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Ballard v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania

United States District Court, Third Circuit

June 28, 2013

NICOLE BALLARD, Plaintiff,
v.
MERCY CATHOLIC MEDICAL CENTER OF SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA d/b/a MERCY HOSPITAL, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM RE: MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Michael M. Baylson, Michael M. Baylson, U.S.D.J.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Nicole Ballard (“Ballard”) filed a Complaint against her former employer, Mercy Catholic Medical Center (“Mercy”), alleging she was subjected to racial discrimination, a racially hostile work environment, and to retaliation, all in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (ECF 1). Currently before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF 22), Plaintiff’s Response (ECF 23), and Defendant’s Reply (ECF 24). For the reasons below, the Court will GRANT Defendant’s Motion.

II. Facts and Procedural History

The parties’ Statements of Undisputed Facts show that many operative facts are not in dispute. Where there are facts in dispute, the Court notes such below. The Court considers the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, i.e., Plaintiff. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

Plaintiff is an African-American female who was employed as a registered nurse at Mercy Catholic Medical Center between March 2008 and November 2010. She was terminated on November 10, 2010. She typically worked three weekday shifts each week, and she occasionally worked weekend shifts as well. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶¶ 3-4) (ECF 23).

In the fourteen-month period between February 2009 and March 2010, Plaintiff received multiple “Colleague Counseling Reports” from Mercy for absenteeism and lateness. (Def. Exs. T, U, V, W & X). She also received a Counseling Report in April 2009 for failing to “follow proper procedure” when labeling a blood specimen. (Def. Ex. Y). In a Performance Evaluation issued July 19, 2010, Ballard’s supervisors concluded: “Nicole has the ability to be a good nurse. She doesn’t work at her fullest potential most of the time. She need[s] to improve on her attendance and lateness. I would like to see her less argumentative.” (Def. Ex. Z).

Plaintiff contends her absenteeism and lateness between the spring of 2009 and the spring of 2010 was due to her children’s school schedules – she is a mother of five – and that in March 2010, she arranged for additional childcare. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶¶ 6-7). Following this arrangement, Plaintiff notes she did not receive any more write-ups related to lateness. (Id. ¶ 10).

On November 7, 2010, a Sunday, Plaintiff was scheduled to work at Mercy. When she arrived, no assignments had been designated on the white board of the Emergency Room. (Id. ¶ 21). Plaintiff wrote her name on the white board next to her desired assignment – triage – but learned shortly thereafter that Carly Cruz, the charge nurse, had called to relay assignments via telephone to nurse Tia. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23). Tia informed Plaintiff she had been assigned by Cruz to staff specific rooms in the emergency department. (Id. ¶ 24). According to Plaintiff, she was already working in triage at this point, and told Tia she wished to stay there. (Id. ¶ 25). Defendant claims Plaintiff’s response was that she “wanted to go out to triage” and did not want to work in the back with “y’all bitches.” (Def. Reply to Pl. Statement of Facts ¶ 25) (ECF 24). The parties agree that Plaintiff remained in the triage unit.

Later that morning, Plaintiff received permission to leave work early from Supervisor Larry Williams because she was not feeling well. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶¶ 31-32). Plaintiff informed Annette Nixon, a fellow nurse, that she was leaving early and that Nixon could “go out to triage.” (Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 178). At the time she spoke with Nixon, there were no patients in triage. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶ 35). Also before Plaintiff departed, she was approached by Anne Schotmiller, a fellow nurse, and was told she wrongfully placed a patient in a room without informing Schotmiller. (Id. ¶ 36). Plaintiff responded that she had reported the placement “to someone, maybe Carly [Cruz].” (Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 268). Plaintiff then clocked out for the day and went to the cafeteria.

While waiting in line at the cafeteria, Carly Cruz, the charge nurse, approached Plaintiff from behind and whispered, “I’m going to tell Carmen what you did, you lying n .” (Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 181-82). Carmen Williams was the nurse manager at Mercy’s emergency department. (Id. at 44). Plaintiff turned around and said “you better watch who you’re talking to like that” (Ballard Dep., Pl. Ex. A at 186), and “you better not say that out your mouth again because you’ll get punched in it.” (Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 193-94). Plaintiff told Cruz she was going to “bust her in the lip.” (Id. at 193-94). Cruz responded by asking “you threatening me[?], ” and said she was going to call 9-1-1. (Id.). Plaintiff told Cruz to “take it for what she want[s], ” (Id. at 193). Plaintiff paid for her food and went home. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶ 43).

