Putman v. Unity Health System

Decision Date07 November 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-4105.,02-4105.
Citation348 F.3d 732
PartiesClarence PUTMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNITY HEALTH SYSTEM, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Christopher Bent, argued, St. Louis, MO, for appellant.

Gerald M. Richardson, argued, St. Louis, MO, for appellee.

Before LOKEN, Chief Judge, McMILLIAN and HANSEN, Circuit Judges.

LOKEN, Chief Judge.

After Unity Health System terminated Clarence Putman as a LAN Analyst, Putman, an African-American, commenced this action alleging race and retaliation discrimination and racial harassment in violation of state and federal law. The district court1 granted summary judgment dismissing all claims. Putman appeals the dismissal of his federal race and retaliation discrimination claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). We review the grant of summary judgment de novo, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and drawing all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Kiel v. Select Artificials, Inc., 169 F.3d 1131, 1134 (8th Cir.) (en banc), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 818, 120 S.Ct. 59, 145 L.Ed.2d 51 (1999). To survive a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must "substantiate his allegations with sufficient probative evidence [that] would permit a finding in [his] favor based on more than mere speculation, conjecture, or fantasy." Wilson v. Int'l Bus. Machs. Corp., 62 F.3d 237, 241 (8th Cir.1995) (quotation omitted). We affirm.

I. Background.

Putman was hired by Unity's predecessor in 1986. He began working for Unity as a LAN analyst in 1996. In November 1999, Bob Heitzman became Putman's supervisor. At their first meeting on December 15, Heitzman criticized aspects of Putman's job performance and said that Putman was not "humble enough" and was "too prideful." The next day, Putman sent Heitzman a long e-mail that included a request that Heitzman explain these remarks. Heitzman's e-mail response explained, "I think you are so proud it's hard for you to admit you can and have made mistakes." The next day Putman sent a lengthy e-mail to a human resources coordinator complaining that Heitzman "is riding me."

Putman took a leave of absence from December 22, 1999 to February 14, 2000. On January 25, he submitted a grievance to Unity's human resources department, alleging a pattern of racial discrimination, primarily by Heitzman. A human resources coordinator investigated and advised Putman on February 15 of her conclusion that Heitzman's remarks were not racially motivated. Putman appealed to the director of human resources, again accusing Heitzman of making remarks with "racial overtones." On March 23, the human resources director responded, "There is no evidence that Bob Heitzman's treatment of you is motivated by your race."

On March 3, 2000, Putman engaged in a heated argument with a co-worker, which culminated in Putman walking out of Heitzman's office and leaving work early. Putman acknowledges that he was "aggravated" and concedes that he "may have" called the co-worker a "neanderthal." One week later, Bruce Burkman, Unity's Director of Customer Service, issued Putman a Last Chance Agreement. The Agreement recited that, based upon the March 3 incident, "Unity Health believes that termination of your employment is appropriate at this time," but he was being given "one last chance to maintain your employment." The Agreement stated that Putman would continue to report to Heitzman and specifically warned: "If there are any further incidents of disrespect or insubordination on your part directed toward Bob Heitzman, you will either immediately resign your employment or be discharged."

Putman took a second leave of absence from March 10 to April 23, 2000. He filed a charge of race discrimination during this period, and the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter. On May 23, after Putman returned to work, Heitzman asked him to carry an on-call pager for an additional week because he had missed his turns in the normal rotation during his leave of absence. Putman flatly refused, and he was terminated the next day for insubordination. Six Unity officials including Heitzman and the Vice President of Human Resources took part in the termination decision. This lawsuit followed.

II. The Race Discrimination Claims.

A plaintiff may prove intentional race discrimination using either direct or indirect (circumstantial) evidence. See Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 270-79, 109 S.Ct. 1775, 104 L.Ed.2d 268 (1989) (O'Connor, J., concurring). Putman argues he presented sufficient evidence of both kinds to avoid summary judgment.

