Orluske v. Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa

Decision Date10 October 2006
Docket NumberNo. C 05-3018-MWB.,C 05-3018-MWB.
Citation455 F.Supp.2d 900
PartiesDianna ORLUSKE, Plaintiff, v. MERCY MEDICAL CENTER-NORTH IOWA, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

Blake Parker, Law Office of Blake Parker, Fort Dodge, LA, for Plaintiff.

Debra Lynne Hulett, Thomas W. Foley, Nyemaster Goode West Hansen & O'Brien, PC, Des Moines, IA, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

BENNETT, Chief Judge.

                TABLE OF CONTENTS
                I. INTRODUCTION ................................................ 904
                   A. Procedural Background .................................... 904
                   B. Factual Background ....................................... 904
                II. LEGAL ANALYSIS ............................................. 911
                    A. Summary Judgment Standards .............................. 911
                    B. Orluske's Age Discrimination Claims ..................... 912
                       1. Arguments of the parties ............................. 912
                          a. Mercy's argument .................................. 912
                          b. Orluske's response ................................ 913
                          c. Mercy's reply ..................................... 915
                       2. Sufficiency of Orluske's prima facie case ............ 916
                          a. Performing to the employer's expectations ......... 916
                          b. Replacement by a younger employee ................. 917
                       3. Pretext and inferences of discrimination ............. 918
                    C. Orluske's Retaliation Claim ............................. 919
                       1. Arguments of the parties ............................. 919
                          a. Mercy's argument .................................. 919
                          b. Orluske's response ................................ 919
                          c. Mercy's reply ..................................... 920
                       2. Sufficiency of Orluske's prima fade case ............. 920
                          a. Protected activity ................................ 920
                          b. Causal connection ................................. 921
                       3. Pretext and inferences of retaliation ................ 923
                III. CONCLUSION ................................................ 924
                

In this action, the plaintiff asserts claims of age discrimination and retaliation for filing a complaint alleging sexual harassment of third parties in violation of federal and state law arising from the termination of her employment as a "unit clerk" for a regional medical center. The defendant medical center has moved for summary judgment on all of the plaintiffs claims, asserting that the plaintiff was fired for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, including, primarily, repeated rude and discourteous behavior to other members of the medical center staff. Not surprisingly, the parties have very different views of what the record demonstrates and whether this action should ever be heard by a jury.

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Procedural Background

In a Complaint filed April 8, 2005 (docket no. 1), plaintiff Dianna Orluske originally asserted the following claims arising from her termination by defendant Mercy Medical Center—North Iowa (Mercy): age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA); disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the ICRA; and retaliation for participating in a complaint of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, and the ICRA. Mercy filed an Answer and Affirmative Defenses (docket no. 9) to Orluske's Complaint on June 10, 2005, in which Mercy, inter alia, denied all of Orluske's claims. A little over a year later, on June 30, 2006, the parties stipulated to the dismissal, with prejudice, of Orluske's disability discrimination claims (docket no. 15). Therefore, the claims remaining before the court are Orluske's federal and state claims of age discrimination and retaliation for participating in a complaint of sexual harassment. Trial on Orluske's remaining claims is set to begin on November 13, 2006.

On June 30, 2006, however, Mercy filed a Motion For Summary Judgment (docket no. 16) seeking judgment in its favor on all of Orluske's remaining claims, which would obviate the need for trial. Orluske filed a response (docket no. 24) to Mercy's motion for summary judgment on August 8, 2006, and Mercy filed a reply (docket no. 30) in further support of its motion on August 21, 2006.

In her August 8, 2006, response, Orluske requested oral arguments on Mercy's motion for summary judgment. The court agreed that oral arguments on Mercy's motion for summary judgment were likely to be of benefit. Therefore, by order dated September 18, 2006 (docket no. 34), the court set oral arguments on Mercy's motion for Thursday, October 5, 2006. Owing to a shortage of available courtrooms, by order dated October 3, 2006 (docket no. 35), the oral arguments were rescheduled for Wednesday, October 4, 2006, but when proceedings in another matter ran overtime, the oral arguments in this case were once again rescheduled for October 5, 2006. At the oral arguments, plaintiff Dianna Orluske was represented by Blake Parker of the Blake Parker Law Office in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Defendant Mercy Medical Center—North Iowa was represented by Thomas W. Foley, who presented Mercy's argument, and Debra Lynne Hulett of Nyemaster, Goode, West, Hansell & O'Brien, P.C., in Des Moines, Iowa. Mercy's summary judgment motion is now fully submitted and ripe for disposition.

