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Watkins v. Alabama Department of Public Health

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

January 22, 2019

DOREN T. WATKINS, Plaintiff,



         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), this case was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for review and submission of a report with recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law. Doc. 5. On May 9, 2018, Plaintiff Doren T. Watkins filed suit against Defendant Alabama Department of Public Health (“ADPH”). Doc. 1. She asserts a Title VII retaliation claim and a hostile work environment claim. Doc. 25. Pending before the court are two motions to dismiss filed by ADPH. Docs. 20 & 26. In light of Watkins' Amended Complaint (Doc. 25), the court RECOMMENDS that the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 20) directed to the First Amended Complaint be DENIED as moot. For the reasons that follow, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 26) directed to the Second Amended Complaint be GRANTED, and that this action be DISMISSED with prejudice.


         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in this lawsuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and the court finds adequate allegations to support both.


         In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court must “take the factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Pielage v. McConnell, 516 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is “plausible on its face” if “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Factual allegations need not be detailed, but “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, and “unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation[s]” will not suffice. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.


         The facts that follow are those alleged in the complaint. Watkins works as a registered nurse at the Montgomery County Health Department (“MCHD”). Doc. 25 at 2. On April 1, 2004, she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that her Title VII protections had been violated in conjunction with disciplinary incidents occurring in 2003 and 2004. Doc. 25 at 1 & 4. Her charge was unsuccessful. Doc. 25 at 3. Afterwards, Watkins began to receive frivolous reprimands that were recorded in her personnel file. Doc. 25 at 2. She also was subjected to unfair treatment by her superiors at MCDH that her fellow nurses were not forced to endure. Doc. 25 at 2. Eventually, Watkins could no longer withstand the mistreatment, so she filed this lawsuit. Doc. 25 at 2.

         One frivolous reprimand occurred on July 15, 2015, when Watkins was given a warning for failure to comply with workplace rules and for her work performance. Doc. 25 at 5. The incident involved the treatment of a local student who had Tuberculosis and required intravenous (“IV”) treatment. Doc. 25 at 5. The student was not present at MCHD, but maintained a residence on the local university campus. Doc. 25 at 5. Watkins did not believe there were any work rules that would allow for or provide guidance regarding IV treatment. Doc. 25 at 5. Because she was not properly trained, and because she wanted to adhere to MCHD policies and guidelines, Watkins declined to administer the IV drugs outside of the facility as requested by the former State Nursing Director, John Hankins. Doc. 25 at 5. While Watkins recognized the need for treatment, she also thought that the treatment should come from a professional with the requisite knowledge. Doc. 25 at 5. For this decision, she was reprimanded by her supervisor Susan Douglass, by John Hankins, and by the former Nurse Manager, Alice Toles. Doc. 25 at 5.

         The written reprimand reported that Watkins refused to participate in treatment of the student because she did not want to help a nurse's section that did not help hers. Doc. 25 at 5. This was false. Doc. 25 at 5. The reprimand also stated that Watkins failed to follow the “Policy and Procedures for the ADPH Staff Called to Duty in Response to Emergencies and for Receipt of Emergency Training.” Doc. 25 at 6. The Emergency Training Policy lays out procedures that must be followed if a natural disaster, man-made disaster, or an outbreak of an infectious disease occurs in the state. Doc. 25 at 6. After Hankins had instructed Watkins to break protocol, Watkins had called the Alabama State Board of Nursing and inquired as to what justified an “emergency.” Doc. 25 at 6. She was told that for an emergency preparedness situation to exist the patient had to be infectious such that it put the public at risk. Doc. 25 at 6. The student at issue, however, was not infectious. Doc. 25 at 6. Even though Watkins informed Douglass and Toles of this guidance, they insisted on reprimanding her. Doc. 25 at 6.

         Despite contesting its contents, Watkins signed the reprimand because she was informed that she would be subject to further disciplinary action if she refused to sign. Doc. 25 at 5. She then filed a grievance report on August 17, 2015, requesting that she be given adequate training to provide IV treatment. Doc. 25 at 5. She also drafted a memo to Toles, Douglass, and Debra Thrasher, her area administrator, in an attempt to record her response to the disciplinary warning. Doc. 25 at 5. Later that day, Watkins received an email from Toles taking her off the schedule to observe the student patient despite the fact that she had been disciplined earlier for failing to attend the patient observation. Doc. 25 at 5-6. Watkins believes that this response was an admission by her supervisors that she was never obligated to attend the observation, and that once they achieved the goal of adding another reprimand to her file the issue of her attending the observation was moot. Doc. 25 at 5. Ultimately, the student had to receive treatment out of state. Doc. 25 at 6. This incident was included in Watkins' Employee Performance Appraisal on November 19, 2015, and she received a rating of “Unsatisfactory” for compliance with MCHD rules as a result. Doc. 25 at 6.

         Watkins received other frivolous reprimands on July 31, 2017 and August 1, 2017. Doc. 25 at 2. These purported infractions involved an incident that occurred on January 27, 2017. Doc. 25 at 2. Around 5:00 p.m. on January 27, Watkins was informed by another ADPH employee that she had overheard three other employees discussing how they had cheated on a nursing exam. Doc. 25 at 2. On the next day, at 8:00 a.m., Watkins informed her supervisor, Ona Abbot, of the alleged cheating. Doc. 25 at 2. Abbot initially responded that nothing could be done at the time, and informed Watkins that there was no need to come to her office. Doc. 25 at 2. However, an investigation of the cheating ensued, and it was discovered that three individuals-Suzanne Berry, Sabrina Horn, and Emilio Rodriguez-were involved. Doc. 25 at 2.

         Six months after the cheating occurred, Watkins received a written reprimand for the cheating done by the three other employees. Doc. 25 at 2. Connie King, an assistant administrator, implicated Watkins in the cheating plot by falsely alleging that she was aware that the exam questions and answers were being passed around. Doc. 25 at 2. King also claimed that Watkins did not immediately inform her supervisor when she found out about the cheating. Doc. 25 at 2. Despite implicating Watkins in the cheating plot, King failed to investigate Ashley Megelin, who also had been identified as a cheater. Doc. 25 at 2. As part of the investigation, Watkins completed a follow-up interview reiterating that she was not involved with the cheating effort and had informed her supervisor as soon as she learned of the misconduct. Doc. 25 at 2.

         On July 31, 2017, and August 1, 2017, Abbot and Susan Douglass informed Watkins that she was being reprimanded for the cheating incident. Doc. 25 at 2. Watkins reminded Abbot and Douglass that she had no role in the misconduct, which she had promptly reported. Doc. 25 at 2. Abbot and Douglass harassed Watkins and attempted to coerce and intimidate her into signing a written reprimand. Doc. 25 at 2. Douglass repeatedly insisted that Watkins sign the reprimand, and informed Watkins that she would be reprimanded further if she did not sign. Doc. 25 at 2. The shocking and unexpected interaction caused Watkins to feel lightheaded and caused her heart rate to escalate. Doc. 25 at 3. Watkins informed Abbot and Douglass of her health concerns but they mocked her in return. Doc. 25 at 3. The two made eye contact with another and laughed. Doc. 25 at 3. In an obviously sarcastic manner, Douglass stated, “Surely we don't want your heart to race.” Doc. 25 at 3. Abbot remained relatively quiet and simply stared at Watkins in an aggressive ...

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