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Ellison v. St. Joseph's/Candler Health System, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

January 30, 2018

NAOMI ELLISON, Plaintiff,
v.
ST. JOSEPH'S/CANDLER HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          WILLIAM T. MOORE, JR., UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 30), to which Plaintiff has responded. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is GRANTED. Accordingly, Plaintiff's complaint is DISMISSED. The Clerk is DIRECTED to close this case.

         BACKGROUND

         From August 2013 to October 2014, Plaintiff Naomi Ellison was a Patient Care Technician ("PCT") employed by Defendant St. Joseph's/Candler Health System, Inc. ("St. Joseph's").[1] (Doc. 32, Attach. 3 at 48.) As a PCT, Plaintiff worked as a non-licensed member of a nursing team and provided patients with routine bedside care. (Id. at 107-08.) Her tasks included bathing, feeding, changing, and shaving patients. (Id. at 107-09.) In total, Plaintiff had nearly thirty years of experience as a PCT. (Id. at 105-06.)

         As a member of a nursing team, Plaintiff was supervised by the Clinical Nurse Manager, Heather Heldreth, and Heldreth's direct supervisor, the Director of Clinical Care, D.A. Dewey Winkler. (Id. at 105; Doc. 32, Attach. 6 at 8.) In addition, Plaintiff was supervised each shift by the designated charge nurse on duty. (Doc. 32, Attach. 3 at 125.) Rebecca Floyd was the charge nurse supervising Plaintiff at the time most relevant to this case. (Id. at 105.)

         On October 11, 2014, Plaintiff was working a night shift at Defendant St. Joseph's when she was involved in an altercation with Mary Gillingham, a nurse also working on Plaintiff's nursing team. (Id. at 133.) Plaintiff contends that Ms. Gillingham requested Plaintiff's help with a patient, but when Plaintiff arrived to help, Ms. Gillingham informed Plaintiff that her help was no longer necessary. (Id. at 133-34.) Plaintiff reports that as she was leaving the room, Ms. Gillingham said "I don't like working with n[******]." (Id. at 134.) According to Plaintiff, Ms. Gillingham made the statement twice. (Id. at 145.) Ms. Gillingham, however, denies ever making the statement. (Doc. 32, Attach. 8 at 78.)

         Plaintiff alleges that she immediately reported the statement to Ms. Floyd and requested to leave for the rest of the shift. (Doc. 32, Attach. 3 at 134.) Ms. Floyd granted Plaintiff permission to leave. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that shortly after she left the hospital she spoke with the House Supervisor Leslie Jones-Bennett and reported Ms. Gillingham's use of a racial slur. (Id. at 152.) At some point during the conversation, Ms. Jones-Bennett informed Plaintiff not to return to work until further instructed. (Doc. 32, Attach. 5 at 59.) Plaintiff contends that she specifically reported Ms. Gillingham's use of a racial slur to both Ms. Floyd and Ms. Jones-Bennett. (Doc. 32, Attach. 3 at 134, 152.) However, both Ms. Floyd and Ms. Jones-Bennett deny that Plaintiff reported the racial slur when complaining to them about the altercation. (Doc. 32, Attach. 4 at 100; Doc. 32, Attach. 5 at 46.)

         On October 13, 2014, Plaintiff returned to work and met with Mr. Winkler to discuss the altercation with Ms. Gillingham. (Doc 32, Attach. 3 at 161-62.) Plaintiff contends that she immediately reported Ms. Gillingham's statement to Mr. Winkler. (Id. at 162.) Mr. Winkler, however, denies that Plaintiff made a specific report that Ms. Gillingham used a racial slur. (Doc. 32, Attach. 9 at 42.)

