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Cobb v. State

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

April 17, 2017


          April 13, 2016 Session

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Maury County No. 13757 Robert Lee Holloway, Jr., Judge

         The plaintiff filed suit alleging discriminatory and harassing practices violative of the Tennessee Human Rights Act. The defendants moved for summary judgment, and the trial court dismissed the plaintiff's claims, holding that the defendants had negated essential elements of the plaintiff's claims. On appeal, the plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in failing to allow for additional discovery before ruling on the request for summary judgment. The plaintiff also argues that the trial court failed to address all her claims and that genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment. We conclude that the trial court properly granted summary judgment. Therefore, we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          Heather Moore Collins and Anne Hunter Williams, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellant, Linda Diane Cobb.

          Jeffrey M. Beemer and Joseph K. McKinney, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Maury County, Tennessee, and Maury County Health Department.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter, Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General, and Rachel A. Newton, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellees, State of Tennessee, Elizabeth Cook, and Constance Baker.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S. and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Linda Diane Cobb started work as a Public Health Office Assistant ("PHOA")[1] for the Maury County Health Department in January 2009. Her direct supervisor was Constance Baker. Ms. Baker, in turn, was supervised by Elizabeth Cook, the health department director.[2]

         Ms. Baker, who is African-American, supervised a total of seven PHOAs at the Health Department. Ms. Cobb and Ms. Cook are both Caucasian.

         On March 22, 2011, Ms. Cobb filed suit in the Circuit Court for Maury County, Tennessee, against the State of Tennessee, Maury County, the Maury County Health Department, Ms. Cook, and Ms. Baker. Ms. Cobb alleged that she had been discriminated against because of her race and forced to work in a hostile work environment. Specifically, she asserted that two of her co-workers, Keybra Martin, an African-American, and Edna Hernandez, a Latina, received preferential treatment in that they were not required to follow the same workplace rules as the remaining PHOAs. Her complaint alleged that the defendants' conduct violated the Tennessee Human Rights Act. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 4-21-101 to -1004 (2015 & Supp. 2016).

         A. Ms. Cobb's Deposition

         During her deposition, Ms. Cobb elaborated on her discrimination and harassment claims. She maintained that all PHOAs should be treated the same but that Ms. Baker gave two of her co-workers, Ms. Martin and Ms. Hernandez, preferential treatment. As Ms. Cobb defined it, discrimination was "[a]llowing another employee to do something they want to do just because you're friends and black." She claimed Ms. Baker favored Ms. Martin and Ms. Hernandez because of their race or ethnicity even though she conceded that another African-American PHOA did not receive any special treatment.

         Ms. Cobb complained that Ms. Martin and Ms. Hernandez were consistently treated better than the other PHOAs. For example, Ms. Martin was allowed to move to a different desk whenever she wished, but Ms. Cobb was twice denied permission to move. Ms. Baker yelled across the room at Ms. Cobb but never yelled at Ms. Martin or Ms. Hernandez. Ms. Martin received holiday pay for Martin Luther King Day when Ms. Cobb did not.[3]

         According to Ms. Cobb, Ms. Baker corrected her when she made a mistake or violated a workplace policy. By contrast, Ms. Martin and Ms. Hernandez consistently broke the rules, such as returning late from lunch, registering patients in the wrong order, and using their cell phones at work, with no apparent consequences. Ms. Cobb claimed that, even though she reported her co-workers' infractions to her supervisors, as far as she was aware, they were never disciplined. Ms. Cobb explained that, because Ms. Martin and Ms. Hernandez did not perform their jobs properly, it created more work for the remaining employees, which she viewed as harassment.

         When asked whether the harassment she experienced was based on race, at one point, Ms. Cobb said it was not. She admitted that, to her knowledge, no one at work ever said anything racist to her or about her. In fact, she never heard any workplace comments about white people. She agreed that Ms. Martin had never said anything threatening, racial, or derogatory to her.

         In March 2010, Ms. Cobb filed a formal written complaint with the State. In her complaint, Ms. Cobb described the myriad ways in which her two co-workers were favored. She also claimed that she had observed Ms. Baker, Ms. Martin, and Ms. Hernandez comparing the skin color on their arms, which she perceived to be "a racial statement."

         Ms. Cobb claimed that, after she filed her complaint, Ms. Baker harassed her with emails. Whenever she reported Ms. Martin's or Ms. Hernandez's mistakes to Ms. Baker, she would receive an email about her own mistakes. She stated that she felt harassed by the sheer volume of emails she received from Ms. Baker even though she admitted that many of the emails were legitimate.

         Although Ms. Cobb never filed a formal complaint with Maury County, in March 2011, she did verbally complain to Dana Gibson in the Maury County Human Resources Department about an email from Ms. Baker. Ms. Gibson investigated but found Ms. Cobb's complaint to be without merit.

         Ms. Cobb related a specific incident in April 2010 that she found discriminatory. According to Ms. Cobb, Ms. Baker spoke to her after a patient complained that a "white girl with long dark hair" had been rude. Ms. Cobb felt that Ms. Baker's use of the patient's description was a discriminatory racial stereotype. Because another PHOA also fit the patient's description, Ms. Cobb believed that Ms. Baker's assumption that she was the PHOA in question was in retaliation for filing her complaint.

         Then, in early November 2010, another incident occurred that Ms. Cobb felt was overtly racial. Ms. Cook had a meeting in her office with Ms. Cobb and two other Caucasian PHOAs. According to Ms. Cobb, Ms. Cook explained that a report had been filed indicating that all of them, including Ms. Cook, had been disrespectful of Ms. Baker, Ms. Hernandez, and Ms. Martin. Ms. Cook stated that they should always be polite and respectful. When questioned by the PHOAs present, Ms. Cook responded that the civil rights laws were enacted to protect minorities and indicated that white employees had no rights.

         Ms. Cobb maintained that she was a good employee and always performed her job to the best of her ability. Her pay rate never decreased, and she was never demoted. She conceded that there were no negative changes to her job position or duties because of retaliation, harassment or racial discrimination. She claimed, however, that she was forced to take two months of unpaid leave because her work environment adversely affected her health. Although Ms. Baker was replaced as the PHOA supervisor approximately six weeks before the deposition, Ms. Cobb stated it was too soon to know whether the workplace environment had improved.

         B. Ms. Cobb's Termination

         In December 2011, a few months prior to her deposition, Ms. Cobb received a written warning for violating the Health Department's Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ("HIPAA") policy.[4] According to Ms. Cobb, she viewed a patient record in an attempt to verify whether Ms. Martin and Ms. Hernandez had violated HIPAA, and she was reprimanded for her unauthorized access.

         During discovery, Ms. Cobb produced a large volume of documents that she claimed supported her discrimination claim. Ms. Cobb explained that, when she filed her formal complaint, she was told she needed documentation. Thus, she began printing certain screens from her work computer that she believed demonstrated the poor work performance and the ongoing policy violations by Ms. Martin and Ms. Hernandez. The patient registration screens and other portions of patient files that she printed contained patient-identifying information, such as names, birth dates, and social security numbers. She kept the documents in a locker within the Health Department, although at some point she took the documents home. She testified that she showed the documents to Pam Busby in the State Human Resources Department. She also gave the documents to her attorney, who produced them in discovery.

         Ms. Cobb acknowledged that "in a normal situation" disseminating this patient information "would be a HIPAA violation, " but she felt her actions were justified in order to document her claims. Ms. Cobb acknowledged that she was prohibited from ...

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