B. Factual Background

Ordinarily, in a ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court would not attempt a detailed dissertation of the undisputed and disputed facts in the case. Rather, the court would provide sufficient facts, both undisputed and disputed, to put in context the parties' arguments for and against summary judgment. In this case, however, the question is what inferences can reasonably be drawn from a series of events that have no obvious hint of age discrimination or retaliatory intent. Thus, a rather more detailed description of the facts is required.

Dianna Orluske began working for Mercy, a regional medical center, in April 1981 as a "Unit Clerk," and retained, that position for her entire tenure with Mercy. According to a job description provided by Mercy, a unit clerk performs receptionist and secretarial duties and serves as a communications liaison on a particular medical unit of the medical center. When the unit on which Orluske had previously worked as a unit clerk closed in 1999, Orluske applied for and was selected to fill the only unit clerk position then open, which was in a medical unit referred to by Mercy employees as "4E." Orluske's immediate supervisor on Unit 4E was Denise Dow, the Nurse Manager for the unit, and the Charge Nurse on the unit was Roxanne Hansen. Apparently, Orluske found the job on Unit 4E to be harder and to involve a "whole different atmosphere than what [she had] been used to for all the years that [she] had worked at Mercy." Defendant's Appendix at 5 (excerpt of deposition of Dianna Orluske).

In April of 1999, Dow rated Orluske's work performance below expectations in three of five categories, identifying the deficiencies in those categories as follows: Under "Duties and Responsibilities," a deficiency in "quality improvement"; under "Interpersonal Relationships," a deficiency in "internal" relationships; and under "Working Conditions," a deficiency in "stress" and "unpleasant conditions." Defendant's Appendix, 47. Orluske, who believed that Hansen did not like her and was behind the negative evaluation, protested the evaluation. As part of the dispute resolution "process, Orluske and Dow each chose three other staff members to evaluate Orluske. The scores from the other staff members resulted in a cumulative rating similar to the rating that Dow had originally given Orluske. Defendant's Appendix at 50. Nevertheless, Dow subsequently adjusted her evaluation to refled higher scores in "quality improvement," "execution," and "overall quality" (only the first of which had been rated as deficient), see id., and Orluske received a higher annual raise as a result. Orluske did not and does not contend that the negative marks in the April 1999 evaluation constituted age discrimination.

An interim evaluation of Orluske by Dow in late 1999 or early 20001 indicated improvement in each of the criteria in which Orluske had previously received a lower than "meets expectations" rating, but Orluske denies that her work actually improved. Rather, she contends that her performance remained the same, but that Dow now knew that she could not get away with giving Orluske a low evaluation. Similarly, an annual evaluation of Orluske by Dow in April 2000 was more positive. Orluske received positive annual evaluations again in April 2001 and April 2002, without any negative comments. The parties agree that, prior to April 2002, no one at Mercy said or did anything that led Orluske to believe that Mercy felt less favorably toward her because of her age, no one ever made any negative comment to her regarding her age, and no actions were taken toward her that Orluske felt were motivated by her age.

Things apparently changed, however, when a new Charge Nurse for Unit 4E entered the picture in July 2002. The new Charge Nurse was Stephanie Banks, who was in her late twenties or early thirties, much younger than Orluske. Although Orluske once again contends that there was no change in her work performance, Banks raised issues regarding Orluske's work attitude and treatment of her fellow workers. Mercy contends that these problems were similar to ones previously identified by Dow, but Orluske contends that they were not similar at all. Orluske contends that the issues raised by Banks were because of Orluske's age and personality conflicts. More...

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