Nzabandora v. University of Virginia Health System
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Norman K. Moon on 9/22/17. (jcj)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
VERONIQUE M. NZABANDORA,
CASE NO. 3:17-CV-00003
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, ET AL.,
JUDGE NORMAN K. MOON
This is an employment discrimination case against the University of Virginia (“UVA”)
and the Commonwealth of Virginia filed by a former nurse at UVA’s medical center. Plaintiff
Veronique Nzabandora asserts claims of racial and national origin discrimination, retaliation, and
a hostile work environment related to her employment and termination. The parties have filed
cross-motions for summary judgment.
The facts viewed in Plaintiff’s favor reveal that she was subjected to some harassing
remarks during her employment. But Defendants have provided legitimate reasons for her
termination, which Plaintiff has not shown are pretextual. First, Plaintiff refused to cooperate
with an investigation into an alleged medication error. Second, during the course of that refusal,
Plaintiff made remarks to her supervisor and an HR employee that those individuals (as well as
high-level UVA administrators) interpreted as threats. For those reasons, Plaintiff’s claims
relating to her termination fail. Additionally, all but one of her claims not bearing directly on her
termination must be dismissed as a matter of law.
The hostile work environment claim, though, will proceed to trial. Defendants did not
raise an argument for its dismissal in their opening brief, and Plaintiff’s motion fails because—
viewing the facts in Defendants’ favor—no harassing or discriminatory statements were made.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that a court should grant summary
judgment “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.” “As to materiality . . . [o]nly disputes over
facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the
entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In
order to preclude summary judgment, the dispute about a material fact must be “‘genuine,’ that
is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”
Id.; see also JKC Holding Co. v. Washington Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir.
2001). However, if the evidence of a genuine issue of material fact “is merely colorable or is not
significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. In
considering a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, a court must view the record as a
whole and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.
See, e.g., Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322–24 (1986); Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791,
798 (4th Cir. 1994).
Because there are cross-motions for summary judgment, the facts would usually be
viewed twice: once in Plaintiff’s favor when considering Defendants’ motion, and vice versa.
Defs. of Wildlife v. N. Carolina Dep’t of Transp., 762 F.3d 374, 392 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting
Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003)). However, the Court recounts the
facts only in Plaintiff’s favor, because the grant of Defendants’ summary judgment motion
negates the need to consider Plaintiff’s affirmative motion and construe the facts a second time
in Defendants’ favor.
E.g., Rossignol, 316 F.3d at 523 (observing that grant of summary
judgment to defendant necessarily resolves plaintiff’s cross motion).
The hostile work
environment claim, however, is an exception to this approach because that claim is before the
Court only on Plaintiff’s motion. Thus, the Court construes the facts in Defendants’ favor during
its analysis of that count. See infra Part IV.
In 2014, Plaintiff was interviewed and hired as a nurse by Brenda Barrett, who became
her supervisor. (Dkt. 63-1 at ECF 11–12; dkt. 63-4 ¶¶ 3, 5). According to Plaintiff, as of August
2015, she felt that Barrett gave her “everyday support,” but that changed after Plaintiff
“complained about discrimination.” (Dkt. 63-1 at ECF 19).
The facts construed in Plaintiff’s favor indicate that co-worker Brittany Abshire used
racially charged language towards Plaintiff on occasions in the second half of 2015. In July and
August 2015, Abshire called Plaintiff a stupid African immigrant and accused her of sitting on
her “black ass.” (Dkt. 75-2 at ECF 9–10, 14, 25). In September, Abshire told Plaintiff during
work to stop sitting on her “black African ass” and occasionally stated she could not stand
Plaintiff’s “smelly food” and accent. (Id. at ECF 54). During this July-to-September period,
Abshire also told Plaintiff to “go back where you came from.” (Id. at ECF 59). Plaintiff
reported this conduct to Barrett on July 5th and early September, respectively. (Id. at ECF 13).
In early September 2015, Plaintiff and Abshire became involved in a disagreement over
medical protocol, requiring Barrett’s intervention. (Dkt. 63-4). In an email, Plaintiff referenced
bullying she experienced at the hands of Abshire. (Id.). Later that month, Plaintiff via email
expressed gratitude to Barrett for her role in helping mediate the conflict with herself and
Abshire. (Dkt. 63-1 at ECF 16–17).
