Wright v. St. Vincent Health Sys.

Decision Date18 September 2013
Docket NumberNo. 12–3162.,12–3162.
Citation730 F.3d 732
PartiesJanice WRIGHT, Plaintiff–Appellant v. ST. VINCENT HEALTH SYSTEM, (originally named as St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center), Defendant–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Austin Porter, Jr., argued, Little Rock, AR, for appellant.

Leigh Anne Yeargan, argued, Rogers, AR, for appellee.

Before RILEY, Chief Judge, GRUENDER and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

RILEY, Chief Judge.

Janice Wright sued her former employer, St. Vincent Health System (hospital), alleging racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. After a two-day bench trial, the district court 1 found in favor of the hospital on all claims. Wright appeals the judgment, arguing the district court's factual findings were clearly erroneous. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

In November 2007, Janice Wright began working for the hospital as a surgical technologist.2 In 2008, Wright accepted a newly created position working the night shift (7:00 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.) in the operating room (OR). Before Wright accepted the position, two registered nurses, Bill Rieske, a Caucasian man, and Nancy Bell, an African–American woman, performed most of the duties the hospital asked Wright to perform. After training Wright and Bell to complete the night duties as a team, Rieske moved to a weekend shift. When Wright and Bell were not assisting with emergency surgeries, they cleaned rooms, moved and made surgical beds, stocked supplies, assembled equipment, and set up operating rooms for the next day's surgeries.

A few months after Wright and Bell began working together, Bell suffered an injury at home that prevented her from coming to work. Other nurses initially assisted in covering Bell's shifts in addition to their regular duties, but Wright was the only employee dedicated to the night shift. The covering nurses carried the phone and responded to emergencies, but did not help Wright prepare the operating rooms. Afterthree months, the nurses stopped taking Bell's shifts. When Bell did not return as expected, Wright was left alone on the night shift to complete all the duties she and Bell previously shared.

Wright's performance began to suffer. On September 25, 2008, in response to a complaint that Wright had not prepared the operating rooms properly on September 23, 2008, Patient Care Coordinator (PCC) 3 Darla Tiner, Wright's direct supervisor, issued Wright a Counseling/Corrective Action Form (disciplinary form). Wright explained she was assisting with surgery for several hours on the night in question, but Tiner believed Wright could have completed her duties during the rest of her shift. Wright refused to sign the form, and another PCC, Verda Degerald, reported that Wright became defensive and did not indicate a “desire to correct [her] behavior.”

After that incident, Tiner prepared a checklist of equipment Wright was required to ensure was in each operating room. On September 29, 2008, Wright received a second disciplinary form for failing to complete the checklist on September 26, 2008. Tiner also noted Wright failed to report orally the events of the night shift as required.

On October 6, 2008, Tiner and Laurie Voigt, then Interim Director of Surgical Services, provided Wright a prioritized, written list of duties the PCCs expected Wright to perform each night. Tiner and Voigt advised Wright that if there were no further disciplinary issues for three months, they would remove the September 29, 2008, disciplinary form from Wright's file. When Wright asked to be returned to the day shift, Tiner and Voigt advised Wright the staffing matrix was being evaluated and no permanent changes would be made until further notice.

On January 21, 2009, Tiner gave Wright a final warning for two incidents occurring in December 2008. The disciplinary form indicated that on December 16, 2008, Wright was wrapped in a blanket and sleeping in a recliner, and she failed to prepare properly the operating rooms for surgery. At trial, Wright admitted she was reclined in the chair and covered with a blanket, but denied she was sleeping or that it was unusual for staff to be in the lounge during down periods. The disciplinary form further indicated that on December 18, 2008, “Wright delayed emergency care for a patient in the ICU who needed surgical treatment for a nose bleed.” Tiner advised Wright any further disciplinary action “could result in further corrective action up to and including termination.”

Wright appears to have worked without further incident until July 2009. On July 9, 2009, Cindy Sacker, then Director of Surgical Services,4 received a complaint from a doctor that Wright had failed to inform the day staff that the doctor wanted to perform surgery the morning of July 3, 2009, forcing the doctor to delay the surgery. Degerald also advised Sacker that Wright had not been properly setting up the operating tables. On July 9, 2009, at 11:14 a.m., Sacker contacted Wright at home by telephone to discuss the complaints and schedule a meeting for Monday, July 13, 2009. Wright attempted to explain each of the issues and complained of a double standard at the hospital. Wright testified Sacker became angry, while Wright remained agreeable. In contrast, Sacker testified Wright became “belligerent”and “insubordinate” and told Sacker, “Just fire me, go ahead and fire me.”

After the call, Sacker contacted Chris Cockrell, the hospital's Employee Relations Coordinator, to inform him of Wright's “inappropriate” and “aggressive” behavior and ask what disciplinary steps she could take. Cockrell advised Sacker she could discipline Wright, including termination. When Sacker called Cockrell again to determine whether she could terminate Wright over the phone, Cockrell advised it was permissible, but not ideal. Sacker testified she also met with the PCCs that afternoon to inform them, for scheduling purposes, of the decision to terminate Wright and, later that day, confirmed her decision with Garrison and Baird.

Wright denies reacting negatively during the phone call and challenges Sacker's timeline of events. Wright testified that when the call with Sacker ended, Wright “thought everything was fine.” Wright worked her regular shift that night without incident and without speaking to Sacker or anyone else. Wright testified she expected to meet with Sacker on July 13, 2009, as planned, to discuss the issues raised during the call. On July 10, 2009, at 10:30 a.m., Wright called the hospital's human resource department to complain of racial discrimination. The receptionist transferred Wright's complaint call to Cockrell. Wright testified Cockrell placed her call on hold for several minutes, and when Wright hung up and called back, Cockrell was unavailable.

Denying he placed Wright on hold, Cockrell testified Wright complained during the call that she was being treated unfairly and harassed due to racial discrimination. Cockrell advised Wright he would like to meet with her in person to obtain her statement and would prepare the necessary paperwork for her to pick up that afternoon. Wright never gave a statement or retrieved the paperwork.

Sacker called Wright on her cell phone on July 10, 2009, at 11:18 a.m. and terminated Wright's employment at the hospital effective immediately. Sacker testified neither Wright's race nor her discrimination complaint played any role in Sacker's decision to terminate Wright. After the call from Sacker, Wright contacted an attorney, who quickly prepared and sent by facsimile a letter to Cockrell on Wright's behalf accusing Cockrell of informing Sacker of Wright's discrimination complaint and causing Wright's termination. Wright asserts Cockrell never responded to her letter. At trial, Cockrell testified he tried unsuccessfully to contact Wright by phone to explain (1) Cockrell had not contacted Sacker regarding Wright's complaint before Wright's termination, and (2) Wright could challenge her termination through the hospital's grievance process.

Later on July 10, 2009, Cockrell asked Sacker to prepare a timeline of events leading to Wright's termination. Sacker sent Cockrell a timeline by email on July 10, 2009, at 4:03 p.m.

Wright did not appeal her termination or any of the hospital's other disciplinary actions through the hospital's grievance procedures. On September 16, 2009, Wright filed a Charge of Discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging she was discharged because of her race and in retaliation for complaining of discrimination. The EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights, authorizing Wright to sue the hospital.

On April 23, 2010, Wright filed suit in the district court, alleging racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The district court conducted a two-day bench trial beginning August 16, 2012. The district court found in favor of the hospital on all of Wright's claims, issuing oral findings of fact and conclusions of law from the bench. On August 21, 2012, the district court entered judgment in favor of the hospital and dismissed Wright's complaint with prejudice. Wright timely appealed.

II. DISCUSSIONA. Standard of Review

“In reviewing a judgment after a bench trial, this court reviews ‘the [district] court's factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions de novo.’ Outdoor Cent., Inc. v. GreatLodge.com, Inc., 688 F.3d 938, 941 (8th Cir.2012) (quoting Tadlock v. Powell, 291 F.3d 541, 546 (8th Cir.2002)); see alsoFed.R.Civ.P. 52(a)(6) (“Findings of fact, whether based on oral or other evidence, must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court's opportunity to judge the witnesses' credibility.”). “Under the clearly erroneous...

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