Murray v. Meharry Medical College
MEMORANDUM OPINION OF THE COURT. Signed by District Judge William L. Campbell, Jr on 1/10/2022. (DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(bs)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
DR. JOHN J. MURRAY,
MEHARRY MEDICAL COLLEGE,
MAGISTRATE JUDGE HOLMES
Pending before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. No.
43) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 48). The parties filed responses in
opposition to each other’s motions (Doc. Nos. 55, 57), but only Plaintiff filed a reply. (Doc. No.
59). For the reasons discussed below, the parties’ motions (Doc. Nos. 43, 48) will be DENIED.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff Dr. John J. Murray (“Dr. Murray”) began working for Defendant Meharry Medical
College (“Meharry)” in 2006 as a Professor in the Internal Medicine Department and Associate
Vice-President for Clinical Research. (Doc. No. 56 ¶ 1). In 2010, Meharry appointed Dr. Murray
Director of its Clinical and Translational Research Center. (Id. ¶ 5). On March 2, 2018, Meharry
notified Dr. Murray that his faculty appointment would terminate on June 30th and not be renewed
because the needs of the program had been re-evaluated. (Id. ¶¶ 18, 19; Doc. No. 58 ¶ 1; Doc. No.
1-4). Dr. Murray asked his supervisor and Meharry’s Associate Vice-President of Human Services
why his contract was not being renewed, but neither of them knew the reason. (Doc. No. 56 ¶ 17;
Doc. No. 58 ¶ 6; see also Doc. No. 51-5 at PageID # 1243).
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After notifying Dr. Murray of his non-renewal, Meharry recruited Dr. Brenda Lemus, a 47year-old, Hispanic, female, to be Director of the Clinical and Translational Research Center. (Doc.
No. 58 ¶ 16; Doc. No. 47-1 at PageID #548-49). Meharry could have moved an existing faculty
member to serve as Director of Clinical and Translational Research Center but decided not to.
(Doc. No. 56 ¶¶ 37, 67). In June 2018, Meharry hired Dr. Lemus as Director of the Clinical and
Translational Research Center, an Assistant Professor in the Professional and Medical Education
Department, and Assistant Dean of Clinical Research. (Id. ¶¶ 59, 60, 65).
Dr. Murray filed this action against Meharry on October 21, 2019, alleging claims of breach
of contract, and race, sex, national origin, and age discrimination in violation of Title VII of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
(“ADEA”). (Doc. No. 1). On June 9, 2021, Dr. Murray moved for partial summary judgment on
his discrimination claims, and Meharry moved for summary judgment on all claims.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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 law.” Fed. R. Civ. P.
56(a). The party bringing the summary judgment motion has the initial burden of informing the
Court of the basis for its motion and identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence
of a genuine dispute over material facts. Rodgers v. Banks, 344 F.3d 587, 595 (6th Cir. 2003). The
moving party may satisfy this burden by presenting affirmative evidence that negates an element
of the non-moving party's claim or by demonstrating an absence of evidence to support the
nonmoving party's case. Id.
In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the court views the facts in the light most
favorable for the nonmoving party, and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving
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party. Bible Believers v. Wayne Cty., Mich., 805 F.3d 228, 242 (6th Cir. 2015); Wexler v. White’s
Fine Furniture, Inc., 317 F.3d 564, 570 (6th Cir. 2003). The Court does not weigh the evidence,
judge the credibility of witnesses, or determine the truth of the matter. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). Rather, the Court determines whether sufficient evidence has been
presented to make the issue of material fact a proper jury question. Id. The mere scintilla of
evidence in support of the nonmoving party’s position is insufficient to survive summary
judgment; instead, there must be evidence of which the jury could reasonably find for the
nonmoving party. Rodgers v. Banks, 344 F.3d 587, 595 (6th Cir. 2003). “The standards ... for
summary judgment do not change when, as here, ‘both parties seek to resolve [the] case through
the vehicle of cross-motions for summary judgment.’” Craig v. Bridges Bros. Trucking LLC, 823
F.3d 382, 387 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Taft Broad. Co. v. United States, 929 F.2d 240, 248 (6th
A. Title VII and ADEA Discrimination
Dr. Murray claims that Meharry discriminated against him because of his age (67) and on
the basis of race (white), sex (male), and national origin (American/non-Hispanic) when it
terminated his employment and replaced him with Dr. Lemus, a 47-year-old, Hispanic, female.
Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of race, sex, and
national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a)(1). The ADEA prohibits employers discriminating against
individuals “because of such individual's age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). To establish a prima facie
case of discrimination under Title VII and the ADEA,1 a plaintiff must show that: (1) they are a
member of a protected group; (2) they were subjected to an adverse employment decision; (3) they
“Generally, discrimination claims brought under Title VII and the ADEA are analyzed under the
same framework.” Deleon v. Kalamazoo Cty. Rd. Comm'n, 739 F.3d 914, 918 (6th Cir. 2014).
