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Adams v. Sheppard Pratt Health System

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

November 26, 2013



CATHERINE C. BLAKE, District Judge.

Now pending before the court is a motion for summary judgment filed by defendant Sheppard Pratt Health System ("Sheppard Pratt").[1] [ECF No. 71]. Pro se plaintiff Carolyn Adams has sued Sheppard Pratt alleging age, race, color, and sex discrimination, as well as retaliation, under 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 of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq. The issues in this case have been fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). For the reasons stated below, Sheppard Pratt's motion for summary judgment will be granted.


Ms. Adams is an African-American woman who worked as a nurse at Sheppard Pratt beginning on July 10, 2000. Compl. ¶ 6. Ms. Adams was born in 1938, making her approximately 62 years old at the time of hiring. Compl. ¶ 3. Initially, Ms. Adams's performance evaluations reflected that she was a "solid performer" or that she "exceeds standards." Exh. B-3, B-4, B-6, B-7, B-9.[2] Beginning in the 2005-06 time frame, however, Ms. Adams's performance evaluation, which was prepared by her then-supervisor, Pat Kemble, began to reflect some performance problems. Exh. B-10 ("Does not always respond to requests from residents in a timely fashion. Relationship with co-workers & manager is strained at times... Delays in responding to emergency situations... impatient gruff with employees at times.") After an improved evaluation in 2006-2007, Ex B-11, in the 2007-2008 evaluation Ms. Kemble again noted problems. Exh. B-13 ("Often [complains of] being too busy to assist staff with residents in crisis. Curt at times with RCs. Intimidates other nurses who will then complete tasks rather than hand them off at shift change... Becomes upset when it is necessary for her to cover for peers."). After Ms. Kemble, Ms. Adams reported to a new supervisor, Karen Malstrom. On September 29, 2009, Ms. Adams received disciplinary action in the form of a Corrective Action Report, in which Ms. Malstrom alleged that a resident had swallowed batteries, and that Ms. Adams failed to take immediate action. Exh. B-21. Shortly thereafter, in January, 2010, Ms. Malstrom gave Ms. Adams a negative performance evaluation. Exh. B-17 ("Relationships with residents, peers and coworkers remain a source of concern. At times had difficulty collaborating with various team members interfering with optimal patient care... Delayed in responding to serious medical emergency situation resulting in delay in resident getting prompt medical care.... Has some ongoing difficulty adapting to change, acuity and being flexible."). On February 4, 2010, Ms. Adams received a second Corrective Action Report alleging an incident in which Ms. Adams had "failed to assess the medical needs of an employee who was physically attacked by a resident" and "displayed uncooperative behavior." Exh. B-24. On February 21, 2010, Ms. Adams filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that the two Corrective Action Reports, and the negative performance appraisal dated January, 2010, resulted from discrimination on the basis of her race, sex, and age, and from retaliation. Compl. ¶ 9; Exh. B-29.

On August 11, 2010, Sheppard Pratt notified Ms. Adams that her position had been eliminated as result of a reduction in force. Compl. ¶ 4; Exh. B-28. Her position was eliminated because she had "active disciplinary actions." Exh. A (Doughty Aff.) at ¶ 22. Although she believed that her inclusion in the reduction in force was both discriminatory and retaliatory, Ms. Adams did not amend her charge to the EEOC to include any allegations pertaining to her termination. Instead, she received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, based on her original complaint, on September 28, 2011. Compl. ¶ 10. She then timely filed this pending case.

Sheppard Pratt argues that summary judgment is appropriate on two grounds. First, Sheppard Pratt argues that Ms. Adams failed to exhaust her administrative remedies because she did not raise claims pertaining to her termination with the EEOC or with any other administrative agency. Second, Sheppard Pratt contends that Ms. Adams has not established a prima facie case of retaliation under the relevant statutes. Each argument will be addressed in turn.



Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that summary judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). Whether a fact is material depends upon the substantive law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

"A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings, ' but rather must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (alteration in original) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). Conclusory or speculative allegations do not create a genuine issue of material fact, nor does a "mere scintilla of evidence[.]" Thompson v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 312 F.3d 645, 649 (4th Cir. 2002) (citing Phillips v. CSX Transp., Inc., 190 F.3d 285, 287 (4th Cir. 1999)). The court must "view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the [summary judgment] motion, '" Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007) (alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Diebold, 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)). However, the court also must abide by the "affirmative obligation of the trial judge to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from proceeding to trial." Bouchat, 346 F.3d at 526 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778-79 (4th Cir. 1993)).


Ms. Adams's Complaint states that she is complaining about the termination of her employment, and that she was "[r]iffed after the attempt was made to fire me, this was an act of retaliation for my complaints of discrimination and disparate treatment, and filing the charges with the agency." Compl. ¶ 4. The reduction in force occurred after Ms. Adams filed her EEOC charge, and because she did not amend the charge to notify the EEOC that she had been terminated, there is no indication that the EEOC investigated any retaliation claim as it pertained to her termination. Instead, it appears that Sheppard Pratt first learned of the claims relating to Ms. Adams's termination through this lawsuit.

A plaintiff asserting claims under Title VII and ADEA must exhaust her administrative remedies before suing in court by filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. See Jones v. Calvert Grp., Ltd., 551 F.3d 297, 300-01 (4th Cir. 2009); Chacko v. Patuxent Inst., 429 F.3d 505, 506 (4th Cir. 2005). "Only those discrimination claims stated in the initial charge, those reasonably related to the original complaint, and those developed by reasonable investigation of the original complaint may be maintained in a subsequent Title VII lawsuit." Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 963 (4th Cir. 1996). If a plaintiff has not referenced her retaliation claim in her EEOC charge, the claim has not been properly exhausted.[3] See Sloop v. Mem'l Mission Hosp., Inc., 198 F.3d 147, 149 (4th Cir. 1999). As a corollary to the rule, however, the Fourth Circuit has held that claims of retaliation for actions that follow the filing of an EEOC charge, if reasonably related to the original complaint, may be raised for the first time in court. See Nealon v. Stone, 958 F.2d 584, 590 (4th Cir. 1992); see also Jones, 551 F.3d at 303 (noting that the Supreme Court's decision in Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 122 S.Ct. 2061, 153 L.Ed.2d 106 (2002), did not affect the validity of Nealon ). Because the reduction in force post-dated the filing of Ms. Adams's EEOC charge by several months, her retaliation claim is reasonably related to her original EEOC complaint, and need not have been expressly filed before that agency in order to proceed in this court.

Moreover, complaints filed by pro se litigants should be liberally construed. See De'Lonta v. Angelone, 330 F.3d 630, 633 (4th Cir. 2003). While not expressly listing individual discrimination claims for the Corrective Action Reports and the January, 2010 performance evaluation, Ms. Adams's complaint refers to the "incidences of disparate and discriminatory treatment" that were the subject of the EEOC charge. Compl. ¶ 6. A liberal reading of her complaint, therefore, would find that she intended to include discrimination claims for those incidents. She properly exhausted her administrative remedies with respect to those discrimination claims, and thus they are appropriately considered in this forum. Finally, because the decision to include Ms. Adams in the reduction in force was premised, according to Sheppard Pratt, on her receipt of the two Corrective Action Reports which she alleges were discriminatorily issued, the propriety of her termination is reasonably related to the conduct ...

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