Mims v. Chilton Medical Center et al
OPINION AND ORDER: It is ORDERED that the motions for summary judgment filed by defendants SunLink Health Systems, Inc. (Doc. No. 27 ) and Chilton Medical Center (Doc. No. 28 ) are denied as further set out in the opinion and order. Signed by Honorable Judge Myron H. Thompson on 3/2/2012. (dmn, )
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA, NORTHERN DIVISION
CHILTON MEDICAL CENTER and )
SUNLINK HEALTH SYSTEMS,
CIVIL ACTION NO.
OPINION AND ORDER
discrimination lawsuit against defendants Chilton Medical
Center, LLC, and SunLink Health Systems, Inc., charging
them with sexual harassment and retaliation in violation
of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,as amended,
proper under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3).
* While the record does not appear to indicate,
Chilton Medical’s attorney clarified at the pretrial
conference that it is an LLC.
Chilton Medical and SunLink Health move for summary
judgment on Mims’s sexual-harassment claim on the ground
environment and on the retaliation claim because Mims’s
termination was unrelated to her allegations of sexual
In the alternative, SunLink Health contends
that it is entitled to summary judgment because it is not
an integrated employer with Chilton Medical.
reasons given below, the summary-judgment motions will be
Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows
that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact
and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).
The court must view the
evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving
party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio
Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).
Mims first met Bart Walker at the Russell Do-ItCenter where she worked as a cashier.
While engaging in
small talk at the cashier’s counter, Walker offered some
Chilton Medical, a hospital where Walker worked as a
Walker subsequently returned and gave Mims
an employment application.
Mims applied to work at
Chilton Medical and was interviewed by Human Resources
Director Joann Bartlett.
In March 2008, Mims was hired as a housekeeper in
Department, performing basic functions such as pulling
trash and linen, sweeping, mopping, and dusting; she also
worked in Chilton Medical’s kitchen.
Walker served as
her supervisor in the housekeeping unit and during the
time she spent in the kitchen unit.
From March 2008 to March 2010, Walker made repeated
sexual advances toward Mims.
He would call her into his
office several times a day and tell her that he “wanted
interpreted his comments as a sexual offer.
contacted Mims outside of work, both by phone and text
message, to invite her over to his house.
November 2009, he wrote her at least one love letter
asking her to leave her husband and move in with him; in
Finally, Mims stated that Walker implied he
against him for his behavior. Mims was intimidated by
Walker’s behavior and tried to avoid being alone with
behavior toward Mims.
Karon Oliver, a secretary at
Chilton Medical, witnessed Walker’s frequent overtures to
She noted that Walker would stand near and follow
Mims very closely.
Oliver also saw a text message Walker
sent to Mims that read: “Please come to my house when you
get off work.”
immediately upon arriving at Chilton Medical, Mims was
reputation for preying on his young female subordinates.
For example, Walker had an intimate relationship with
Cindy Mills, whom he had recruited to work at Chilton
Medical in a method similar to Mims’s experience. Mills
Deposition (Doc. No. 33-29) at 4-6 & 12.
Additionally, Walker had a long-standing non-sexual
dispute with Teresa Maddox.
In February 2009, Maddox
filed a written complaint with Chilton Medical about
Maddox accused Walker of calling her
employees, and telling a subordinate that he was going to
“spank” her when she came over to his house that evening.
complaint also noted that Walker repeatedly contacted
Mims at home for non-work-related reasons and would page
Mims to come to his office several times a day.
Maddox’s complaint sparked an investigation by Human
interviewed and did not complain about Walker’s behavior;
instead, Mims stated that Walker contacted her outside of
working hours to check-up on her.
Maddox supervising the kitchen and Walker overseeing the
Walker’s salary remained the same.
It is unclear from
the record when and how employees were informed about the
Around the time of the reorganization, Mims requested
a transfer to the housekeeping unit, where Walker would
remain her supervisor; however, Mims did not know at the
time she requested the transfer that Walker would no
longer have supervisory authority over the kitchen unit.