This détente was short-lived. On September 28, 2015, Abshire claimed (and Plaintiff
denied) that Plaintiff, during a disagreement, forcefully and demonstrably poked Abshire in the
shoulder “multiple times” to make her point. (Dkt. 63-4 at ECF 25). Barrett consulted with
Human Resources (HR) about the matter and relied on two witnesses who, in written statements,
supported Abshire’s account of the event. (Id. at ECF 26–32). HR employee Jill Melton
suggested “formal counseling” of Plaintiff, but Barrett provided Plaintiff a less severe notice
requiring only “informal counseling,” a notation which was not placed in Plaintiff’s permenant
file. (Id. at ECF 32, 40; dkt. 59-2 at ECF 150). Abshire received a more severe sanction of
formal counseling for using profane language. (Dkt. 63-4 at ECF 6–7).
On November 2, 2015, Plaintiff sent a letter to UVA’s president complaining about
various work issues, including her prior incidents with Abshire, as well as Plaintiff’s contention
that her hours and pay were being cut. (Dkt. 63-2 at ECF 18–22). UVA Medical Center
Director of Employee Relations, Veronica Ford, investigated the letter’s allegations and found
them to be without merit. (Dkt. 63-7 at ECF 1–2, 5–6).
On November 30, 2015, a doctor filed a “Be Safe” report after a patient complained she
received the wrong medication. (Dkt. 63-4 at ECF 46). In consultation with HR and her
supervisor, Barrett decided on December 4th to place Plaintiff on administrative leave pending
(Id. at ECF 49). This decision was relayed to Ford, who had investigated
Plaintiff’s prior complaints. (Id. at ECF 47–48).
On December 8th and at HR’s request, Barrett called Plaintiff as part of the investigation
to obtain her perspective on the alleged medication error. (Dkt. 63-4 at ECF 53). The call was
unfruitful. Plaintiff generally refused to engage, and, among other things: stated she was a
federal agent; asked “you don’t know who you are doing this to, do you?”; and demanded to
know if she was being fired. (Id. at ECF 52–53). Barrett relayed this information to Melton in
HR, and the two tried again later that day to have a telephone conversation with Plaintiff.
On the second call, Plaintiff stated that she was giving Barrett and Melton “one last
chance” to do the right thing and stated, vaguely, “you see it every day in the media.” (Dkt. 63-4
at ECF 11; dkt. 63-10 at ECF 7).1 She said that Melton and Barrett “needed to be careful,” and
when Melton pressed Plaintiff to explain, she stated that they knew “what happens” when HR
does the wrong thing. (Dkt. 63-4 at ECF 11; dkt. 63-10 at ECF 7). Plaintiff further advised the
employees to ask God for forgiveness and that they “are going to be surprised.” (Dkt. 63-10 at
There is contemporaneous, substantial, and uncontroverted evidence that Plaintiff’s
December 8th statements were interpreted as threats requiring swift and extensive action.
Melton relayed the conversation via email immediately to her supervisor, Ms. Ford. (Dkt. 63-10
at ECF 33). Twelve minutes later, Ford responded that security would do more patrols around
the area and test the panic buttons. (Dkt. 63-7 at ECF 7–8). The Medical Center’s CEO
immediately requested “security present at the [holiday] celebration events,” saying that the
situation “makes me very uncomfortable in light of the current events,” which included (1) a
mass workplace shooting during a holiday party in San Bernadino, California days before, and
(2) the murder of television staff by a disgruntled employee in Roanoke a few months earlier. 2
The Vice President for Health Affairs agreed, writing that “[w]e must consider this a credible
Plaintiff admitted to a University police officer she made these statements, explaining
that they were not intended as threats and were misinterpreted. (Dkt. 63-9 at ECF 2, 7).
The Court takes judicial notice that (1) on December 2, 2015, in San Bernadino
California, two individuals—including an employee—murdered several workers at a service
organization during a holiday party, and (2) on August 26, 2015, in Roanoke, Virginia, a
disgruntled former television employee murdered a news reporter and cameraman on live
television. Adam Nagourney et al., San Bernardino Shooting Kills at Least 14; Two Suspects Are
Dead, N.Y. Times (Dec. 2, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/03/us/san-bernardinoshooting.html?mcubz=1; John Woodrow Cox et al., Two Roanoke journalists killed on live
threat” and said that the administrators should “consider options” and “gather appropriate
security personnel.” (Dkt. 62-12 at 3). 3
The next morning, December 9, 2015, the Vice President for Health Affairs forwarded
Melton’s email to the University-wide COO and stated that “[p]eople are on pins and needles.”
