Saulter v. Detroit Area Agency On Aging, 040414 FED6, 12-2203

Docket Nº:12-2203
Opinion Judge:GRIFFIN, Circuit Judge
Party Name:BARBARA SAULTER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. DETROIT AREA AGENCY ON AGING, Defendant-Appellee.
Judge Panel:BEFORE: MOORE and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges; and SARGUS, District Judge. GRIFFIN, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which MOORE and SARGUS, JJ., concurred, except as to the issue discussed in Part V. MOORE, J., delivered a separate opinion on that issue, in which SARGUS, J., joined. Part V ...
Case Date:April 04, 2014
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

BARBARA SAULTER, Plaintiff-Appellant,



No. 12-2203

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

April 4, 2014



BEFORE: MOORE and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges; and SARGUS, District Judge. [*]

GRIFFIN, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which MOORE and SARGUS, JJ., concurred, except as to the issue discussed in Part V. MOORE, J., delivered a separate opinion on that issue, in which SARGUS, J., joined. Part V of GRIFFIN, J., opinion represents a dissent.

GRIFFIN, Circuit Judge

Plaintiff Barbara Saulter appeals the district court's order granting defendant Detroit Area Agency on Aging's ("DAAA's") motion for summary judgment and dismissing in its entirety her employment discrimination action alleging violations of state and federal law. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part and reverse in part.


The DAAA is a Michigan non-profit corporation that provides a wide array of services to senior citizens in the Detroit area. The services include home care, employment workshops and training, health-insurance counseling, and management of the Detroit Meals on Wheels program, which provides annually over 600, 000 home-delivered meals to seniors at nearly forty different congregate sites. In order to provide these services, DAAA is completely dependent on federal and state funding, as well as some private fundraising. Consequently, DAAA's budget fluctuates based upon the amount of available funds designated for its programs.

In September 2006, DAAA hired Barbara Saulter, a registered dietician ("RD"), as its nutrition service manager. In this capacity, she oversaw the Meals on Wheels and Medicaid Waiver programs. Saulter was in regular contact with the two vendors that prepared the meals. Saulter's duties included reviewing menus and ensuring that the vendors were in compliance with their contractual obligations and the regulatory standards of both the state and federal governments.

During her employment, Saulter dealt with numerous instances of noncompliance by these vendors, including the use of inappropriate and unsanitary utensils, health-code violations, substandard food and meal preparation, and failed deliveries. Even though, by Saulter's own admission, DAAA supervisors followed up on her incident reports and most violations were corrected, she nonetheless claimed that "expressing [her] concerns [to DAAA administrators] seemed to, at times, fall on deaf ears." And although Saulter did not report these violations to anyone outside of the agency, she felt that "something needed to be done. Some additional outside help or something needed." Saulter testified that her reports were sometimes changed by her supervisors and violations were omitted from the final report; on other occasions, she was asked to edit her reports and eliminate certain portions, although she could not recall or give specific examples of such alterations or omissions.

In 2008, the Office of Services to the Aging ("OSA"), which partially funded the Meals on Wheels program, directed that the congregate meal sites should become self-managed, meaning that DAAA no longer would have its employees on site serving the meals and managing the daily operations. In addition, issues involving contract compliance between DAAA and the sites were eventually turned over to DAAA's contract management department. Thus, Saulter's supervision of the sites effectively ended in October 2009.

In the fall of 2009, DAAA implemented "Zero-Based Budgeting, " an administrative review of each department and all individual positions, in an effort to increase efficiency and lower costs due to budgetary constraints. As part of this initiative, each employee was required to document their individual job responsibilities and assign time factors to each duty. In November, DAAA President and CEO Paul Bridgewater announced to the staff that changes would be made to more closely align future funding with services.

The formal review of Saulter's position indicated that she was burdened with too many administrative tasks. In December 2009, with Saulter's support, DAAA hired a senior nutrition assessor to supervise the other nutrition assessors and perform the administrative duties that consumed much of Saulter's time. In addition, responsibility for coordinating the holiday Meals on Wheels program was now shared by several departments. Consequently, by the end of 2009, Saulter had very few administrative responsibilities left.