At various points in 2008 and 2009, Mims complained
Mims showed Bartlett some of the text messages
that Walker had sent her.
According to Mims, Bartlett
incriminating text messages from Mims’s phone.
advances, Mims stopped lodging complaints with Bartlett
and instead expressed her problems to co-workers.
The tension between Walker and Mims escalated in
emoticon text message that she interprets as saying, “I
Mims did not respond to the text message.
received negative reviews on her employee evaluation.
Compared to her 2009 evaluation, she received lower or
equal marks in all categories.
Compare 2010 Evaluation
(Doc. No. 33-4) with 2009 Evaluation (Doc. No. 33-35).
The 2010 evaluation also included a handwritten notation
from Walker: “Stephanie [Mims] has a problem with gossip
and making fictitious statements which lead to problems
with other staff members.
This has to end now, by
Stephanie not getting involved with the rumor mill or
starting false rumors.
This has been an ongoing problem
that seems to be getting worse.”
No. 33-4) at 4.
2010 Evaluation (Doc.
Bartlett asked Walker to include that
notation in order to “make a documentation that there had
Bartlett Deposition (Doc. No. 33-6) at
worried about related to Walker’s sexual advances.
On February 22, 2010, as part of her housekeeping
duties, Mims lifted a heavy bag of linens, causing her to
experience intense pain in her abdomen.
the bag was too heavy to lift on her own, Mims asked
Mills to assist her, but Mills refused.
the bag again and put it into a cart.
Mims then lifted
Mims next went to
the maintenance area where she reported the injury to
Walker, who laughed at her and took no further action.
morning, Mims reported the injury to Chilton Medical
examination, Mims told nurse Brenda Sherrill that she had
injured her abdomen while lifting a heavy bag.
spoke with Mills about the incident.
In notes taken that
day, Sherrill recorded that Mills said that she did not
witness Mims injure herself.
Around this time, Walker asked Mills to
provide a written explanation of the incident; Mills
asserted that she, not Mims, had lifted the heavy linen
Bartlett concluded upon receiving this information
that Mims had lied about her injury on the worker’s
Bartlett terminated Mims on March 23,
The reason given in Mims’s personnel file for her
termination was “dishonesty and inappropriate behavior to
Mims Personnel File (Doc. No. 33-5) at 2.
Richardson about Walker’s harassment of Mims.
Medical and SunLink Health contend that this meeting was
harassment by Walker against Mims.
Bartlett denies that
Mims made any prior complaint to her about Walker’s
Bartlett indicated that Mims
was discharged for the following: “Several incidents of
Unemployment Form (Doc. No. 33-7).
Then, on May 14,
2010, a state unemployment investigator called Bartlett
response was Mims’s involvement in a verbal altercation
with a co-worker.
Unemployment Form (Doc. No. 33-8).
Not until the June 2010 response to Mims’s filing with
the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did Bartlett
compensation filing as the ground for the termination.
To establish a sexual-harassment claim under Title
VII, an employee must show that: “(1) ... he or she
belongs to a protected group; (2) ... the employee has
been subject to unwelcome sexual harassment, such as
sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other
conduct of a sexual nature; (3) ... the harassment must
have been based on the sex of the employee; (4) ... the
harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter
the terms and conditions of employment and create a
discriminatorily abusive working environment; and (5)
[there is] a basis for holding the employer liable.”
Mendoza v. Borden, Inc., 195 F.3d 1238, 1245 (11th Cir.
1999) (en banc).
In conducting this inquiry, courts must
be mindful that “workplace conduct cannot be viewed in
isolation, but rather is to be viewed cumulatively, and
Worldwide, Inc., 594 F.3d 798, 807 (11th Cir. 2010).
