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Cooper v. Jefferson County

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

July 26, 2019




         Dr. Rockefeller F. Cooper, II, a native of Liberia and who is proceeding pro se, brings this action against his former employer, Jefferson County, Alabama d/b/a the Jefferson County Coroner and Medical Examiner Officer (“JCCMEO”), asserting that JCCMEO violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, by discriminating against him on the basis of race and national origin, subjecting him to a hostile work environment, and discharging him after he complained of a hostile work environment. Doc. 6.[1] Dr. Cooper has moved for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that the record establishes JCCMEO intentionally discriminated and retaliated against him. See doc. 51. JCCMEO has also moved for summary judgment, arguing that Dr. Cooper cannot establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment or retaliation and that he cannot show its reasons for discharging him are pretextual. Docs. 54; 55.[2] After careful consideration of the record and relevant law, Dr. Cooper's motion is due to be denied, and JCCMEO's motion is due to be granted. However, because JCCMEO did not address Dr. Cooper's hostile work environment claim, this claim will proceed to a jury trial.[3]


         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 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. “Rule 56[] 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) (alteration in original). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (citation and internal 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, 477 U.S. at 248.

         On summary judgment motions, the court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). See also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Any factual disputes will be resolved in the non-moving party's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports the non-moving party's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of events is supported by insufficient evidence). 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) (per curiam) (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 the 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).

         The simple fact that both parties have filed partial motions for summary judgment does not alter the ordinary standard of review. See Chambers & Co. v. Equitable Life Assurance Soc., 224 F.2d 338, 345 (5th Cir. 1955) (explaining that cross-motions for summary judgment “[do] not warrant the granting of either motion if the record reflects a genuine issue of fact”). Rather, the court will consider each motion separately “‘as each movant bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” 3D Med. Imaging Sys., LLC v. Visage Imaging, Inc., 228 F.Supp.3d 1331, 1336 (N.D.Ga. 2017) (quoting Shaw Constructors v. ICF Kaiser Eng'rs, Inc., 395 F.3d 533, 538-39 (5th Cir. 2004)).


         Dr. Cooper worked as a morgue technologist for JCCMEO for four months between November 2016 and March 2017. Doc. 56-1 at 40. During that time, Dr. Cooper reported to Dr. Julianna Dufeck, and Dr. Gregory Davis served as the Chief Coroner/Medical Examiner. Docs. 56-1 at 40; 56-5 at 1; 56-9 at 1. As a morgue technologist, Dr. Cooper performed anatomical dissections, collected and recorded evidence from bodies, prepared labels and procured toxicological specimens, and helped maintain the morgue facility by keeping it clean and decontaminated. Doc. 56-2 at 47.

         Approximately a month after he started at JCCMEO, Dr. Cooper met with Sherry Tidwell, the Administrative Services Manager, to express concerns about communication in the morgue. Doc. 56-4 at 1. Based on that meeting, Tidwell scheduled training entitled “Conflict in the Work Place, ” which all JCCMEO staff attended. Id. at 2. In spite of the training, Dr. Cooper continued to experience issues with certain coworkers, particularly Barry Franklin, another morgue technologist. See docs. 51 at 54; 56-12 at 3. Dr. Cooper contends that Franklin attempted to sabotage his work by setting up contaminated collection bottles for Dr. Cooper to use during autopsies. See doc. 51 at 31-32.

         In January 2017, Dr. Dufek spoke to Dr. Cooper about his pattern of arriving late to work. Doc. 56-9 at 8. Thereafter, during the last week of the month, Dr. Cooper was tardy four days in a row. Docs. 56-1 at 42-47; 56-9 at 8. According to Dr. Dufek, Dr. Cooper's consistent tardiness was unacceptable in part because the morgue is busiest at the beginning of each work day. Doc. 56-9 at 8. Consequently, Dr. Dufek issued a written warning to Dr. Cooper informing him that his tardiness is unfair to his coworkers and that “[d]isciplinary action may be recommended for any violations in the future.” Doc. 56-2 at 50; 56-9 at 9. Even so, Dr. Cooper arrived late again on two more occasions. Docs. 56-5 at 4; 56-9 at 9. Accordingly, Dr. Dufek issued a written reprimand to Dr. Cooper, warning him that future violations could result in “[d]isciplinary action up to and including dismissal . . . .” Doc. 56-2 at 51.

