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Martinez v. Gulf Coast Orthopedic Center Corp.

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

August 6, 2019



          Anthony E. Porcelli United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Cynthia Martinez (“Martinez”) brought this action asserting claims against Defendant Gulf Coast Orthopedic Center Corporation, doing business as The Bonati Institute (“The Bonati Institute”), for violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and the Florida Civil Rights Act (“FCRA”) (Doc. 1). Currently before the Court is The Bonati Institute's Renewed Dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 49), in which The Bonati Institute argues that summary judgment should be granted as Martinez failed to demonstrate that it discriminated against her based on her age.[1] Namely, The Bonati Institute argues that, under the burden-shifting analysis, Martinez failed to establish that The Bonati Institute's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for her termination constituted pretext for age discrimination. Martinez responds in opposition, asserting that a reasonable juror could conclude that The Bonati Institute's purported nondiscriminatory reasons for her termination constituted pretext (Doc. 51). The Bonati Institute subsequently filed a reply brief, disputing Martinez's arguments and assertions (Doc. 54). For the following reasons, The Bonati Institute's Renewed Dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 49) is granted.

         I. Background

         Martinez began working at The Bonati Institute on March 19, 1990, as an X-ray technician and continued to do so until October 23, 2015, with a minor break in employment for a few months in 2003 to 2004 (Doc. 26-1, Deposition of Cynthia Martinez (“Martinez Dep.”), at 4-7, 27). At the time The Bonati Institute reinstated Martinez to her prior position after her break in employment, Martinez was 51 years old and received the same pay and benefits as she received prior to her break in employment (Martinez Dep., at 6-7; Doc. 26-23, January 17, 2018 Declaration of Rhonda Spinelli (“January 2018 Spinelli Decl.”), at ¶3). Martinez then worked for The Bonati Institute continuously until her termination on October 23, 2015 (Martinez Dep., at 7).

         During her employment, Martinez complained to other employees, including Dr. Robert Dunn (“Dr. Dunn”) and Rhonda Spinelli (“Spinelli”), the director of Human Resources for The Bonati Institute, regarding her lack of a raise for several years despite the ability of The Bonati Institute to fund the purchase of a new MRI machine, and she subsequently approached Dr. Alfred Bonati (“Dr. Bonati”) to request a raise, which Dr. Bonati denied (Martinez Dep., at 12-17; Doc. 26-8, Deposition of Rhonda Spinelli (“Spinelli Dep.”), at 6, 36, 55-56; January 2018 Spinelli Decl., at ¶2; Doc. 26-15, Deposition of Marcelo Eguino (“Eguino Dep.”), at 18; Doc. 26-20, Deposition of Oscar Aparicio (“Aparicio Dep.”), at 10). When Martinez asked Spinelli why Dr. Bonati denied her request for a raise, Spinelli told Martinez that it was because Martinez left work early (Martinez Dep., at 17).

         The Bonati Institute originally altered Martinez's work hours to allow her to care for her father up until his death in 2012, for which she received permission to arrive late to work (Martinez Dep., at 17-18, 22, 31 & Ex. 6; Spinelli Dep., at 23). Martinez continued to come in late after that time, however (Martinez Dep., at 32; Spinelli Dep., at 22-24). In fact, after the death of her father, Martinez admittedly continued to come in late, routinely stopped taking a lunch break, and failed to clock out for lunch (Martinez Dep., at 23-24, 44-46). Her time sheets reflect that she consistently was tardy, failed to clock in or out for lunch, and left early (January 2018 Spinelli Decl., Ex. A). This pattern of behavior continued up until her termination, including during The Bonati Institute's implementation of a new MRI machine.

         Also during the implementation of the new MRI machine, Martinez repeatedly stated that she did not believe The Bonati Institute needed a new machine and additionally did not fully assist in preparing the site for the new machine, failed to show up on time for training, and failed to attend training as requested by Marcelo Eguino (“Eguino”), the vice president of digital marketing at The Bonati Institute and the individual in charge of the acquisition and implementation of the new MRI machine (Eguino Dep., at 11-17, 21-22; Doc. 26-15, Ex. 1, Declaration of Marcelo Eguino (“Eguino Decl.”), at ¶¶2-6; Aparicio Dep., at 15-16; Doc. 26-21, Deposition of Luis Lizardo (“Lizardo Dep.”), at 29-30; Doc. 54, Ex. 1, Declaration of Elaine Lois Sadeghi (“Sadeghi Decl.”), at ¶7). Instead, Martinez attended intermittently and requested that Luis Lizardo (“Lizardo”), the MRI technician, attend the training sessions for the new MRI and train her when he finished (Martinez Dep., at 12, 22-23; Sadeghi Decl., at ¶7; Lizardo Dep., at 23, 29). At the same time, Martinez informed Eguino that she would train when she could between patients (Martinez Dep., at 11, 33-37). Attending training between patients was not what Eguino directed, however (Martinez Dep., at 9-12, 23, 33-37; Eguino Dep., at 11-19; Lizardo Dep., at 29). Given Martinez's failure to train on the new machine as directed and her complaints regarding the acquisition of the machine, Eguino reported Martinez's behavior to Dr. Bonati and Spinelli (Eguino Dep., at 11-23).