(Id. at ECF 5–6). UVA police launched an investigation, Virginia State Police provided extra
security at the Medical Center, and local police patrolled the December 9th holiday party. (Dkt.
63-7 at ECF 2).
After this initial perceived threat subsided, HR employees Ford and Melton
recommended that Plaintiff be terminated for (1) failing to cooperate with the medication error
investigation, as she was ordered to do at the time of her administrative leave, and (2) threatening
her immediate supervisor and an HR employee. Barrett agreed with this recommendation4 and
drafted a termination letter dated December 18, 2015, which Plaintiff received via mail on
January 6, 2016. (Dkt. 63-4 at ECF 58–59). The letter recounted the two reasons for termination
and also observed, by way of background, that the investigation had confirmed a medication
error. Upon receipt, Plaintiff apparently interpreted this latter statement as the basis for her
firing, so Barrett sent an amended termination letter in April 2016 that omitted mention of the
medicine error investigation’s finding. The second letter is otherwise substantively identical to
the first, and both letters contain clear, up-front, unambiguous statements that Plaintiff was fired
for failure to cooperate and for making threats. (Compare id. at ECF 58–59 with id. at ECF 60–
See also dkt. 75-2 at ECF 147 (CEO of HR’s testimony that Plaintiff’s comments were
“very threatening and it was of great concern” for “the entire fifth floor o[n] which HR works”).
Plaintiff agrees that Barrett was the final decision-maker. (Dkt. 75 at 12).
Before turning to the substantive arguments, the Court must decide whether this is a case
of direct and indirect evidence of discrimination, or rather one suited for the McDonnell Douglas
Plaintiff offers a handful of statements by UVA employees she claims they made to her
that constitute direct evidence of discrimination. The statements are as follows.
Chief HR Officer at the Medical Center (John Boswell): “[D]iscrimination has been at
UVA for over 20 years.”
Director for Neurosciences (Joel Anderson): “We have fired so many black nurses here,
you are not going to be the first, you are not going to be the last one.” “You need to stop
[complaining or] you will be fired.”
Employee Relations Manager at the Medical Center (Althea Howell): “[C]omplaining
will never get you anywhere. Just go back to work and don’t talk about it.”
Plaintiff’s supervisor (Brenda Barrett): “[L]ife is not fair, you need to get used to that.”
UVA “does not like people complaining about discrimination.”
Defendants observe that none of these statements came directly from the alleged speaker.
Plaintiff either did not depose the speakers or did not ask if they made these statements, and there
is no written record of the statements. Instead, the statements all were attributed to the speakers
by Plaintiff at her deposition.
Defendants therefore argue they are inadmissible hearsay.
Assuming arguendo that these statements are nonhearsay as statements of the declarant’s thenexisting state of mind (e.g., motive and intent), Fed. R. Evid. 803(3), they are still insufficient to
avoid resort to the McDonnell Douglas framework.
“To survive summary judgment on the basis of direct and indirect evidence, [a plaintiff]
must produce evidence that  clearly indicates a discriminatory attitude at the workplace and
must  illustrate a nexus between that negative attitude and the employment action.” Brinkley
v. Harbour Recreation Club, 180 F.3d 598, 608 (4th Cir. 1999) (finding “a few isolated
statements indicating sexists attitudes” at company insufficient where plaintiff “utterly fails to
connect” them with her eventual demotion and termination), overruled on other grounds by
Desert Palace v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90 (2003); see Warch v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 510, 520
(4th Cir. 2006) (holding that alleged discriminatory attitude must “bear directly on the contested
employment decision”); Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 317–18 (4th
Cir. 2005); McCray v. Pee Dee Reg’l Transp. Auth., 263 F. App’x 301, 305–06 (4th Cir. 2008).
It “is the rare case in which an employer admits not just to possessing an impermissible
motive, but also to acting upon it.” Foster v. Univ. of Maryland-E. Shore, 787 F.3d 243, 250 n.6
(4th Cir. 2015).
Relevantly, “[i]solated remarks unrelated to the challenged employment
decision are insufficient to provide direct evidence of discrimination.” Finkle v. Howard Cty.,
640 F. App’x 245, 248 (4th Cir. 2016).
If relied upon, isolated statements “must be
contemporaneous to the adverse employment action.” McCray, 263 F. App’x at 306. The
statements here fail these principles because they either are isolated, do not reveal “clearly
indicate a discriminatory motive,” are unconnected to Plaintiff’s termination, or some
Boswell. Boswell’s generic comments about historical discrimination at UVA do not
demonstrate racial, national origin, or retaliatory animus towards Plaintiff. Even if they did,
there is no nexus, because Boswell—as Plaintiff concedes—had no role in firing Plaintiff. (Dkt.
