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Hester v. University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital

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

November 30, 2018

CHRISTOPHER HESTER, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA BIRMINGHAM HOSPITAL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          John E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Christopher Hester filed a complaint in this court[1] alleging he was terminated because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Doc. 1).[2] The court has before it the June 29, 2018 motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant The University of Alabama Board of Trustees (“UAB”).[3] (Doc. 26). The motion has been fully briefed (docs. 27, 33, 38), and is now ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is due to be granted.

         I.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS [4]

         Plaintiff Christopher Hester, an African-American, began his employment with UAB on March 3, 2011, as a patient observer. (Doc. 28-1 (“Hester Dep.”) at 31). In December of 2013, Hester applied for a Patient Care Technician (“PCT”) position and was accepted. (Id. at 36). He was transferred to the Jefferson Tower North 5 (JTN5) unit of the Center for Psychiatric Medicine (CPM) on March 22, 2015. (Id. at 38.) The JTN5 unit serves as an inpatient unit for psychiatric patients committed by a probate court. (Doc. 28-3 (“Hand Dep.”) at 7). Employees working in the unit provide long-term care to patients suffering from psychiatric disorders making them a danger to either themselves or the public. (Id. at 53-54).

         PCTs are trained in venipuncture, vital signs monitoring, and blood sugar monitoring. (Id. at 12). As a PCT, Hester reported to the Assistant Nurse Manager in CPM on the JTN5 Unit, Daniel Nash. (Doc. 28-9 (“Nash Dep.”) at 8, 13). Nash reported directly to the Nurse Manager in CPM on the JTN5 Unit, Wren Hand. (Id. at 11; Hand Dep. at 9). Hand reported directly to the Administrative Director of Nursing over the CPM, Steve Nasiatka. (Doc. 28-5 (“Nasiatka Dep.”) at 12, 29; Hand Dep. at 11). The Administrative Director of Nursing is the highest ranking employee at the CPM facility.

         All employees working at UAB must follow certain guidelines and procedures found in the UAB Code of Conduct and UAB Employee Behavior Policy. (Doc. 28-7 (“Mayer Dep.”) at 14). In addition, all CPM employees must complete and operate using the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) training. (Id.). The CPI training program focuses on “safe management of disruptive and assaultive behavior.” (Doc. 28-2 at 105). UAB uses the CPI training to maintain safety for patients and employees that operate within CPM. (Hand Dep. at 18-19). The CPI training teaches employees the escalation model of patient behavior which includes identifying early warning of behavior escalation and how to protect themselves and other patients from a patient whose combative behavior has escalated. (Nash Dep. at 19-20). CPM employees initially receive 8 hours of CPI training in the same month they are hired and then receive 4 hours of recertification training in addition to CPI drills. (Hand Dep at 20-23). After an employee has successfully completed CPI training, the employee is issued a CPI Blue Card to signify completion of the training. (Doc. 28-2). Dealing with particularly difficult patients does not alleviate the burden on UAB employees from adhering to the CPI training and following other UAB policies and procedures. (Hand Dep. at 31). Hester received CPI training and his CPI Blue Card in December of 2011, and attended a refresher course on March 26, 2015. (Hester Dep. at 35, 38-39).

         UAB utilizes a progressive discipline policy for a large number of deficiencies and offenses. (Doc. 28-8 at 2). In other words, in the absence of an act warranting immediate termination, discipline normally begins at a lower level and increases with each additional disciplinary action. (Id.). However, the Employee Behavior policy enumerates a number of offenses that can lead to immediate termination without notice. (Id.). These offenses include “incompetence in patient care” and “dishonesty.” (Id.). Further, the UAB Code of Conduct proscribes the “fabricat[ion] of information” and “misrepresent[ation] of events.” (Id. at 4). In addition, it requires that UAB employees “provide the highest quality of care by reaching for excellence.” (Id.).