         During the course of Martinez's employment, Spinelli insists that she spoke to Martinez about her lack of work discipline at least five times and spoke to Martinez about her work hours a minimum of five times, although Spinelli did not document those discussions (Spinelli Dep., at 34). Spinelli also indicated that she spoke to Martinez several times prior to termination about her refusal to clock out for lunch (Spinelli Dep., at 49). Elaine Sadeghi, who became the clinic manager in May 2015 and began supervising the radiology department in June 2015, additionally spoke to Martinez about her habits of ignoring assigned work hours, arriving to work late, leaving early, and not clocking out for lunch (Sadeghi Decl., at ¶¶3-5).

         According to Spinelli, all of Martinez's violations, either standing alone or in combination, could be characterized as misconduct in the workplace providing sufficient cause for termination (Spinelli Dep., at 55-56). To that end, in determining whether to discipline or terminate an employee, The Bonati Institute implemented a discretionary progressive disciplinary policy, including the following steps: (1) corrective counseling/verbal warning; (2) formal reprimand/written warning; (3) final warning/suspension; and (4) termination (Martinez Dep., Ex. 5, at 21; Spinelli Dep., at 8, 68-69 & Ex. 6, at 21). In pertinent part, the Employee Handbook describes the progressive discipline policy as follows: “The Institute may utilize a system of progressive discipline at its sole discretion in cases of misconduct or unacceptable performance. … Disciplinary action may begin at an advanced stage of the process or may result in immediate termination based upon the nature and severity of the offense, the employee[']s past record with the Institute and any other relevant circumstances” (Martinez Dep., Ex. 5, at 21). The Employee Handbook therefore indicates that the progressive disciplinary policy is optional, and disciplinary action can start at any step, including termination, without necessarily going through each of the prior steps.

         In this instance, the decision to terminate Martinez came after discussions occurred among and between Dr. Bonati, Spinelli, Sadeghi, and Eguino. Prior to terminating Martinez, Dr. Bonati spoke to Eguino regarding Martinez's failure to properly train on the new machine (Bonati Dep., at 9-12, 14-15, 18-19; Eguino Dep., at 17-22). Approximately the same week that Martinez was terminated, Spinelli discussed Martinez's employment issues with Dr. Bonati, which she had also discussed with Sadeghi and Eguino, including Martinez's refusal to train on the new machine, slacking off on job duties, tardiness, attendance issues, lack of cleanliness, and disregard for orders from Eguino, as the project supervisor for the new machine (Spinelli Dep., at 28-30, 45; Eguino Dep., at 17-22). According to Spinelli, Dr. Bonati indicated that he already knew of the attendance issues, as he saw Martinez leaving early frequently (Spinelli Dep., at 28). After discussing the employment issues with Dr. Bonati, Spinelli asked Dr. Bonati what he wanted her to do, and Dr. Bonati directed her to terminate Martinez (Spinelli Dep., at 29). In that regard, Dr. Bonati made the decision to terminate Martinez's employment with The Bonati Institute, based upon information provided to him from Spinelli and Eguino (Spinelli Dep., at 25, 28-30, 69-70; Bonati Dep., at 7-8, 9-12, 14-15, 18-19; Eguino Dep., at 20-24).

         After speaking with Dr. Bonati about terminating Martinez, Spinelli met with Martinez and Sadeghi to inform Martinez of the termination of her employment with The Bonati Institute (Spinelli Dep., at 25). During the meeting, Spinelli explained to Martinez that she was being terminated because “she just was not doing the job that [was] expected of her and that she was to do; she only did what she had to do, what she could get away with, and it wasn't enough anymore” (Spinelli Dep., at 26). Spinelli also told Martinez that she did not seem as enthusiastic about the job as she used to be and was not doing everything that needed to be done (Spinelli Dep., at 31-32). Martinez indicated that she was told that her purported “lack of enthusiasm” formed the basis for her termination (Martinez Dep., at 7-8, 38).