A. Putman first argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment because Heitzman's comments at their initial meeting are direct evidence of race discrimination. Evidence is "direct" if it establishes "a specific link between the [alleged] discriminatory animus and the challenged decision, sufficient to support a finding by a reasonable fact finder that an illegitimate criterion actually motivated" the employer's decision. Thomas v. First Nat'l Bank of Wynne, 111 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir.1997) (quotation omitted). Heitzman's comments that Putman was not "humble enough" and "too prideful" were facially race-neutral. When Putman asked Heitzman for an explanation, in an e-mail that did not refer to race, Heitzman put the comments in a race-neutral context that was relevant to the job performance issues discussed at their meeting. Putman then submitted a grievance, and two human resources officials investigated and found no support for his assertion of race discrimination by Heitzman. Finally, while Heitzman was involved in the events leading to Putman's Last Chance Agreement and eventual termination, these events occurred many months and two leaves of absence after the December 1999 meeting. In these circumstances, we agree with the district court that no reasonable fact-finder could find that the comments in question are direct evidence that race discrimination actually motivated Unity's decision to terminate Clarence Putman. See Kriss v. Sprint Communications Co., 58 F.3d 1276, 1281-82 (8th Cir.1995).

B. Putman next argues that summary judgment was inappropriate because he presented sufficient indirect evidence of race discrimination under the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973).2 Under that familiar three-step formula, plaintiff must first present a prima facie case of intentional discrimination. The burden then shifts to defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action. If defendant meets that minimal burden, plaintiff must show that the proffered nondiscriminatory reason is merely a pretext for unlawful race discrimination. In this case, the district court concluded that Putman failed to present a prima facie case of intentional race discrimination "because he has failed to present evidence that similarly situated white employees were treated differently than he."

In the McDonnell Douglas analysis, "[t]he prima facie case serves an important function in the litigation: it eliminates the most common nondiscriminatory reasons for the plaintiff's rejection," thereby "giv[ing] rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination." Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253-54, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981). The concept is flexible, and the burden of establishing a prima facie case "is not onerous." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253 & n. 6, 101 S.Ct. 1089.

McDonnell Douglas involved an allegedly discriminatory refusal to hire. The Court noted that plaintiff in such a case may satisfy his prima facie case burden "by showing (i) that he belongs to a racial minority; (ii) that he applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants; (iii) that, despite his qualifications, he was rejected; and (iv) that, after his rejection, the position remained open and the employer continued to seek applicants from persons of complainant's qualifications." McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817. This showing eliminates two common non-discriminatory reasons for a refusal to hire — that the plaintiff was not qualified for the position or that no suitable vacancy existed.

This case involves an allegedly discriminatory discharge,...

To continue reading

Request your trial
387 cases
  • Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of Iowa
    • November 13, 2008
    ...Title VII, a plaintiff may prove discrimination by using either direct or indirect (circumstantial) evidence. See Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 734 (8th Cir.2003). "If the plaintiff produces direct evidence that an illegitimate criterion, such as gender, `played a motivating pa......
  • Habben v. City of Fort Dodge
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • January 29, 2007
    ...a finding by a reasonable fact finder that an illegitimate criterion actually motivated the employer's decision." Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 735 (8th Cir.2003) (quotations omitted) (alteration in original). "`[D]irect evidence' does not include `stray remarks in the workplac......
  • Parada v. Great Plains Intern. of Sioux City, Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • April 11, 2007
    ...evidence that would give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.'" Turner, 421 F.3d at 694 (quoting Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 736 (8th Cir. 2003)). The disputed elements here, the second ("qualification/meeting legitimate expectations") and the fourth ("similarly s......
  • Clay v. American
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of Iowa
    • February 13, 2013
    ...conjecture, or fantasy.’ ” Doe v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs of U.S., 519 F.3d 456, 460 (8th Cir.2008) (quoting Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 734 (8th Cir.2003)). “A party cannot defeat a summary judgment motion by asserting the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute bet......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • The employees' decade: recent developments under the MHRA and the employers' potential rebound.
    • United States
    • Missouri Law Review Vol. 75 No. 4, September 2010
    • September 22, 2010
    ...1984) (en banc) (expressly adopting the federal employment discrimination analytical framework). (47.) See Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 734 (8th Cir. (48.) Philipp v. ANR Freight Sys., Inc., 61 F.3d 669, 673 (8th Cir. 1995) (citing Stacks v. Sw. Bell Yellow Pages, Inc., 996 F.......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT