Stern v. State of Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences

Filing 34

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER granting 20 Motion for Summary Judgment; An appropriate judgment will be entered. Signed by Honorable William Keith Watkins on 12/18/2008. (wcl, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES F O R THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA N O R T H E R N DIVISION C O R IN N E STERN, P l a in tif f , v. S T A T E OF ALABAMA D E P T OF FORENSIC SCIENCES, D e f e n d a n t. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) C A S E NO. 2:07-CV-697-WKW M E M O R A N D U M OPINION AND ORDER T h is case is before the court on the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 20) filed b y Defendant State of Alabama Department of Forensic Services ("ADFS"). Plaintiff C o rin n e Stern ("Stern") brings claims of sex discrimination and retaliation against her f o rm e r employer, State of Alabama, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title V II" ). For the reasons set forth below, the summary judgment motion is due to be granted. I . FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY V ie w in g the parties' evidentiary submissions in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, th e court makes the following recitation of facts. At all relevant times, Mr. F. Taylor Noggle (" N o g g le " ) was the Director of the ADFS and thus the appointing authority for the ADFS. (N o g g le Aff. 2.) In September 2005, Noggle hired Dr. Jim Lauridson ("Lauridson") to be th e Forensic Sciences Chief Medical Examiner. (Id. at 15.) As the most senior medical e x a m in e r, Lauridson would have also had the responsibility of being the Laboratory Director o f the Montgomery Laboratory, which involves certain managerial and administrative duties, in c l u d in g conducting performance evaluations of subordinates. About that time Noggle also h ired the plaintiff, Dr. Corinne Stern ("Stern"), as a Forensic Sciences Medical Examiner. (S te rn Dep. at 9-10.) She was not board certified, which precluded her from being classified as a Forensic Sciences Senior or Chief Medical Examiner. (Noggle Aff. 4.) However, b e c a u se Lauridson recognized and valued Stern's experience and abilities, he asked Noggle to appoint Stern as the Laboratory Director, as Lauridson did not want the responsibility. (Id. 10.) Because State Personnel rules would not allow Stern to evaluate the performance of h igh er grade employees, Noggle and Lauridson agreed that Stern would be the Montgomery L a b o ra to ry Director so long as Lauridson would evaluate the Forensic Sciences Senior M ed ical Examiners (who were both Lauridson's subordinates and Stern's superiors), in c lu d in g Dr. Kenneth Snell ("Snell"). (Id. 15.) T h ere is no dispute that Stern expertly performed the duties of Laboratory Director. N e v e rth e le ss , when Lauridson announced his impending retirement effective July 31, 2006, N o g g le made arrangements to reassign the duties of Laboratory Director to another medical e x a m in e r in the office. Stern asserts that Noggle did not explain his reasons for doing so. (S te rn Dep. 19.) Noggle, on the other hand, explains that without Lauridson to conduct the p e rf o rm a n c e evaluations of Stern's superiors, Stern would not be able to continue in the role o f Laboratory Director. (Noggle Aff. 19, 21-22.) On August 2 or 3, 2006, Noggle a p p o in ted Snell, a Forensic Sciences Senior Medical Examiner who is board certified in a n a to m i c a l and clinical pathology, as the new Laboratory Director. (Id. 19-20.) The 2 r e a s s ig n m e n t of managerial and administrative duties from Stern to Snell did not affect S te rn 's job title as Forensic Sciences Medical Examiner, nor did it involve a cut in her pay.1 A c c o rd in g to Stern, the reassignment did, however, diminish her "prestige in the relatively s m a ll forensic pathology community . . . because she was no longer in a position of le a d ers h ip , and her position with the State and local Child Death Fatality Review Board was rem o v ed ." (Pl. Br. 2.) Stern filed a charge of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity C o m m iss io n ("EEOC") on August 7, 2006, after which she asserts that her assigned vehicle w as taken away and that she was ostracized by her superiors. As the new Laboratory D ire c to r, Snell had asked Noggle to have Stern return the state vehicle to the Laboratory. (S n e ll Aff. at 1; Noggle Aff. 23.) On August 15, 2006, she amended her charge of d is c rim in a tio n to include retaliation. On December 2, 2006, Stern resigned from her position " [ d ]u e to the circumstances that exist in this department and the failure of the administrative s ta f f at Headquarters to remedy the situation." (Stern Resignation Letter.) The EEOC issued a Right to Sue letter to Stern, and on August 1, 2007, Stern filed the Complaint (Doc. # 1) in the instant case. She brings claims of sex discrimination (Count I) and retaliation (C o u n t II) under Title VII. Stern asserts that ADFS's motivation for removing her from the p o s itio n of Lab Director was because she is female. Stern claims that, because she filed an E E O C claim, the ADFS retaliated against her by taking away her car and by allowing her Noggle explains that under State Personnel rules one does not suffer a "demotion" unless there is a loss of job title and income. (Noggle Aff. 24.) 