Where, as here, the harasser is a supervisor, “an
employer can be held vicariously liable if: (1) the
employee’s refusal to comply with the supervisor’s sexual
demands or overtures resulted in a tangible employment
action being taken against her; or (2) the harassment was
sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions
of her employment, which is known as a hostile-workenvironment
Manufacturing Alabama, LLC, 603 F. Supp. 2d 1336, 1347
(M.D. Ala. 2009) (Thompson, J.).
This distinction is
crucial because there is “no affirmative defense against
a tangible-employment-action claim.”
contentions for why summary judgment on this claim is
The court addresses each in turn.
Were Walker’s Acts Based on Mims’s Sex?
Medical and SunLink Health submit that Walker’s behavior
was not based on Mims’s sex, but rather his behavior was
merely bothersome and annoying.
Mims has submitted sufficient evidence to create a
genuine dispute about whether Walker’s comments were
based on her sex.
Mims reports that Walker read her love
letters and said that he “wanted her,” a phrase that
standing alone carries a sexual undertone.
Walker’s contact with Mims occurred outside of normal
Mendoza, 195 F.3d at 1249 (finding
that there was no sexual harassment, in part, because
“[t]here is no allegation of any staring or following
[plaintiff] after work”). Walker also told Mims that if
she were to leave her husband and move in with him, she
would be promoted.
A reasonable jury could conclude that
such comments and promises went beyond the bounds of a
helpful and friendly supervisor.
Was Walker’s Conduct Severe or Pervasive? Chilton
Medical and SunLink Health argue that Walker’s behavior
was neither severe nor pervasive.
contend that his behavior was not physically threatening
They note that he never touched Mims
inappropriately, nor did he ever make a vulgar, explicit
demand for sex.
“Harassment is severe or pervasive for Title VII
purposes only if it is both subjectively and objectively
severe and pervasive.”
Johnson v. Booker T. Washington
Broadcasting Service, 234 F.3d 501, 509 (11th Cir. 2000).
In determining whether conduct is objectively severe of
pervasive, courts look to the following four factors:
“(1) the frequency of the conduct; (2) the severity of
Mendoza, 195 F.3d at 1246.
This standard is not a
“mathematically precise test” and “no single factor is
Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S.
17, 22-23 (1993).
A genuine question of material fact exists as to
As noted above, Mims felt intimidated by
him and thought that her job was in jeopardy if she
complained about his behavior.
Walker had told Mims that
he could protect himself against any complaints, and
confirmed, would support this assertion.
Thus, Mims felt
that she had not choice but to tolerate her supervisor’s
Turning to whether the harassment was objectively
evidence to reach a jury.
Walker’s womanizing was a
pervasive facet of Mims’s work experience.
submitted evidence that he had a pattern of using his
supervisory authority to seduce female subordinates and
had an intimate relationship with at least one of them.
Moreover, Walker consistently targeted Mims, paging her
to his office frequently during the day and texting or
calling her at night.
See Guthrie v. Waffle House, Inc.,
2012 WL 335629, *4 (11th Cir. Feb. 3, 2012) (affirming
grant of summary judgment because offensive comments were
infrequent and spread out over an eleven-month period);
Reeves, 594 F.3d at 804 (reversing grant of summary
judgment because of obscene comments “on a daily basis”).
Walker’s conduct was also severe.
While it is true
that Walker did not use obscene and derogatory language,
Walker’s offer of a promotion if Mims left her husband
and moved in with him is particularly troubling.
offer’s bluntness underscores and informs Walker’s other
potentially innocuous acts had sexual overtones. Indeed,
Mims refused the offer and she was never promoted to
While “Title VII is not a civility
code,” id. at 807, it does not require a showing that
supervisors use vulgar or profane language.
can be violated as much by a Casanova as by a Marquis de
Sade seeking sexual favors in exchange for promotions.
threatening to Mims.
Other employees were aware that
Walker paged Mims to his office several times a day.
