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Nnadozie v. Genesis Healthcare Corp.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 31, 2017

EMANUELLA NKEM NNADOZIE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GENESIS HEALTHCARE CORPORATION, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Emanuella Nkem Nnadozie (“Nnadozie”), Perpetua Ezeh (“Ezeh”), and Sunday Aina (“Aina”) (collectively, “plaintiffs”) have filed an eleven count complaint against their former employers alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2(a), 2000e-3(a) based on a series of events which ultimately resulted in their respective terminations from employment at the Patapsco Valley Center, [1] a skilled nursing center located in Randallstown, Maryland.[2]

         Now pending before this Court is defendants' Genesis Eldercare Network Services, Inc. and 9109 Liberty Road Operations, LLC's (collectively, “defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 33) (“Defendants' Motion”).[3] The parties' submissions have been reviewed, and no hearing is necessary.[4] See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED, and judgment shall be ENTERED in favor of defendants on all counts.[5]

         BACKGROUND

         In ruling on a Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court reviews the facts and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Hardwick ex rel. Hardwick v. Heyward, 711 F.3d 426, 433 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Patapsco Valley Center (“PVC”) is a comprehensive long term care center located in Baltimore County, Maryland, which offers a variety of services, including long term geriatric care, Alzheimer's care, orthopedic rehabilitation, and dialysis services. (ECF No. 33-1 at ¶ 1.) PVC is managed by defendant Genesis Eldercare Network Service, Inc. (“Genesis Eldercare”). Plaintiffs were employed by 9109 Liberty Road Operations, LLC. (ECF No. 33-1 at 1, 18.) In 2010, PVC's regulator, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (“DHMH”), imposed a civil monetary penalty on PVC based on certain deficiencies found at the center. (ECF No. 33-1 at ¶ 5.) In response, in November 2010, PVC installed new management at the facility in order to impose more strict discipline on employees to avoid future civil penalties. (Id. at ¶¶ 6-9.) Among the new personnel were the new Administrator, Mary Hochradel, and the new Director of Nursing, Denise Zimmerman. (Id. at ¶¶ 10-11.)

         Nnadozie

         Plaintiff Emanuella Nkem Nnadozie, born in Sierra Leone and raised in Nigeria, began working as a nurse at PVC in September 2009. (Nnadozie Dep. Tr. 54, ECF No. 33-5.) Nnadozie had previously worked at another comprehensive care center, the Homewood Center, also managed by defendant Genesis Eldercare. (Id. at 86-92.) During Nnadozie's employment at the Homewood Center, she was given a performance progress report which indicated that her work “[n]eeds improvement.” (Id. at 97-98.) Nnadozie then requested transfer to PVC, where she began working as a Unit Manager/Assistant Director of Nursing (“ADON”). (Id. at 100-105.)

         In the spring of 2010, Nnadozie went on maternity leave, but eventually returned to work at PVC in September 2010. (Nnadozie Dep. Tr. 132, ECF No. 33-5.) Shortly after her return, Nnadozie was issued an individual Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) notifying her how to improve her work performance. (Id. at 167-74.) On November 4, 2010, Nnadozie was involved in a yelling incident with Senior ADON Evita Thompson, an African-American. (Young Decl., Ex. G, ECF No. 33-9.) Several co-workers witnessed the incident. (Id.)

         After Denise Zimmerman began working at PVC in November 2010, PVC management continued to complain of Nnadozie's work performance. (Dezurn Decl., Ex. E, ECF No. 33-4.) Zimmerman notified Nnadozie that she would be required to ensure that personnel working under Nnadozie's supervision complied with PVC's patient care and recordkeeping protocols. (Id. at Ex. F.) Nnadozie alleges that Zimmerman had developed a list of employees of African origin whom Zimmerman had targeted for Nnadozie to discipline. (Nnadozie Dep. Tr. 309-10, 314-16, ECF No. 33-5.)

         Other changes at the center led to further tensions between Nnadozie and PVC in 2011. First, Nnadozie asserts that Zimmerman discriminated against her by declining to support Nnadozie's application for a leadership position at PVC in January 2011. (Nnadozie Dep. Tr. 234-37, ECF No. 33-5.) Shortly thereafter, Zimmerman notified Nnadozie and similarly situated ADONs that they were expected to arrive at work at 7:00 a.m. on a daily basis in order to see their respective subordinate night, day, and evening shift employees. (Id. at 271-75.) Nnadozie requested to be excused from the 7:00 a.m. arrival rule, but PVC management promptly denied this request. (Id. at 262-65.) In addition, Nnadozie was assigned responsibility for an additional nursing unit, bringing the total number of residents under Nnadozie's care to approximately 50 or 60. (Id. at 375-77.) Nnadozie acknowledged that this number of residents under care is roughly equal to that assigned to other ADONs. (Id.) Tensions peaked in late January 2011, when Nnadozie was involved in a dispute over patient care with PVC's medical director, Dr. Levinson, and another physician.[6] (Id. at 389-418.)

