Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Medical Center, Inc., 01-1338.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Citation290 F.3d 639
Docket NumberNo. 01-1338.,No. 01-1350.,01-1338.,01-1350.
PartiesJoyce K. DENNIS, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. COLUMBIA COLLETON MEDICAL CENTER, INCORPORATED, Defendant-Appellant, and Columbia HCA Healthcare Corporation, of South Carolina; Walterboro Community Hospital, Incorporated; Colleton Medical Center; Healthtrust, Incorporated, Defendants. Joyce K. Dennis, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Columbia Colleton Medical Center, Incorporated, Defendant-Appellee, and Columbia HCA Healthcare Corporation, of South Carolina; Walterboro Community Hospital, Incorporated; Colleton Medical Center; Healthtrust, Incorporated, Defendants.
Decision Date16 May 2002

ARGUED: M. Dawes Cooke, Barnwell, Whaley, Patterson & Helms, L.L.C., Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant. Margaret D. Fabri, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Lucinda Gardner Wichmann, Barnwell, Whaley, Patterson & Helms, L.L.C., Charleston, South Carolina; Mark E. Edwards, Jeanne Casstevens Thomas, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

Before WILLIAMS and KING, Circuit Judges, and CYNTHIA HOLCOMB HALL, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Senior Judge CYNTHIA HOLCOMB HALL wrote the opinion. Judge KING wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Judge WILLIAMS wrote an opinion dissenting in part and concurring in part in the judgment.

OPINION

CYNTHIA HOLCOMB HALL, Senior Circuit Judge.

Appellant/Cross-Appellee Columbia Colleton Medical Center ("Colleton") employed Appellee/Cross-Appellant Joyce Dennis as an emergency room registration clerk. In June 1997, Dennis was passed over for promotion to the position of registration supervisor in favor of an outside candidate, Johnny Bridge. Dennis brought suit pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, alleging discrimination based on gender. After a trial in which the jury found in favor of Dennis, Colleton filed motions for judgment as a matter of law and a new trial, which were denied. Colleton appeals the denial of its post-trial motions, as well as the district court's award of back pay and assessment of attorney's fees. Dennis cross-appeals the district court's post-trial reduction of a $25,000 jury award for emotional distress. We affirm.

I.

In May 1996, Dennis was employed by Colleton as a part-time emergency room registration clerk. At the time she was hired, Dennis was a 19-year-old high school graduate who had worked a number of service jobs and was enrolled in an Emergency Medical Services ("EMS") training course. On January 20, 1997, Dennis transferred to a full-time position as a technician in the Labor and Delivery Department. On March 30, 1997, Dennis returned to the emergency room as a full-time registration clerk. For the roughly 15 months that she worked at the hospital, Dennis was a diligent and hardworking employee who generally earned positive assessments for her work.

At the time of Dennis' transfer back to the emergency room, management of the Registration Department was in a state of some disarray. Either during or soon after her return, a new registration supervisor was hired. The supervisor had difficulty coping with the position and abruptly resigned on June 15, 1997, leaving the department without a supervisor. During an approximately eight week period when the department was without a formal supervisor, Dennis would periodically carry out some supervisory duties, including training new employees and fielding operational questions.

Dennis applied for the position of registration supervisor once it was formally opened. On June 20, 1997 she interviewed with Jennifer Wray, the decision-maker normally responsible for filling this position. During the interview, Wray made an inappropriate comment suggesting that although she would personally like to promote her, Dennis would not get the promotion due to an affair she was rumored to be having with a doctor. Dennis denied the affair and complained to Jimmy Hiott, Colleton's chief financial officer and Wray's direct superior. After consulting with colleagues in senior management, Hiott chose to reprimand Wray and take over the selection process himself.

