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West v. Kindred Nursing Centers Limited Partnership

August 9, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas A. Varlan United States District Judge



Bringing an action pursuant to the Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA), Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-401 (2005),*fn1 plaintiff, Stacey R. West, an African-American female, claims that her long-time employment with defendant Kindred Nursing Centers Limited Partnership, d/b/a Jefferson City Health and Rehabilitation Center (Kindred), was unlawfully terminated as the result of race discrimination. Kindred, however, contends that Ms. West's employment was terminated because she failed to perform her assigned duties and failed to comply with Kindred's policies and procedures after having received several written warnings. Consequently, Kindred claims that Ms. West's termination was in no way related to her race. Jurisdiction is predicated on the diversity of citizenship of the parties and the amount in controversy exceeding $75,000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1).*fn2

This matter is presently before the Court on Kindred's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 8]. The issues raised have been fully briefed by the parties [see Docs. 11, 12, and 13] so that this matter is ripe for adjudication. For the reasons that follow, Kindred's motion will be denied.

I. Factual Background

(A) The Players

Ms. West has been employed for a total of seventeen years by Kindred, which operates a nursing home in Jefferson City, Tennessee (the Facility). Ms. West was first employed by Kindred for three years as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) and then as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) for the next fourteen years. At the time of her termination on April 21, 2005, Ms. West was employed as the Secured Unit Charge Nurse (Treatment Nurse) in the Facility. According to plaintiff, the Secured Unit houses patients with dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and other diseases affecting mental awareness [see Doc. 12, p.5]. As the primary Treatment Nurse for the Secured Unit, Ms. West was the individual responsible for following the doctors' orders with respect to treatments and patient care, and she was also responsible for recommending any changes to the patients' doctor [see Doc. 8-3, p.1; 8-4, p.1]. If the other nurses on the Secured Unit had recommendations for changes in a patient's care, they would make those recommendations to Ms. West, who in turn was responsible for conveying those recommendations to the doctor [id.]. Additionally, as part of her duties, Ms. West was responsible for providing patient care in a manner that assured patient safety and promoted the patient's well-being [Doc. 8-3, pp.1-2; Doc. 8-4, p.1].

Carl Brown, also an African-American, is the LPN Unit Manager for Kindred and has now been working in that capacity for more than three years.*fn3 As LPN Unit Manager, Mr. Brown's duties include supervising approximately twenty people, ensuring that there is adequate staff in the units, ensuring that the patients are properly treated, and auditing the Medication Administration Records (MARS) for the patients. Notably, Mr. Brown was Ms. West's direct supervisor at the time of her termination.

Karen Hamrick is the Director of Nursing for Kindred and has now worked in that capacity for over four years at the Facility.*fn4 As will become apparent, Ms. West's primary evidence of race discrimination is based on some purported comments by Ms. Hamrick.

John David Waldrop is the Executive Director of the Facility and has now worked in that capacity for five years.*fn5 As Executive Director, Mr. Waldrop is responsible for the total operations of the Facility and is specifically responsible for preparing budgets, hiring employees, handling personnel issues, and assisting in the development of Kindred's policies and procedures. As will be discussed in more detail shortly, Ms. West alleges that a single remark uttered by Mr. Waldrop is further evidence of race discrimination by Kindred.

(B) Previous Work History

The facts of this case will, of course, be considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Nevertheless, before discussing the events which precipitated Ms. West's termination in April 2005, the Court must consider disciplinary events involving Ms. West which occurred during 2004 to keep that termination in the proper context.

On May 3, 2004, Kindred issued a Written Warning to Ms. West for "signing MARS in dining room during in-services. All MARS are to be signed at time MEDS are given." [Doc. 8-3, p.6]. That Written Warning was issued based on the observation of Aimee Oakes, a Kindred employee who works throughout Tennessee, that Ms. West signed MARS in the dining room during in-service training. According to Kindred's policy, MARS must be signed as the medication is actually given [see Doc. 11-3, p.4]. Furthermore, Kindred's policy requires that staff pay attention during in-service training. Although Ms. West admits that she was not paying attention during that meeting, she denies signing MARS at that time [see Doc. 3-2, p.24].*fn6 Consequently, Ms. West refused to sign that Written Warning, and RN April Browning, a supervisor, signed it as a witness along with Ms. Hamrick in her capacity as Department Head [see Doc. 8-4, p.6].

