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Mathews v. Johns Hopkins Health System, Corp.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 13, 2019




         Pending before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 33. The motion is fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is GRANTED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff William E. Mathews, Jr. brings this employment discrimination action against Defendants, The Johns Hopkins Health System Corp. and Suburban Hospital (collectively, “Defendants”). Suburban Hospital (“Suburban”) is located in Bethesda, Maryland and was acquired by The Johns Hopkins Health System Corp. (“JHHS”) in 2009. ECF No. 33-16 at 17.

         Mathews worked in the Maintenance Department at Suburban for 20 years until his termination on January 4, 2016. ECF No. 33-3 at 3-4, 19-20 (Mathews Dep.). For the last 11 years at Suburban, Mathews acted as the Maintenance Manager. Id. at 4. In that role, Mathews supervised 18 employees and was responsible for overseeing the Maintenance Department's daily operations and ensuring employee compliance with Suburban's policies and procedures. Id. at 4-5. Mathews reported to the Director of Maintenance, James Keyzer, who had been placed at Suburban as a contract employee of Sodexo Operations, LLC (“Sodexo”). Id. at 5. Although Sodexo directly employed Keyzer, Keyzer reported to Joseph Linstrom, Suburban's Vice President of Operations. Id.

         On December 21, 2015, two maintenance employees notified Mathews that they had discovered articles on a Department printer entitled “Top Ten Differences between White Terrorists and Others;” “Hate Groups for Dummies: How to Build a Successful Hate Group;” and “Study says White Extremists Have Killed More Americans in the U.S. than Jihadists.” ECF No. 33-3 at 12-13; ECF No. 33-4 at 28. One of the employees who had found the articles believed a maintenance mechanic, Harshan Yakeem, had printed the documents because Yakeem had been seen sitting at one of the computers at the time. ECF No. 33-3 at 13. Mathews found the articles “very disturbing, ” and so he delivered them to Joseph Linstrom who said he would “launch an investigation.” Id.

         Linstrom, in turn, brought the incident to the attention of Wayne Stockbridge, the Senior Human Resources Director at Suburban. ECF No. 33-6 at 11 (Linstrom Dep.). Two investigators in Johns Hopkins' Department of Corporate Security, Gary Kulik and Ricky Mason, also became involved. ECF No. 33-10 at 3, 8 (Kulik Dep.). Kulik, Mason, and Stockbridge met at Suburban to begin interviewing employees about this incident. Id. at 7-9. By this time, Suburban's Information Technology Department had determined Yakeem did in fact access websites which included the articles. Id. at 8.

         Kulik, Mason, and Stockbridge interviewed Yakeem who admitted that he printed the articles. Yakeem explained that he was seeking information about why “white people hate . . . others because of . . . religion.” ECF No. 33-18 at 20 (Dec. 23 Interview Transcript). Yakeem, who immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka in 1990, also told the investigators that members of the Maintenance Department called him “Osama Bin Laden” and “Taliban” (id. at 31), and that someone had taped to his locker a photograph of men who appeared to be terrorists. See ECF No. 33-5 at 2 (Picture of Yakeem's locker). When Yakeem removed the photo, another appeared in its place. ECF No. 33-10 at 15. Yakeem confirmed that Mathews knew about the harassing conduct but took no action. ECF No. 33-8 at 14; ECF No. 33-18 at 28, 32-33.

         At the end of Yakeem's interview, the investigators and Stockbridge agreed that “the investigation had turned from a risk assessment” focused on the articles to a “personnel matter” concerning discriminatory actions of Department employees against Yakeem. ECF No. 33-10 at 10. With this new focus, Stockbridge and the investigators next interviewed Mathews. Id. at 23. On the topic of the employees harassing Yakeem, Mathews commented that “guys are guys, you know how guys are.” ECF No. 33-12 at 18 (Mason Dep.). Mathews also recalled, in response to a question about whether Yakeem had been referred to as “Taliban, ” telling the investigators that another employee, Adrian Hernandez, had referred to Yakeem as “Taliban.” ECF No. 33-3 at 15. Mathews reported that he had “verbally counsel[ed]” Hernandez about the impropriety of this comment. Id. at 20. Mathews did not identify any other steps that he took to deal with his employees' misconduct involving Yakeem.

         Stockbridge and Linstrom also interviewed Gard Shoff, Yakeem's direct supervisor and one of the employees who initially brought the articles to Mathews' attention. ECF No. 33-14 at 12-13, 18 (Shoff Dep.). Shoff corroborated Yakeem's account of the name calling in the Maintenance Department. Id. at 5. Shoff said he heard workers use the slurs once or twice a week, which he believed made Yakeem uncomfortable at times. Id. at 10-11. He also confirmed that Mathews had witnessed what Shoff referred to as “joking” directed towards Yakeem but that Mathews did nothing to stop it. Id. at 6. Shoff also volunteered that he should have stood up and said something to curb this discriminatory behavior directed at Yakeem. Id. at 18.

         Kulik summarized his findings from the interviews in “a short paragraph to the executive members of Suburban Hospital” and debriefed the executives in person. ECF No. 33-10 at 11- 12, 20. Kulik concluded that Yakeem had been “working in a hostile work environment” and that, although the investigators believed that “any threat concerns [were] minimal, ” the Department had “management issues” that required attention. ECF No. 33-17 at 2. Stockbridge and Linstrom also met with Jackie Schultz, then-acting Chief Executive Officer of Suburban, and had a “full discussion about the findings.” ECF No. 33-16 at 13. They determined that Mathews should be terminated because he failed to enforce Suburban's anti-harassment policy or take any meaningful steps to curb the employees' mistreatment of Yakeem. Id. at 14-15.

         After Mathews returned from winter vacation on January 4, 2016, Schultz and Stockbridge terminated Mathews for “allow[ing] a hostile work environment.” ECF No. 33-3 at 20 (Mathews Dep.). Mathews' supervisor, James Keyzer, was also replaced for failing to enforce Suburban's anti-harassment policy and for not properly supervising Mathews. ECF No. 33-20 ¶ 3.

         On December 16, 2016, Mathews filed this action, alleging his termination violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1140.[1] Defendants now move for summary judgment on both counts. See ECF No. 33.

         II. ...

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