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Woodruff v. Jackson Hospital & Clinic, Inc.

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

October 30, 2019

KIMBERLY WOODRUFF Plaintiff,
v.
JACKSON HOSPITAL & CLINIC, INC., Defendant,

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANDREW L. BRASHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Kimberly Woodruff (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint alleging that Defendant Jackson Hospital (“Defendant”) fired her for belonging to a protected class. The single count alleges that Jackson Hospital subjected Woodruff to adverse employment actions based on her race. See Doc. 1 at ¶18. This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Jackson Hospital's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 20). Upon consideration, the motion is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are taken in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.

         The events of this case occurred in the cardiology office of Dr. Beverly Stoudemire-Howlett[1] within the Jackson Clinic, a specialty physician clinic operated by Jackson Hospital. Dr. Stoudemire is an African-American woman. Kimberly Woodruff, a white woman, was hired by Jackson Hospital on February 14, 2017 as one of the support staff for Dr. Stoudemire. Woodruff was to serve as a “clinical documentation coding specialist” and her duties included both the positions of medical assistant and scribe. Dr. Stoudemire specifically recruited Woodruff for this position because they had worked together before.

         After Woodruff was hired, Jackson hired three more employees to work in Dr. Stoudemire's practice. These employees were Jo Guice, Nikkita Moulton, and Rhonda Burns. Guice, Moulton, and Burns are African-American women. The core of Woodruff's complaint is that these three women subjected her to harassment because of her race.

         During the seven-month period that Woodruff worked for Dr. Stoudemire, she alleges that these three co-workers subjected her to severe and pervasive racially discriminatory harassment. Woodruff testified that Moulton, Burns, and Guice frequently ignored her in the office or made her do things that were outside her job description, rendering it impossible to accomplish her work tasks. She also testified that these women fabricated stories about her, which included tales of office incompetence and an affair with one of her supervisors.

         More importantly for her present claims, Woodruff identified five specific actions of alleged race-related harassment, four that she experienced and one experienced by the clinic secretary, Naomi Moses. Woodruff could not identify precisely when these events occurred, and the following list of events is not meant to be in chronological order except where noted.

         First, at some point, Moulton and Burns told Woodruff that an African-American patient had complained of poor treatment at her hands and that the patient believed the basis of this poor treatment was Woodruff's “unfriendl[iness] to African-Americans.” See Doc. 26-2 at 120.

         Second, at some point in April or May of 2017, Dr. Stoudemire approached Woodruff individually to assure her that she, Dr. Stoudemire, was “not a racist.” Id. at 125. Shortly before or after giving Woodruff this assurance, Dr. Stoudemire convened a meeting of her subordinates and made clear that she needed them to get along and focus on their jobs. Id. at 116-119. Woodruff alleges that, during this meeting, Dr. Stoudemire said she “wanted all of us to work together, ” “wanted a multiracial clinic, ” and “didn't want an all African-American office.” Id. at 117.

         Third, on one or more occasions in June of 2017, Guice, Moulton, and Burns discussed current events in the office, including the removal of Confederate statues. Guice, Moulton, and Burns generally supported the removal of such statues, believing them to represent a reminder of slavery. Woodruff's response was that “it was history, and I didn't go any further into their conversation” but “[t]he three labeled me as unfriendly to blacks.” See Doc. 21 at 5.

         Fourth, at some point during the discussion of the statues, Burns took the position that everyone suffers from some degree of racism, and she confessed that she was a racist under this theory.

         Fifth, at some point, Moses overheard Guice, Moulton, and/or Burns making comments about the “privilege” and demands of their white patients. See Doc. 26-6 at 70.

         Woodruff told Luke Brooks, who served as the Jackson Clinic's operations manager as well as Woodruff's supervisor that she was experiencing a hostile work environment. She testified that she sent him an email complaining explicitly of racial discrimination in early August of 2017, followed by a text message on August 29. Woodruff texted him requesting a solution to what she termed a “hostile work environment.” After Woodruff met with Brooks and told him that her co-workers were not talking to her, Brooks failed to escalate the issue and took no corrective action.

         Woodruff experienced three disciplinary sanctions, culminating in her termination. First, on June 13 she met with Kelin Penney, the administrator of the Jackson Clinic, and Luke Brooks, who informed her of complaints that she was unskilled at managing her time and prioritizing tasks and that she lacked focus. At this first meeting, Woodruff was informed that if she did not improve immediately she would be terminated. On September 6, Woodruff was disciplined for using improper abbreviations and making mistakes regarding the scheduling of catheterization work with a lab. This was to be her final warning.

         Finally, Woodruff was terminated on September 14, after exactly seven months on the job. Kim Sport, a representative from Zoll, a medical supply company that produces defibrillator vests prescribed by Dr. Stoudemire, had asked Woodruff to show her the medical information of two patients, which Zoll was entitled to under HIPAA. After Woodruff showed her the records, Sport spoke to Guice about closing a chart and commented to her about the number of charts she had seen open in the database. Guice then reported to the hospital administration that Woodruff had allowed Sport greater access to patient information than was authorized. After no investigation, Woodruff was fired and put on a no-hire registry.

         STANDARD

         The court will grant summary judgment when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc). The moving party need not produce evidence disproving the opponent's claim; instead, the moving party must demonstrate the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In turn, the nonmoving party must go beyond mere allegations to offer specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial exists. Id. at 324. When no genuine issue of material fact exists, the court determines whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

         DISCUSSION

         The wording of Plaintiff's complaint does little to tell the Court what specific cause of action she is asserting. It provides only that “Defendant's actions toward her violated her right to be free of race discrimination in employment.” See Doc. 1 ¶18. Defendant treats this single allegation as both (1) a hostile work environment claim and (2) a McDonnell-Douglas discriminatory discharge claim. Assuming for the sake of argument that Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged those claims, neither one survives summary judgment.

         A. Hostile ...


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