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were qualified for the position; and (4) they were replaced by someone outside of the protected
class or similarly situated non-protected employees were treated more favorably. See Pelcha v.
MW Bancorp, Inc., 988 F.3d 318, 326 (6th Cir. 2021). Once the plaintiff has established a prima
facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for their decision. Smith v. City of Toledo, Ohio, 13 F.4th 508, 515 (6th
Cir. 2021). The burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the reason the employer gave
“was not its true reason, but merely a pretext for discrimination.” Id.
1. Qualified for the Position
Meharry argues that Dr. Murray was not qualified for Director position of its Clinical and
Translational Research Center because the Dean of its School of Medicine determined that Dr.
Murray was underperforming. (Doc. No. 49 at 13). However, “[a]t the prima facie stage, a court
should focus on a plaintiff's objective qualifications to determine whether he or she is qualified for
the relevant job.” Wexler v. White's Fine Furniture, Inc., 317 F.3d 564, 575 (6th Cir. 2003)
(emphasis in original). Objective criteria that courts may consider in determining whether a
plaintiff can satisfy the qualification prong of their prima facie case include the employee's
“education, experience in the relevant industry, and demonstrated possession of the required
general skills.” George v. Youngstown State Univ., 966 F.3d 446, 464-65 (6th Cir. 2018) (quoting
Wexler, 317 F.3d at 576). Meharry does not claim that Dr. Murray lacked such qualifications, and
the record shows Dr. Murray worked for Meharry as a Professor and Associate Vice-President for
Clinical Research for over twelve years and as Director of the Clinical and Translational Research
Center for over seven years until his termination. Accordingly, the Court finds that Dr. Murray has
satisfied his prima facie burden of proof as to the third element of his discrimination claims.
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2. Replaced by Someone Outside of Protected Class
Meharry argues that Dr. Murray was not replaced, asserting that his termination was part
of a broader reduction in force. (See Doc. No. 49 at 13). If the termination arises as part of a work
force reduction, the Sixth Circuit has modified the fourth element to require the plaintiff to offer
“evidence tending to indicate that the employer singled out the plaintiff for discharge for
impermissible reasons.” Barnes v. GenCorp, 896 F.2d 1457, 1465 (6th Cir. 1990); Pierson v.
Quad/Graphics Printing Corp., 749 F.3d 530, 536–37 (6th Cir. 2014). Accordingly, the Court
must “determine whether [Dr. Murray]'s position was eliminated as part of a reduction in force[.]”
Pierson, 749 F.3d at 537.
“A work force reduction situation occurs when business considerations cause an employer
to eliminate one or more positions within the company.” Barnes, 896 F.2d at 1465. The
determination of whether an employee’s job was eliminated turns on whether another employee
absorbed the terminated employee’s duties in addition to other duties, or if another employee is
hired or reassigned to perform the plaintiff’s duties. See id. An employee is replaced when another
employee is hired or reassigned to perform the plaintiff's duties. See id. Here, Meharry asserts that
Dr. Lemus did not replace Dr. Murray because their respective job duties had limited overlap.
(Doc. No. 49 at 14). In support, Meharry produces Dr. Murray’s 2016-2017 contract and Dr.
Lemus’ 2018 contract – noting that their respective allocations of time were divided differently.
On the other hand, Dr. Murray points to evidence that Meharry did not eliminate the Director
position for the Clinical and Translational Research Center in June 2018. (Doc. No. 55 at 5 (citing
Doc. No. 47-13 at PageID #631); see also Doc. No. 58 ¶ 19). Additionally, Dr. Murray produces
an email dated two weeks before his effective termination date, in which he is informed of the
transition between himself and Dr. Lemus at the Clinical and Translational Research Center. (See
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Doc. No. 58 ¶ 18). It is undisputed that Dr. Lemus became the Director of Clinical and
Translational Research Center in June 2018. (Doc. No. 56 ¶ 65). Moreover, it is undisputed that
Meharry could have moved an existing faculty member to serve as Director of the Clinical and
Translational Research Center but decided not to. (Id. ¶¶ 37, 67).
The Court finds that there are genuine disputes of material fact as to whether Dr. Murray’s
position was eliminated as part of a reduction in force. Thus, Dr. Murray does not need to present
“additional direct, circumstantial, or statistical evidence tending to indicate that the employer
singled [him] out ... for discharge for impermissible reasons”, Barnes, 896 F.2d at 1465, but he
only bears the burden of proving only that he was replaced by someone outside of the protected
class. See Pierson, 749 F.3d at 539. Dr. Murray has presented evidence from which a reasonable
jury could conclude that Dr. Lemus, a 47-year-old Hispanic woman, replaced him, a sixty-sevenyear-old, non-Hispanic, white man. See Grosjean v. First Energy Corp., 349 F.3d 332, 336 (6th
Cir. 2003) (“Age differences of ten or more years have generally been held to be sufficiently
substantial to meet the requirement of the fourth part of [an] age discrimination prima facie case.”).
