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Corley v. Bliss

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

September 25, 2019

DENTAL BLISS, et al., Defendants.

          Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr., Chief Judge.


          Alistair E. Newbern, Magistrate Judge.

         This action arises out of pro se Plaintiff Lashonda Corley’s employment as a dental assistant with Defendants 1Mosaic, Inc. and Dental Bliss. (Doc. No. 24.) Corley, an African-American woman over the age of forty, alleges that the defendants violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., by discriminating against her because of her race and age and terminating her for complaining about that discrimination. (Doc. No. 24.) Before the Court is the defendants’ motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 49), to which Corley has responded in opposition (Doc. Nos. 52, 53); the defendants have replied (Doc. No. 55). Upon consideration of the parties’ briefs and the record evidence as a whole, and for the reasons that follow, the Magistrate Judge will recommend that the Court grant the defendants’ motion.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background [1]

         Corley was hired on June 29, 2015, to work as an expanded function dental assistant (EFDA) for 1Mosaic at the Dental Bliss location in Franklin, Tennessee.[2] (Doc. Nos. 51, 52, 54.) Her employment was at will. (Doc. Nos. 51, 51-1, 51-3, 52.) Corley testified that, when she was first hired, she “was allowed to see patients” but that, at some point, she “was no longer allowed to see them on a regular basis.” (Doc. No. 51-6, PageID# 431.) Instead, she “was asked to clean out storage areas, remove old equipment, [and] move equipment from one place to another.” (Id. at PageID# 431–32.) Dr. Susan Couzens is a dentist who worked with Corley at Dental Bliss Franklin. (Doc. No. 51-4.) Corley stated that she told Couzens in September 2015 that she wanted more training, that she “was not allowed to assist [with patients] when [Couzens] wasn’t there[, ]” and that she “was tired of cleaning out spaces[.]” (Doc. No. 51-6, PageID# 445.) Corley testified that she also met with operations manager Amy Evans and told her, among other things, that she wanted more training and that she “wasn’t being allowed to use [her] certifications” as an EFDA. (Id. at PageID# 446.) According to Corley, she met with Dr. Couzens again on October 30, 2015, and talked about “how they were treating [her] when nobody was there” and told Couzens that she “really wanted more opportunities to assist” with patients. (Id. at PageID# 447.)

         Couzens testified that she “requested that ALL staff help with cleaning, decluttering, and improving [an adjacent, empty office] space when [they] did not have patients scheduled.” (Doc. No. 51-4, PageID# 406, ¶ 9 (emphasis in original).) Evans testified that she met with Couzens during a routine visit to the Franklin Dental Bliss Office in October 2015, and that Couzens “voice[d] concerns about Ms. Corley.” (Doc. No. 51-5, PageID# 411, ¶ 6.) Specifically, Couzens stated that “Corley seemed disengaged from the rest of the team and practice.” (Id.) On October 31, 2015, Couzens sent a “weekly update” email to Dental Bliss owner Dr. Michael Atchley and 1Mosaic CEO Chris Mahan stating, among other things, that she “had a long conversation with” Corley the day before and that Corley was “NOT happy.” (Doc. No. 51-3, PageID# 402 (emphasis in original).) Couzens said that she had been “coaching” Corley and she believed Corley “ha[d] a lot of talent and potential, ” but that Corley seemed tense and had “alluded to an undercurrent of drama with” others. (Id.) Couzens predicted that that it would “only be a matter of time until” Corley quit. (Id.) Evans testified that, around the same time, “Corley began having attendance issues as well as trouble with grooming-including wrinkled scrubs, uncombed hair, and . . . not bath[ing] on occasion.” (Doc. No. 51-5, PageID# 411, ¶ 6.)

         On Saturday, November 7, 2015, Corley was supposed to meet Couzens at the Dental Bliss Franklin office to unlock the building and assist Couzens with a specially scheduled patient procedure. (Doc. Nos. 51, 51-3, 51-4.) Couzens testified that “Corley did not show for the scheduled appointment” and “did not answer [Couzens’s] calls or texts.” (Doc. No. 51-4, PageID# 406, ¶ 7.) According to Couzens, she “had to call another employee, who was not a dental assistant, to open the door” and she performed the patient procedure without an assistant. (Id.) Couzens said she “did not hear from Ms. Corley until the following Thursday” and that Corley “gave no explanation for her absence.” (Id.) Corley later told a human resources representative that she “did call the office that [Saturday] morning and spoke to” an employee named Linda. (Doc. No. 51-3, PageID# 368.) Corley “shared with her what happened and asked her, even though it was late, if she thought [Corley] should come [i]n to the office anyway[.]” (Id.) Linda told Corley that “she was helping Dr. Couzens and she felt like they were almost finished and probably not going to be there much longer.”[3] (Id.)

