Thomas v. Mississippi Department of Health
ORDER denying 28 Motion for Summary Judgment Signed by District Judge Henry T. Wingate on 3/6/2018 (CGC)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
CIV. NO. 3:16-CR-559-HTW-LRA
MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
ORDER DENYING SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Before this court is the motion of the Defendant, Mississippi Department of Health, for
Summary Judgment [doc. no. 29]. The Plaintiff, Laveta Thomas, opposes the motion and has
filed a response in opposition. [doc. no 31]. This litigation is an employment discrimination case
brought by Plaintiff under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,1 (hereafter “Title VII”) and
the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (hereafter “ADEA”).2 Defendant, at this appropriate
pleading stage, contends this litigation, now beyond discovery, should proceed no longer, and
under the rubric of Rule 56, Fed. R. Civ. Proc. must be dismissed in its entirety. This court
disagrees and explains below.
Plaintiff Laveta Thomas (“hereafter “Thomas”) is an African American female over the
age of forty, who has been employed with the Mississippi Department of Health (hereafter
“MDH”) as a Division Director since December of 2008. In 2015, she was employed in the
Title VII is codified as 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
prohibits employers (who employ 15 or more people) from discriminating against employees on the basis
of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) is codified as 29 U.S.C. § 621 et
seq. The ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer to take adverse action against an employee “because
of such individual’s age.” Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. 557 U.S. 157 (2009).
Office of Emergency Planning and Response (hereafter “OEPR”) within the Department of
Health. While there, Thomas applied for two positions with the agency in 2015 - Bureau
Director I and Bureau Director II. She was not interviewed for the Bureau Director I position.
She was interviewed for the Bureau Director II position. She was not selected for either position.
Thomas contends that Robert Boxx (hereafter “Boxx”), a white male who is younger than
Plaintiff, was selected for the Bureau Director II position and that Charles Minninger (hereafter
“Minninger”), also a white male, whose age was not specified, was selected for the Bureau
Director I position. On September 8, 2015, Thomas filed a grievance with the State Personnel
Board, claiming: (1) that those in charge of the selection process had discriminated against her in
the promotion process because of her race, sex and age; (2) that a distinct pattern of
discrimination in hiring and promotion practices exists within the OEPR; (3) that the
discriminatory pattern includes subjective hiring nuances and the practice of hiring Caucasian
friends and family; and (4) that no African-American person or minority race employee now
serves, or has ever served, in a position of power within the Department.
In response to Thomas’ grievance, MDH says that neither Boxx nor Minninger was
permanently placed in his respective new position, and that MDH plans to start anew the process
of filling the positions. This alleged planned course of action, says Thomas, is simply a
discriminatory maneuver designed to circumvent the discriminatory practice, which birthed this
What is clear here is that Boxx and Minninger functioned in their respective interim roles
for several months while awaiting the new selection process. They received a level of pay
above their former salaries, but did not receive the full pay increases they would have received
had they been permanently promoted.
Boxx’s new interim duties included supervising Thomas, who steadfastly maintained that
Boxx’s qualifications for the position were inferior to hers. This alignment, says Thomas, was
awkward and posed a constant reminder of the discriminatory outcome.
The grievance procedure triggered by Thomas manifested progressive levels. In its third
level response to her grievance,3 MDH stated in a memo to Thomas, that the selection processes
for the two disputed positions would be voided and that MDH would restart the selection process
from scratch. A memo from Kathy Burk, Director of Health Services, stated, “the allegation that
you were not selected for the position solely due to racial, color, sex and age discrimination
cannot be substantiated”. Burk Memorandum. [doc. no. 28-1 p. 2]. The relief Thomas sought of
promotion and additional compensation was, therefore, denied; however, the memo added the
following: “… there is anecdotal information to suggest that the processes used in these
selections have the appearance of having been skewed to favor the candidates with preexisting
personal relations with the OEPR Director.”
