Bruce v. Meharry Medical College
MEMORANDUM OPINION OF THE COURT. Signed by District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr on 10/11/2016. (xc:Pro se party by regular and certified mail.)(DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(eh)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
MICHELLE T. BRUCE, M.D.,
MEHARRY MEDICAL COLLEGE,
Michelle T. Bruce, M.D. brings this action against Meharry Medical College (“Meharry”)
alleging multiple violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §
2000 et seq. Before the Court is Meharry’s motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 22.) For the
following reasons, Meharry’s motion is GRANTED.
Undisputed Material Facts
In 2005, Bruce began working at Meharry as an instructor. (Doc. No. 31 at 1.) In 2008,
Meharry transferred Bruce to another department that required her to attend safety meetings, which
were also attended by Meharry’s Vice President of Administration, Dr. Bernard Ray. (Id. at 2.)
Ray was not Bruce’s supervisor. (Id.)
Bruce alleges that Ray created a hostile work environment by: (1) publicly disagreeing
with her at safety meetings; (2) refusing to follow her advice on safety matters; (3) making an
exasperated high pitch sound in response to her comments at meetings; and (4) telling one of
Bruce’s staff members, outside of her presence, that he would only register for an exercise program
if Bruce would give him a “personal physical assessment.” (Id. at 3-5.) Bruce sent an email to the
Meharry Compliance Hotline complaining about Ray’s “personal physical assessment” comment.
(Id. at 5.) No one responded to Bruce about her complaint. She did not make any further complaint
to anyone at Meharry. (Id. at 5-6.)
On November 12, 2013, about two-and-a-half months after Ray’s “personal physical
assessment” comment, Dr. Duane Smoot, Chair of the Internal Medicine Department, met with
Bruce and other doctors to request that they provide occupational medical services at a new
Meharry clinic in Antioch, Tennessee, to fulfill the clinical requirement in their employment
contracts. (Id. at 7-9.) Bruce declined this request. (Id. at 8; Doc. No. 25-3 at 2.) Bruce alleges
that Smoot tried to force her to reconsider this decision. (Doc. No. 30 at 7.) She believes that male
physicians also declined Smoot’s request to work at the clinic and that he did not force them to
reconsider. (Doc. No. 31 at 8-9.) However, she admits that she does not know whether any of the
male doctors were required to work at the clinic. (Id. at 9.) In fact, Smoot asked three other
physicians in the department to work at the clinic—two males and one female. (Id. at 9-10.) All
three told Smoot that they did not want to work at the clinic but would do so if assigned. (Id. at
10.) A male doctor provides services at the clinic and is its primary doctor. (Id.)
Bruce pursued other employment because she felt that her “skills as an occupational
medicine physician weren’t being utilized.” (Id. at 31; Doc. No. 25-1 at 83.) On March 3, 2014,
she resigned, effective March 17, 2014. (Doc. No. 31 at 12.) She admits that no one at Meharry
requested that she resign. (Id.) When she resigned, her salary at Meharry was over $138,000. (Id.)
On March 17, 2014, she began working for General Motors at an annual salary of over $185,000.
(Id.) After her resignation, Bruce filed an EEOC charge. (Id. at 11.) Smoot had no knowledge that
Bruce had filed a hotline complaint that Ray had sexually harassed her until after she filed the
EEOC charge. (Id.)
In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, this Court will only consider the narrow
question of whether there are “genuine issues as to any material fact and [whether] the moving
party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). The Court is required to
view "the facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party . . .
." Ferrari v. Ford Motor Co., 826 F.3d 885, 891 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Cass v. City of Dayton, 770
F.3d 368, 373 (6th Cir. 2014).
Bruce brings Title VII claims for gender discrimination, hostile work environment, and
A. Gender Discrimination
Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge or otherwise discriminate against
any individual because of such individual’s sex. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Where, as here, a
plaintiff has no direct evidence of gender discrimination, the Court applies the three-part burdenshifting framework developed in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), as
modified by Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981), to
determine whether the plaintiff has proffered sufficient evidence to survive summary
judgment. Jackson v. VHS Detroit Receiving Hosp., Inc., 814 F.3d 769, 776 (6th Cir. 2016). The
plaintiff bears the initial “not onerous” burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination
by a preponderance of the evidence. White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 533 F.3d 381, 391 (6th Cir.
