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Smith v. Renal Treatment Centers-Mid-Atlantic, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 20, 2018

TWANDA SMITH, Plaintiff,


          Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Twanda Smith (“Ms. Smith” or “Plaintiff”) filed this action against the Defendant, Renal Treatment Centers - Mid-Atlantic, Inc. (d/b/a DaVita) (hereinafter “DaVita” or “Defendant”), alleging various racial discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (Title VII”); § 20-606 of the State Government (S.G.) Article of the Maryland Annotated Code; and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“§ 1981”). Plaintiff's Complaint (ECF No. 1) features five counts. Counts I through III allege that DaVita violated Title VII, S.G. § 20-606, and § 1981, respectively, by terminating Plaintiff based upon her race. (Compl. ¶¶ 35-44.) Counts IV and V allege that DaVita violated Title VII and S.G. § 20-606, respectively, by terminating Plaintiff in retaliation for her prior complaints of racial discrimination. (Id. §§ 45-49.)

         Defendant filed an Answer (ECF No. 5), and the parties conducted discovery. Defendant ultimately filed the currently pending Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16). The parties' submissions have been reviewed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons stated below, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16) is GRANTED.


         I. Early Employment History

         This Court reviews the facts of this case in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See, e.g., Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Defendant DaVita provides kidney dialysis care throughout the United States, with clinics in Easton, Maryland and Chestertown, Maryland. DaVita's corporate predecessor first hired Ms. Smith as a Patient Care Technician (“PCT”) in the late 1990's, and she started working at DaVita's Easton clinic in July 2011. (Smith Dep. at 8:21-19:15, Pl. Ex. 1.)

         On May 14, 2012, Ms. Smith was disciplined for “unacceptable performance” and excessive lateness. (DaVita Corrective Action Form, Def. Ex. 6.) In terms of performance, she “fail[ed] to properly set-up the machine result[ing] in break-thru of blood into the machine[, which] is a serious over-sight.” (Id.) The discipline form indicates that the reprimand constituted a “Final Written Warning, ” and that failure to correct her performance could result in “immediate termination.” (Id.)

         In July 2013, DaVita transferred Ms. Smith, per her request, to the clinic in Chestertown, Maryland so that she could be closer to her home in Delaware. (Smith Dep. at 19, Pl. Ex. 19.) In 2014, Anne Marie Dormody became the Chestertown clinic's top manager, known as the Facility Administrator (“FA”). According to the Defendant, the FA is “the only employee in the facility who can hire, fire or discipline employees.” (Mem. 3, ECF No. 16-1.)

         II. Prior Complaints of Discrimination

         In 2013, another PCT at the Chestertown clinic, Matthew Borsari, who is white, made racially derogatory remarks towards Ms. Smith. According to Smith, Mr. Borsari referred to her as a “high yellow one, ” called African American workers “monkeys, ” and demanded she make him “chocolate milk” by stirring his milk with her finger. (Smith Dep. at 29-34, Pl. Ex. 1.) In the fall of 2013, Smith lodged a complaint regarding Mr. Borsari's conduct, and DaVita's human resources (“HR”) department substantiated her allegations after an investigation. (DaVita Report Summary PS-13-02019 at 3-4, 6, Pl. Ex. 6). DaVita terminated Mr. Borsari on January 2, 2014. (Id.)

         On her Professional Development Review (“PDR”) report for the year August 2013 through July 2014, manager Heather Sconce noted that Ms. Smith's “communication can lack at times which can cause issues within the team dynamics” and that Smith “[h]as had several conflicts with Teammates” over the last three months. (Pl. Ex. 8, ECF No. 17-6.) In response to her evaluation, Smith commented that the “hostile work [e]nvironment stem[med] from [Mr. Borsari.] [M]y coworkers are friend[s] with him and they blamed [me] for his termination.” (Id.).

         In December 2014, Ms. Smith initiated a complaint with HR alleging that FA Anne Marie Dormody and Shirley Sutton, the administrative assistant, had been retaliating against her because they were friends of Mr. Borsari. (DaVita's Report Summary PS-14-08947, Pl. Ex. 8; Smith's initial email complaint, Pl. Ex. 9). She alleged, in part, that Ms. Sutton was intentionally delaying her paychecks, and that Ms. Dormody made an offensive remark when Smith had asked about the delay. (Pl. Exhibits 8, 9.) Smith also explained that Mr. Borsari's continued visits to the Chestertown clinic made her uncomfortable. (Pl. Ex. 8.) DaVita investigated the allegations, suggested that Smith switch to direct deposit for processing her paychecks, and prohibited Mr. Borsari from visiting the clinic. (Id.)

