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Williams v. Signature Healthcare

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Panama City Division

May 24, 2017



          Robert L. Hinkle United States District Judge..

         This is an employment-discrimination case. The plaintiff alleges he was terminated from his job at the defendant's nursing home because of his race. But the record establishes that the plaintiff was terminated for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason: his no-contest plea to the crime of battery. This order grants summary judgment for the defendant.


         On a summary-judgment motion, disputes in the evidence must be resolved, and all reasonable inferences from the evidence must be drawn, in favor of the nonmoving party. The moving party must show that, when the facts are so viewed, the moving party “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A summary-judgment motion cannot be used to resolve in the moving party's favor a “genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). This order views the facts based on these standards.


         The plaintiff Raymond Williams alleged in his complaint that he is black but testified at deposition that he is biracial. He performed maintenance and repair work at the Courtyard, one of many nursing homes operated by the defendant Signature Healthcare. Mr. Williams had regular contact with the Courtyard's residents, who are elderly or disabled.

         On March 31, 2015, a Jackson County sheriff's deputy arrived at the Courtyard with a warrant to arrest Mr. Williams for felony battery. The charge was that Mr. Williams shot a man in the face. Mr. Williams was not at work, so the deputy asked the facility to notify the sheriff's office when Mr. Williams returned. The next day, a deputy arrested Mr. Williams at work.

         Mr. Williams spent the next two weeks in jail. When he was released, he informed the Courtyard's administrator, Brad Nobles, of the charge. Mr. Nobles told Mr. Williams that he could return to work if the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. Mr. Nobles confirmed the advice by text message.

         Meanwhile, the Courtyard's human-resources director, J. Clint Baxley, emailed Signature's corporate human-resources department to determine whether an employee facing a felony charge could continue working. Mr. Baxley's e-mail did not include Mr. Williams's name or race. Gina Harding, a human-resources advisor, responded to the email by recommending that Mr. Baxley not allow the employee to work until Signature had proof of the charges. Ms. Harding suggested that Mr. Baxley place the employee “on a discretionary, unpaid [leave of absence] until we can obtain more information. . . . If the process exceeds 60 days I would terminate him until a decision can be made.” ECF No. 20-3 at 30.

         Mr. Williams later agreed to plead no contest to a reduced charge of misdemeanor battery. His attorney provided the plea agreement to Signature after Mr. Williams and the prosecutor both signed it but before the judge approved it.

         Mr. Baxley emailed the corporate human-resources department to report on the plea papers and to ask for guidance on whether the employee could return to work. Christy Wathen, a senior human-resources advisor, responded that a battery charge of any kind was disqualifying. She recommended termination. Ms. Wathen did not know Mr. Williams's name or race. Based on Ms. Wathen's recommendation, Mr. Baxley terminated Mr. Williams. The email asking for advice, the response, and the termination all occurred on a single day, June 3, 2015. Signature later hired a white man to replace Mr. Williams.

         On June 16, 2015, about two weeks after the termination, Mr. Williams formally entered a no-contest plea to the misdemeanor battery charge.


         When, as here, an employee relies on circumstantial evidence in support of a discrimination claim, the employee may proceed under the familiar burden-shifting framework set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), and later cases. Under that framework, an employee first must present a prima facie case. The employer then must proffer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision. The employee then must show that the proffered reason was not the real reason for the decision and that instead a reason was discrimination. Alternatively, the employee may present other ...

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