Furthermore, when Walker asked Mims to return one of his
love letters, he stood between Mims and the door.
felt that she did not have a choice but to return the
Mims was also “afraid to be alone” with
Mims Affidavit (Doc. No. 33-2) at ¶ 11.
Finally, Walker’s behavior unreasonably interfered
with Mims’s job performance.
Walker’s pages to Mims to
report to his office were “for no business purpose” and
were so frequent that Mims found it difficult to complete
her daily tasks.
Id. at ¶ 23.
Co-workers confirmed the
constant paging and believed that it interfered with
Mims’s ability to do her job.
Maddox Affidavit (Doc. No.
33-3) at ¶ 11.
Given these factors, the court is convinced that Mims
has established a genuine dispute as to whether Walker’s
conduct was severe or pervasive.
Finally, Chilton Medical and SunLink Health
raise an affirmative defense that Chilton Medical had a
comprehensive sexual-harassment policy and Mims did not
But if an “employee’s refusal to comply with
the supervisor’s sexual demands or overtures resulted in
a tangible employment action being taken against her,”
Edwards, 603 F. Supp. 2d at 1347.
axiomatic that Mims’s termination qualifies as a tangible
Burlington Indus. v. Ellerth, 524
constitutes a significant change in employment status,
such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment
decision causing a significant change in benefits.”).
Here, a genuine dispute exists as to whether Mims’s
termination. There is a close-temporal proximity between
Walker’s love letters, the negative-performance review,
the emoticon-text message, and Mims’s termination.
evaluation concerned Mims’s comments to co-workers about
Walker’s behavior. Moreover, Mims has submitted evidence
of Bartlett’s alleged cover-up of Walker’s behavior,
thereby providing a link between Mims’s rebuffs of Walker
reasonable jury could find that Mims’s termination was
related to her rejection of Walker’s sexual advances.
To make out a prima-facie retaliation claim under
Title VII, a plaintiff must establish: “(1) that she
engaged in statutorily protected expression; (2) that she
suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) that there
is some causal relation between the two events.”
v. Cooper Lighting, Inc., 506 F.3d 1361,
1363 (11th Cir.
Chilton Medical and SunLink Health contend that Mims
supervisor about Walker’s harassment until after she was
Mims, on the other hand, contend that she
did alert Bartlett and that not only were her complaints
ignored, Bartlett helped conceal Walker’s harassment by
deleting the incriminating text messages.
is a genuine dispute as to this material fact, summary
Chilton Medical and SunLink Health submit that there is
no causal relationship between Mims’s termination and her
More specifically, they argue that Mims’s
temporally separated from her termination in March 2010.
While temporal proximity is one means of establishing
a causal relationship, “a plaintiff merely has to prove
that the protected activity and the negative employment
action are not completely unrelated.”
EEOC v. Reichhold
Chemicals, Inc., 988 F.2d 1564, 1571-72 (11th Cir. 1993).
termination was in retaliation for her complaints to
Bartlett and her refusal to give into Walker’s sexual
The critical handwritten notation on Mims’s
2010 performance evaluation was directly related to her
gossiping about Walker’s advances; furthermore, Bartlett
instructed Walker to make that notation on her form.
Given Mims’s allegations that Bartlett tried to cover up
Moreover, Mims’s negative review occurred only a month
Bartlett’s instruction to Walker to give Mims a negative
connection between Mims’s protected activity and her
Once a plaintiff establishes a prima-facie case, “the
reason for the adverse employment action.”
Taco Bell Corp., 141 F.3d 1457, 1460 (11th Cir. 1998).
Chilton Medical and SunLink Health contend that Mims’s
dishonesty, gossiping, and false worker’s compensation
form satisfy this requirement; Mims does not dispute this
At the final stage of the Title VII retaliation
inquiry, “[t]he plaintiff bears the ultimate burden of
proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the
prohibited, retaliatory conduct.”
