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Adams v. Williamson Medical Center

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

October 1, 2019

SHEA T. ADAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAMSON MEDICAL CENTER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the court is defendant Williamson Medical Center's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 29), seeking dismissal of plaintiff Shea Adams' claims of hostile work environment, retaliation, and retaliatory harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.

         For the reasons set forth herein, the defendant's motion will be granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, the court finds that material factual disputes preclude summary judgment on the plaintiff's hostile work environment claim but will grant summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff's retaliation and retaliatory harassment claims.

         I. MATERIAL FACTS[1] and PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Shea Adams began her employment with Williamson Medical Center (“WMC”) in 2011 as an EKG Technician. She obtained her nursing degree and license in 2012, after which she began working for WMC as a full-time registered nurse in the Critical Care Unit (“CCU”). She transitioned to “as needed, ” or “PRN, ” status in August 2015, which she maintained until her resignation on December 3, 2017.

         A. Allegations Regarding Hostile Work Environment

         Adams claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment based on sex while she was employed at WMC. Her claim is based on the comments and conduct of a former colleague named William “Buddy” Dodson and on WMC's response to her complaints about Dodson.

         In her Complaint, Adams alleged that Dodson made sexually inappropriate comments to her and to others in her presence, including, but not limited to, the following: (1) while Dodson was assisting a male patient in using the urinal, he called another nurse into the room and asked her if she could handle unzipping the patient's pants and pulling out his penis; (2) he placed a cucumber in an “erect” position on the seat of a chair and told another nurse to “come take a ride”; and (3) he described his son's girlfriend's genitalia while at the nurse's station. (Compl., Doc. No. 1 ¶ 12.)

         Adams related these incidents in greater detail during her deposition. The first, involving the patient and the urinal, occurred in 2014. The comment was directed to another colleague, Michelle Clauson. The plaintiff did not witness the initial incident, but she witnessed Dodson's reenactment of it, which occurred when Clauson called her into the room. The plaintiff asked what was wrong, and Dodson repeated his question to Clauson. (Adams Dep. 72-73, Doc. No. 29-1, at 29-30.) Adams did not make a report about the comment, but she believed that Clauson reported it to Jennifer Murphy, director of the CCU and the plaintiff's and Dodson's direct supervisor. (Adams Dep. 73, Doc. No. 29-1, at 30.) Murphy testified that she discussed the incident with Dodson during his annual evaluation, a few months after Clauson complained. (Murphy Dep. 116-18, Doc. No. 29-2, at 24-26.)

         The cucumber comment was made to another colleague. Again, the plaintiff did not witness the original incident, but she witnessed the reenactment of it:

So I don't know the original circumstances. I know Buddy reenacted that for us. Myself, Deborah Stevenson, I think Wes Buchanan was present. . . . [Buddy] walked into our break room and Deborah immediately started telling him to get out of there, he was not welcome. And I said what have you done to Deborah, and Deborah said show her. And so he sat down at the break table, picked up . . . a pen. And he said this was a cucumber and he set it on top of the table erect. And . . . he told everyone in the room that he told Deborah to hop on and take a ride.

         (Adams Dep. 74, Doc. No. 29-1, at 31.) Adams claims this incident occurred in the spring of 2016. She and her colleagues who had witnessed the reenactment reported it that day to Jennifer Murphy while they were sitting around the break room table. Murphy told them that they “would just have to overlook Buddy.” (Id.) Phyllis Molyneux, WMC's former Associate Administrator for Compliance and Human Resources, testified that “Debra Stephens Smith, ” presumably the same person as “Deborah Stevenson, ” reported the cucumber incident to her but “long after the fact that it had happened. And she said she chose to deal with it herself.” (Molyneux Dep. 33, Doc. No. 29-1, at 5.)

         The plaintiff personally heard Dodson's comments about the son's girlfriend's genitalia. On or about Monday, April 25, 2016, Adams made a formal report about the incident to Molyneux, stating that Dodson had made the comments to the plaintiff and another colleague, Daphne Garrett, earlier that month. The plaintiff also claims, in a Declaration filed in response to the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, that she “reported to Ms. Molyneux that [she] had repeatedly reported Mr. Dodson's ongoing inappropriate conduct and sexual comments to Jennifer Murphy, ” but that Murphy told her she “had to ignore or overlook Mr. Dodson's conduct because he makes inappropriate comments all the time.” (Adams Sept. 4, 2019 Decl., Doc. No. 33-4 ¶ 2.)