On December 29, 2009, Saulter requested and began a medical leave of absence, citing the stress of taking care of her aging father, severe intestinal pain, and sinus problems in her requisite documentation for approval of the leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. In January 2010, she notified DAAA by telephone of her intention to file for short-term disability in order to extend her leave and of her belief that her condition was work-related. Grace Grabreck, DAAA's human resources manager, sent Saulter the necessary application forms in early February 2010.

During Saulter's absence, DAAA began to implement departmental and positional realignment pursuant to its Zero-Based Budgeting review. The reorganization was agency-wide, impacting department directors as well as lower-level employees. Substantial restructuring occurred in the community access, care management, and common services departments. Gale Simmons, vice president of community services, concluded that all of Saulter's remaining duties were being adequately covered while she was on leave, but in light of OSA guidelines that required an RD (but not necessarily a DAAA employee) to approve the menus at the congregate meal sites, DAAA sought a temporary independent contractor to fill this role during Saulter's extended leave. In the meantime, DAAA relied upon the two vendors' RDs to perform—free of charge—the meal planning and to prepare the educational materials for the congregate sites.

By March 2010, Simmons determined that as a result of DAAA's reorganization efforts, DAAA no longer needed a full-time nutrition service manager because "the pieces of responsibility . . . had been assigned elsewhere." In memoranda dated March 24, 2010, both Simmons and Gloria Hicks Long, DAAA's senior vice president and chief operating officer, made recommendations to Bridgewater concerning the agency-wide restructuring. Their recommendations included, inter alia, the elimination of Saulter's position in favor of a part-time independent-contractor RD in light of changes in the community services department, the transfer of congregate-site management monitoring functions to the contract management department, the addition of a senior nutrition assessor position, and the addition of a director of healthy aging position. On March 29, 2010, Simmons, Long, and Grabreck jointly sent a memorandum to Bridgewater in which they reaffirmed these reasons to eliminate Saulter's position. They suggested that, pending a release from her doctor, "Saulter will be invited to apply for the [i]ndependent [c]ontractor arrangement."

One day later, on March 30, 2010, Bridgewater notified Saulter by letter of the decision to eliminate her position as of April 9, 2010, and replace it with an independent contractor RD. Bridgewater requested that Saulter immediately contact Grabreck and Simmons to discuss these changes. On the same date, Saulter filed an application for mediation or a hearing with the Michigan Workers' Compensation Agency to initiate a workers' disability compensation claim, citing "[e]xcessive hours and assignments; along with job stress caused nervous system injury with functional overlay." She returned to work from her medical leave on April 5, 2010.

Upon her return, Saulter met with Long, Grabreck, and Simmons. They informed plaintiff about the part-time independent contractor RD position that was being created and encouraged her to apply. DAAA also anticipated the creation of a new position entitled "Director of Wellness" to handle nutrition and healthy aging issues. Saulter discussed the possibility of interviewing for this position once it was formalized, and she submitted her resume indicating her interest in both positions. By e-mail, she requested updates on the hiring process for these positions.

The restructuring and reduction-in-force decisions were made known to the entire DAAA staff in a memorandum from Long, on behalf of Bridgewater, issued on April 9, 2010. In addition to Saulter's position, DAAA also eliminated the following positions: Vice President of Community Access, Wait List Management in Community Access, Support Staff in Community Access, Director of Planning and Provider Development, and Director of Community Access, and shifted other employees to different departments. The memo noted that "Ms. Saulter is considering the Independent Contractor position." Bridgewater made the recommendation to the DAAA Board of Directors that they should enter into an independent contractor agreement with an RD in an amount not to exceed $8, 500 for the period of May 1, 2010 to September 30, 2010. The RD would provide menu approval, nutrition education, and additional food service consultations.

Saulter and other applicants interviewed for the independent-contractor RD position. Ultimately, however, DAAA opted to continue using the vendors' RDs to perform the required services and did not hire anyone for this position.

In early May 2010, Grabreck scheduled an interview with Saulter for the director of wellness position, but she subsequently cancelled it because DAAA's...

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