75 at 13). His statements do not “bear directly” on her termination. Warch, 435 F.3d at 520.
Anderson. Anderson’s comments may indicate a discriminatory attitude. But he oversaw
the neurosciences department. There is no evidence on which a reasonable person could find a
nexus between Anderson’s alleged statements and Plaintiff’s termination. Barrett fired her after
agreeing with the recommendation of two HR professionals, Ford and Melton (although
Anderson apparently reviewed the termination letter as to form), so his statements do not “bear
directly” on the decision to terminate Plaintiff.
Warch, 435 F.3d at 520.
The fact that
Anderson’s alleged statement occurred a month before Plaintiff was terminated5 (indeed, before
she was even placed on leave pending the medication error investigation) further supports this
conclusion. See McCray, 263 F. App’x at 306
Howell. Howell’s statement is a general admonition to stop complaining and “go back to
work.” It neither “clearly indicates” a discriminatory attitude nor has a nexus to Plaintiff’s
termination, as Howell did not make or influence the decision. Brinkley, 180 F.3d at 608.
Barrett. Finally, Barrett, who was the decision-maker, offered general admonitions about
fairness and stated UVA purportedly did not like reports of discrimination. These generalized
comments are not indicative of a discriminatory attitude by Barrett, but even if they were, there
is no nexus: The statements are isolated ones allegedly made to Plaintiff three months prior to
her termination, not contemporaneously with it. See McCray, 263 F. App’x at 306 (finding “I
can’t stand that black son of a bitch,” “black S.O.B,” and “first chance we get we are going to
run his ass out of town” not sufficient to avoid resort to McDonnell Douglas framework).
In sum, this is not the “rare case” in which Plaintiff can proceed without the McDonnell
Douglas framework. See Foster, 787 F.3d at 250 n.6.6
Racial/National Origin Discrimination under Title VII
Defendants offer two overarching arguments against the Title VII discrimination claim.
First, Plaintiff does not make out a prima facie case because she failed to meet legitimate job
expectations. Second, they assert there were legitimate, non-pretextual reasons to fire Plaintiff.
Dkt. 75 at 6.
Plaintiff also cites statements by Abshire, but she was merely Plaintiff’s co-worker, not
her supervisor or the decision-maker.
Prima facie case
To establish a prima facie case, Plaintiff must show that “(1) she is a member of a
protected class; (2) she suffered adverse employment action; (3) she was performing her job
duties at a level that met her employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of the adverse
employment action; and (4) the position remained open or was filled by similarly qualified
applicants outside the protected class.” Bonds v. Leavitt, 629 F.3d 369, 386 (4th Cir. 2011).
Defendants argue that Plaintiff was not satisfying her legitimate job expectations because
she physically assaulted co-worker Abshire and refused to cooperate with the investigation into
the medication error. They also cite evidence that Plaintiff refused to work as a “charge nurse”
overseeing other nurses during designated shifts. Specifically, they refer to an email in which
Plaintiff wrote to Barrett on November 6, 2015 that, due to personal schedule changes, “I am no
longer able to be a charge [n]urse on the new schedule” and “I am OK to not doing [sic] Charge
Nurse.” (Dkt. 63-4 at ECF 45).7
Plaintiff’s response on this score is scant, consisting of only marginally relevant
statements from Barrett and her supervisor that, on certain occasions predating her termination,
Plaintiff had received good performance reviews. (Dkt. 75 at 16–17). “Hospitals,” though,
“have historically had wide discretion to make decisions regarding their medical staff.” Freilich
v. Upper Chesapeake Health, Inc., 313 F.3d 205, 218 (4th Cir. 2002); see Baqir v. Principi, 434
F.3d 733, 742 (4th Cir. 2006) (expressing disinclination “to impugn” hospital’s judgment about
quality of cardiologist’s work). Moreover, Plaintiff does not contest the authenticity of her email
declining to work as a charge nurse.
Regarding the fourth aspect of a prima facia case, Defendants also contend that Plaintiff
has not identified a similarly-situated comparator, stating that she cannot identify anyone
terminated for threatening a supervisor and refusing to cooperate with an investigation. (Dkt. 63
In any event, the Court can at this stage assume Plaintiff establishes a prima facie case
because Defendants have established legitimate reasons for her termination.