2008). A plaintiff can establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination by demonstrating
that: (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was qualified for the position; (3) she
suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) she was replaced by a person outside the protected
class or treated differently than similarly-situated, non-protected employees. Id. Once the
employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to offer evidence of a
legitimate non-discriminatory explanation for the adverse employment action. Id. If the employer
does so, the burden shifts back to the employee to show that the employer’s proffered reason was
not the true reason, but instead was merely a pretext for discrimination. Id. (citing Burdine, 450
U.S. at 253).
Bruce was a member of a protected class and was qualified for her position. Both parties
take issue with whether she suffered an adverse employment action and whether a male was treated
more favorably. (Doc. No. 23 at 10.) Bruce says that an adverse employment action occurred when
Meharry attempted to force her to work at the clinic, because it would have made her
responsibilities in her current position logistically impossible, stunted her professional growth, and
affected her salary, although she does not tell the Court how her salary would have been affected.
(Doc. No. 30 at 7.) She also argues that Meharry treated similarly situated male physicians more
favorably because it did not require the male doctors to reconsider their decision not to work at the
clinic or attempt to force them to work there. (Id. at 7-8.)
The Sixth Circuit has articulated the standard for establishing a materially adverse
[A] materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment must be
more disruptive than a mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities.
A materially adverse change might be indicated by a termination of employment, a
demotion evidenced by a decrease in wage or salary, a less distinguished title, a
material loss of benefits, significantly diminished material responsibilities, or other
indices that might be unique to a particular situation.
Ford, 305 F.3d at 553 (quoting Hollins v. Atlantic Co., 188 F.3d 652, 662 (6th Cir. 1999)). The
Sixth Circuit “has consistently held that de minimis employment actions are not materially adverse
and, thus, not actionable.” Id.
After making every inference in Bruce’s favor, she offers no evidence from which this
Court can find that accepting the assignment to work at the clinic would have changed her pay,
benefits, title or significantly diminished her job responsibilities or position. She offers no
“objective indicia of adversity,” as required in by Title VII. Momah v. Dominguez, 239 Fed. Appx.
114, 123 (6th Cir. 2007); Policastro v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 297 F.3d 535, 539 (6th Cir. 2002)
(applying an objective test that considers whether the employment action at issue was “objectively
intolerable to a reasonable person.”). Instead, she merely perceived the new assignment to be an
inconvenience because of unknown “logistical difficulties,” assumptions about her professional
growth and presumed negative impact on her salary. Her “subjective impressions as to the
desirability of one position over another are not relevant” in determining whether the employee
suffered an adverse employment action.” Policastro, 297 F.3d at 539. Meharry was entitled to
assign Bruce to the clinic even over her objection. Momah, 239 Fed. Appx. at 123 (quoting O’Neal
v. City of Chicago, 392 F.3d 909, 913 (7th Cir. 2004) (holding that a “purely subjective preference
for one position over another” does not “justify trundling out the heavy artillery of federal
antidiscrimination law”)). Despite having the right to so assign her, Bruce offers no evidence that
Meharry’s proposal to assign her to the clinic would have “significantly diminished” her material
The undisputed material facts prove not that Meharry treated her differently than similarlysituated male employees, but the same as other males and one female. Meharry has presented
admissible evidence that Smoot asked three other doctors – one female and two males. Two other
physicians were allowed to decline serving at the clinic, just like Bruce. (Doc. No. 30 at 8.) Dr.
Darryl Jordan, a male doctor, responded that he did not wish to work at that clinic but would do
so if assigned. (Smoot Aff., Doc. No. 25-3 at ¶ 12.) Dr. Jordan now provides services at that clinic
and is listed as the clinic’s primary doctor. (Id. at ¶ 13.) There is no evidence to the contrary. (Doc.
No. 31 at 10-11.)
Even if Bruce were able to make a prima facie case of gender discrimination, she cannot
show that Meharry’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Smoot’s asking her to work at the
clinic—Meharry’s business need to staff the clinic—was pretext for discrimination. (Doc. No. 23
at 11.) Bruce can demonstrate pretext designed to conceal unlawful discrimination by offering
evidence that Meharry’s reason for asking her to move to the clinic: (1) had no basis in fact; (2)
did not actually motivate the employer; or (3) was insufficient to warrant the adverse employment
action. Loyd v. Saint Joseph Mercy Oakland, 766 F.3d 580, 590 (6th Cir. 2014). There is no such
evidence before the Court. Bruce believes that the best use of her skills was to remain in the same
job position and not transfer to the clinic. That Bruce disagrees with Meharry’s business decision
to ask her to work at the clinic provides no basis for a reasonable jury to infer that Meharry’s
reasons for asking her to work at the clinic was pretext for discrimination. The role of the courts
“is to prevent unlawful hiring practices, not to act as a ‘super personnel department’ that second
guesses employers’ business judgments.” Hedrick v. W. Reserve Care Sys., 355 F.3d 444, 462
(6th Cir. 2004) (quoting Simms v. Oklahoma ex rel. Dep't of Mental Health and Substance Abuse
Servs., 165 F.3d 1321, 1330 (10th Cir. 1999)).