On May 17, 2004, Kindred issued a Final Written Warning to Ms. West through Ms. Browning, which states that she "(1) found [Ms. West's] Med cart [with] medications on top of it (Potassium) 2 capsules - unattended. (2) Also, in souffle cups found res medication with narcotic inside - Meds were left unattended. A resident was nearby and could have easily gotten meds and could have caused harm to this resident." [Doc. 8-4, p.7]. Per Kindred's policy and as stated on that warning, "[n]o meds are to [be] left unattended at anytime. Cart to be locked if out of sight. No meds on top of cart." [Id., p.8]. Ms. West admits that she left that cart temporarily unattended but did so for the "greater good ... ." [See Doc. 8-2, p.25]. More specifically, Ms. West explains that as she was preparing her meds for a patient, she saw another "unsteady" patient attempting to get out of a chair and she was concerned that patient might fall [see id.]. Ms. West then left the cart and "grabbed the lady that [sic] was going to fall." [Id.]. In the meantime, Ms. Browning showed up at the unattended medicine cart as another patient was walking towards it, at "the pace of the tortoise," according to Ms. West [id.]. Nevertheless, Ms. Browning wrote a Final Written Warning, which Ms. West signed along with Ms. Browning and Ms. Hamrick [see Doc. 8-4, p.7].

On July 8, 2004, Kindred issued another Final Written Warning to Ms. West for: (1)

[f]ailure to support programs and policies of the facility, i.e. - refusal to accept responsibilities in the Angel Care Program; and (2) [f]ailure to ensure activity schedule was followed as submitted, i.e., numerous activities on first day of survey were not accomplished though Unit was fully staffed." [Doc. 8-4, p.9]. As a result of this action, Ms. West's responsibility for the Angel Care Program and her activities as the Secured Unit Co-ordinator were removed [id.]. This Final Written Warning reflects the signatures of Mr. Waldrop and Ms. West [id., p.10].*fn7

(C) Facts Related to Ms. West's Discharge From Kindred

According to Kindred, Ms. West committed two additional serious violations of its policies and procedures on April 14 and April 20, 2005, which ultimately led to her termination. On April 14, 2005, a surveyor from the State of Tennessee came to the Facility to check on a patient as the result of a complaint by the patient's family [see Doc. 8-3, pp.2-3; see also Doc. 8-2, p.33]. According to Ms. West, if a family member calls the State surveyor to complain, the surveyor will come to the facility to evaluate the merits of the complaint [see Doc. 8-2, p.33]. In this case, a family member had called because the tips of the patient's fingers had been cut off, an event which would have been reported by the Facility to the State at any rate [id.]. As the result of his missing fingertips, the patient had an order in his chart to have bandages on his fingers [id., p.34; see also Doc. 8-3, p.3].

However, upon observing this patient, the surveyor noted that the patient had no bandages on his fingers [id.]. The surveyor then interviewed Ms. West and thereafter informed Mr. Waldrop of his findings [Doc. 8-3, p.3]. Specifically, the surveyor told Mr. Waldrop that Ms. West was of the opinion that bandages were no longer needed for this patient and that she had intended to obtain a doctor's order making that change but had not done so [id.]. Because that order was not set forth in the chart, Kindred received a notice of deficiency from the State because the patient did not have bandages on his fingers [see Doc. 8-2, p.7; see also Doc. 8-3, p.3]. Kindred takes the position that Ms. West was responsible for this deficiency; Ms. West takes the position that Mr. Brown is responsible for this deficiency. Because of this divergence of opinions, a further examination of other facts is in order.

As a general proposition, Ms. West, through counsel, alleges that each shift in the Secured Unit had its own primary Treatment Nurse.*fn8 Thus, Ms. West was only the primary Treatment Nurse for the 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. shift, implying that ...

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