Legitimate, non-pretextual reasons for termination
Defendants assert two legitimate reasons for terminating Plaintiff:
her refusal to
participate in the medication error investigation, and the perceived threats she made to Barrett
Plaintiff must show that both of these reasons are pretextual, that is, that they were not
the true basis of her termination and that discrimination was an actual reason. See Baldwin v.
England, 137 F. App’x 561, 564 (4th Cir. 2005) (Plaintiff failed to show “any of those reasons
are false, much less that all of them are a pretext”); Odom v. Int’l Paper Co., 652 F. Supp. 2d
671, 691 (E.D. Va. 2009) aff’d sub nom. Odom v. Int’l Paper Co., 381 F. App’x 246 (4th Cir.
2010) (Plaintiff must “meet each reason head on and rebut such reason”). Plaintiff “may not
recast an employer’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reason or substitute his business judgment
for that of the employer, but must instead meet each reason head on and rebut such reason.”
Monk v. Potter, 723 F. Supp. 2d 860, 881 (E.D. Va. 2010), aff’d sub nom. Monk v. Donahoe, 407
F. App’x 675 (4th Cir. 2011).
Plaintiff’s primary argument is that she was terminated for committing the medication
error. This argument is not supported by the evidence, as it rests on an idiosyncratic misreading
of the plain text of Plaintiff’s termination notice.
Supposed “changing reasons” for termination
First, faced with overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence that UVA employees took
Plaintiff’s comments in early December as serious threats, Plaintiff casts the reasons for
terminating her as shifting over time. (Dkt. 75 at 19). Citing her termination letter, Plaintiff
states she was “terminated for having committed a medication error.” (Id. at 19).
No reasonable juror could draw that conclusion from the letter. Its very first sentence
Veronique Nzabandora is being terminated for threatening and intimidating
employees of the Medical Center and for failing to perform responsibilities as
reasonably requested, assigned, or directed[,]which are violations of [Medical
(Dkt. 75-2 at ECF 173 (emphasis added)). The letter next explains, in a single paragraph, what
the originating investigation was about: It describes the preliminary finding that a medication
error in fact occurred and the efforts to seek Plaintiff’s side of the story.
This is mere factual
background, as the remaining five paragraphs recount in detail the events resulting in Plaintiff’s
termination: her refusal to cooperate and her threatening statements. Plaintiff even admitted in
her January 12, 2016, EEOC charge she was terminated “for allegedly not participating in an
investigation and alleged threatening behavior.” (Dkt. 75-3 at ECF 5).
Nonetheless, Plaintiff soldiers on, citing the subsequent April 2016 version of her
termination letter for the proposition that “Barrett withdr[ew] the original termination letter and
issue[d] another one scratching out the medication error.”
(Dkt. 75 at 19). This is incorrect.
Barrett did not change the substance of the letter: Both stated clearly the reasons for Plainitff’s
termination, neither of which were that she committed a medication error. The first sentence
reads precisely the same as in the original letter. Indeed, the two letters are substantively
The only difference is that the second letter omits—apparently in response to Plaintiff’s
own misinterpretation of the first letter—background information mentioning preliminary
evidence of a medication error, and in its place substituted the statement “at this point [i.e.,
December 4, 2015, when Plaintiff was placed on leave pending the investigation], the need for
any disciplinary action had not been determined.” (Dkt. 75-2 at ECF 171). The remainder of the
second letter was unchanged, again focusing in great detail on Plaintiff’s misconduct—her
threats and refusal to cooperate.
In sum, Plaintiff simply misreads the content of her termination notices, and no
reasonable juror could adopt her misunderstanding. She can rely only on her own bald assertion
that “UVA changed its reasons for firing” in an attempt to manufacture pretext. (Dkt. 75 at 12).8
That is insufficient to defeat the overwhelming and unrebutted evidence that Plaintiff made what
Barrett (the decision-maker) and other UVA employees—including upper-level management—
interpreted as threats against co-workers and refused to participate in an investigation regarding a
medication error she committed. See Holland v. Washington Homes, Inc., 487 F.3d 208, 217
(4th Cir. 2007) (holding that, when assessing pretext, it “is the perception of the decisionmaker
which is relevant.”); Baqir v. Principi, 434 F.3d 733, 742 (4th Cir. 2006) (declining to impugn
medical professionals’ judgment about employees).