Bruce cannot make out a prima facie case of gender discrimination or show that Meharry’s
non-discriminatory reason for asking her to work at the clinic is a pretext for discrimination. The
Court will dismiss Plaintiff’s gender discrimination claim.
B. Hostile Work Environment Claim
To establish a prima facie case of hostile work environment, the plaintiff must show that:
(1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was subject to unwelcome sexual harassment;
(3) the harassment was based on her status as a protected individual; (4) the harassment
unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff's work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile,
and offensive environment; and (5) the employer was liable for the harassing conduct. Clay v.
United Parcel Serv., Inc., 501 F.3d 695, 706 (6th Cir. 2007). Whether harassment is severe or
pervasive has an objective and a subjective component. Id. “It requires the court to examine, under
the totality of the circumstances, ‘the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether
it [was] physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it
unreasonably interfere[d] with an employee’s performance.’” Id. (quoting Randolph v. Ohio Dep’t
of Youth Servs., 453 F.3d 724, 733 (6th Cir. 2006)) (alteration in original). The harassment “must
be extreme to amount to a change in the terms and conditions of employment.” Faragher v. City
of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 788 (1998). “[S]imple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated
incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and
conditions of employment.” Id. The “standards for judging hostility are sufficiently demanding to
ensure that Title VII does not become a general civility code.” Id.
Meharry argues that the only comment cited by Bruce in support of her claim—Ray’s
“personal physical assessment” comment—was not made to her. (Doc. No. 23 at 14.) Bruce
responds that Ray “would frequently belittle” her during safety meetings that when coupled with
his “personal physical assessment” comment constitutes severe and pervasive conduct. (Doc. No.
30 at 11.)
This Court finds that considering the totality of the circumstances in the light most
favorable to Bruce, no reasonable jury could find that Ray’s comments, over nine years of
employment, were sufficiently severe to amount to a change in the terms and conditions of
employment. See, e.g., Burnett v. Tyco Corp., 203 F.3d 980, 984-85 (6th Cir. 2000) (three sexually
offensive remarks made by the supervisor in a six-month period did not constitute pervasive
discriminatory conduct). “Title VII does not provide protection from discriminatory behavior such
as “sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing.’” Tepper v.
Potter, 505 F.3d 508, 516 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting Faragher, 524 U.S. at 788). Bruce also claims
that Ray “belittled” her and used a high pitch sound towards her during safety meetings (Doc. No.
30 at 11), but that conduct, even if true, was gender neutral and involved a disagreement with her
business opinions, which is not actionable under Title VII. Faragher, 524 U.S. at 788) (limiting
Title VII’s application to only “extreme” conduct to avoid turning the statute into a “general
civility code”); Batuyong v. Gates, 337 Fed. Appx. 451, 457 (6th Cir. 2009) (affirming dismissal
of a hostile environment claim based on “various incidents in which [the plaintiff] was criticized
by her supervisors”)). Bruce has failed to meet her burden of showing that her work environment
was objectively offensive, such that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive. Faragher,
524 U.S. at 787; Williams v. Gen. Motors Corp., 187 F.3d 553, 568 (6th Cir. 1999).
C. Retaliation Claim
Title VII's antiretaliation provision prohibits an employer from retaliating against an
employee who has “opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by” Title VII or
because an employee has made a “charge” under the statute. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). To establish
a prima facie case of retaliation, Bruce must show: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) the
exercise of protected rights was known to the employer; (3) the employer took an adverse
employment action against the plaintiff;, and (4) there was a causal connection between the
protected activity and the adverse action. Taylor v. Geithner, 703 F.3d 328, 336 (6th Cir. 2013).
To establish a causal connection, the plaintiff must establish that his or her protected activity was
a but for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer. University of Texas Southwestern
Medical Center v. Nassar, 133 S. Ct. 2517, 2533–34 (2013).