         Following Martinez's termination, The Bonati Institute replaced Martinez with Christine Kallas (“Kallas”), who assumed Martinez's job duties and responsibilities (Spinelli Dep., at 56 & Ex. 2). At the time that Kallas replaced Martinez, Kallas was over the age of 40 but younger than Martinez (Spinelli Dep., at Ex. 2, at 5). The other individuals who followed in the position after Kallas were also over the age of 40 (Spinelli Dep., at 57).

         Prior to her termination, Martinez understood that she could be fired at any time and for no reason at all (Martinez Dep., at 39, 46-47). As the Employee Handbook indicates, since employment at The Bonati Institute “is based on mutual consent, either the employee or the institution is privileged to terminate employment without notice or requirement of cause” (Martinez Dep., Ex. 5, at 26). Notwithstanding, though Martinez admits she has no idea why she was fired and only assumes her termination was because of her age, Martinez believes that her age provided the basis for her termination because The Bonati Institute replaced her with a younger employee, because she lacked enthusiasm, and because The Bonati Institute believed she did not want to learn how to use the new MRI (Martinez Dep., at 29-30, 47-49). As a result, Martinez initiated this action asserting claims for age discrimination under both the ADEA and the FCRA (Doc. 1).

         By the instant motion (Doc. 49), The Bonati Institute renews its request for summary judgment on Martinez's claims, arguing that, although Martinez can establish a prima facie case for discrimination, it established legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Martinez's employment, including insubordination to a senior manager regarding the implementation of the new MRI, refusal to train on the MRI, failure to follow her assigned schedule, refusal to clock out during lunch, sleeping while at work, and her allegedly rude, disrespectful behavior toward other employees of The Bonati Institute. Additionally, the Bonati Institute argues that Martinez fails to demonstrate that any of its proffered reasons for termination constitute pretext. In response (Doc. 51), Martinez essentially contends that summary judgment should not be granted because The Bonati Institute's reasons for termination constituted pretext for age discrimination. Namely, Martinez argues that (1) The Bonati Institute failed to clearly and consistently articulate the reasons for her termination; (2) The Bonati Institute failed to follow its progressive disciplinary policy; (3) Dr. Bonati made age-based comments to Martinez's coworker that demonstrate discriminatory animus; (4) the statements by Spinelli regarding Martinez's lack of enthusiasm and failure to embrace new technology are natural correlations to age and fundamentally lie at the core of age discrimination; and (5) Dr. Bonati was a conduit or “cat's paw” for Spinelli's age-based discriminatory animus toward Martinez.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the movant demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Kernel Records Oy v. Mosley, 694 F.3d 1294, 1300 (11th Cir. 2012). A dispute about a material fact is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The existence of some factual disputes between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported summary judgment motion; “the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 247-48 (emphasis in original). The substantive law applicable to the claims will identify which facts are material. Id. at 248. In reviewing the motion, courts must view the evidence and make all factual inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolve all reasonable doubts about the facts in favor of the non-movant. Dadeland Depot, Inc. v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co., 483 F.3d 1265, 1268 (11th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         III. Discussion

         A. McDonnell Douglas Framework

         The ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1).[2] Essentially, the ADEA prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee who is at least 40 years of age on the basis of that employee's age. 29 U.S.C. §§ 623(a)(1), 631(a). An aggrieved employee may establish a claim of unlawful discrimination under the ADEA through either direct or circumstantial evidence. Kragor v. Takeda Pharms. Am., Inc., 702 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2012). Martinez admittedly denies any direct evidence of discrimination regarding her termination, such as a statement from anyone at The Bonati Institute indicating that she was fired because she was too old (Martinez Dep., at 8). Indeed, when asked regarding the basis for her belief that she was terminated due to age, Martinez pointed only to the comment from Spinelli at the time of Martinez's termination regarding Martinez's lack of enthusiasm, the fact that The Bonati Institute hired someone younger than her, and possibly the fact that, as she interpreted the situation, she did not get a chance to learn new technology (Martinez Dep., at 8, 47). As noted, she admits that, other than her speculation, she has no idea why she was fired and only assumed her termination was because of her age (Martinez Dep., at 29-30). Notably, however, Martinez denies ever hearing any comments regarding her age or inability to work due to her age (Martinez Dep., at 8).