Upon receipt of the letter, Thomas sent an email to Kathy Burk asking for clarification as
to what was being done in response to Thomas’ grievance. Burk responded, in part, as follows:
“No candidates from the first selection process are being appointed to the Bureau Director I and
Bureau Director II positions. The entire previous selection process will be voided and the hiring
process for filling those positions will start from scratch.”
On September 8, 2015, Thomas filed a grievance with the State Personnel Board claiming that
selection of the two candidates had been improper and that a pattern of racial discrimination in hiring and
promotions existed within the OEPR. On September 11, 2015, Thomas received from the Director of
Health Protection, a response stating that the best persons had been selected based on the reviews of the
selection committee. Nevertheless, Kathy G. Burk, Director of Health Services, conducted her own
investigation and determined that the selection process had the appearance of being skewed in favor of
persons with personal relationships with the OEPR Director.
The positions were announced and the interview process began anew. Thomas did not
apply for either of the two positions in this second round. The openings again were filled with
two white males. One of those white males was one of the same persons who had been selected
in the first selection process, namely Charles Minninger. Deposition of Laveta Thomas [doc. no.
28-2 p. 87].
LAW AND ANALYSIS
After filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”)
and receiving the requisite “right to sue” letter,4 Thomas filed her Complaint on July 14, 2016, in
this federal court. She invokes subject matter jurisdiction under Title 28 § 1331, federal question
jurisdiction.5 She alleges race and sex discrimination as condemned by Title VII, and age
discrimination in violation of the ADEA.
She was denied an interview for the Bureau Director I position, Thomas claims, with no
reason being given. She asserts that all five candidates selected for interviews were white.
Thomas also argues that Charles Minninger, who was awarded the position, was less qualified
A “right to sue letter” is a letter issued by the United States Department of Justice. The purpose
of the letter is to inform the claimant who has made a charge of discrimination that the EEOC has
completed its investigatory and/or conciliatory activities with regard to the claimant's charges; that the
Department of Justice will not file a lawsuit on behalf of the claimant; and that the claimant has ninety
days from receipt of the right to sue letter to file his/her own lawsuit. Receipt of the Right to Sue letter is
a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit based on an EEOC Charge of Discrimination. See Snider v. L-3
Commc'ns Vertex Aerospace, LLC, No. 3:09-CV-704-HTW-LRA, 2016 WL 3648281, at *3 (S.D. Miss.
Mar. 15, 2016)
Title 28 U.S.C. §1331states as follows:
§1331. Federal Question.
The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws,
or treaties of the United States.
Thomas was interviewed for the Bureau Director II position. Robert Boxx was promoted
to that position, though Thomas contends she was better qualified than he as well.
Count One of her complaint alleges race discrimination under Title VII. Count Two
alleges Sex discrimination under Title VII. Count Three alleges age discrimination under the
ADEA. The selected candidates were white and male. Although Minninger was older, Boxx
was younger than Thomas (late 40’s)6. Deposition of Laveta Thomas [doc. no. 28-2 p. 60].
The McDonnell Douglas analysis established by the United States Supreme Court, set
forth the basic allocation of burdens and order of presentation of proof in a Title VII case
alleging discriminatory treatment. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05
(1973). This analysis requires that a Title VII plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of
discrimination. Id. at 802-05 (1973). See also, Russell v. McKinney Hosp. Venture, 235 F.3d
219, 222 (4th Cir. 2000).
To establish a prima facie case of discrimination, a plaintiff must show: (1) she is a
member of a protected class; (2) she applied for and was qualified for the position sought; (3) she
was not promoted; and (4) the position was filled by someone not in the protected class. Under
Title VII, a protected class is a group defined by race, sex, color, national origin or religion.
Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 n. 6, 101 S.Ct. 1089 (1981).
The ADEA, on the other hand, applies only to those over forty, 29 U.S.C. §631(a) (2012).