Olmsted, 141 F.3d at
Chilton Medical and SunLink Health assert that
Mims’s termination for lying on her worker’s compensation
form was not a pretext.
A reasonable jury could conclude that Bartlett’s
shifting explanations for Mims’s termination, starting at
specific over time as to the worker’s compensation form,
are evidence of a pretext.
See Hulbert v. St. Mary’s
Health Care System, Inc., 439 F.3d 1286, 1298 (11th Cir.
2006) (commenting that “employer's failure to articulate
clearly and consistently the reason for an employee's
Additionally, in light of the sexual history between
Mills and Walker, a reasonable jury could also find that
the Mills lied after Walker asked her to provide a
written explanation for Mims’s injury.
SunLink Health as an Employer under Title VII
It is undisputed that Chilton Medical, not SunLink
Health, was Mims’s direct employer.
But Mims contends
that SunLink Health’s status as Chilton Medical’s parent
company makes the two corporations a “single employer”
under Title VII.
“A liberal construction must be accorded to the term:
McKenzie v. Davenport-Harris Funeral Home,
834 F.2d 930, 933 (11th Cir. 1987).
“Where two or more
corporations, such as a parent and a subsidiary, are
operations,’ the corporations may be viewed as a ‘single
Thornton v. Mercantile Stores Co., 13 F.
(quoting McKenzie, 834 F.2d at 933).
In conducting the
single-employer inquiry, courts look to several factors:
“(1) interrelation of operations, (2) centralized control
of labor relations, (3) common management, and (4) common
ownership or financial control.”
McKenzie, 834 F.2d at
Courts have cited the following evidence as going to
operations: (1) unified banking operations; (2) unified
payment of vendors; (3) parent corporation’s control of
subsidiary’s budget, including setting pay rates; (4)
parent corporation’s control of senior employees of the
departments; (6) distribution of human-resources policies
by parent corporation to subsidiary; (7) centralized
management information services; (8) centralized risk
management functions; (9) policies which allow employment
transfers among subsidiaries without new paperwork; (10)
centralized benefit programs such as insurance plans; and
Thornton, 13 F. Supp. 2d at
There is evidence in the record establishing an
interrelation of operations between Chilton Medical and
Medical chief executive officers (the CEO, COO, and CFO)
and maintained their employment files.
exercised final control over Chilton Medical’s decisionmaking policies.
The interrelationship between SunLink
Health and Chilton Medical was so strong that Larry
Jeter, Chilton Medical’s chief executive officer, was
Georgia. Bartlett also conferred with human-resources
worker’s compensation insurance for its subsidiaries.
Regarding labor relations, SunLink Health strived for
standardization across its hospitals.
SunLink Health distributed human-resources policies to
policies specific to Chilton Medical were approved by the
CEO, a SunLink employee.
As to the third factor, shared management, SunLink
Health directly paid Chilton Medical’s chief executives.
And as described above, SunLink exercised sufficient
control over Chilton Medical management personnel to
transfer one of them to another subsidiary.
prior to March 2011 and at all times relevant to this
litigation, SunLink Health owned Chilton Medical as a
testimony concerns SunLink Healthcare, LLC, not SunLink
Bartlett’s testimony about the difference between the two
See Bartlett Deposition (Doc.
companies is ambiguous.
No. 51-1) at 12 (“Q: When you refer to Sunlink corporate,
are you referring to Sunlink Healthcare, LLC?
A: I guess
similarities in names between the two corporations and
the fact that SunLink Healthcare, LLC, is a subsidiary of
To the extent that there is a dispute as
to whether Chilton Medical’s relationship was closer to
SunLink Healthcare, LLC or defendant SunLink Health, this
is a genuine dispute of material fact to be resolved at
Accordingly, it is ORDERED that the motions for
Systems, Inc. (Doc. No. 27) and Chilton Medical Center
(Doc. No. 28) are denied.
DONE, this the 2nd day of March, 2012.
/s/ Myron H. Thompson
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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