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McDowell v. Heartland Dental, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

March 6, 2017




         Pending before the Court is Heartland Dental, LLC's (“Heartland”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 20). For the reasons stated herein, Heartland's Motion is GRANTED, and this action is DISMISSED.


         Diana McDowell is a female dental hygienist, formerly employed by Heartland. During the time McDowell worked for Heartland, she became pregnant. She alleges employment discrimination by Heartland because of her gender and her pregnancy, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”) and Tenn. Code Ann., § 4-21-101, et seq. (“THRA”). McDowell also alleges that Heartland retaliated against her, in violation of Title VII and the THRA, for complaining to Heartland's Human Resources (“HR”) office and for filing a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). She alleges that Heartland also retaliated against her, in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), for requesting FMLA leave.


         Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56©; Pennington v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co., 553 F.3d 447, 450 (6th Cir. 2009). 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 deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must review all the evidence, facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Van Gorder v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad, Inc., 509 F.3d 265, 268 (6th Cir. 2007). The Court does not, however, 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). The Court determines whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the material issue of fact a proper jury question. (Id.) The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party's position will be insufficient to survive summary judgment; rather, there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Rodgers, 344 F.3d at 595.


         Heartland argues that McDowell cannot establish a prima facie case of retaliation. To make a prima facie case of retaliation, McDowell must show that (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) the exercise of protected rights was known to Heartland; (3) Heartland took an adverse employment action against McDowell, 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, McDowell must produce sufficient evidence from which one could draw an inference that Heartland would not have taken the adverse employment action had she not engaged in activity protected under Title VII.[1] Taylor, 703 F.3d at 339. In Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517 (2013), the Court held that a plaintiff making a Title VII retaliation claim must establish that his or her protected activity was a “but-for” cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer. (Id. at 2533-34.)

         Once a prima facie showing is made, Heartland must articulate a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for its action, and then the burden shifts back to McDowell to show that the proffered reason was not its true reason but merely a pretext for retaliation. Harris v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville and Davidson County, 594 F.3d 476, 485 (6th Cir. 2010).

         The Complaint alleges that Heartland's retaliatory conduct against her, in violation of Title VII and the THRA, was because of her complaining of discrimination to Heartland's HR office and her filing of a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. Heartland argues that McDowell's call to the HR office was not “protected activity” because she did not report discriminatory conduct under either Title VII or the THRA.

         Title VII forbids retaliation against any employee who “has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII].” 42 U.S.C. § 2000-3(a). Similarly, the THRA forbids retaliation against an employee who “has opposed a practice declared discriminatory by [the THRA].” Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-301(a)(1).

         In her deposition, McDowell admitted that the only reason she called the HR office was because she was afraid for her safety.[2] (Doc. No. 23-1 at. 31.) She testified that she did not say anything about pregnancy discrimination in her call to HR. (Id.)[3] She testified she called HR because she felt threatened by a co-worker's comment that “if you was not pregnant, I would whoop your ass.” (Id. at p. 30.)

         In response to Heartland's Motion, McDowell argues that her complaint to HR was of a hostile work environment based on her pregnancy. The court disagrees. McDowell's complaint to HR was concerning one isolated incident. She has admitted she did not complain of discrimination in her complaint to the HR office; she stated that the only reason she called was because she was afraid for her safety. Such a complaint does not oppose a practice that is discriminatory under Title VII or the THRA and, therefore, is not “protected activity.” McDowell also testified in her deposition that all the events up to and including her termination were tied to her calling the HR office. (Doc. No. 23-1 at 38.) When asked if she thought that was the reason she was written up and eventually fired, she answered, “Yes.” (Id.) Counsel then asked ...

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