United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
DEMICA D. HAWKINS, Plaintiff,
THE CENTER FOR SPINAL SURGERY, Defendant.
H SHARP, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
before the Court are two of Defendant, The Center for Spinal
Surgery's (“CSS”), motions. First, CSS filed
a Renewed Motion for Directed Verdict on Plaintiff's
Claim for Retaliation Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) or, in
the Alternative, Motion for a New Trial Pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. (Docket No. 264). Second, CSS filed a
Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on Punitive
Damages; or, in the Alternative, Motion for a New Trial; or,
in the Alternative, Motion for Remittitur. (Docket No. 266).
Plaintiff Demica D. Hawkins (“Ms. Hawkins”) filed
a Response to each motion. (Docket No. 269). CSS filed
Replies. (Docket Nos. 290 & 291). Having reviewed the
motions and briefs, the Court will deny both of CSS's
Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law. (Docket Nos. 264
& 266). The Court will recommend a remittitur of $73,
225.55, which will reduce the punitive damages award to $219,
676.65. The Court will conditionally grant CSS's Motions
for a New Trial. (Docket Nos. 264 & 266).
Hawkins is a black woman who worked as an Accounts Payable
Coordinator within CSS's Business Department. Ms. Hawkins
was employed in this role at CSS from February 2009 until
March 1, 2013. Throughout her employment, Ms. Hawkins filed
two separate EEOC complaints claiming racial discrimination
and retaliation by CSS.
the EEOC process, Ms. Hawkins filed this suit on October 30,
2012. At the time Ms. Hawkins filed this lawsuit, she was in
the third trimester of pregnancy. She accordingly filed for
and received FMLA maternity leave from CSS, and Ms. Hawkins
began her leave on December 12, 2012, with a presumptive
return date of March 1, 2013. On January 28, 2013, Ms.
Hawkins received a letter from Kathy Watson, Administrator in
Chief of Nursing for CSS, informing Ms. Hawkins that her
position was being eliminated. In Ms. Watson's letter,
she stated that the hospital was implementing a new
electronic health records system called Cerner; that Ms.
Hawkins' accounts payable function was no longer needed
under the new system; that all twelve of the sister hospitals
were impacted by the changes; that CSS was transferring its
revenue cycle functions to a facility in Texas; and that at
least two other positions within CSS's business office
were also being eliminated as part of the transition.
her termination, Ms. Hawkins filed an Amended Complaint that
included claims for retaliation and discrimination under
Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; 42 U.S.C. §
1981; the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”),
Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-101(a)(1); and an interference
claim under the Family and Medical Leave Act
(“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (Docket
No. 63). CSS's Motion for Summary Judgment was granted as
to all of Ms. Hawkins' claims except for two: the
retaliation claim and FMLA interference claim in regards to
her 2013 termination. (Docket No. 103). At trial, Ms. Hawkins
argued that CSS retaliated against her for engaging in
protected activity-the filing of this lawsuit-by firing her.
She also claimed that CSS violated her right to return to her
job, or an equivalent job, following her maternity leave and
thereby violated her rights under the FMLA. CSS maintained
that Ms. Hawkins was fired because her job duties were no
longer necessary due to the implementation of the new
computer system, Cerner.
four day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms.
Hawkins on her claim that she was terminated “in
retaliation for engaging in protected activity under Title
VII, § 1981, or the THRA[.]” (Docket No. 253).
However, the jury found that Ms. Hawkins did not prove her
FMLA interference claim. (Id.). Following the
verdict, the jury awarded Ms. Hawkins $29, 290.22 for back
pay, $1 in compensatory damages, and $292, 902.20 in punitive
damages. (Id.). CSS then filed the pending motions.
Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law
filed Renewed Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law on the
issues of Ms. Hawkins' retaliation claim as well as
punitive damages. (Docket Nos. 264 & 266). For the
following reasons, both Motions for Judgment as a Matter of
Law will be denied.