         The defendant objects that the plaintiff, prior to the statements in her Declaration, never disclosed that she had made a report to Jennifer Murphy prior to her report to Molyneux or that she complained about Murphy to Molyneux. During her deposition, asked whether she “ever ma[d]e any complaints about [her] work environment while [she was] employed at WMC, ” Adams responded that she made a report to Phyllis Molyneux in April 2016 regarding Dodson's comments about his son's girlfriend's genitalia. (Adams Dep. 53-54, Doc. No. 29-1, at 19-20.) The defendant's Interrogatories asked the plaintiff to “[i]dentify every individual” she believed had discriminated or retaliated against her in violation of Title VII and to “describe in detail the alleged violation(s) and the role of the individual in the violation(s).” (Doc. No. 35-1, at 6.) The plaintiff described Jennifer Murphy's involvement, in relevant part, as follows:

After Plaintiff reported to Phyllis Molyneux in HR the hostile work environment due to Buddy Dodson's sexually graphic comments and discussion, the issue was evidently turned over to Ms. Murphy, because she sent Plaintiff a text message to meet with Plaintiff. . . . Ms. Murphy admitted Mr. Dodson's behavior was inappropriate, but stated that if she was going to keep him from behaving inappropriately, she would have to crack down on everyone. . . . In the end, Ms. Murphy did nothing to control Mr. Dodson's behavior and it continued.

(Doc. No. 35-1, at 7.)

         A different interrogatory asked the plaintiff to identify each instance in which she complained about the alleged discrimination and retaliation, providing, inter alia, the dates on which she complained, the name of the person to whom she complained, any witnesses, the response to her complaint, and whether her complaints were written or oral. (Doc. No. 35-1, at 9.) Adams responded that she reported Dodson's behavior to Molyneux verbally on April 25, 2016 and that she discussed her report to Molyneux with Murphy on June 9, 2016. (Id.) She described additional complaints to Molyneux but no other complaints to Murphy. (Id. at 10.) She nowhere alleged that she “repeatedly” reported Dodson's inappropriate behavior to Murphy prior to her formal complaint to Molyneux in April 2016 or that she told Molyneux that she had done so.

         Other evidence in the record, however, corroborates the plaintiff's statement in her Declaration that Murphy was aware of the incident before the plaintiff reported it to Molyneux. First, Murphy testified that Molyneux reported to her that Adams had complained about Dodson's sexually inappropriate comments about his son's girlfriend and that Adams believed that Dodson was getting special treatment because of Murphy's friendship with Dodson's wife. While Murphy did not recall investigating the incident-she believed Molyneux and Scott Buchanan, then WMC's Director of Employee Relations and Education, investigated it-she did talk to Daphne Garrett about it, at Molyneux's request. (Murphy Dep. 25-26, Doc. No. 33-2, at 8-9.) Murphy stated that she and Cathy Reinhart, WMC's Assistant Director of Critical Care, met with Daphne Garrett on May 25, 2016. Although Murphy's testimony is somewhat unclear, a memorandum she prepared contemporaneously to document the discussion indicates that she explained to Garrett that she “vaguely recall[ed] a conversation with [Garrett] at the nurses' station several weeks/months ago regarding Buddy discussing his son's sexual encounters.” (Doc. No. 29-5, at 45.) In her deposition, Murphy testified that Molyneux wanted her to talk to Garrett because Garrett had related the incident to her around the time it happened, and Garrett and Adams had “told [Molyneux] that [Garrett] had complained, and I didn't listen to her.” (Murphy Dep. 124, Doc. No. 29-2, at 29; see Id. (“So that's why [Molyneux] wanted me to go back.”).) Murphy “apologized” to Garrett that she “had not recognized that as a formal complaint.” (Murphy Dep. 123-24, Doc. No. 29-2, at 29-30.) In the Memorandum, Murphy stated that she told Garrett that, if she had recognized Garrett's statements about the incident as a “formal complaint . . ., [she] would have formally investigated it.” (Doc. No. 29-5, at 45.) She asked what she could do at that point to fix the problem. Garrett told her that it “wasn't that big of a deal.” (Id.) Murphy also testified that Garrett, Adams, and two other employees told Molyneux that “Daphne had complained” but that Murphy “didn't listen to her.” (Murphy Dep. 124, Doc. No. 29-2, at 29.)