Accordingly, Dr. Murray has satisfied his prima facie burden of proof as to the fourth element of
his discrimination claims.
Meharry claims that Dr. Murray was terminated because it had re-evaluated the needs of
the program. (See Doc. No. 57 at 9; Doc. No. 56 ¶ 19). Because Meharry put forth a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory explanation, the burden shifts back to Dr. Murray to identify evidence from
which a reasonable jury could conclude that the proffered reason is actually pretext for
discrimination. An employee can show pretext “by offering evidence that (1) the employer's stated
reason had no basis in fact, (2) the stated reason did not actually motivate the employer, or (3) the
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stated reason was insufficient to warrant the adverse employment action.” Loyd v. Saint Joseph
Mercy Oakland, 766 F.3d 580, 590 (6th Cir. 2014).
To show pretext, Dr. Murray points to Meharry’s response to his EEOC charge, (Doc. No.
47-1), stating that he was terminated because Dean Mallett identified him as underperforming
based on his failure to secure new funding sources for clinical research. (See Doc. No. 44 at 13).
Dr. Murray points to evidence that he brought over $15 million dollars in funded grants to Meharry,
(Id. at 14 (citing Doc. No. 46 ¶ 4; Doc. No. 46-3)), arguing that a reasonable juror could infer from
the foregoing that Meharry’s stated reason for his termination had no basis in fact. Dr. Murray also
notes that Meharry’s response to his EEOC charge does not claim that he was terminated because
of a reduction in force as it now argues on summary judgment. (See Doc. No. 55 at 4). “An
employer's changing rationale for making an adverse employment decision can be evidence of
pretext.” Briggs v. Univ. of Cincinnati, 11 F.4th 498, 513 (6th Cir. 2021) (citation omitted).
Additionally, Dr. Murray points to evidence that Meharry paid Dr. Lemus a salary that was higher
than Dr. Murray’s for the same position (Doc. Nos. 47-6; 47-7), arguing that it shows her hire was
not cost-effective as claimed by Meharry.
As previously noted, Meharry did not file a reply in support of its motion for summary
judgement. The Court finds that a reasonable jury could determine that Meharry’s proffered reason
was pretext for discrimination. Accordingly, Meharry’s and Dr. Murray’s motions for summary
judgment will be denied as to the discrimination claims.
B. Breach of Contract
Dr. Murray claims that Meharry breached the parties’ contract and its duty of good faith
and fair dealing when it terminated his employment without providing one year’s notice of
nonrenewal. (Doc. No. 1 ¶¶ 16, 34). To establish a claim for breach of contract under Tennessee
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law, a plaintiff must show (1) the existence of an enforceable contract, (2) nonperformance
amounting to a breach of the contract, and (3) damages caused by the breach. See Ingram v.
Cendant Mobility Fin. Corp., 215 S.W.3d 367, 374 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006). Meharry argues that
there was no contract in place at the time of Dr. Murray’s nonrenewal in 2018 because Dr.
Murray’s contract expired on June 30, 2017 (Doc. No. 49 at 19).2 According to Meharry, “[f]rom
July 1, 2017, until June 30, 2018, [Dr. Murray] did not have an employment contract[.]” (Id.).
Dr. Murray argues that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he had a
contract with Meharry in 2018 because he continued to work under the same terms and conditions
of his 2016-2017 agreement up to and after the time of his 2018 nonrenewal. (Doc. No. 55 at 1314). As correctly noted by Dr. Murray, “[t]he law is clear in the state of Tennessee that when
parties continue to perform the same services after a contract for a definite term has expired, it is
presumed that ‘they are operating under a new contract having the same terms and conditions as
the original one.’” (Id. at 14 (quoting BSG, LLC v. Check Velocity, Inc., 395 S.W.3d 90, 91 (Tenn.
2012)). The Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Dr. Murray
and Meharry had an enforceable contract in 2018. Accordingly, Meharry’s motion for summary
judgment will be denied as to the breach of contract claim.
An appropriate Order shall enter.
WILLIAM L. CAMPBELL, JR.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Meharry also asserts that Dr. Murray cannot establish damages caused by the alleged breach
because he immediately obtained new employment that exceeded his compensation at Meharry. (Doc. No.
49 at 19-20). The Court declines to consider this undeveloped argument, as it is unsupported by any citation
to legal authority.
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