         In February 2017, Drs. Dufek and Davis met with Dr. Cooper to discuss his three-month performance appraisal. Docs. 56-1 at 49; 56-2 at 54-57. The appraisal reflects that Dr. Cooper's job performance was below expectations with respect to two of eight criteria (compliance with rules, policies, and procedures, and performing anatomical dissections) and that his performance needed improvement on another four criteria, including communication. Doc. 56-2 at 55. Thus, based on the appraisal, Dr. Cooper's job performance met expectations with respect to only two of eight criteria, and the appraisal informed him that “[s]ignificant improvement is expected or further action will be necessary.” Id. at 54-55. And, Dr. Cooper signed off on the appraisal to relfect that his supervisors reviewed the appraisal with him and that he agreed with it. Id. at 54.

         Following the performance appraisal, coworkers and supervisors continued to point out to Dr. Cooper alleged issues with his job performance. For example, Dr. Daniel Dye reviewed proper procedures for dissecting a decedent's neck with Dr. Cooper after Dr. Dye observed issues with his technique. Doc. 56-6 at 1-2, 4. Subsequently, Dr. Dan Atherton observed Dr. Cooper dissecting a decedent's neck prior to removing the decedent's brain in contravention of JCCMEO protocols, and explained to Dr. Cooper the proper technique. Doc. 56-7 at 2.

         On March 13, 2017, Dr. Dufek gave Dr. Cooper a written reprimand for disregarding instructions from Dr. Brandi McCleskey, a pathology fellow, and opening a body to begin an autopsy without authorization. Doc. 51 at 45. According to Dr. McCleskey, she instructed Dr. Cooper to get dressed to prepare to perform an autopsy, but she told Dr. Cooper to wait for Dr. Atherton, the attending physician, before opening the body. Doc. 56-8 at 4. On the other hand, Dr. Cooper contends that Dr. McCleskey authorized him to begin the autopsy. Doc. 48-1 at 48. In light of Dr. Cooper's alleged failure to follow Dr. McCleskey's instructions and Dr. Cooper's prior issues communicating with coworkers, the reprimand required Dr. Cooper to attend an effective listening skills training. Doc. 56-2 at 52-53. The reprimand advised Dr. Cooper once again that “disciplinary action up to and including dismissal may be recommended for any violations in the future.” Id. at 52.

         On March 21, 2017, Dr. Atherton gave Dr. Cooper permission to begin an autopsy, and Dr. Cooper began to set up his own supplies for the autopsy even though Franklin had set up the supplies earlier that morning. Docs. 56-1 at 55-56. When Dr. Dufek noticed Dr. Cooper repeating work that Franklin had already done, she instructed Dr. Cooper to use the supplies Franklin set up, but Dr. Cooper refused and told Dr. Dufek to do the autopsy herself. Docs. 56-1 at 56; 56-7 at 2. After Dr. Cooper refused Dr. Dufek's order, the two had a meeting with Dr. Davis, during which Dr. Cooper accused Franklin of harassment and trying to sabotage his work. Dr. Cooper also expressed his frustration with Dr. Dufek and Franklin, and repeatedly shouted “I am sick and tired.” Docs. 56-1 at 58; 56-5 at 7.

         Dr. Davis's schedule did not permit a lengthy meeting that morning. As a result, Dr. Davis informed Dr. Cooper that he would meet with him again when he returned to the office later that day. Doc. 56-5 at 8. And, in light of the heated discussion during their meeting, Dr. Davis also instructed Dr. Cooper not to enter the morgue until after he had a chance to talk with him again. Docs. 56-9 at 2; 56-5 at 8. Dr. Cooper disregarded Dr. Davis's instructions and confronted Franklin in the morgue, accusing him of harassment and telling Franklin “to keep [Dr. Cooper's] name out of his mouth.” Doc. 56-1 at 59. When Dr. Davis returned to the JCCMEO office, Dr. Cooper gave him a written complaint of harassment against Franklin, stating the he “can no longer tolerate the hostile environment that is being created by [] Franklin.” Doc. 51 at 58.

         While Dr. Davis was out of the office that morning, he met with the county attorney and recommended serving a notice of contemplated discipline on Dr. Cooper. Doc. 56-5 at 9-10. The following day, JCCMEO provided Dr. Cooper with the notice and placed him on administrative leave with pay pending a hearing. Docs. 51 at 43-44, 59; 56-3 at 98. The notice charged Dr. Cooper with violating certain personnel board rules based on his alleged failure to follow Drs. McCleskey's and Davis's instructions and JCCMEO protocol regarding organ removal. Doc. 56-3 at 98. A week after serving the notice ...

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