Discriminatory comments as pretext
Next, Plaintiff relies on statements purportedly made by Barrett (i.e., UVA dislikes
discrimination complaints) and Anderson (i.e., UVA has fired black nurses before and Plaintiff
would not be the last one) that “show pretext for discrimination.” (Dkt. 75 at 20). Plaintiff does
not cite any cases or engage in analysis explaining why these isolated statements show pretext.
As explained above, Plaintiff must—but fails to—rebut each reason for her termination
Plaintiff also offers an affidavit from a nurse who claims Barrett told her that Plaintiff
was fired for a medication error. (Dkt. 71 at 11 (citing dkt. 75-1 at ECF 11 ¶ 4)). This is hearsay
excludable from consideration on summary judgment. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Evans v. Techs.
Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 962 (4th Cir. 1996); Sakaria v. Trans World Airlines, 8
F.3d 164, 171 (4th Cir. 1993). Even if it was not, no reasonable juror could credit this single
statement in light of the compelling and contemporaneous evidence documenting Plaintiff’s
threatening statements and refusal to cooperate.
head on. Baldwin, 137 F. App’x at 564; Odom, 652 F. Supp. 2d at 691; Monk, 723 F. Supp. 2d at
881. Additionally, the Court has already explained why Anderson’s and Barrett’s comments do
not aid Plaintiff. As to Anderson (whose comments came a month before Plaintiff’s suspension
and eventual termination), he did not make the decision to fire Plaintiff; Barrett did. So his
statements cannot show that Barrett’s reasons were pretextual. For Barrett’s part, the comments
allegedly attributed to her by Plaintiff were made three months before the termination (and the
conduct justifying it) and do not suggest Plaintiff’s race or national origin played a role in the
decision. Further, when, as here with Barrett, “the hirer and firer are the same individual, there is
a powerful inference relating to the ultimate question that discrimination did not motivate the
employer.” Proud v. Stone, 945 F.2d 796, 798 (4th Cir. 1991); see Evans, 80 F.3d at 959;
Amirmokri v. Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co., 60 F.3d 1126, 1130 (4th Cir. 1995). That inference is
not overcome here.
Unequal treatment of purported comparators
Finally, Plaintiff contends there is pretext because she has identified white employees
who were not terminated for committing medication errors. (Dkt. 75 at 20–21). This argument
attacks a straw man: The grounds for her termination was not a medication error. The argument
fails for the reasons discussed above.
Retaliation under Title VII
“To establish a prima facie case of retaliation in contravention of Title VII, a plaintiff
must prove (1) that she engaged in a protected activity, as well as (2) that her employer took an
adverse employment action against her, and (3) that there was a causal link between the two
events.” Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp., 786 F.3d 264, 281 (4th Cir. 2015) (en banc)
(internal quotations omitted). If this is shown:
[t]he burden then shifts to the [defendant-employer] to show that its purportedly
retaliatory action was in fact the result of a legitimate non-retaliatory reason. If
the employer makes this showing, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to rebut
the [defendant-employer’s] evidence by demonstrating that the employer’s
purported nonretaliatory reasons were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for
Foster v. Univ. of Maryland-E. Shore, 787 F.3d 243, 250 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotations and
The “burden for establishing causation at the prima facie stage is ‘less onerous’” than the
causation test at the third step (pretext) of the analysis. Foster, 787 F.3d at 251. Yet at the
pretext stage, “a plaintiff must establish both that the employer’s reason was false and that
retaliation was the real reason for the challenged conduct,” which is effectively a “but-for”
standard. Id. at 252. “Title VII retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the
but-for cause of the challenged employment action.” Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar,
133 S. Ct. 2517, 2528 (2013); see Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Investments, LLC, 828 F.3d 208,
217 (4th Cir. 2016) (Retaliation claims “require the employee to show that retaliation was a butfor cause of a challenged adverse employment action.”).
Furthermore, courts are not called upon to judge “whether the reason was wise, fair, or
even correct, ultimately.” Dugan v. Albemarle Cty. Sch. Bd., 293 F.3d 716, 722 (4th Cir. 2002).
If the record shows the defendants “honestly believed” plaintiff deserved to be discharged or
sanctioned, then pretext is absent, even if the defendants were wrong or mistaken about the
underlying facts. Holland v. Washington Homes, Inc., 487 F.3d 208, 217–18 (4th Cir. 2007).