3 1 c o w o rk e rs to make demeaning comments and to refuse to assist her with autopsies. Stern s e e k s declaratory and injunctive relief on both counts, compensatory damages in the amount o f $300,000, attorney's fees and expenses, and equitable relief, including back pay and reinstatem en t or front pay. (Compl. at 7.) ADFS has denied any discrimination and filed a motion for summary judgment. (D o c . # 20.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ready for resolution. I I . JURISDICTION AND VENUE B e c a u s e the plaintiff's claims arise under Title VII, the court exercises subject matter ju ris d ic tio n over these claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1331 (federal question) and 28 U.S.C. 1343 (civil rights). The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and the court f in d s adequate allegations supporting both. III. STANDARD OF REVIEW S u m m a ry judgment should be granted only "if the pleadings, the discovery and d is c lo s u re materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any m a te ria l fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 5 6 (c ). Under Rule 56, the moving party "always bears the initial responsibility of informing th e district court of the basis for its motion." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1 9 8 6 ). "[T]he court must view all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of th e party opposing summary judgment." Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1 9 9 5 ). The movant can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no genuine 4 iss u e of material fact, or by showing the non-moving party has failed to present evidence in s u p p o rt of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex C o r p ., 477 U.S. at 322-23. Once the moving party has met its burden, "an opposing party may not rely merely on a lle g a tio n s or denials in its own pleading; rather, its response must by affidavits or as o th e rw i s e provided in this rule set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." F ed . R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). To avoid summary judgment, the nonmoving party "must do more th a n simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita E le c . Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). A genuine factual dispute e x is ts if a "`reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.'" Damon v. F le m in g Supermarkets of Fla., Inc., 196 F.3d 1354, 1358 (11th Cir. 1999) (quoting United S ta tes v. Four Parcels of Real Property, 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991)). After the n o n m o v in g party has responded to the motion for summary judgment, the court must grant su m m a ry judgment if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is en titled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). I V . DISCUSSION A. C o u n t One Sex Discrimination T itle VII makes it unlawful for an employer "to discriminate against any individual w ith respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because o f such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1). 5 In order to establish a Title VII sexual discrimination claim using circumstantial e v id e n c e , a plaintiff must first make out a prima facie case. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v . Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Here, we have an alleged adverse employment action that is somewhat atypical; it involves neither a reduction in force (as suggested by ADFS's c ite d cases) nor a failure to promote (as Stern has implied with her cited cases). The S u p r e m e Court has noted that "[t]he facts necessarily will vary in Title VII cases, and the sp e c if ica tio n . . . of the prima facie proof required from respondent [here] is not necessarily a p p lic a b le in every respect to differing factual situations." McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802 n.13. Because there is no dispute that Stern's management duties over the Lab were take n away from her and reassigned to Snell, the court finds that the elements of Stern's p rim a facie case are as follows: (1) she was a member of a protected class at the time of the re a ss ig n m e n t of duties; (2) she was qualified to perform the duties that were reassigned to a n o th e r; (3) the reassignment of duties constituted an adverse employment action; and (4) the d u tie s were reassigned to someone outside the protected class. See Hinton v. Clinch County, G a . Bd. of Educ., 231 F.3d 821, 828 (11th Cir. 2000). T h e parties do not explicitly address all of the elements of the plaintiff's prima facie c a se . However, the court finds that, although apparently framed as a legitimate, nond iscrim inato ry reason for Stern's demotion, ADFS impliedly challenges Stern's q u a lif ic a tio n s to be Lab Director upon Lauridson's retirement. (See Answer 33; ADFS's S u p p l. Br. 16-17.) 