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Prince v. Melwood Nursing Center, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Orlando Division

December 15, 2017



          ROY B. DALTON JR., United States District Judge

         This cause is before the Court on consideration of the following: (1) Defendant's Dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment and Supporting Memorandum of Law (Doc. 32); (2) Plaintiff [sic] Motion to Oppose Defendants [sic] Motion for Dispositive Summary Judgment (Doc. 45); and (3) Defendant's Reply to Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 46).

         I. Background

         In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e (“Title VII”) against Defendant Melwood Nursing Center, LLC (“Melwood”), pro se Plaintiff Felicia Prince (“Prince”) is an African-American Licensed Practical Nurse (“LPN”), who claims that she was subjected to unlawful retaliation and racial discrimination during the year that she was employed at the Life Care Center of Melbourne (“LCCM”).[1] (Doc. 2, ¶¶1, 2, 5, 7, 10.) Specifically, Prince contends that: (1) her direct supervisor, Unit Coordinator Felicia Johnson (“Johnson”), subjected her to racially offensive comments (“Harassment Claim”); (2) after she informally complained about Johnson to Director of Nursing Maria Zomcheck (“Zomcheck”) and Executive Director Aaron Preston (“Preston”), Melwood rejected Prince's applications and hired less qualified Caucasian nurses for posted day shift positions (“Day Shift Claims”); and (3) Melwood subjected Prince to disparate and retaliatory discipline, which included termination of her employment (“Discipline Claims”). Prince seeks declaratory relief, compensatory damages, “reinstatement or front pay in lieu thereof [and] her attorneys' fees and litigation expenses.” (See id. ¶1; see also Doc. 33-2, pp. 76-79; Doc. 33-5, pp. 26, 36-37.)

         Melwood now moves for summary judgment in its favor on all of Prince's claims (“Motion”). (Doc. 32.) According to Melwood: (1) the Harassment Claim fails as a matter of law because the supervisor's comments “were stray remarks that had nothing to do with” any employment decisions; (2) the Day Shift Claim fails because “a shift change is not a promotion as a matter of law, ” and Prince “does not know the performance history” of the chosen Caucasian nurses; and (3) the Discipline Claim fails because Prince cannot identify a proper comparator or show that Melwood's non-discriminatory reasons for disciplining and terminating Prince were pretextual. (Id.) Finally, Melwood contends that Prince's retaliation claims fail because: (1) Prince did not engage in protected activity; (2) “she cannot prove a causal connection between” any protected activity and the termination of her employment; and (3) again, Prince cannot establish pretext. (Id. at 2.) Prince opposed the Motion (Doc. 45), and Melwood replied (Doc. 46). For the following reasons, the Court finds that the Motion is due to be granted in part.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         In accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, a party may request that the court enter summary judgment in its favor on a specified claim or any part thereof. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The court should not grant such a request unless the movant satisfies its burden to show “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Id.; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In responding to a Rule 56 motion, the burden “shifts to the non-moving party, who must go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of material fact exists.” Porter v. Ray, 461 F.3d 1315, 1320 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115-17 (11th Cir. 1993)).

         Both parties must support their assertions “that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed” by: (1) citing to “particular parts of materials in the record” (Rule 56(c)(1)(A)); or (2) “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact” (Rule 56(c)(1)(B)). See U.S. v. Four Parcels of Real Prop. in Green & Tuscaloosa Cntys. in Ala., 941 F.2d 1428, 1438 (11th Cir. 1991) (explaining that movants may point to an absence of evidence to support an issue on which the non-movant bears the burden of proof at trial). The court may consider an asserted “fact undisputed for purposes of the motion” if such fact is not properly supported or addressed (Rule 56(e)), and it “need consider only the cited materials” (Rule 56(c)(3)).

         The Court must view the cited material and all reasonable inferences drawn from such material in the light most favorable to the non-movant. See Battle v. Bd. of Regents, 468 F.3d 755, 759 (11th Cir. 2006). So viewed, the court should find that a “factual dispute is genuine” only if the cited evidence would allow “'a reasonable jury [to] return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Four Parcels, 941 F.2d at 1437 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). The “court need not permit a case to go to a jury . . . when the inferences that are drawn from the evidence, and upon which the non-movant relies, are ‘implausible.'” Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 743 (11th Cir. 1996).

         B. Discrimination & Retaliation

         Under § 1981 and Title VII, employers may be sued: (1) for the unlawful employment practice of intentionally discriminating against a person based on her race (see 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2(a)(1)[2]); and (2) for subjecting a person to injurious retaliation because she has opposed such an unlawful employment practice (see id. § 2000e-3(a)). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 2000e-5(f); see also Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 67 (2006) (noting that Title VII protects individuals “from retaliation that produces and injury or harm” but “not from all retaliation”). The legal elements of intentional discrimination and retaliation claims are the same under § 1981 and Title VII. See Rice-Lamar v. City of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., 232 F.3d 836, 843 n.11 (11th Cir. 2000).

         The focus of retaliation and most discrimination claims is to determine whether unlawful “animus motivate[d] a challenged employment decision.” See Wilson v. B/E Aerospace, Inc., 376 F.3d 1079, 1086 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Damon v. Fleming Supermkts. of Fla., Inc., 196 F.3d 1354, 1361 (11th Cir. 1999)). The existence of such animus is an issue of fact that the plaintiff may prove “through direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, or statistical proof.” See Schoenfeld v. Babbitt, 168 F.3d 1257, 1266 (11th Cir. 1999); Nix v. WLCY Radio/Rahall Comms., 738 F.2d 1181, 1185 (11th Cir. 1984) (“Intentional discrimination is an issue of fact.”); see also Rioux v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 520 F.3d 1269, 1274 (11th Cir. 2008) (noting that “illegal disparate treatment” is proved “through either direct evidence or circumstantial evidence”).