“Applied for” means applied for an available position for which one was qualified,” Texas Dep't
of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 n. 6, 101 S.Ct. 1089 (1981); See also Brown
v. Coach Stores, Inc., 163 F.3d 706, 710 (2d Cir. 1998) (merely asserting or requesting a
Plaintiff’s Complaint [doc. no.1 p.3] states: “Plaintiff was, indeed, denied these promotions
based on her race, as both positions were filled by Caucasians (Robert Boxx and Charles Minninger); her
sex, as both of the positions were filled by males; and her age, as the position of Bureau Director II was
filled by a much younger male (Robert Boxx).
promotion during evaluations was not sufficient). “Qualified for the position” means objectively
meeting the requirements for the job. See Roy v. Crews, No. 16-60588, 2017 WL 4679724, at *3
(5th Cir. Oct. 17, 2017) (Plaintiff not objectively qualified when she did not have five years’
experience as required for the position).
Meeting the “prima facie” burden of proof serves the purpose of empowering a plaintiff
to survive proof challenges at the pretrial motion stage, and a proof challenge at the conclusion
of plaintiff’s case-in-chief at trial. The burden of establishing a prima facie case is fact and law
dependent. If, at this pretrial stage, a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case for discrimination,
the burden then shifts back to the Defendant “to rebut the presumption of discrimination by
producing evidence that the plaintiff was rejected, or someone else was preferred, for a
legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.” Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450
U.S. 248, 253-54 (1981). If a defendant meets that production burden, the burden then shifts
back to the plaintiff to show that the employer’s provided reason was but a pretext for
discrimination. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05 (1973); Texas
Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253-54 (1981). Reeves v. Sanderson
Plumbing Products, Inc. 530 U.S. 133 (2000) (applying McDonnell Douglas burden shifting
framework to ADEA actions).
The ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that a Defendant intentionally
discriminated against a Plaintiff remains at all times with a Plaintiff. Texas Department of
Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981).
McFall v. Gonzales, 143 Fed Appx. 604,
607 (5th Cir. 2006). See also Manning v. Chevron Chem. Co., LLC, 332 F.3d 874, 881 (5th
Cir.2003); Pratt v. City Houston, Tex., 247 F.3d 601, 606 n. 2 (5th Cir.2001); Jefferies v. Harris
County Cmty. Ass'n, 615 F.2d 1025, 1029 (5th Cir.1980). “Plaintiff must prove by a
preponderance of the evidence that she applied for an available position for which she was
qualified, but was rejected under circumstances which give rise to an inference of unlawful
discrimination.” Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981
inference of unlawful discrimination). This burden, too, looks to the facts and law, but whether
that burden of persuasion has been satisfied, is a question for the trier of fact, that is, the jury, or
a judge in a bench trial.
Thomas meets her prima facie burden herein as to the first requirement of the McDonnell
Douglas analysis because she is a member of a protected class, namely that of African American.
MDH asserts, however, that Thomas has not met her burden as to the second, third and fourth
requirement of the prima facie analysis. She did not apply for the subject positions, says the
Defendant, a circumstance which commensurately destroys her theory of a causal link between
her protected status and her not obtaining either position. This oversight on her part, her failure
to apply, says Defendant, also obviates any need for this court to examine the other factors under
a prima facie analysis.
In support of its argument, MDH drafts into service Stewart v. NCI Group, Inc., 2011
WL 310255, at *4 (S.D. Miss. 2011)(failure to recall plaintiff after a layoff was based on her
inaction in not applying, not the conduct of defendant, precluding any finding of a causal link);
see also Valdez v. The Clorox Co., 1978 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14930 (S.D. Tex. Oct. 17, 1978)
(failure to indicate interest or apply for jobs that were denied to plaintiff was fatal to proving sex
discrimination). Plaintiff does not bicker with these case decisions, nor with any cousin cases in
the same family: Bellard v. JPS Health Network, 439 Fed.Appx. 392 2011 WL 3822277 (5th Cir.
