13, 2016 Session
from the Circuit Court for Maury County No. 13757 Robert Lee
Holloway, Jr., Judge
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
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit
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.
Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S. and Arnold B. Goldin,
NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE
Factual and Procedural Background
Diane Cobb started work as a Public Health Office Assistant
("PHOA") 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
Baker, who is African-American, supervised a total of seven
PHOAs at the Health Department. Ms. Cobb and Ms. Cook are
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 ...