         A. October 27, 2015 Incident

         On the morning of October 27, 2015, in exercise of his work responsibilities, Hester woke patient C.L. from his sleep and told him that breakfast was ready. (Hester Dep at 105). Hester then took a seat in a chair placed on the JTN5 floor in the same common area where C.L. awaited breakfast. (Doc. 28-13 (“Incident Video”); Nasiatka Dep. at 23). Before breakfast, C.L. refused to allow his vitals to be taken and refused to ingest his prescribed medication. (Hester Dep. at 56). As a result and in accordance with hospital policy, C.L.'s breakfast was delayed until C.L decided to cooperate. (Id. at 55-56). C.L. became agitated when he had not received his breakfast and began to speak to himself and to the hospital staff using violent and manic language. (Id. at 56-57). He paced the JNT5 floor occasionally speaking with Hester and other members of the staff. (Id. at 122; Incident Video). He demanded that Hester provide breakfast. (Id.). When Hester refused to provide breakfast, C.L. slowly approached Hester while addressing him verbally. (Incident Video). Throughout the entire approach, the C.L.'s hands were at his side. (Id.). As C.L. drew close, Hester quickly rose from his chair with his hands extended in front of his body and wrestled the patient to the ground. (Id.). After a brief period of wrestling on the floor, another hospital employee ended the encounter. (Id.). The entire event lasted only a few seconds. (Id.).

         B. Investigation and Termination

          Shortly after the altercation, the Human Resources Department initiated a review of the incident. (See Doc. 28-23 at 2). As part of that investigation, Hester completed a written statement relating his version of the events. (Doc. 28-2 at 125-26). In the statement, Hester asserted that he was attacked by C.L. (Id. at 125). Specifically, Hester stated:

[C.L.] became combative and started threatening staff. My staff members and I remained calm and stated quiet until [C.L.] could calm down; then [C.L.] turned to me, and asked could he have his tray. I remained calm, and said to him I didn't want to engage in a power struggle, with my head slightly down. I didn't want to make eye contact while [C.L.] was upset, and that's when he attacked me, and hit me with a closed fist while I was sitting down. I stood up as I was getting hit to descalate [sic] the situation I was in, and tried to hold [C.L.'s] left arm so I could inform CPI than [C.L.] and I legs got tangled. We fell to the floor and as we were falling [C.L.] took his arm and put it around my neck . . . .

(Id. at 125-26).

         Hester was terminated on November 10, 2015. (Doc. 28-18 at 3). The stated reasons for his termination include a “violation of You and UAB 7.3.1 ‘Inappropriate behavior toward, or discourteous treatment of, patients, '” as well as not following the core value “Do Right.” (Id.). The counseling record specifically stated Hester “went beyond what is appropriate becoming involved in an altercation with the patient rather than utilizing CPI techniques, ” the “physical altercation . . . was not part of CPI training for safely managing a patient's physical aggression, ” and his action posed a risk to the patient's safety. (Id.). Additionally, the counseling record noted that Hester's written statement did not accurately reflect the incident. (Id.).

         Nasiatka maintained the final responsibility for the termination decision; however, Kelly Mayer and Greg Erwin[5] from Human Resources were in agreement as to the decision to terminate Hester. (Nasiatka Dep. at 16-17, 23; Mayer Dep. at 27-28; Doc. 28-10 (“Erwin Decl.”) ¶ 21). The decision was based on their review of the video footage and their resulting conclusion that Hester had failed to adhere to UAB policies and his CPI training. (Nasiatka Dep. at 17). Specifically, the reviewers found Hester failed to stand up and distance himself from the approaching patient, and he did not take supportive stance, use interim control position, block and move, or run away. (Nasiatka Dep. at 18, 32; Nash Dep. at 28; Doc. 28-23 at 13). Nasiatka believed that Hester's actions placed C.L., and other people in the common area at risk. (Nasiatka Dep. at 34). In addition, Erwin testified the inconsistency between the video evidence and Hester's written statement was another independent ground for termination because dishonesty is prohibited by UAB handbook policies. (Erwin Decl. ¶ 24).

         Neither Nash nor Hand participated in the ultimate termination decision, although they played a role in the investigation. (Nash Dep. at 19-23, 28; Hand Dep. at 88). In fact, Nasiatka testified he overruled Hand's recommendation not to terminate Plaintiff, [6] but instead to issue a written warning and provide additional education. (Nasiatka Dep. at 16; Doc. 28-6 at 2).

         C. EEOC Charge and ...


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