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Gilbert v. Alabama Department of Human Resources

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

July 25, 2019

PAMELA D. GILBERT, Plaintiff,
v.
ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN RESOURCES, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pamela D. Gilbert, proceeding pro se, asserts claims against her former employer, the Alabama Department of Human Resources (“DHR”), for purported violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq. Allegedly, DHR (1) discriminated against her on the basis of race, color, and age by inflating her workload in comparison to Caucasian supervisors, denying her training and FMLA leave, and discharging her; (2) subjected her to a hostile work environment (Title VII only, see doc. 14); and (3) retaliated against her after she complained of the alleged hostile work environment. DHR moves for summary judgment, arguing that Gilbert cannot show that its proffered reasons for discharging her are pretextual or establish a prima facie case of retaliation or hostile work environment. Docs. 31 and 33. For the reasons discussed below, DHR's motion is due to be granted as to the discriminatory discharge, retaliation, and hostile work environment claims. But, because DHR failed to address Gilbert's disparate treatment claims, the motion is due to be denied as to her Title VII claim that DHR discriminated against her by inflating her workload in comparison to her Caucasian peers.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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). “Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the court of the basis of the motion and proving the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Id. at 323. If the moving party meets that burden, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party, who is required to go “beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). 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 (1986).

         The court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-movant. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). However, “mere 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)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that a jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Gilbert, an African-American woman over the age of forty, worked for DHR from 1996 until her discharge in 2017. Docs. 34-1 at 10; 37 at 37. DHR hired Gilbert initially as a case worker and promoted her to a supervisor position twelve years later. Docs. 34-1 at 10; 37 at 37. At times relevant to this action, Gilbert supervised the adult protective services (“APS”) unit in Lauderdale County. Docs. 34-1 at 10-12; 34-13 at 1. When DHR restructured assignments in October 2015, it transferred Gilbert to a position as the quality assurance (“QA”) Coordinator (also described as supervisor of the QA unit) and resources unit supervisor. Docs. 34-1 at 10-13; 34-13 at 1. As the resources unit supervisor, Gilbert supervised two case workers and an aide who licensed and monitored foster homes. Docs. 34-1 at 10-12; 34-11 at 1; 34-13 at 1. As QA Coordinator, Gilbert coordinated case workers from randomly selected Child Protective Services cases with QA team members from the community who reviewed DHR's work on the cases, and she prepared a biannual report of those reviews, which she sent to her supervisor, Jennifer Bolton, for submission to the State. Docs. 34-1 at 10-12, 23; 34-12 at 1; 34-13 at 1.

         According to Bolton and Cindy Bratcher, the Director of the Lauderdale County DHR, Gilbert's job performance began to deteriorate before her transfer. Docs. 34-13 at 2; 34-14 at 1. Bolton contends that the QA and resources units have less work volume than the APS unit, and she hoped that supervising the less demanding units would help Gilbert's performance. Doc. 34-13 at 2. However, Bolton saw no improvement by Gilbert after the transfer. Id. For her part, Gilbert asserts that she had difficulties as QA Coordinator because she never received proper training on how to prepare the biannual report. Doc. 37 at 10. Gilbert contends also that DHR did not require the prior QA Coordinator, Debra Newman, to supervise another unit in addition to the QA unit. Doc. 34-2 at 8.

         On December 23, 2015, Gilbert received and signed a written reprimand for insubordination and for failing to perform her job properly. Doc. 34-2 at 32, 35. Among other things, the reprimand described instances in which Gilbert allegedly did not respond to calls properly as the supervisor on call, missed a meeting, and did not arrange coverage when she was out on leave. Id. at 32-35. The reprimand warned Gilbert that “[f]ailure to perform [her] job properly in the future may result in further disciplinary action, which may include a [s]uspension or [d]ismissal.” Id. at 35. In connection with the reprimand, Bolton prepared a corrective action plan outlining steps Gilbert must take to improve her job performance. Id. at 37-39; Doc. 34-13 at 2. Gilbert received a second reprimand on November 10, 2016, based on alleged insubordination and a failure to perform her job. Doc. 34-2 at 24-27. Bolton again placed Gilbert on a corrective action plan and warned her that failure to comply or to perform her job properly could result in suspension or dismissal. Id. at 27-29.

         During a meeting in January 2017, Bolton and Bratcher questioned Gilbert about her purported forgetfulness, and when Gilbert cited work stress as a potential cause, Bolton and Bratcher instructed Gilbert to apply for FMLA leave and provided her with the relevant paperwork. Docs. 34-1 at 58; 34-3 at 49; 34-13; 34- 14 at 2; 37 at 38. When Gilbert replied that she was not requesting leave, Bolton told Gilbert that she “could certainly find a reason to request FMLA.” Docs. 34-1 at 58-59; 34-3 at 49; 37 at 14, 38. After Gilbert did not return the FMLA paperwork, and based on Gilbert's declining work performance, Bolton referred Gilbert to the employee assistance program (“EAP”) for mental health treatment. Docs. 34-13 at 2; 34-3 at 50. The referral stated that Gilbert made “statements about forgetting important things related to her job, ” including an important meeting, and that stress may be a factor in her forgetfulness, doc. 34-3 at 50, which Gilbert did not dispute, see doc. 34-1 at 60.