         Following these and other minor incidents, Zimmerman issued Nnadozie a PIP on February 1, 2011. (Nnadozie Dep. Ex. 22, ECF No. 33-5.) This PIP notified Nnadozie that it was the “Final Written Warning” she would receive prior to termination. (Id.) On February 4, 2011, Nnadozie sent PVC management a written rebuttal to the PIP, along with a letter of resignation. (Id., Ex. 23.)

         Nnadozie filed an Intake Questionnaire with the EEOC on May 9, 2011, alleging discrimination on the basis of race and national origin. (ECF No. 60-18.) The EEOC undertook an investigation based on the Intake Questionaire. See ECF No. 60-21. Following the investigation, Nnadozie filed her formal Charge of Discrimination on April 5, 2012. (ECF No. 60-23.) The Charge cites the imposition of additional work duties, scheduling changes, certain statements by Zimmerman and Hochradel, and defendants' refusal to respond to Nnadozie's complaints as the basis for the Charge. (Id.)

         Ezeh

         Plaintiff Perpetua Ezeh, born in Africa, began working at PVC in April 2010, after having worked for a separate Genesis entity, Genesis Staffing, LLC. (Ezeh Dep. Tr. 28, 61, ECF No. 33-15.) Ezeh worked as a Unit ADON on PVC's dialysis unit. (Id. at 67-8.) PVC management began to complain of Ezeh's work performance shortly after her arrival at the center, issuing Ezeh a PIP. (Id. at 89-101.) Complaints regarding Ezeh's performance persisted into 2011, resulting in Ezeh being issued another PIP. (Hochradel Dep. Tr. 80-5, ECF No. 33-13.)

         Following the PIP, Ezeh sent an email to defendants' Human Resources Manager, Lee Ann Young, complaining of several workplace requirements and conditions. (Ezeh Dep. Tr., Ex. 13, ECF No. 33-15.) Ezeh also complained that Denise Zimmerman spoke to her inappropriately and made certain comments regarding there being “too many Nigerians” both in her class at Baltimore City Community College, where Zimmerman worked as a teacher, and at PVC. (Id.) Ms. Young states that she investigated Ezeh's complaint, but did not find any basis to find that she singled out Ezeh on the basis of her national origin. (Young Dep. Tr. 201-09, ECF No. 33-12.)

         At the same time, Ezeh's performance issues continued, resulting in defendants' issuance of a Management Performance Appraisal to Ezeh in June 2011. (Ezeh Dep. Tr., Ex. 14, ECF No. 33-15.) Among the performance issues identified in the Performance Appraisal was Ezeh's refusal to report for work at 7:00 a.m. daily. (Id.) During a meeting to discuss the Performance Appraisal, Ezeh confirmed her refusal to report to work at that time unless another employee, Evita Thompson, also reported at that time.[7] (Id. at 166-67.)

         While PVC management was assessing how to address Ezeh's performance issues, Ezeh was involved in a patient care incident in which a patient with Hepatitis C bit and/or scratched Ezeh. (Ezeh Dep. Tr. 191-95, ECF No. 33-15.) The incident caused Ezeh great stress, and she chose to go on FMLA leave beginning in July 2011.[8] (Id., Ex. 18.)

         On the same day that Ezeh went on medical leave, she contacted the Genesis Corporate Hotline to complain again of Zimmerman's treatment of her. (Young Dep. Tr. 212-13, ECF No. 33-12.) Ezeh also submitted a letter to Genesis complaining of “persecution and inequitable treatment[] based on color, race, national origin and age.” (Hochradel Dep., Ex. 7, ECF No. 33-13.)

         Following her medical leave, Zimmerman, Hochradel, and Young met with Ezeh to notify her that once she returned to work, she would be required to report at 7:00 a.m. (Ezeh Dep. Tr. 212-16, ECF No. 33-15.) Instead of accepting this requirement and returning to work, Ezeh indicated by letter her intention to return to her previous employer, Genesis Staffing, LLC, and resigned from her position at PVC in October 2011. (Id., Ex. 21.)