Defendants first argue that Plaintiff does not make out a prima facie case because her
complaints to various individuals about the treatment she endured were too remote in time to her
termination, and thus not causally connected to it. (Dkt. 65 at 23). The Court assumes that a
prima facie case has been made out as it pertains to her termination, as Plaintiff lodged several
complaints throughout the second half of 2015 about treatment she found objectionable. (See
dkt. 75 at 21–23).
Plaintiff, then, must show that Defendants’ stated reason for adverse action are “prextext
for discrimination,” meaning that she needs proof “both that the reason was false, and that
discrimination was the real reason for the challenged conduct.” Jiminez v. Mary Washington
Coll., 57 F.3d 369, 377–78 (4th Cir. 1995) (emphasis in original).
As discussed above, Defendants had legitimate, non-pretextual reasons for firing
Plaintiff. Plaintiff’s argument on the retaliation score is brief and merely recapitulates her prior,
unsuccessful arguments. (Dkt. 75 at 24–25).
Plaintiff’s opposition brief—in recounting the facts—alludes to retaliatory acts other than
termination. Plaintiff does not formulate additional legal arguments based on these facts, but out
of an abundance of caution they will be addressed.
Reduced hours, withheld pay, and charge nurse duties. Plaintiff contends that after her
various complaints of discrimination throughout late 2015, Barrett reduced her hours and
withheld her full pay for September, and that she was not permitted to work as a charge nurse.
(Dkt. 75-2 at ECF 18, 64, 162; see dkt. 75 at 3–4, 23–24).
As for the hours and charge nurse duties, Director of Employment Relations Ford
investigated these allegations and found them in November 2015 to be “false” (dkt. 63-7 at ECF
5–6), a finding on which Defendants were entitled to rely and Plaintiff does not show is
pretextual. Indeed, Plaintiff’s timesheets for August 29, 2015 through December 2015 reveal
that Plaintiff’s hours were not reduced and that she served as a charge nurse throughout
September, October, and November 2015. (Dkt. 73-7 at ECF 1–2, 5–10, 19–24). In other words,
Plaintiff suffered no material adverse action that might dissuade a reasonable worker from
making a charge of discrimination, because she did not sustain an objectively nontrivial “injury
or harm.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 67–68 (2006); see Adams v.
Anne Arundel Cty. Pub. Sch., 789 F.3d 422, 431 (4th Cir. 2015) (requiring “some direct or
indirect impact on an individual’s employment”); see also S.B. ex rel. A.L. v. Bd. of Educ. of
Harford Cty., 819 F.3d 69, 79 (4th Cir. 2016) (finding plaintiff cannot meet his burden on a Title
VII claim “[w]ithout more than his own assertions”).
Regarding the allegations about nonpayment, a system-wide accounting error was
uncovered and remedied. (Dkt. 63-7 at ECF 5–6; dkt. 73-7 at ECF 3–4, 19–24; dkt. 75-4 at ECF
2; dkt. 76-7). Plaintiff admitted this correction was made, a conclusion Ford also reached. (Dkt.
75-2 at ECF 64–65; dkt. 63-7 at ECF 5–6; dkt. 75-2 at ECF 162). Again, then, Plaintiff did not
suffer a materially adverse employment action. White, 548 U.S. at 67–68; Adams, 789 F.3d at
431; S.B. ex rel. A.L., 819 F.3d at 79. Even if the initial nonpayment was materially adverse,
there was a nonpretextual reason for it: The mistake was caused by a widespread accounting
error attributed to a change in UVA’s computer system, not retaliatory animus against Plaintiff.
(Dkt. 64-7 at ECF 3–4).
Placement on leave. Plaintiff complains she was twice placed on leave after she voiced
her opposition to discrimination. (Dkt. 75 at 23). But she has not offered evidence sufficient to
rebut the nonpretextual reasons for this leave: that the first leave was justified as an interim
measure after allegations (supported by two witness) that she assaulted a co-worker (e.g., dkt.