         Five days after receiving the EAP referral, Gilbert informed Bolton and Bratcher by letter that she was “working in what is clearly a hostile work environment.” Doc. 34-3 at 18. Gilbert noted also that Bratcher stated that “it should only take three years to reach the level of Supervisor, ” and that it took Gilbert twelve years to receive such a promotion. Id. Finally, Gilbert stated that she intended to remain at DHR as a supervisor until her retirement. Id.

         Thereafter, Bratcher issued a charge letter to Gilbert dated June 26, 2017, alleging Gilbert violated multiple work rules and DHR policy, including inattention to her job, failing to perform her job properly, insubordination, failing to respond while on call, failing to monitor a safety concern and violation of minimum standards for a foster home, and failing to perform her job as QA Coordinator. Doc. 34-3 at 19-27. The letter also informed Gilbert of the date of the hearing to present the charges and evidence concerning her job performance. Id. at 19; doc. 34-1 at 47. In response, Gilbert described the charges as retaliatory, doc. 34-3 at 12-17, and claimed that her job duties are inflated compared to younger, Caucasian supervisors and that “upon information and belief” the allegations are “not substantiated and contain erroneous information, ” id. at 12, 15.

         Approximately three weeks after DHR issued the charge letter, Gilbert requested FMLA leave based on alleged anxiety and depression due to workplace stress caused by harassment and a hostile work environment. Id. at 55-63. Celisa McAfee, a DHR employee in Montgomery, Alabama, reviewed Gilbert's application and denied the request based on her finding that Gilbert's condition did not “fit the criteria of a serious health condition.” Doc. 34-10 at 1-2.

         DHR amended the charge letter on August 1, 2017 to remove one charge against Gilbert, and postponed the hearing. Docs. 34-1 at 47; 34-3 at 28-36. Gilbert then hired an attorney to represent her, and DHR rescheduled the hearing again at her attorney's request. Docs. 34-1 at 47; 34-3 at 37-39. DHR rescheduled the hearing for a third time at the request of the hearing officer. Doc. 34-7 at 4. In the interim, DHR offered to settle the charges by demoting Gilbert and transferring her to the food stamp unit, with a decrease in pay. Docs. 34-1 at 51; 34-3 at 40. Gilbert sent a counteroffer directly to Bratcher, indicating that Gilbert would accept the transfer if, among other things, she retained her current salary and received a guarantee that she could work until her retirement. Docs. 34-1 at 51; 34-3 at 41-42. DHR policy prevented it from accepting the counteroffer, and, together with DHR's attorney, Gilbert's attorney requested another continuance to discuss the settlement offer with Gilbert. See doc. 34-7 at 4. Thus, DHR rescheduled the hearing for a fourth and final time to October 12, 2017. Id.

         The day before the hearing, Bolton texted Gilbert when Gilbert did not arrive to work as expected following a doctor's appointment. Doc. 34-1 at 54-55; 34-3 at 44-45. When Gilbert responded that she would be out that day due to high blood sugar, Bolton reminded Gilbert that the hearing was scheduled for the next day. Doc. 34-3 at 45-46. Despite the reminder, Gilbert did not attend the hearing or contact her attorney to inform him she would not be there, but Gilbert's attorney appeared and argued on her behalf. Docs. 34-1 at 53, 56; 34-5 at 3-4; 34-7 at 5. Two hours after the hearing started, Gilbert texted Bolton to report that she had overslept and just woke up. Doc. 34-3 at 47. Later that day, Gilbert was admitted to the hospital with sepsis. Docs. 34-1 at 56; 34-4 at 16-19.

         Based on the evidence and arguments presented the hearing officer recommended that DHR discharge Gilbert for “fail[ing] to demonstrate that she can consistently protect children and adults in Lauderdale County, ” and “fail[ing] to meet deadline required for reports to the State office for monitoring the work of Lauderdale County [DHR].” Doc. 34-4 at 14-15. Bratcher accepted the recommendation, and DHR discharged Gilbert. Docs. 34-14 at 4; 34-19. See also doc. 37 at 41. Although Gilbert's attorney knew that Gilbert could request a rehearing in light of her failure to appear, Gilbert did not do so, nor did she appeal to the Alabama State Personnel Board. Doc. 34-7 at 5-7. Gilbert filed instead a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, doc. 34-17, and this lawsuit eventually.

         III. ...


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