Truckenmiller v. Burgess Health Ctr., C 10–4066–MWB.

Citation814 F.Supp.2d 894
Decision Date30 September 2011
Docket NumberNo. C 10–4066–MWB.,C 10–4066–MWB.
PartiesDenise TRUCKENMILLER, Plaintiff, v. BURGESS HEALTH CENTER and Francis Tramp, Defendants.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Patrick M. Flood, Hotz, Weaver, Flood & Breitkreutz, Omaha, NE, for Plaintiff.

Heidi Ann Guttau–Fox, Baird, Holm, McEachen, Pedersen, Hamann & Strasheim, Omaha, NE, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.

+-----------------+
                ¦TABLE OF CONTENTS¦
                +-----------------+
                
                I. INTRODUCTION                                                       896
                
 A. Factual Background                                              896
                
 1. The parties and their relationship                         896
                        2. Truckenmiller's job performance                            897
                        3. Truckenmiller's complaints about unequal treatment         899
                        4. The aftermath                                              900
                
 B. Procedural Background                                           900
                
 1. Truckenmiller's Complaint                                  900
                        2. The defendants' motion for summary judgment                901
                
                II. LEGAL ANALYSIS                                                    901
                
 A. Standards For Summary Judgment                                  901
                   B. Truckenmiller's EPA Retaliation Claim                           904
                
 1. The EPA and the FLSA                                       904
                        2. Truckenmiller's   prima facie case                         906
                
 a. Arguments of the parties                               906
                            b. Analysis                                               907
                
 i. Sufficiency of the “complaint”                907
                                ii. Causal connection                                 908
                
 3. The defendants' legitimate reason and pretext              910
                
 a. Arguments of the parties                               910
                            b. Analysis                                               911
                
 4. Summary                                                    912
                
 C. The Wrongful Discharge Claim                                    912
                
                III. CONCLUSION                                                        913
                

Was the plaintiff human resources director terminated for poor performance or for voicing concerns about differences in titles and pay between male and female members of the senior leadership team at the defendant hospital? While that question animates this lawsuit alleging retaliation in violation of the Equal Pay Act (EPA) provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 26 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), the motion for summary judgment by the defendants, the hospital and its chief executive officer, first raises the question of whether the plaintiff made a “complaint” of sufficient formality, seriousness, clarity, and detail to put the defendants on notice that the plaintiff was asserting rights protected by the statute, or just an informal comment at the end of a meeting as everyone was packing up. In other words, the question is whether the plaintiff engaged in any protected activity at all. The plaintiff points out that she had made a similar comment two months earlier, but when she dared raise the matter a second time, making clear that she believed the hospital's policy violated the law and needed to be addressed, she was terminated within two days for reasons that are pretextual. The motion for summary judgment requires me to consider, among other issues, the import of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Kasten v. Saint–Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., ––– U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1325, 179 L.Ed.2d 379 (2011), concerning the requirements for a “complaint” sufficient to invoke the anti-retaliation protections of the FLSA.

I. INTRODUCTION
A. Factual Background

I will not attempt here an exhaustive dissertation on the undisputed and disputed facts in this case. Rather, I will set forth sufficient of the facts, both undisputed and disputed, to put in context the parties' arguments concerning the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Unless expressly indicated otherwise, the parties agree that the facts stated are undisputed. 1

1. The parties and their relationship

Defendant Francis Tramp, the President/Chief Executive Officer of defendant Burgess Health Center (Burgess), hired plaintiff Denise Truckenmiller in August 2006 as the Director of Human Capital for Burgess. Truckenmiller's employment was at-will. Truckenmiller chose to refer to her position as “Human Capital” rather than “Human Resources,” because she felt that “human resources” was an old-fashioned term, but the parties dispute whether or not she could have called herself “Chief” rather than “Director,” if she had wanted to, and whether a difference in titles would have made any difference to her pay. The parties agree that Truckenmiller's position was important to Burgess. They also agree that conditions of Truckenmiller's employment were compliance with Burgess's policies and reaching the goals that Burgess had set for her.

