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Walls v. Pontotoc Health Services, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

March 14, 2017




         This matter arises from Plaintiff's claims under the ADEA for age discrimination. Defendant Pontotoc Health Services, Inc. filed its Motion for Summary Judgment [60]. Plaintiff responded [70] and Defendant replied [20].

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Pontotoc Health Services, Inc. (“PHS”) employed Walls for approximately eight years as an Administrative Assistant. Originally hired by Fred Hood, the administrator of PHS's hospital and nursing home, Walls' responsibilities included scheduling emergency room staff, making appointments, and answering phone calls, among other administrative tasks. Though Hood insinuated that he was happy with Walls as an employee, he also testified that Walls had allowed personal issues to distract her from her job, and he consistently gave her low evaluation scores. The overall scores ranked at “met requirements, ” but Walls received the second lowest possible ranking regarding quality of work, specifically.

         In April 2014, Walls received a disciplinary action because she prematurely informed a nurse practitioner who worked in the emergency room that her position was going to be eliminated. Walls had learned this confidential information in her role as assistant to Hood, and she was not permitted to share it. However, she told the employee because she “felt compassion for her, ” as a single mother. In any event, this was considered a serious breach of confidentiality, and Hood noted that it was inappropriate and unacceptable. Walls was informed that further breaches would result in termination. She acknowledged that this was a poor lapse of judgment, and successfully completed her “commitment to change, ” a write-up and mandatory compliance plan issued when employees must change an unacceptable behavior.

         Later that year, Hood retired from his position and was replaced by Leslia Carter. Carter quickly noticed deficiencies in Walls' performance. Carter addressed these issues during a meeting, wherein she allegedly called Walls a “troublemaker and a liar.” Carter's issues with Walls included her general attitude at work, her inability to prepare legible copies for an important meeting, accidentally sharing confidential information with an unintended recipient via email, failing to maintain personnel files, spreading rumors and instigating conflicts, scheduling meetings too close together, and a general failure to perform necessary administrative clerical duties. According to Carter, Walls was unable to answer questions regarding where important documents were, and did not have information regarding funding for which she was responsible. Carter also complained that Walls frequently informed her of her opinions of others and rumors regarding various directors and employees. Carter found her behavior unprofessional and noted her inability to take responsibility for her actions. These behaviors made Carter lose confidence in Walls, so she reviewed Walls' personnel file. Carter saw Walls' recent poor performance reviews, and allegedly decided to terminate her based on her findings.

         Walls argues that Carter has mischaracterized her mistakes, explaining that she did not have most of these responsibilities under her previous supervisor, and was therefore unaware. She posits that she was a great employee, as indicated by her overall decent evaluations, and her coworker's opinions. Regarding specific problems, she provides specific explanations for why she should not be blamed for the incidents.

         In any event, after her termination, Walls applied for employment with other entities, some of whom were connected to PHS, and some were not. Believing that these entities were retaliating against her by failing to hire her, Walls' complaint originally alleged retaliation and failure to hire, as well as age discrimination. However, Walls has abandoned her retaliation and failure to hire claim. Furthermore, upon Plaintiff's unopposed Motion to Dismiss, the Court has dismissed North Mississippi Health Services, Inc. from the action. Therefore, before the Court is the remaining ADEA claim against PHS on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 governs summary judgment. Summary judgment is warranted when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Rule “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

         The moving party “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then “go beyond the pleadings” and “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.' ” Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the non-movant, “but only when ... both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). When such contradictory facts exist, the Court may “not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments are not an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1997); Little, 37 F.3d at 1075.

         Analysis and Discussion

         Under the ADEA, an employer may be liable for “discharg[ing] any individual . . . because of such an individual's age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). To prove discriminatory termination under the ADEA, the plaintiff must show that but for the alleged discrimination, she would not have been terminated. Gross v. FBL Financial Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 176, 129 S.Ct. 2343, 174 L.Ed.2d 119 (2009). When, as here, a plaintiff seeks to establish her claim with circumstantial evidence only, the Court assesses the sufficiency of the evidence using the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Miller v. Raytheon Co., 716 F.3d 138, 144 (5th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted).

         Within the McDonnell Douglas contours, the Plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of age discrimination, “at which point, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision.” Berquist v. Washington Mutual Bank, 500 F.3d 344, 349 (5th Cir. 2007). If the employer meets its burden of production, the Plaintiff must introduce evidence from which a jury could infer that the employer's proffered reasons are not true-but are instead a pretext for discrimination-or that even if the employer's reasons are true, the Plaintiff was terminated “because of” her age. Miller, 716 F.3d at 144 (citing Gross, 557 U.S. at 180, 129 S.Ct. 2343). To demonstrate pretext under the ADEA, Plaintiff must offer evidence to rebut each of the ...

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