Legal Standard for Judgment as a Matter of Law
renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law “may be
granted only if in viewing the evidence in the light most
favorable to the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue
of material fact for the jury, and reasonable minds could
come to but one conclusion, in favor of the moving
party.” Arnold v. Wilder, 657 F.3d 353, 363
(6th Cir. 2011). “In entertaining a motion for judgment
as a matter of law, the court is to review all evidence and
draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to
the non-moving party, without making credibility
determinations or weighing the evidence.” Jackson
v. FedEx Corp. Servs., Inc., 518 F.3d 388, 392 (6th Cir.
2008) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prod.,
Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000)). “In other
words, the decision to grant judgment as a matter of law or
to take the case away from the jury is appropriate
‘whenever there is a complete absence of pleading or
proof on an issue material to the cause of action or when no
disputed issues of fact exist such that reasonable minds
would not differ.'” Id. (quoting
Jackson v. Quanex Corp., 191 F.3d 647, 657 (6th
CSS's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on
CSS's Liability for Retaliation (Docket No. 264)
Legal Standard for Retaliation
order to be successful on a retaliation claim, Ms. Hawkins
needed to prove: (1) she engaged in activity protected by
Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, or the THRA; (2) this
protected activity was known to CSS; (3) CSS then took
adverse employment action against Ms. Hawkins; and (4) there
was a causal connection between the protected activity and
the adverse employment action against Ms. Hawkins. See
Morris v. Oldham Cty. Fiscal Court, 201 F.3d 784, 792
(6th Cir. 2000) (applying this framework to a Title VII
retaliation claim); Noble v. Brinker Int'l,
Inc., 391 F.3d 715, 720 (6th Cir. 2004) (“The
elements of [a] prima facie case as well as the
allocations of the burden of proof are the same for
employment claims stemming from Title VII and §
1981.”); Newman v. FedEx Corp., 266 F.3d 401,
406 (6th Cir. 2001) (“Tennessee courts have looked to
federal case law applying the provisions of the federal
anti-discrimination statutes as the baseline for interpreting
and applying the Tennessee Human Rights Act.”).
and when a plaintiff has established a prima facie
case, the burden of production of evidence shifts to the
employer to ‘articulate some legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason' for its actions.”
Morris, 201 F.3d at 792-93 (quoting McDonnell
Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)). “The
plaintiff, who bears the burden of persuasion throughout the
entire process, then must demonstrate ‘that the
proffered reason was not the true reason for the employment
decision.'” Id. (quoting Texas Dept.
of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256
(1981)). The plaintiff also needs to establish
“but-for” causation, meaning that “the
unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence
of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the
employer.” EEOC v. New Breed Logistics, 183
F.2d 1057, 1066 (6th Cir. 2015).
CSS's Argument and Evidence at Trial
argues that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to
find that but for unlawful retaliation, Ms. Hawkins would not
have been fired. To support this, CSS argues that although
people may still have performed accounts payable functions
after the implementation of Cerner, the full-time accounts
payable role was totally eliminated, a position CSS has
maintained throughout this litigation. (Docket No. 265 at 6).
CSS also argues that the timing of Ms. Hawkins'
elimination does not equate to retaliation in response to the
filing of her lawsuit and that the jury's failure to find
that CSS violated FMLA regulations undermines the jury's
finding that CSS retaliated against Ms. Hawkins. (Docket No.
265 at 13).
evidence at trial may have been close, but there is nothing
to suggest “a complete absence of pleading or
proof.” Jackson, 518 F.3d at 392 (quoting
Quanex Corp., 191 F.3d at 657). Ms. Watson testified
that CSS “did not totally get rid of the accounts
payable functions.” (Trial Transcript for January 5,
2016 at 16:37:49, No. 3:12-cv-01125). Ms. Watson also
testified that in February 2013, when Ms. Hawkins was
terminated, Ms. Watson believed the accounts payable job was
going to be eliminated or transferred to Texas, but that she
learned otherwise in mid-March 2013. (Id. at
16:40:13-16:43:11). Furthermore, Ms. Watson testified that
Vicki Harrington and Joyce Cooper, two white CSS employees,