         While Ezeh attempted to return to work for Genesis Staffing, the company declined to re-hire Ezeh on the basis that she had violated the company's attendance policy during her previous tenure with Genesis Staffing. (Mooney Decl. ¶ 4, ECF No. 33-16.) Ezeh then sought reinstatement of her position at PVC, but, having indicated her refusal to abide by the 7:00 a.m. arrival directive, PVC declined to re-hire Ezeh. (Ezeh Dep., Ex. 22, ECF No. 33-15.)

         On February 4, 2012, Ezeh filed an EEOC Charge of Discrimination alleging national origin discrimination and retaliation. (Ezeh Dep., Ex. 25, ECF No. 33-15.)

         Aina

         Plaintiff Sunday Aina, born in Nigeria, began working as a geriatric nursing assistant (“GNA”) at PVC in February 2009. (Aina Dep. Tr. 9, 26-29, ECF No. 33-20.) As a GNA, Aina was directly responsible for patient care, including bathing, transport, and monitoring of residents' physical conditions. (Id., Ex. 4.)

         Beginning in the first month of his employment at PVC and on several subsequent instances, PVC management notified Aina of deficiencies in his work performance and the quality of care he provided to residents. (Aina Dep. Ex.'s 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, ECF No. 33-20.)

         In April 2011, Aina submitted a request for approximately 30 days of vacation in order to travel to Africa to marry. (Aina Decl., ECF No. 60-25 at ¶ 2.) Mary Hochradel denied Aina's request, stating that the length of time requested was excessive. (Hochradel Dep. Tr. 302-08, ECF No. 33-13.) Aina interpreted this decision as discriminatory on the basis of his national origin. (Aina Dep. Tr. 163-64, ECF No. 33-20.)

         On June 16, 2011, Aina was issued a PIP, noted as a “Final Written Warning, ” based on a resident's complaints that Aina neglected to provide proper care to the resident. (Hochradel Dep., Ex. 27, ECF No. 33-13.) The PIP also entailed a three-day suspension without pay. (Id.) Aina disputes the resident's allegations of neglect. (Aina Dep. Tr. 116-26, ECF No. 33-20.) Following the issuance of the PIP, Aina submitted an Intake Questionnaire with the EEOC alleging discrimination on the basis of national origin and complaining of the three day unpaid suspension. (Aina Dep., Ex. 18, ECF No. 33-20.)

         In November 2011, Aina was ultimately terminated from his position after PVC determined that Aina had failed to report bruising on the face of a resident under Aina's care. (Aina Dep. Tr. 172-87, ECF No. 33-20.) Aina asserts that he was instructed not to notify the nurses of the resident's bruising because state inspectors were in the building at the time. (Id. at 170-71.)

         While Aina had previously submitted an EEOC Intake Questionnaire, it was not until several months after Aina's termination that he filed his formal EEOC Charge of Discrimination, again alleging national origin discrimination. (Id., Ex. 19.) While filed subsequent to his termination, the Charge does not allege discrimination in his termination. (Id.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). Thus, summary judgment is proper “only when no ‘reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Monon Corp. v. Stoughton Trailers, Inc., 239 F.3d 1253, 1257 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)). When considering a motion for summary judgment, a judge's function is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence exists on a claimed factual dispute to warrant submission of the matter to a jury for resolution at trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

         In undertaking this inquiry, this Court must consider the facts and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Libertarian Party of Va., 718 F.3d at 312; see also Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). However, this Court must also abide by its affirmative obligation to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from going to trial. Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778-79 (4th Cir. 1993). If the evidence presented by the nonmoving party is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment must be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. On the other hand, a party opposing summary judgment must “do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); see also In re Apex Express Corp., 190 F.3d 624, 633 (4th Cir. 1999). As this Court has explained, a “party cannot create a genuine dispute of material fact through mere speculation or compilation of inferences.” Shin v. Shalala, 166 F.Supp.2d 373, 375 (D. Md. 2001) (citations omitted).

         ANALYSIS

         I. All Plaintiffs' Claims Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981

         All eleven counts set forth in the Complaint purport to be brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (ECF No. 1.) “Section 1981 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, but it ‘does not bar discrimination purely on the basis of national origin.'” Akinjide v. Univ. of Maryland E. Shore, DKC 09-2595, 2011 WL 4899999, at *7 (D. Md. Oct. 13, 2011) (quoting Schouten v. CSX Transp., Inc., 58 F.Supp.2d 614, 617 (E.D.Pa.1999)). See Saint Francis Coll. v. Al-Khazraji, 481 U.S. 604, 613, 107 S.Ct. 2022, 95 L.Ed.2d 582 (1987). “Although ‘race' may be ‘construed ... broadly for purposes of § 1981, ' if ‘a plaintiff's allegations reference only his place of origin and do not focus on specific ethnic characteristics associated with that place of ...


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