         In February 2015, Heather Sconce, who is white, replaced Anne Marie Dormody as the FA of the Chestertown clinic. (See Sconce Dep. at 21:14, Pl. Ex. 10.) In the spring of 2015, Ms. Sconce received an anonymous complaint against Ms. Smith. (Id. at 27.) According to DaVita's report, the complaint alleged on April 24, 2015 that he or she was having “consistent issues” with Ms. Smith because Ms. Smith was a “bully” who caused “racist problems” by getting “white people on one side and black people on another just to instigate a fight.” (DaVita's Report Summary PS-15-03659, Pl. Ex. 11.) The complaint also alleged that Smith called Ms. Sutton an “old bitch” to her face. (Id.) Ms. Sutton denied that Ms. Smith ever made such a comment. (Id. at 4.) DaVita closed the complaint on September 9, 2015, finding all the allegations “unsubstantiated.” (Id. at 8.)

         III. Plaintiff's Performance Issues

         On August 6, 2015, Ms. Sconce issued a verbal warning to Ms. Smith for an incident that occurred on June 17, 2015 when Smith had mixed and transferred acid without checking and recording the specific gravity on a dialysis machine. (Corrective Action Form, Pl. Ex. 12.) In Smith's Professional Development Review for the year August 2014 through July 2015, Sconce rated Smith as “meets expectations, ” but Smith commented, “I was told several times during my evaluation that I was doing great and hitting it out [of] the ballpark on several different aspects. But still I was given 3's which meant average.” (Pl. Ex. 5.)

         On September 30, 2015, Ms. Sconce issued a written warning to Ms. Smith for yelling at a nurse, being late four times, and taking personal calls. (Corrective Action Form, Pl. Ex. 14.) Smith denied yelling at the nurse but admitted to the tardiness and personal calls. (Smith Dep. at 106-11, Pl. Ex. 1.) Smith acknowledged, “[m]y behavior and lateness is due to a sleep disorder and mental stress.” (Smith Dep. at 107, Pl. Ex. 1; Def. Ex. 6 at DEF000022-24.)

         On November 1, 2015, Ms. Smith emailed DaVita's CEO requesting a meeting and attaching her prior complaint against Mr. Borsari. (Pl. Ex. 16.) Sometime later that month, Smith met with Tim Greene (Regional Operations Director), Andy Crish (Division Vice President), and Laura Pyper (in-house social worker), and Smith complained of a hostile work environment, citing the anonymous complaint, Sconce's performance reprimands, and a rejected raise request. (Smith Dep. at 116-18, Pl. Ex. 1.) According to Smith, DaVita declined Smith's request that someone “like her, who understands her” observe the day-today activities at the Chestertown clinic. (T. Greene Email 11/25/2015, Def. Ex. 18; Smith Dep. at 118-19 and 124-25, Def. Ex. 2.)

         On November 5, 2015, Ms. Sconce told Ms. Smith that she had communicated in an inappropriate and unprofessional manner during a recent team meeting regarding employee phone usage guidelines. (Smith Dep. at 150-51, Def. Ex. 2; DaVita Report Summary PS-15-09847, Def. Ex. 16; DaVita Report Summary PS-15-10678, Def. Ex. 20.) In response, Smith denied having unprofessionally rolled her eyes (Smith Dep. 150, Def. Ex. 2) but defended her tone as “direct” rather than unprofessional (Report PS-15-09847 at 3, Def. Ex. 16). Plaintiff then told Ms. Sconce that she would “work on” the tone of her communications. (Smith Dep. at 151, Def. Ex. 2.)

         IV. Plaintiff's Suspension and Termination

         On November 25, 2015, Anthony Predeoux, a new Patient Care Technician, asked Ms. Smith to help him complete an Adverse Occurrence Report (“AOR”) because the temperature on the dialysis machine was wrong. (Smith Dep. at 126-28, Pl Ex. 1.) Smith told Mr. Predeoux to name Patricia (“Trish”) Jones[1] on the AOR because Ms. Jones had signed off on the machine. (Id. at 132.) Jones, however, refused to be named in the AOR and threatened to throw away the AOR if her name was included. (Id.) Jones called Ms. Sconce about the incident, and Sconce then held a meeting with Smith, Jones, and Dr. Christina Turner, the medical director who witnessed the incident. (Id. at 134-35; Sconce Dep. at 70, Pl. Ex. 10.) Sconce asserts that during the meeting, Smith yelled, called Ms. Jones a “liar, ” and interrupted Sconce. (Sconce Dep. at 71-73, Pl. Ex. 10.) Smith denies calling Ms. Jones a “liar, ” but admits saying that Jones was lying about the AOR incident. (Smith Dep. at 153, Pl. Ex. 1.) Smith further denies interrupting Ms. Sconce or talking over her. (Id.) Ms. Sconce asked each employee to write a statement of the incident. (Id. at 138; Corrective Action Form, Def. Ex. 6 at DEF000085.)