         After meeting with Plaintiff, Mr. Winkler directed Ms. Heldreth to conduct an investigation into what happened between Plaintiff and Ms. Gillingham. (Doc. 32, Attach. 6 at 46.) Per Mr. Winkler's instruction, Ms. Heldreth requested and received an account of the altercation from Ms. Gillingham. (Id. at 50.) Ms. Heldreth did not speak with Plaintiff about what occurred. (Id. at 77.) Ms. Heldreth also spoke with a number of employees that worked the evening of the altercation. (Id. at 52.) While many of the employees did not provide written statements, Ms. Heldreth did receive emails from Ms. Floyd and another nurse, Jada McNeely. (Id.) Ms. McNeely did not work the evening of the altercation, but provided an email that contained a list of various complaints about Plaintiff's work performance and attitude. (Doc. 32, Attach. 16.) Similarly, Ms. Floyd's email also included complaints about Plaintiff's work performance from patients and co-workers. (Doc. 32, Attach. 17.) At no point in the investigation was the Human Resources Department contacted and the use of the racial slur reported. (Doc. 32, Attach. 6 at 51.)

         On October 29, 2014, Mr. Winkler and Ms. Heldreth met with Plaintiff. (Doc. 32, Attach. 6 at 77.) While the parties disagree as to the initial purpose behind the meeting, Plaintiff's employment was terminated at the meeting. (Doc. 32, Attach. 9 at 40.) At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. Winkler provided Plaintiff with contact information for a position with an in-home care agency. (Id. at 77.)

         Defendant contends that Plaintiff's termination was ultimately based on the patient and co-worker complaints that were detailed in the emails received by Ms. Heldreth during her investigation. (Doc. 32 Attach. 6 at 56.) According to Ms. Heldreth, the co-worker complaints made against Plaintiff detailed violations of Defendant's employee Co-worker Compact, an agreement signed by Defendant's employees that detailed appropriate workplace behavior. (Id. at 59.) Ms. Heldreth cited that Plaintiff violated numerous provisions of the Co-worker Compact including "look beyond your assigned task, " "stay focused, " and "conduct yourself as a professional." (Id. at 60.)

         Although Defendant contends that the decision to terminate Plaintiff's employment was based on the patient and co-worker complaints made during its investigation of the altercation between Plaintiff and Ms. Gillingham, it is undisputed that Plaintiff had never previously received any complaints or written disciplinary actions. (Doc. 32, Attach. 11 at 4.) In fact, in her most recent employment evaluation, Plaintiff was given a "satisfactory" rating for her customer service. (Doc. 32, Attach. 9 at 87.) Ms. Heldreth contends that the complaints only came to light after she began asking the staff about the altercation. (Doc. 32, Attach. 5 at 63.)

         Plaintiff contends that prior to the altercation she had previously reported that Ms. Gillingham was prejudiced against African-American employees. (Doc. 32, Attach. 1 at 6-7.) Ms. Floyd recalled Plaintiff making vague reports that Ms. Gillingham was prejudiced, but never reported the complaints to any higher supervisor. (Doc. 32, Attach. 4 at 77.) Additionally, Plaintiff contends that Ms. Gillingham was previously involved in a similar altercation with another employee, Jeanette McKinnon. (Doc. 32, Attach. 10 at 2-5.) Ms. McKinnon was a PCT working at Defendant St. Joseph's when she was also fired after an altercation with Ms. Gillingham. (Id. at 4.) Ms. McKinnon alleges that Ms. Gillingham called her a "n[*****]" after she became frustrated with Ms. McKinnon. (Id. at 2.) Ms. McKinnon also claims that she immediately reported the racial slur to her supervisors. (Id. at 3.) Although Ms. McKinnon had different supervisors than Plaintiff, Mr. Winkler ultimately signed off on Ms. McKinnon's termination papers a few days after the incident. (Doc. 32, Attach. 30.) Defendant's proffered reason for Ms. McKinnon's termination was "violent behavior toward a coworker." (Doc. 32, Attach. 10.)

         On December 14, 2016, Plaintiff brought suit in the Superior Court of Chatham County and alleged that she was fired in retaliation for reporting racial discrimination. (Doc. 1, Ex. A.) On January 17, 2017, Defendant properly removed this case to this Court (Doc. 1) and is now seeking summary judgment (Doc. 30) . Defendant contends that summary judgment is appropriate because Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation or, alternatively, Plaintiff has failed to rebut Defendant's proffered reasons for her termination.

         ANALYSIS

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         According to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), "[a] party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim of defense-on which summary judgment is sought." Such a motion must be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. The "purpose of summary judgment is to 'pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.'" Matsushita ...


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