That same day, Cruz called 9-11 and notified hospital security of Plaintiff’s threat. (Pl. Ex. L). A “Security Department Incident Report” was created based on Cruz’s complaint. (Def. Ex. EE). Cruz attempted to reach Carmen Williams, and Williams was informed of the altercation later that evening. (Id.; see also Williams Dep., Def. Ex L at 29-30 (stating that on the evening of November 7th, “someone called me to let me know the incident”)).

When Williams arrived for work on November 8th, she commenced an investigation into the cafeteria incident between Plaintiff and Cruz. She spoke with hospital staff and gathered written statements. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶¶ 46, 48). Barbara Woodlock, a cafeteria worker, related that Plaintiff had been in the cafeteria when “a young lady came in [and] said something to Nicole[, ] and all hell broke loose.” (Pl. Ex. K). Neither Woodlock nor any other individual, however, overheard the specific remarks of Plaintiff or Cruz. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶ 52). Nurses Nixon, Cruz, and Therese DiGuardi submitted written statements to Williams on November 9th. (Def. Exs. AA, CC & DD). All three women reported that Plaintiff had unilaterally assigned herself to triage on November 7th (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶¶ 56-58; Def. Exs. AA, CC & DD), and Cruz additionally reported that Plaintiff had walked patients into emergency rooms without notifying anyone, left the triage area unattended, and referred to her coworkers as “bitches.” (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶ 57).

At some point in the morning of November 8th before lunch, as her investigation was underway, Williams spoke with Laura Clift. The two decided that Plaintiff should be suspended pursuant to a hospital policy requiring that any employee alleged to have made a physical threat be suspended pending an investigation. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶67; Williams Dep., Def. Ex L at 42-44; Clift Dep., Def. Ex. HH at 26-28).

Meanwhile, when Plaintiff arrived for work on November 8th, she submitted an entry into the hospital’s incident reporting system, known as the “MIDAS” system. (Id. ¶ 59). The entry bore a time stamp of 8:18 A.M. and it stated that on November 7th, Plaintiff “was approached by” Cruz and “called a derogatory name.” (Pl. Ex. J). Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff met with Williams to talk about the events that had transpired in the emergency department on the prior day. (Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 234-35). During this meeting, Plaintiff did not report Cruz’s use of a racial slur. (Id.).

Plaintiff returned to her work station and subsequently received a phone call from Williams, telling her to report to the Human Resources office. (Pl. Statement of Facts ¶¶ 62-63; Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 235; Williams Dep., Def. Ex L at 43). Plaintiff brought her belongings with her to HR, because she thought she would be told to leave for the day. (Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 236). Plaintiff met with Williams and Clift, and was informed that there was going to be an investigation into the cafeteria altercation. (Id. at 236-37). At this point, Plaintiff reported that Cruz had referred to her as a “lying n ” in the cafeteria, thus provoking Plaintiff’s threat. (Id. at 237). Plaintiff submitted a written statement, signed at 10:25 a.m. on November 8th, memorializing her allegation of the racial slur. (Def. Ex. BB). Plaintiff went home and received a phone call from Laura Clift later that day, informing her that she was being suspended. (Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 239). Her suspension notice stated: “You are suspended from work pending investigation of confrontation on the above date [of November 7, 2010].” (Def. Ex. JJ).

As to Carly Cruz, Williams informed her that she would be removed from the schedule – and should not report to work – during the investigation. (Williams Dep., Def. Ex. L at 38-39).

Plaintiff was terminated on November 10, 2010. At a meeting with Williams and Cruz, she was given a copy of the hospital’s “Colleague Responsibility Policy” and told she was being fired for violating it in several ways. (Ballard Dep., Def. Ex. C at 242-44). Plaintiff could not recall the specifics of the discussion about her termination, but she remembered that her use of profanity as well as “things that had occurred prior to the whole incident” in the cafeteria were part of the conversation. (Id. at 244-47). Plaintiff’s termination notice stated the basis for her termination was her violation of the Colleague Responsibility Policy. (Def. Ex. QQ).

On December 8, 2010, Plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), asserting unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, racial harassment and retaliation, against Mercy. (Pl. Response in Opp. Summary Judgment at 3) (ECF 23). On February 14, 2012, she initiated suit in this Court, alleging Mercy violated her rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 through racial discrimination, submitting her to a hostile work environment, and unlawful retaliation. (ECF 1). Defendant moved to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) based on Plaintiff’s failure to state a claim (ECF 6), and this Court denied the motion (ECF 9). Following ...


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