upset by Brinkley's attempt to discuss ...


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