Bruce claims that Smoot asked her to work at the clinic because of her hotline complaint
about Ray’s comment. (Doc. No. 1; Doc No. 30 at 10.) Meharry counters that there is no evidence
that Smoot knew about her hotline complaint; no evidence of an adverse employment action; and
no evidence to establish a but for causal connection between her protected activity and her
resignation or Smoot’s request that she work at the clinic. (Doc. No. 23 at 13.) Bruce says that
Meharry knew of her hotline complaint because she submitted it through the college’s hotline; the
adverse employment action is not only the request she work at the clinic but also her constructive
discharge when she resigned in March 2014; and the close temporal proximity between her hotline
complaint and the request she work at the clinic or her constructive discharge establish a causal
connection between her protected activity and Meharry’s adverse action. (Doc. No. 30 at 10.)
Bruce has failed to establish a prima facie retaliation claim. First, she is mistaken that her
hotline complaint is legally sufficient to show that Smoot knew about her complaint. She is
required to show that Smoot actually knew of her protected activity. Mulhall v. Ashcroft, 287 F.3d
543, 554 (6th Cir. 2002) (finding no reasonable jury could find retaliation where plaintiff “failed
to produce evidence sufficient to establish that the officials taking the adverse employment action
knew of his protected activity”). An employee’s submission of an internal corporate complaint
does not mean that every corporate manager has knowledge of the complaint. Based on the record
before the Court, no reasonable jury could find retaliation because Armstrong has produced no
evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that Smoot in fact knew about her hotline
complaint about Ray.
Second, Bruce has not shown that Meharry took an adverse employment action against her.
As explained above, Meharry’s request that she work at the clinic was not an adverse action.
Bruce’s argument that Meharry constructively discharged her by creating a sexually hostile work
environment and by merely asking her to work at the clinic do not save her case. (Doc. Nos. 1 at
5; 30 at 7, 10.) To demonstrate a constructive discharge, Bruce must show that: (1) Meharry
deliberately created intolerable working conditions, as perceived by a reasonable person; and (2)
Meharry did so with the intention of forcing the employee to quit. Laster v. City of Kalamazoo,
746 F.3d 714, 727–28 (6th Cir. 2014). To determine whether the first prong has been met, the court
Whether a reasonable person would have [felt] compelled to resign depends on the
facts of each case, but we consider the following factors relevant, singly or in
combination: (1) demotion; (2) reduction in salary; (3) reduction in job
responsibilities; (4) reassignment to menial or degrading work; (5) reassignment to
work under a younger supervisor; (6) badgering, harassment, or humiliation by the
employer calculated to encourage the employee’s resignation; or (7) offers of early
retirement or continued employment on terms less favorable than the employee’s
Id. (quoting Logan v. Denny’s, Inc., 259 F.3d 558, 569 (6th Cir. 2001)). Bruce offers no evidence
of any of these factors. The undisputed facts are that Bruce and three other doctors were asked, not
forced, to work at the clinic. As at-will employees, Meharry certainly had the right to assign
Plaintiff to whatever workplace best advanced its business needs, especially when, as here, there
is no evidence that her pay, benefits or other terms and conditions would be affected. She also
offers no evidence that Meharry wanted her to resign or could reasonably have foreseen that asking
her to work at the clinic would have caused her to feel compelled to resign. As discussed above,
her claim of a sexually hostile work environment has no merit.
Finally, Bruce has not shown but for causation. Her only argument is the close temporal
proximity between her hotline complaint and the request that she work at the clinic or her alleged
constructive discharge. Although “a causal connection for purposes of establishing a prima facie
case of retaliation can be shown through knowledge [of the complaints] coupled with a closeness
in time that creates an inference of causation . . . temporal proximity alone will not support an
inference of retaliatory discrimination when there is no other compelling evidence.” Imwalle v.
Reliance Med. Prod., Inc., 515 F.3d 531, 550 (6th Cir. 2008). Bruce does not present evidence of
the date of her hotline complaint, so it is not possible to determine the precise time interval between
her protected activity and Smoot’s request that she work at the clinic. If she sent the email soon
after Ray’s August 22, 2013 comments, Smoot’s request would have followed approximately twoand-a-half months later, which does not constitute sufficient temporal proximity to support an
inference of causation. See, e.g., Kean v. IT-Works, Inc., 466 Fed. App’x 468, 471 (6th Cir. 2012)
(discharge that “came roughly two-and-a-half months after the complaint” did not support “an
inference of causation”). The time gap between her protected activity and her alleged constructive
discharge is even more than two and one-half months. Even if the time between her hotline
complaint and the alleged adverse employment action were probative of but for causation, she has
no other evidence, compelling or otherwise, that would support a finding of but for
causation. Imwalle, 515 F.3d at 550. Bruce has not shown that her hotline complaint about Ray
were the but for cause of any actions taken against her by Meharry.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court GRANTS Meharry’s motion for summary judgment.
The Court will issue an appropriate order.
WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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