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Leonard v. TJUH System

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 13, 2019



          EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

         Plaintiff Dargeeling Leonard brings this case against her former employers, TJUH System, Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, Inc., and TJU Hospitals, Inc. (collectively, “TJUH”), alleging she was discriminated against because of her race and age, retaliated against for complaining about the discrimination, and subjected to a hostile work environment. TJUH has moved for summary judgment on all claims. Leonard has failed either to make out a prima facie case or to show pretext. The Court will grant TJUH's motion for summary judgment as to all counts.


         Leonard was employed by TJUH in the Sleep Center as a polysomnography technician for approximately eleven years before she was terminated on April 11, 2016. During that time, Leonard was formally disciplined numerous times, including once for failing to record certain data properly, which resulted in a safety violation (incident on October 24, 2015, disciplinary action on January 28, 2016), and once for failing to appear for a scheduled shift (incident on December 29, 2015, action on January 7, 2016). Leonard was placed on a first Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) in February 2014, which she successfully completed. An annual performance evaluation ending in June 2015 noted a decline in her work quality, including incorrect orders and inaccurate or missing documentation. Leonard was placed on a second PIP in August 2015. TJUH claims that it terminated Leonard for failing to complete the second PIP successfully.

         Leonard alleges that TJUH discriminated against her, retaliated against her, and subjected her to a hostile work environment. In particular, Leonard alleges that other younger, white employees were not held to the same performance standards, as demonstrated by a March 2015 statistical analysis of the errors made by Sleep Center workers. Leonard also alleges that a comment made by her supervisor, Robert Tavella, about people who are 55 years old shows that she was discriminated against on the basis of her age. She alleges that she was retaliated against for reporting instances of discrimination, as shown by her termination less than a year later. Finally, she alleges a hostile work environment based on the same conduct that supports her other claims, and other incidents involving her co-workers, including sabotage and being isolated by them.

         Leonard timely filed charges of race and age discrimination and retaliation against TJUH with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The EEOC issued Leonard a right-to-sue letter on February 3, 2017. Leonard timely filed her complaint in this matter, bringing claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”) (29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 951 et seq.). With leave of the Court, Leonard filed a Second Amended Complaint, which added the claim of hostile work environment. Pending before the Court is TJUH's motion for summary judgment on all claims.


         A. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment will be granted where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it affects the outcome of a case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” if a reasonable factfinder looking at the evidence could decide in favor of the nonmoving party. Id. “A motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by ‘the mere existence' of some disputed facts, but will be denied when there is a genuine dispute of material fact.” Am. Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48).

         The Court analyzes the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Pignataro v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 593 F.3d 265, 268 (3d Cir. 2010). The moving party carries the initial burden of demonstrating no genuine issue of material fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. If this requirement is met, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party who must “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue” and that the case should proceed to trial. Id.

         B. Title VII and ADEA Claims at Summary Judgment

         A plaintiff who lacks direct evidence of race or age discrimination may prevail under the three-part burden-shifting framework established by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-03 (1973). See Burton v. Teleflex Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 425-27 (3d Cir. 2013). The burden-shifting framework concerns burdens of production. Id. The burden of persuasion, however, remains with the plaintiff at all times. St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 507 (1993).

         First, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation. Burton, 707 F.3d at 426. “To establish a prima facie case at summary judgment, ‘the evidence must be sufficient to convince a reasonable factfinder to find all of the elements of [the] prima facie case.'” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Duffy v. Paper Magic Grp., 265 F.3d 163, 167 (3d Cir. 2001)). “If a plaintiff fails to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to any of the elements of the prima facie case, she has not met her initial burden, and summary judgment is properly granted for the defendant.” Id. (citing Geraci v. Moody-Tottrup, Int'l, Inc., 82 F.3d 578, 580 (3d Cir. 1996)). A plaintiff “has established a prima facie case when sufficient evidence is offered such that the court can infer that if the employer's actions remain unexplained, it is more likely than not that such actions were based on impermissible reasons.” EEOC v. Metal Serv. Co., 892 F.2d 341, 348 (3d Cir. 1990).

         If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the defendant to proffer a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Burton, 707 F.3d at 426. “This burden is ‘relatively light' and is satisfied if the employer provides evidence, which, if true, would permit a conclusion that it took the adverse employment action for a non-discriminatory reason.” Id. (quoting Tomasso v. Boeing Co., 445 F.3d 702, 706 (3d Cir. 2006)).

         If the defendant provides a legitimate non-discriminatory reason, the burden of production then shifts back to the plaintiff “to provide evidence from which a factfinder could reasonably infer that the employer's proffered justification is merely a pretext for discrimination.” Id. (citing Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764-65 (3d Cir. 1994)). A plaintiff can show pretext by adducing “evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a factfinder could reasonably either (1) disbelieve the employer's articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer's action.” Id. at 427 (citing Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 764).

         To challenge an employer's proffered reason and allow a factfinder to disbelieve the defendant, the plaintiff must produce evidence that shows “such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them ‘unworthy of credence.'” Id. (quoting Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 765).

         To allow a factfinder to believe an invidious discriminatory reason, the plaintiff must show that “(1) the defendant previously discriminated against the plaintiff; (2) the defendant discriminated against others within the plaintiff's protected class; or (3) the defendant has treated similarly situated . . . individuals more favorably.” Willis v. UPMC Children's Hosp. of Pittsburgh, 808 F.3d 638, 645 (3d Cir. 2015).

         If the plaintiff fails to make a showing of pretext, summary judgment is awarded to the defendant. Burton, 707 F.3d at 426-27 (citing Doe v. C.A.R.S. Prot. Plus, Inc., 527 F.3d 358, 364 (3d Cir. 2008)).


         A. Time Bar on Actionable Incidents

         As a threshold matter, only adverse employment actions that are timely under Title VII, ADEA, and the PHRA may be considered. In states where an agency may grant relief for federally prohibited employment discrimination, such as Pennsylvania, a plaintiff must file claims with the EEOC within 300 days of the alleged unlawful employment practice. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1); Watson v. Eastman Kodak Co., 235 F.3d 851, 854 (3d Cir. 2000); see also Koller v. Abington Mem'l Hosp., 728 Fed.Appx. 136, 138 n.1 (3d Cir. 2018) (non-precedential).

         “Discrete” discriminatory acts “must be raised within the applicable limitations period or they will not support a lawsuit.” O'Connor v. City of Newark, 440 F.3d 125, 127 (3d Cir. 2006). Thus, Leonard is barred from challenging incidents that happened before June 23, 2015 (300 days prior to Leonard's EEOC filing on April 18, 2016).

         As applied to Leonard's claims, she may only challenge the following incidents: the second PIP (August 2015), the two disciplinary actions in January 2016, and her termination in April 2016.

         B. Race Discrimination

         1. Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case

         A plaintiff can establish a prima facie case of race discrimination under Title VII by showing: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was qualified for the position in question; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) that adverse employment action gives rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. Jones v. Sch. ...

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