6 N o tw ith s ta n d in g the court's assumption that the reassignment of managerial and a d m in is tra tiv e duties associated with the Laboratory Director designation constitutes an " a d v e r se employment action" suffered by Stern,2 she has not established a prima facie case o f sex discrimination. Stern has not shown that there is a genuine issue of material fact with resp ec t to her qualifications for the position she occupied after Lauridson's retirement. Stern arg u es that "board certification is not as important a factor as Defendant suggests" (Pl. Br. a t 5); however, Stern neglects to address Noggle's assertion that State Personnel req u irem en ts do not allow a person to evaluate the performance of her superiors. Moreover, S te rn acknowledges that a Senior Medical Examiner, such as Snell, must be board certified a n d concedes that she was not in fact board certified. Snell was in a position superior to S te rn , and, as such, Stern could not conduct reviews of Snell's and other Senior Medical E x a m in e rs ' job performances. Thus, the court must conclude that Stern was not qualified to retain the job duties of Laboratory Director after Lauridson retired. Even if she were qualified, Noggle's explanation for events is a legitimate, nond is c rim in a to ry reason for the reassignment of duties, which Stern has not overcome by The court assumes without deciding that the reassignment of the Laboratory Director duties constitutes an adverse employment action. But see Sampath v. Immucor, Inc., 271 Fed. Appx. 955, 962 (11th Cir. 2008) (finding that a reassignment of job duties where salary, hours, benefits, and title are unchanged, but where fewer subordinates are assigned to supervisor, was not a serious enough change in employment to constitute an adverse employment action, despite supervisor's subjective view that the reassignment was adverse); Davis v. Town of Lake Park, Fla., 245 F.3d 1232, 1243-44 (11th Cir. 2000) (finding that reassignment of the designation of "officer in charge" is not an adverse employment action notwithstanding the loss of prestige). 7 2 p e rs u a d in g the court that the reason is merely pretext. Thus, the summary judgment motion w ith respect to the discrimination claim will be granted. B. C o u n t Two Retaliation S te rn claims that the ADFS retaliated against her because she filed an EEOC c o m p l a in t for sex discrimination. To state a prima facie claim of retaliation, "a plaintiff must s h o w that (1) she engaged in statutorily protected expression; (2) she suffered an adverse e m p lo ym e n t action; and (3) the adverse action was causally related to the protected e x p re ss io n ." Weeks v. Harden Mfg. Corp., 291 F.3d 1307, 1311 (11th Cir. 2002). Although it concedes Stern engaged in protected expression, the ADFS does challenge th e element of "adverse employment action." ADFS reiterates Stern's complaints of re ta lia tio n as follows: (1) the vehicle being taken away from her, (2) Snell telling people that S te r n had been demoted, (3) ADFS permitting a male pathology technician to refuse to assist S te rn , and (4) general ostracization by her male coworkers and superiors. (See Compl. 27.) T h e ADFS argues that these actions do not rise to the level of a "serious and material" ch an g e in the terms, conditions, or privileges of Stern's employment. The proper standard to adjudge this element of the prima facie case, however, is whether the employer conduct th a t "has a materially adverse effect on the plaintiff, irrespective of whether it is employment o r workplace-related." Crawford v. Carroll, 529 F.3d961, 973 (11th Cir. 2008) (citing B u rlin g to n N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006)). This is an objective s ta n d a rd ; the plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would find the challenged 8 c o n d u c t "materially adverse," which means that the conduct would have dissuaded the re a s o n a b le employee from making a charge of discrimination. See Burlington, 548 U.S. at 68. T h e prima facie case of retaliation fails. Stern's allegations of retaliatory conduct, in d iv id u a lly or collectively, are not substantial enough to be deemed "materially adverse." T h e court reminds Stern that Title VII is neither a general civility code nor a statute making a c tio n a b le the ordinary tribulations of the workplace. Davis, 245 F.3d at 1239 (internal q u o ta tio n marks and citations omitted). Snell's comments, the difficulties with the pathology tech n ician , and the "general ostracization" although unpleasant are not actionable.3 In c e rta in instances, making an employee return a state vehicle to the employer might be m a ter ially adverse. But here such action is a matter of ADFS policy; the state vehicle is a ss ig n e d to the Laboratory Director, and Stern no longer fulfilled those duties. Noggle m ere ly enforced an internal policy, and Stern presented no evidence of discriminatory en fo rce m en t as a result of her EEOC charge. "When an employer applies its standard p o lic ie s in a nondiscriminatory manner, its action is not objectively adverse." Cotton v. C r a c k er Barrel Old Country Store, Inc., 434 F.3d 1227, 1234 (11 th Cir. 2006). E v e n if Stern had made out a prima facie case, she has not offered sufficient evidence to persuade the court that the ADFS's legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the alleged And, there is no proof that ADFS was aware of the pathology technician's refusal to assist Stern, let alone that ADFS "permitted" it to happen. 9 3 re talia to ry conduct. Thus, the summary judgment motion with respect to the retaliation claim w ill be granted. V . CONCLUSION F o r the reasons stated above, the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 20) is G R A N T E D . An appropriate judgment will be entered. D O N E this 18th day of December, 2008. /s/ W. Keith Watkins UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 10

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