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Bellows v. Huntsville Hospital

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

July 9, 2018




         Janet Bellows brings this discrimination action pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 81 Stat. 602, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq., and the Alabama Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1997 (AADEA), Ala. Code § 25-1-20, et seq., against her former employer, Huntsville Hospital (the Hospital). The Hospital has now moved for summary judgment primarily arguing that it never took an adverse employment action against Bellows, and that, in any event, Bellows has failed to show that it discriminated against her based on her age. See Doc. 31. The Hospital's motion is now fully briefed, docs. 32; 38; 41, and ripe for review. After careful consideration of the parties' briefs, the record, and the applicable law, the court finds that the motion is due to be granted.


         Summary judgment is proper “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (11th Cir. 1986). Thus, “a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue.” Id. at 256. However, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.” Id. at 255. Indeed, it is explicitly not the role of the court “to weigh conflicting evidence or to make credibility determinations.” Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (explaining “[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge”).

         “[M]ere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Nor will “a . . . ‘scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party . . . suffice.'” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1219 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). In short, if “the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial, '” and summary judgment is appropriate. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted).

         II. FACTS

         Janet Bellows, then 55 years old, was originally hired by the Hospital in 2004 to work as a nurse in the Neuro Progressive Care Unit. Doc. 33-1 at 10-11. Over a decade later, on January 7, 2015, Bellows was still at the Hospital working as a part time nurse in the Neuro Spine Neuro Surgery Department. Docs 33-1 at 13, 25-26; 33-13 at 2; 39-1 at 2. That day, one of Bellows' patients asked for a discharge, informing Bellows that she had already received clearance to leave the Hospital. Doc. 33-1 at 32. Bellows checked the patient's progress notes which indicated, among other things, “[h]ome possibly A.M. tomorrow v/s later today.” Id. at 33; Doc. 33-22 at 4. Bellows interpreted this note to mean that the patient was eligible for a discharge that afternoon. Doc. 33-1 at 32-33, 41-43.[1] As a result, at 1:20 p.m., Bellows discharged the patient, writing in the notes that she had done so pursuant to a telephone order from the treating physician. Docs 33-22 at 3; 33-1 at 32-34.

         Bellows admits that she never spoke to a doctor before discharging this patient, and that she lacked the authority to discharge patients on her own. Doc. 33-1 at 34, 43-44. The next day, the patient Bellows discharged was readmitted to the hospital after developing a fever. Id. at 34; Doc. 39-1 at 2. After looking into the matter, the treating physician, who was upset that Bellows failed to obtain his approval prior to discharging the patient, raised the issue with Bellows' direct supervisor Mark Walden. Docs. 39-1 at 2; 33-23 at 5-7, 9, 13. Walden, along with two other supervisory employees, met with Bellows and informed her that she could either resign or face termination as a result of her infraction. Docs. 33-1 at 34; 33-24 at 2-3. Bellows disagreed with the proposed discipline, and Walden completed a termination form on her behalf. Doc. 39-1 at 2; 33-1 at 34-36.

         Bellows subsequently met with the Hospital's Vice-President of Surgical Services, Thomas Fender, to object to her discharge. Docs. 33-1 at 37; 33-24 at 3. Fender instructed an Employee Relations Specialist, Cynthia Traylor, to review Bellows' discipline, and, in the interim, Traylor placed Bellows on paid administrative leave. Docs. 33-24 at 3; 33-26 at 2. Roughly a week after Bellows' meeting with Walden, Fender rescinded the termination decision and offered Bellows the option of either accepting a final warning and a lateral transfer to a different unit, or resigning with 30 days of paid administrative leave. Docs. 33-24 at 4; 33-25 at 2. Bellows subsequently left voicemails for both Traylor and Fender declining to resign and instructing the Hospital to contact her attorneys with additional questions. Doc. 33-24 at 4-5. Based on Bellows' statement that she would not resign, the Hospital assumed that Bellows had accepted the transfer and sent her a letter indicating her start date and confirming other relevant details of the new position. Doc. 33-25 at 2-3. Bellows never reported to work as scheduled, or contacted the Hospital again. Docs. 33-24 at 6; 33-1 at 38-39.

         III. ANALYSIS[2]

         “The ADEA prohibits employers from firing employees who are forty years or older because of their age.” Liebman v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 808 F.3d 1294, 1298 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1)). “[A] plaintiff bringing a disparate-treatment claim pursuant to the ADEA must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that age was the ‘but-for' cause of the challenged adverse employment action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 180 (2009). The requisite showing of ‘but-for' causation “can be made through either direct or circumstantial evidence.” Liebman, 808 F.3d at 1298. When only circumstantial evidence of discrimination is presented, as here, the court applies the familiar burden-shifting framework first articulated by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). See Kragor v. Takeda Pharm. Am., Inc., 702 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2012).

         “Under McDonnell Douglas, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination, which ‘in effect creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee.'” Id. (quoting Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254 (1981). To establish a prima facie case of age discrimination, a plaintiff must show: “(1) that she was a member of the protected group of persons [under the ADEA] . . .; (2) that she was subject to adverse employment action; (3) that a substantially younger person filled the position that she sought or from which she was discharged; and (4) that she was qualified to do the job for which she was rejected.” Damon v. Fleming Supermarkets of Fla., Inc., 196 F.3d 1354, 1359 (11th Cir. 1999). As relevant here, the third element may also be satisfied by showing that the employer “treated employees who were not members of [the] protected class more favorably under similar circumstances.” Washington v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 567 Fed.Appx. 749, 751 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Morris v. Emory Clinic, Inc., 402 F.3d 1076, 1083 (11th Cir. 2005)).

         “Once an employee has established a prima facie case, ‘the burden shifts to the employer to rebut the presumption of discrimination with evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.'” Liebman, 808 F.3d at 1298 (quoting Kragor, 702 F.3d at 1308). Importantly, the “defendant need not persuade the court that it was actually motivated by the proffered reasons. It is sufficient if the defendant's evidence raises a genuine issue of fact as to whether it discriminated against the plaintiff.” Combs v. Plantation Patterns, 106 F.3d 1519, 1528 (11th Cir. 1997) (quotation omitted). If the employer succeeds in providing a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action, “the burden shifts back to the employee to show that the employer's reason is a pretext.” Liebman, 808 F.3d at 1298. The plaintiff can make this showing “either directly by persuading the court that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that the employer's proffered explanation is unworthy of credence.” Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256. Thus, the plaintiff must “come forward with evidence, including the previously produced evidence establishing the prima facie case, sufficient to permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the reasons given by the employer were not the real reasons for the adverse employment decision.” Combs, 106 F.3d at 1528.

         Here, the Hospital challenges only the adverse action and discriminatory treatment prongs of Bellows' prima facie case. Additionally, the Hospital contends that even if Bellows is able to establish a prima facie case, she cannot show that the Hospital's neutral explanation for its actions was pretextual. In response, Bellows claims that she was unquestionably subject to an adverse action, termination, and that the Hospital treated similarly situated younger nurses who engaged in the same purported misconduct more favorably.[3] Bellows further argues that the ...

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