         Murphy, along with Scott Buchanan and Cathy Reinhart, met with Dodson on May 25, 2016, for a Performance Accountability Discussion, a formal step in WMC's discipline process. Dodson was counseled at that time against making any sexually inappropriate comments. Murphy stated that the purpose of the discussion was to let Dodson “know that . . . any kind of behavior like that would not be tolerated, nor should he . . . go out and tell people he was getting special treatment. That was wrong, and we were letting him know that was wrong.” (Murphy Dep. 95, Doc. No. 29-2, at 22.)

         Following this incident, Adams requested that she not be scheduled to work with Dodson. Molyneux informed Adams that they would try to accommodate her request but that it would not always be possible to schedule them on separate shifts. Adams reiterated that she did not want to work with him. (Adams Dep. 72, Doc. No. 29-1, at 29.) An email from Murphy to “Nursing Supervisors, ” directing them to avoid scheduling Adams and Dodson on the same shift, was not distributed until July 5, 2016. (Doc. No. 29-5, at 41.)

         Adams and Dodson were working the same shift the day in early September 2016 when Dodson approached her and another colleague, Amanda Lee, in the cafeteria and asked, “in a very snickery, inappropriate way, what are you going to do with those bananas?” (Adams Dep. 57, Doc. No. 29-1, at 23.) This incident occurred in late August or early September 2016. Adams contacted Molyneux by email on September 3, 2016, informing her that Dodson had made another inappropriate comment to her.

         Molyneux initiated an investigation, and Buchanan interviewed both Dodson and Lee. While the investigation was ongoing, WMC discovered that Dodson had discussed the nature of the allegations and the existence of the investigation with another employee. Dodson had been instructed, consistent with WMC policy, to keep the interview confidential. Upon learning that Dodson had breached that confidentiality, Molyneux prepared documentation to terminate Dodson's employment on September 20, 2016, for insubordination. Before Molyneux had the opportunity to terminate his employment, Dodson resigned in order to avoid being terminated.

         The plaintiff was asked about other comments by Dodson, in addition to the four instances related above. She responded, “All the time. He made inappropriate comments all the time.” (Adams Dep. 75, Doc. No. 29-1, at 32.) She provided other examples and also indicated that, with respect to at least some of these, “they, ” meaning she and the other nurses with whom she worked, reported the comments “off the cuff” to Jennifer Murphy, who told them, “you guys are just going to have to ignore Buddy. He makes inappropriate comments all the time.” (Adams Dep. 75-76, Doc. No. 29-1, at 32-33.) These comments included a story about Dodson's wife wanting to have sex in the woods, which repulsed him; comments about how good the other nurses' hair smelled and “[w]hy couldn't his wife's hair smell like that”; and a complaint that his wife was not as attractive as his general contractor's wife. (Id.) Adams testified that the inappropriate comments were “too numerous to count.” (Adams Dep. 77-78, Doc. No. 29-1, at 34-35.)

         When asked how Dodson's comments interfered with her work, she responded: “Well, it was completely inappropriate. You know, it interfered because you didn't know what he was going to say to you.” (Adams Dep. 88, Doc. No. 29-1, at 42.) Although she conceded that his comments never kept her from treating a patient, she would at times have to “compose herself” after he made “comments like that” and, as a result, “took time away from [her] patients.” (Id.) An example of such an instance was when he described his son's girlfriend's genitalia. (Adams Dep. 88, Doc. No. 29-1, at 43.) His comments caused her not to want to go to work, but she went because has “ha[d] to have a job.” (Id.) His comments never made her unable to complete any work tasks, care for a patient, or go to work, but she found the comments “emotionally distressing.” (Adams Dep. 88-89, Doc. No. 29-1, at 43-44).

         Adams and Dodson worked on different floors, and the plaintiff spent most of her day caring for patients, with only two fifteen-minute breaks and a thirty-minute lunch break per day, which she was frequently too busy to take. (Adams Dep. 89-90, Doc. No. 29-1, at 44-45.) But the nurses often stepped into the break room for water, and Dodson would frequently come down to the break room on her floor to get coffee and “make inappropriate comments.” (Adams Dep. 91, Doc. No. 29-1, at 46.) He did not come to her floor on a specific schedule; he came down at “random times” on “random days.” (Adams Dep. 92, Doc. No. 29-1, at 47.)

         B. Allegations Regarding Retaliation

         Prior to 2014, WMC contracted with Cogent Healthcare, an independent entity, to provide hospitalist services to WMC patients. During the period that hospitalists were provided by Cogent, coordination between WMC and the hospitalists was the responsibility of a program manager. The program manager served as administrative support ...


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