Truckenmiller received Burgess's Human Resources Policy Handbook and Standards of Performance. The latter stated, in pertinent part, • Be sure you know and understand the responsibilities of your job. Take charge of and accept these responsibilities.

• Perform your work in a timely manner....

• Complete tasks....

Defendants' Appendix at 77. Burgess also had an equal opportunity anti-discrimination policy, with which Truckenmiller was familiar as the Director of Human Capital. That policy's purpose was [t]o insure [sic] that Burgess Health Center offers equal employment opportunity to all persons.” Defendants' Appendix at 107.

As Director of Human Capital, Truckenmiller was part of Burgess's senior leadership team, which included three other female members, Jean Pekarek, the Director of Patient Experiences, Patty Sandmann, the Senior Nursing Director, and Theresa Butler, the Director of Quality, and three male members, Tramp, the CEO, Shawn Gosch, the Chief Financial Officer, and Kim Norby, the Chief Information Officer. Truckenmiller contends that she and other females with “Director” titles received $20,000 to $25,000 less per year than their male counterparts with “Chief” titles. Truckenmiller also served on the committee working to obtain a Pathways to Excellence designation for Burgess from the American Nursing Credentialing Center, which is a program recognizing outstanding distinction in healthcare. The parties agree that Burgess's Board of Directors had issued a directive to hospital management to achieve a Pathways designation as a high priority. Truckenmiller contends that the Pathways to Excellence project is still on-going at Burgess today.

The parties agree that the wage review process, or Burgess's “salary matrix,” was one of Truckenmiller's significant job duties and that she had lead responsibility for its completion. Preparing the “salary matrix” included going through Burgess's employees' job titles, ensuring that the titles matched the job duties, and making sure that each job and/or employee was in the appropriate pay grade using multipliers from the Iowa Hospital Association's survey. Burgess's Board of Directors required an update of the “salary matrix” annually for the overall hospital budget so that salaries and raises could be determined.

2. Truckenmiller's job performance

The parties dispute whether Truckenmiller excelled at her job or suffered persistent performance problems. The parties agree that Truckenmiller was instrumental in changing the “culture” that existed at Burgess, resulting in improvements in the work environment. Truckenmiller asserts that she also received positive performance evaluations in 2007, 2008, and 2009, with few identified areas in need of improvement, and also received raises in 2007 and 2008. In contrast, the defendants focus on the identification of areas that needed improvement in each of those evaluations and Tramp's determination not to give Truckenmiller a raise in 2009, because she had missed project deadlines, which Truckenmiller admits doing. Truckenmiller also does not dispute that Tramp offered to hire a job coach for her, at Burgess's expense, to help her succeed in her position. In November of 2009, Tramp discussed with Truckenmiller his concerns about her failure to meet the Pathways to Excellence deadlines, but Truckenmiller contends that only minor deadlines had to be pushed back, and that by May of 2010, the Pathways to Excellence project was still on schedule and that Theresa Butler, who was leading the Pathways project, answered “yes” when Truckenmiller asked if “everything is good” and if Butler was “comfortable with this.”

The defendants contend that, in 2009 and 2010, Truckenmiller had monthly meetings with Tramp to help her succeed and that Tramp told Truckenmiller during those meetings what she needed to do to improve her performance and get caught up, including getting caught up on the Pathways to Excellence deadlines. Truckenmiller asserts, however, that all senior members met with Tramp on a monthly basis to discuss work issues, and that her work performance was only occasionally an issue that Tramp brought up during her monthly meetings.

The focus of Truckenmiller's claims is what happened in the first half of 2010. Truckenmiller admits that, in a January 2010 one-on-one meeting, Tramp discussed with her that she had again missed Pathway deadlines. Truckenmiller asserts that she blamed that problem on “not being used to working with groups,” but that she said that she would get the work done soon. The defendants contend that, in a February 2010 meeting after Tramp returned from an ice fishing trip, Tramp told Truckenmiller that he had not thought about the hospital at all during his trip, except for his concerns about Truckenmiller's lack of success. Tramp then told Truckenmiller that he did not want a repeat of the problems...

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