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Hawkins v. Center for Spinal Surgery

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

March 27, 2017

DEMICA D. HAWKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CENTER FOR SPINAL SURGERY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          KEVIN H SHARP, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending 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.[1] (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).

         BACKGROUND

         Ms. 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.

         Following 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.

         Following 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.

         After a 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.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         CSS has 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.

         A. Legal Standard for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         A 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 Cir.1999)).

         B. CSS's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on CSS's Liability for Retaliation (Docket No. 264)

         1. Legal Standard for Retaliation

         In 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.”).

         “If 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).

         2. CSS's Argument and Evidence at Trial

         CSS 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).

         The 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, ...


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