         Accordingly, where the record fails to reflect any direct evidence of discrimination, as in the instant case, the claims are governed by the familiar burden-shifting scheme set forth under McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-03 (1973). See Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1024 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc). Initially, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of age discrimination, which creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee. Kragor, 702 F.3d at 1308. To establish a prima facie case for an ADEA discrimination claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) she was a member of the protected age group, (2) she was subjected to adverse employment action, (3) she was replaced by or otherwise lost a position to a younger individual; and (4) she was qualified to do the job. Id.; Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1024. Once a plaintiff demonstrates these elements, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action. Wilson v. B/E Aerorspace, Inc., 376 F.3d 1079, 1087 (11th Cir. 2004); Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1024. The defendant need not demonstrate that the proffered reasons actually motivated the adverse employment action, but, instead, must produce evidence that raises a genuine issue of material fact as to whether it discriminated against the plaintiff. Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1024.

         If the defendant can articulate one or more legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons, the presumption of discrimination is rebutted, and the burden of production shifts to the plaintiff to offer evidence that the alleged reason constitutes pretext for illegal discrimination. Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1087; Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1024. At that point, the plaintiff must come forward with evidence sufficient to permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the reasons proffered by the defendant were not the actual reasons for the adverse employment decision. Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1024-25. In establishing pretext, the plaintiff must show both that the reason was false and that the discrimination was the real reason for the adverse employment action. See Brooks v. City Comm'n of Jefferson Cty., Ala., 446 F.3d 1160, 1162 (11th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Notably, the fact that the employer's proffered reason was mistaken does not establish pretext; instead, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the challenged employment action was motivated by discriminatory animus. See Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1092. To establish pretext, therefore, the plaintiff must show “such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could find them unworthy of credence.” Combs v. Plantation Patterns, 106 F.3d 1519, 1538 (11th Cir. 1997) (quotation and citations omitted). Further, in attempting to show pretext, the plaintiff must meet the employer's reason “head on and rebut it” rather than simply recasting the employer's reason, substituting his or her business judgment for that of the employer, or otherwise quarreling with the wisdom of the decision. Alvarez v. Royal Atl. Developers, Inc., 610 F.3d 1253, 1265-66 (11th Cir. 2010). If the plaintiff fails to proffer sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether each of the defendant's articulated reasons is pretextual, the defendant is entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff's claim. Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1024-25.

         i. Legitimate Nondiscriminatory Reasons

         The Bonati Institute does not dispute that Martinez can demonstrate a prima facie case of age discrimination (Doc. 49, at 21).[3] Accordingly, the burden shifts to The Bonati Institute to produce legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for Martinez's termination. The Bonati Institute need not persuade the Court that the proffered reasons actually motivated the decision to terminate Martinez, however. Combs, 106 F.3d at 1528. Rather, The Bonati Institute must only produce admissible evidence which would permit the trier of fact rationally to conclude that the termination decision was not motivated by discriminatory animus. Combs, 106 F.3d at 1528.

         As The Bonati Institute notes, an “‘employer may fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous facts, or for no reason at all, as long as its action is not for a discriminatory reason.'” Alexander v. Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q, 701 Fed.Appx. 931, 935 (11th Cir. 2017) (quoting Nix v. WLCY Radio/Rahall Commc'ns, 738 F.2d 1181, 1187 (11th Cir. 1984)). To that end, The Bonati Institute offers several legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for Martinez's termination. Namely, The Bonati Institute contends that it fired Martinez due to her insubordination to a senior manager regarding the implementation of the new MRI, refusal to train on the MRI, failure to follow her assigned schedule, refusal to clock out during lunch, sleeping while at work, and her allegedly rude, disrespectful behavior toward other employees of The Bonati Institute (see Spinelli Dep., at 17-19, 22-24, 37-39, 51-54, and Ex. 2-3; Doc. 31, Ex. 1; Martinez Dep. At 12, 22-23, 32-37, 39-41, 42-46; Bonati Dep. At 6-15; Aparicio Dep., at 6-10; Eguino Dep., at 12-14, 16-19, 21; Lizardo Dep., at 21; March 2016 Spinelli Decl., at ¶¶ 5-20; January 2018 Spinelli Decl., Ex. A; Sadeghi Decl., at ¶¶4-8). Given the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons provided, The Bonati Institute met its burden. The burden then shifts to Martinez to demonstrate that such reasons constitute pretext.

         ii. ...

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