2011) (not violative of ADEA to require older nurse to reapply for another positon after hers was
eliminated). Plaintiff trumpets, instead, that MDH has crowned the wrong family of cases. The
peculiar facts here, says Plaintiff, are not related to the ancestral line of cases pressed into service
by MDH. Reason? Because she earlier had applied and she was not required to apply for those
jobs again she says, when MDH had rejected her, discriminatorily awarded those positions to
others and allowed the chosen two to enjoy the fruits of a promotion, while simultaneously
telling her that MDH would start the entire process over. She contends that her failure to
reapply, at most, would only limit back wages for failure to mitigate, but would not completely
bar her claim. Thomas argues that: [o]nce an employer takes a tangible employment action that
is discriminatory in nature, the employer cannot back track and avoid liability.” Plaintiffs Brief
[doc. no. 31 p. 3]. In the instant case, she claims, the Defendant was caught in discrimination
and tried to declare a “do over” to erase the possibility of liability, but a “do over” which left in
place the discriminatory results of MDH’s conduct.
So, the adverse employment action that Thomas here protests was the failure to promote
her in the first selection process. Not only had the cause of action already accrued when she first
was first denied the promotion, Thomas contends, but MDH’s attempt to “do over” would not
correct the discrimination that had taken place, since Minninger and Boxx were enjoying the
fruits of MDH’s discriminatory actions. Thomas says those persons serving on an interim basis
had an advantage in the second selection process, due to having performed in the job for several
months. Thomas even accuses the MDH of delaying the second selection process in order to
allow those persons to accumulate more experience in the positions. MDH denies that those
persons received any advantage for having performed the job during the interim period. This,
though, is a material fact in dispute, one for the trier of fact to decide.
MDH emphasizes a purpose of Title VII: to promote conciliation, not litigation. See
e.g., Mach Mining, LLC v. E.E.O.C., 135 S. Ct. 1645, 1651, 191 L. Ed. 2d 607 (2015) (In
attempting to bring discrimination to an end, Congress chose cooperation and voluntary
compliance as the preferred means); See also Ford Motor Co. v. EEOC, 458 U.S. 219, 228, 102
S.Ct. 3057, 73 L.Ed.2d 721 (1982) (quoting Alexander v. Gardner–Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 44,
94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). MDH argues that it embraced the spirit of Title VII and
its actions should be applauded. Thomas chose not to re-apply for the positions when they were
re-opened as a result of her grievance, choosing instead, says MDH, to file an EEOC charge and
pursue litigation. To allow Thomas to proceed to trial under these circumstances, says MDH,
would defeat a sainted purpose of Title VII.
This court disagrees and holds, instead, that this Defendant, under these circumstances,
cannot shield itself from a full examination of its actions. This court is travelling under a Rule 56
motion for summary judgment. The pivotal question then, is whether under these special
circumstances disputed issues of material fact are present. This court is persuaded that the
answer is, yes. These disputed facts include the following:
1. If MDH can articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its actions, the issue
remains whether that reason was a pretext for discrimination. (MDH, perhaps relying
on the belief that Plaintiff had failed to state a prima facie case, has not stated its
legitimate non-discriminatory reason for failing to promote Plaintiff);
2. Whether Thomas was more qualified than the persons chosen for the disputed
positions the first time;
Whether MDH’s actions were based on a discriminatory motive;
4. Whether MDH’s alleged practices of skewing the selection process toward persons
with interpersonal relationships with the Director, if proven, resulted in
discrimination against Thomas;
5. Whether the second selection process was tainted by the first process and selections,
if the first process and selections are found to have been discriminatory; and
6. Whether the persons selected after the first selection process received the benefit of
the months of experience performing the job on an interim basis, for purposes of the
second selection process.
This court is persuaded that summary judgment is not appropriate in this case. Despite
MDH’s assertions to the contrary, Thomas has established a prima facie case of discrimination;
yet MDH has not shown that it can meet its production burden of coming forward with a
legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its employment action. Since this litigation features
genuine disputes as to material facts, MDH is not entitled to summary judgment, a ruling
previously announced from the bench. MDH’s motion for summary judgment [doc. no. 29],
therefore, must be denied.
SO ORDERED AND ADJUDGED, this the 6th day of March, 2018.
____s/ HENRY T. WINGATE__________
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?