59-2 at ECF 150), and the second was justified pending an investigation into an alleged
medication error.9 It also appears (and Plaintiff does not argue to the contrary) that short-term
“When an employee is put on paid administrative leave pending an investigation for
paid administrative leave pending a timely investigation may not constitute materially adverse
employment action. See Sturdivant v. Geren, No. CIV.A. 1:09-CV-586, 2009 WL 4030738, at
*6 (E.D. Va. Nov. 19, 2009) (“courts have held that placing an individual on paid administrative
leave does not constitute an adverse employment action”), aff’d sub nom. Sturdivant v. McHugh,
450 F. App’x 235 (4th Cir. 2010); Grice v. Baltimore Cty., Md., No. CIV. JFM 07-1701, 2008
WL 4849322, at *8 (D. Md. Nov. 5, 2008) (compiling cases supporting proposition that
“suspension with pay pending a prompt investigation into allegations of wrong-doing does not
constitute an adverse employment action”), aff’d, 354 F. App’x 742 (4th Cir. 2009).10
Race Discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981
The Commonwealth of Virginia’s (and by extension, UVA’s) Eleventh Amendment
immunity bars this claim. Huang v. Bd. of Governors of Univ. of N. Carolina, 902 F.2d 1134,
1136 n.1, 1138 (4th Cir. 1990); Collin v. Rector & Bd. of Visitors of Univ. of Virginia, 873 F.
Supp. 1008, 1013 (W.D. Va. 1995); Demuren v. Old Dominion Univ., 33 F. Supp. 2d 469, 475
(E.D. Va.), aff’d, 188 F.3d 501 (4th Cir. 1999); Wilson v. Univ. of Virginia, 663 F. Supp. 1089,
1092 (W.D. Va. 1987).
wrongdoing, the employer will virtually always have a ready, legitimate and non-discriminatory
reason for doing so; few employers will, out of animus, inflict a paid vacation.” Joseph v.
Leavitt, 465 F.3d 87, 96 (2d Cir. 2006) (Jacobs, J., concurring).
This Court has been unable to find a Fourth Circuit precedent squarely addressing this
issue. See Von Gunten v. Maryland, 243 F.3d 858, 869 (4th Cir. 2001) abrogated on other
grounds by White, 548 U.S. at 56–57, 60. A number of courts of appeals hold that, barring a
departure from or unreasonable application of standard procedures (which is not applicable here,
dkt. 59-2 at ECF 150), paid administrative leave pending an investigation is not adverse action.
The Second Circuit, for instance, has applied this principle even after the Supreme Court’s White
decision, which clarified the standard for adverse action in retaliation claims. Joseph v. Leavitt,
465 F.3d 87, 90–92 & n.2 (2d Cir. 2006) (citing cases from the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits);
e.g., Brown v. City of Syracuse, 673 F.3d 141, 144, 148, 150–51 (2d Cir. 2012); see also Jones v.
Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 796 F.3d 323, 325 (3d Cir. 2015) (applying principle to substantive Title
VII claims; not reaching question as to Title VII retaliation claims).
Hostile Work Environment Claim
Finally, there is the matter of Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim. Defendants’
motion seeks judgment on and dismissal of the “entirety” of Plaintiff’s claims (dkt. 62), but their
opening brief does not mention the hostile work environment claim. (See generally dkt. 63).
The claim is instead addressed in Defendants’ reply brief. (Dkt. 76 at 21–25). This failure to
present argument in an opening brief renders any attack on the hostile work environment claim
waived, as innumerable cases hold. E.g., Suarez-Valenzuela v. Holder, 714 F.3d 241, 249 (4th
Cir. 2013); United States v. Hudson, 673 F.3d 263, 268 (4th Cir. 2012); Nelson v. Green, No.
3:06-CV-00070, 2014 WL 131055, at *20 (W.D. Va. Jan. 14, 2014); RMA Lumber, Inc. v.
Pioneer Mach., LLC, No. CIV.A. 6:08-CV-00023, 2009 WL 3172806, at *5 (W.D. Va. Oct. 1,
Plaintiff’s motion for affirmative summary judgment fairs no better. While Plaintiff
properly raised her argument (albeit with minimal analysis, dkt. 59 at 27–28), there is a dispute
of material fact.
Most obviously, Defendants’ employees uniformly deny making the
discriminatory or harassing statements that Plaintiff asserts they made. (Dkt. 73 at 2–3 (citing
affidavits and deposition testimony)). If a jury—as it reasonably could—resolved this dispute in
Defendants’ favor, the first three elements of a hostile work environment claim would be absent.
See Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Investments, LLC, 828 F.3d 208, 221 (4th Cir. 2016).
Plaintiff is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. This claim will proceed to trial.
Based on the foregoing, Defendants’ motion for summary judgment will be granted and
Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment will be denied. All claims except Plaintiff’s hostile
work environment claim will be dismissed.
An appropriate order will issue. The Clerk of the Court is hereby directed to send a
certified copy of this opinion and the accompanying order to counsel of record.
Entered this _____ day of September, 2017.
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