         Ms. Smith was so upset by Ms. Sconce's response that she started to have heart palpitations and left work to go to the local Emergency Room. (See Smith Dep. at 140-41, Pl. Ex. 1.) Smith did not write a statement before leaving for the ER. (Sconce Dep. at 73-74, Pl. Ex. 1.) Smith took medical leave for a few days and was scheduled to return to work on November 30, 2015. (Id. at 76.) In the meantime, Sconce spoke to Teammate Relations (“TMR”) Representative Donna Kettell and decided to suspend Smith for one day due to her “aggressive” behavior surrounding the November 25 AOR incident. (Id. at 71-73; 76-80; Kettell Dep. at 68-70, Def. Ex. 4.)

         On November 30, 2015, Ms. Sconce called a meeting with Ms. Smith, Laura Pyper, and Tim Greene. (Sconce Dep. at 86.) Sconce informed Smith that she was being suspended pending an investigation of the November 25 incident. (Sconce Dep. at 80, 85, Def. Ex. 3.) Sconce concluded the meeting by reiterating the requirement that Smith write a statement about the November 25 incident. (Id. at 85-86.) Sconce left the room to allow Smith time to write the statement. (Id. at 88.) Ms. Smith wrote that she would not be writing a statement on the advice of counsel, and she made her way to leave the clinic. (Smith Dep. at 151, 155, Def. Ex. 2.)

         As she left the clinic, Ms. Smith contends that she waved goodbye to Karen Williams, a coworker who was in the breakroom. (Smith Dep. at 156, Pl. Ex. 1.) According to Smith, Ms. Sconce then grabbed Smith and told her to leave. (DaVita's Report Summary PS-15-10516 at 4, Pl. Ex. 18.) Smith told Sconce not to grab her and left the building. (Id.) Ms. Williams and Mr. Predeoux, who was also in the breakroom, reported hearing yelling but not the exact words. (DaVita Report Summary PS-15-10678 at 3, Pl. Ex. 20.) Both Williams and Predeoux refused to write statements for DaVita. (Id.; Sconce Dep. at 100, Pl. Ex. 10.) After leaving, Smith sent Sconce a text message asking her how long the investigation was going to take. (Id. at 92.)

         DaVita offers a different account of the exchange between Ms. Sconce and Ms. Smith. DaVita recounts that outside the breakroom, Smith was saying loudly, “She is a liar. She doesn't want to listen to anybody. F her. F this place.” (Id. at 89.) Sconce therefore approached Smith to tell her that her conduct was inappropriate and that she needed to leave the clinic. (Id.) Smith responded by shouting a series of profanities at Sconce, including “Fuck you, ” “bitch, ” and “whore.” (Termination Documentation Form, Pl. Ex. 19; DaVita Report Summary PS-15-10516 at 4, Pl. Ex. 18.) Sconce reports that Smith also tried to elbow her. (Sconce Dep. at 94, Pl. Ex. 10.) According to DaVita, Laura Pyper and Shirley Sutton overheard the exchange and wrote statements that day they heard Plaintiff yell those specific profanities at Sconce. (See Sconce Dep. 103-04; Pyper Statement on 11/30/2015, Def. Ex. 20 at DEF000309, ECF No. 16-22; Sutton Statement on 11/30/2015, Def. Ex. 20 at DEF000311, ECF No. 16-22.) Smith has denied using any of these profanities. (Smith Dep. at 157, Pl. Ex. 1.)

         Later that day, Ms. Sconce called Donna Kettell to discuss terminating Ms. Smith. (Sconce Dep at 93, Def. Ex. 3.) Sconce reports that she told Ms. Kettell, “I can't have teammates screaming and cursing me in front of other teammates loud enough for other patients to hear, was very aggressive in nature. Again, she tried to elbow me. You know, at this point, I think we're at termination.” (Id. at 94.) Kettell replied, “I think you're right.” (Id.) ...

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