         On November 9, 2019, Couzens sent another weekly update email to Atchley and Mahan and mentioned “continued (and perhaps increased) inadequate job performance from” Corley. (Doc. No. 51-3, PageID# 401.) Couzens explained that Corley “did not show” up for the specially scheduled Saturday appointment and that Couzens had to “call[ ] Linda, who thankfully came to let [her] in.” (Id.) Couzens also mentioned that Corley “came to work with no makeup [on] Wed[nesday] and Thurs[day], and . . . did not stay to help with the moving and organization of the operatories.” (Id.) Couzens told Atchley and Mahan that she planned to “get with Amy [Evans] about the particulars for documentation of [Corley’s] job performance.” (Id.) Couzens sent another email about Corley to Atchley, Mahan, and Evans on November 15, 2015. (Id. at PageID# 400.) “As I have shared with each of you, ” she wrote, “we would have terminated [Corley’s] position immediately after last Saturday.” (Id.) Couzens further characterized Corley’s failure to report for the Saturday appointment as “disrespectful first and foremost to our valued patient and secondly to [Corley’s] team[, ] [e]specially to Linda and to” Couzens herself. (Id.) Couzens suggested “two possible solutions: Strict probation in writing that [Corley] signs or termination.” (Id.) Couzens and Evans both testified that they met with Corley in the fall of 2015 to discuss their concerns about her job performance but said they did not provide her with a formal written review at that time. (Doc. Nos. 51-4, 51-5.)

         Evans testified that, after a few months, she continued to receive reports about issues with Corley’s employment. (Doc. No. 51-5.) For example, Corley did not report for work on March 9 and 16, 2016.[4] (Doc. No. 52.) Around the same time, Corley spent a day or two working with Dr. Atchley at his office in Hermitage, Tennessee. (Doc. Nos. 51-2, 51-5.) Corley complained to Atchley that she was not getting training, was not assisting with much patient care, and was being asked to complete janitorial tasks like cleaning fish tanks. (Doc. Nos. 51-2, 52.) Atchley testified that he reported Corley’s concerns to Couzens, who told Atchley “that all staff had been requested to clean fish tanks, and that Dr. Couzens preferred one of the other assistants due to her superior skills.” (Doc. No. 51-2, PageID# 330, ¶ 14.)

         On March 23, 2016, Evans presented Corley with a written corrective action review listing purported violations of 1Mosaic policies dating back to October 2015. (Doc. Nos. 51-3, 52.) Among other things, the purported violations included refusal to comply with instructions about ordering supplies; failure to attend staff meetings; poor personal hygiene; failure to report for work; failure to follow the chain of command; and inadequate performance of assigned duties. (Doc. No. 51-3.) On March 31, 2016, Corley emailed a human resources representative to report “a hostile work environment and discrimination tactics against [her] consequently resulting in a negative evaluation.” (Doc. No. 51-3, PageID# 388.) In early April 2016, 1Mosaic provided Corley with two days of paid time off so that she could prepare a written report of any discrimination. (Doc. No. 52.) On April 10, 2016, Corley submitted a typed response to the corrective action review, offering reasons why each of the purported policy violations was unwarranted. (Doc. No 51-3.) Mahan testified that 1Mosaic conducted “a thorough investigation” and determined that the corrective action review “was well-founded.” (Doc. No. 51-1, PageID# 325, ¶ 25.)

         Mahan further testified that, “[i]n late April and early May 2016, 1Mosaic received numerous complaints from staff regarding Ms. Corley’s continued poor performance, refusal to communicate, refusal to cooperate with staff, and refusal to fulfill job functions.” (Id. at PageID# 325–26, ¶ 26.) Corley was terminated on May 18, 2018. (Doc. No. 52.)

         B. Procedural History

         Corley filed her original complaint in this action on September 1, 2017, alleging discrimination and retaliation under Title VII and the ADEA by Defendant Dental Bliss. (Doc. No. 1.) This Court subsequently granted Corley leave to amend (Doc. No. 23), and Corley filed an amended complaint that added Defendants 1Mosaic, Atchley, Couzens, and Mahan (Doc. No. 24). The defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Doc. No. 38.) The Magistrate Judge recommended that the Court grant in part and deny in part that motion by dismissing Corley’s claims against Atchley, Couzens, and ...

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