         In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, evidence that “reflects ‘a discriminatory or retaliatory attitude correlating to the discrimination or retaliation complained of” is considered “direct evidence.” See Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1086 (quoting Burrell v. Bd. of Trs. of Ga. Military Coll., 125 F.3d 1390, 1393 (11th Cir. 1997)). When direct evidence is provided, unlawful animus is proved without resort to inferences or presumptions. See id. In contrast, circumstantial evidence merely “suggests” an unlawful motive. See id.

         When a plaintiff relies solely on circumstantial evidence, she may raise a rebuttable presumption that the employer acted illegally by establishing a prima facie case. See Burke-Fowler v. Orange Cnty., Fla., 447 F.3d 1319, 1322-23 (11th Cir. 2006) (discussing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973)); see also Alvarez v. Royal Atl. Developers, Inc., 610 F.3d 1253, 1264-65, 68 (11th Cir. 2010). The methods of presenting a prima facie case “are flexible and depend to a large degree upon the employment situation.” Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1086 (citing Nix, 738 F.3d at 1185); see Rice-Lamar, 232 F.3d at 842-43 (explaining that the prima facie case method is not “rigid, mechanistic, or ritualistic”).

         If the plaintiff establishes her prima facie case, the employer may rebut the presumption of illegal conduct by clearly setting forth, “through the introduction of admissible evidence, ” the non-discriminatory reasons for the challenged employment decision. See Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 255-56 (1981)); see also Meeks v. Comput. Assocs. Int'l, 15 F.3d 1013, 1019 (11th Cir. 1994) (noting that the defendant's burden is one of production-not proof). When an employer meets its “burden of production, the presumption of discrimination is eliminated, ” Jackson v. Alabama State Tenure Commission, 405 F.3d 1276, 1289 (11th Cir. 2005), and the employee must “come forward with sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable fact finder to conclude that the legitimate reasons given by the employer were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination, ” Vessels v. Atlanta Independent School System, 408 F.3d 763, 771 (11thCir. 2005). See Alvarez, 610 F.3d at 1265-66 (noting that the plaintiff must meet the employer's proffered reason “head on and rebut it” to survive summary judgment). Pretext may be shown “either directly by persuading the court that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that the employer's proffered explanation is unworthy of credence.” Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256.

         III. Prince's Best Case[3]

         Prince's career in the health field started in 2002, when she became a certified nurse assistant. (See Doc. 33-1, p. 16.) Approximately five years later, Prince became an LPN, and she worked for various employers in South Florida until 2013. (See id. at 17-25.) In July 2013, Zomcheck interviewed and hired Prince to work at LCCM on the “Evening Shift”-from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. (See id. at 26-27, 46-47, 56-57.) When Prince commenced work at LCCM, she was given three days of orientation with Clinical Educator Pamela Frederick. (Id. at 47-49.) Prince also received and reviewed an employment handbook and other employment policy documents. (See id. at 46-55.)

         After ninety days, Prince received a written Performance Review. (Doc. 33-3.) According to the Performance Review, Prince performed “beyond expectations on occasion” and she needed “little or no supervision” in several categories, including: (1) “Knowledgeably and competently delivers basic nursing care to residents;” (2) “Cares for residents and families with genuine care and concern;” and (3) “Demonstrates sensitivity toward resident needs.” (See id.) Prince was ranked “Satisfactory” in the remaining categories. (See id.)

         During Prince's employment with LCCM, Preston served as LCCM's Executive Director, Zomcheck was Johnson's supervisor, Johnson was Prince's first direct supervisor, and Unit Coordinator Laurie Touhey (“Touhey”) was Prince's second direct supervisor. (See id. at 56-57, 77.) Prince testified that Melwood employed “only four black nurses.” (See id. at 142; Doc. 33-2, p. 62.)

         A. Johnson's Comments

         When Johnson was Prince's supervisor, she subjected Prince to two racially offensive comments. The first comment occurred while Johnson was admiring Prince's finger nails, and she asked whether Prince “went into the hood” to have them done (“First Comment”). (Depo. p. 61.) Johnson made the next comment when Prince asked her for an employment reference for a new residence, and Johnson responded “are you skipping out on your rent? I know how you people are” (“Second Comment”). (Id. at 85; Doc. 33-2, pp. 196-97.)

         Prince complained to Zomcheck about Johnson's comments and advised that she did not want to work with Johnson anymore. Although Zomcheck minimized Prince's concerns, Prince was moved to a different unit as a result of her complaint. Nonetheless, Johnson subjected Prince to a third racially offensive comment while she was under Touhey's supervision. (See Doc. 33-1, pp. 93, 133.) Specifically, Johnson commented: “I don't know why they get us confused with one another because you're ghetto, you're from the hood” (“Hood Comment”). (Id. at 93.) Prince contends that when she complained to Zomcheck and Preston about Johnson, Zomcheck told her “Don't listen to what other people say, ” and Preston told her that he did not think that “Johnson had malicious intent.” (Doc. 32-9, p. 1.) Ultimately, Johnson was not reprimanded for the comments until May of 2014. (See id. at 115-18; see also Doc. 32-6.)

         B. Day ...

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