The process that Hiott applied was peculiarly informal. Hiott reviewed Dennis' initial application to the hospital, but did not personally interview her. Nor did he inquire into her experience since joining the hospital or check her references or evaluations. Hiott did however interview Bridge, a 32-year-old who was at that time working full-time as a transportation and computer manager at Clean Management Environmental Group. Bridge's wife had worked at Colleton in data processing and was acquainted with Hiott. Bridge himself also had some extremely limited experience at Colleton working as a part-time "PRN PBX operator," which entailed operating the PBX switch-board system nights and weekends on an "as needed" basis. Because the PBX was physically near Registration, he also received some registration training and worked a few shifts in Registration on an informal basis. The record is unclear as to whether Bridge formally applied for the supervisor's position and as to how Hiott became aware that he would be interested in it.

In addition to Dennis and Bridge, the record also offers disputed evidence of a third candidate, Tonya Williams, who was then working at Colleton's business office. Williams, an African-American woman, had roughly seven years experience working in Registration, a degree in computer technology and, unlike either Dennis or Bridge, met the formal requirements for the supervisory position. Hiott claimed that he was never made aware of Williams' application, and Colleton offered supporting evidence that it may have been submitted or at least discovered by the head of human resources after the position was already filled. However, the date on William's transfer request form was timely, and the director of human resources testified at deposition that she had forwarded the application to Wray. Although she later claimed that this was after the position was already filled, Wray did know about Williams' interest in the position before Hiott took over the hiring process because she conducted an interview with her on the same day that she interviewed Dennis.

In any event, Hiott awarded the position to Bridge. His proffered explanation was that he selected Bridge for his management and computer skills. Hiott claimed at trial that at the time of the decision he was aware that Registration needed someone with such skills in order to reform a badly disorganized department and oversee a planned change in computer systems. He asserted that he had posed various hypothetical problems to Bridge during his interview and had been highly impressed by his answers. Based on this favorable impression and his prior knowledge of Bridge's affinity for computers, he offered him the job.

Dennis was not as impressed. After learning of the promotion decision, she quit her position at Colleton and filed an EEOC charge and subsequent suit alleging discriminatory failure to promote as well as defamation. Colleton moved for summary judgment on all causes of action, and the motion was granted on April 6, 2000. However, Dennis filed a motion for reconsideration on June 23, 2000, based on the Supreme Court holding in Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). On August 14, 2000, the district court reversed its previous order except as to the defamation charge.

The case was then tried to a jury except the issues of compensatory front pay and back pay, which the parties agreed to have tried separately before the district court judge. After Colleton's motion for judgment as a matter of law was denied, the jury found in favor of Dennis on the discrimination claim and awarded $25,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress. After a separate hearing, the district court awarded $31,302 in back pay. It also granted $104,765.80 in attorney's fees and costs.

Following the trial, Colleton filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and a motion for a new trial. The district court denied both motions, but granted a request to nullify the jury's $25,000 award for emotional distress.

II.
A. MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

Colleton appeals the district court's denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law. A Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law follows the same standard as a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment. When reviewing a district court's ruling, we apply the same standards de novo. Brown v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 18 F.3d 245, 248 (4th Cir.1994); Taylor v. Virginia Union University, 193 F.3d 219, 230 (4th Cir.1999). In doing so, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to Dennis, the nonmovant, and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor without weighing the evidence or assessing the witnesses' credibility. See Baynard v. Malone, 268 F.3d 228, 234 (4th Cir.2001). "The question is whether a jury, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to [Dennis], could have properly reached the conclusion reached by this jury." Benesh v. Amphenol Corp. (In re Wildewood Litigation), 52 F.3d 499, 502 (4th Cir.1995). We must reverse if a reasonable jury could only rule in favor of Colleton; if reasonable minds could differ, we must affirm. Sales v. Grant, 158 F.3d 768, 775 (4th Cir.1998); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (explaining that judgment as a matter of law is proper if "there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict.").

1. Qualifications

Colleton first argues that Dennis failed to offer sufficient evidence to make out a prima facie case of gender discrimination. We begin by noting that...

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