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Johnson v. Justus at Woodland Terrace LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

December 31, 2019

FLAY JOHNSON, Plaintiff,



         Flay Johnson, an African American, sued Justus at Woodland Terrace LLC d/b/a Woodland Terrace of Carmel (“Woodland Terrace”), alleging that it fired her because of her race in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.[1] Woodland Terrace moves for summary judgment. (ECF No. 54.) Because no reasonable jury could find that Johnson was discharged because of her race, summary judgment should be granted.

         I. Background

         Johnson was hired as a Resident Assistant (Certified Nursing Assistant (“CNA”)) for Woodland Terrace in November 2016 and began working there in February 2017. (Johnson Dep. 13, 19, ECF No. 55-3.) Her primary responsibility was resident care and her duties included assisting residents; answering all pages for resident assistance in a timely manner; reporting changes in residents' conditions and needs to the licensed nurse and oncoming shift; and documenting and reporting care provided and resident observations. (Johnson Dep., Ex. 6, ECF No. 55-3 at 98.) The Company Associate Handbook identified company policies, including an associate's duty to conduct herself in a professional manner that is in the residents' best interest. (Johnson Dep. Ex. 8 at 10, ECF No. 55-3 at 68.) The handbook identified reasons for disciplinary action, including unsatisfactory job performance, unauthorized leaving of work or work areas prior to the end of a scheduled shift, and “taking more than specified time for lunch or break periods.” (Id.) In the first few weeks of her employment, Johnson signed and acknowledged receipt of the CNA job description and the company handbook. (Johnson Dep. 20-21, ECF No. 55-3.) Johnson agreed that the safety of the residents should be a primary concern of all Woodland Terrace nurses and CNAs at Woodland Terrace. (Johnson Dep. 18, ECF No. 55-3.) Residents on the Memory Care Unit suffer from dementia or other memory issues, and Johnson agreed that keeping those residents safe required that they be regularly observed. (Johnson Dep. 17, ECF No. 55-3.)

         On July 18 to July 19, 2017, Johnson was working the night shift at Woodland Terrace. (Johnson Dep. 44, ECF No. 55-3.) She was assigned to the Assistive Living Unit on the second floor. (Johnson Dep. 40-41, ECF No. 55-3.) Woodland Terrace has security cameras; the cameras show some of Johnson's actions on July 19 from 1:23 a.m. to 4:44 a.m. (Johnson Dep. 38-46, ECF No. 55-3.)[2] At 1:23 a.m., Johnson came onto the Memory Care Unit to answer a call light and assist a resident. (Johnson Dep. 38-39, ECF No. 55-3.) At 1:38 a.m., having assisted the resident, Johnson left the Memory Care Unit. (Johnson Dep. 40, ECF No. 55-3.)

         When asked if she recalled seeing any nurses at that time that should have been assigned to the Memory Care Unit, Johnson responded that Ashley Martin was in the Memory Care Unit. (Johnson Dep. 39, ECF No. 55-3.) Johnson did not say that she saw Martin on the unit, however. (Id.) Johnson said she knew Martin was in the model room of the Memory Care Unit “because that's where she stated she would be.” (Id.) At 2:57 a.m., Johnson entered the “In Motion Studio” on the third floor where she performed stretching and yoga, which according to Johnson, was “on [her] lunch.” (Johnson Dep. 40-41, ECF No. 55-3.) At 4:23 a.m., Johnson and Cynthia Coleman exited the studio. (Johnson Dep. 41, ECF No. 55-3.) At 4:25 a.m., Johnson and Cole-man entered the Life Enrichment Center, which was a break room equipped with a microwave, refrigerator, table, T.V., and sofa. (Johnson Dep. 42-43, ECF No. 55-3.) Johnson remained in the Life Enrichment Center for approximately twenty minutes until 4:44 a.m. (Id.) Johnson testified that her lunch break was supposed to be one hour. (Johnson Dep. 41, ECF No. 55-3.) Johnson had not clocked out for the time she was in the In Motion Studio or Life Enrichment Center (Stites Dep. 143-44, ECF No. 55-1), although the Woodland Terrace company policy required her to do so. (Johnson Dep., Ex C, ECF No. 55-3 at 84 (“Accurately recording time worked is the responsibility of the Associate. . . . Time worked is all the time actually spent on the job performing assigned duties. . . . Associates should accurately record the time they begin and end their work, as well as, the beginning and ending time of each meal period.”)).

         At 4:57 a.m., an orientee (staff in training) responded to a call light to assist a resident on the Memory Care Unit. (Stites Dep. 145, ECF No. 55-1.) All nurses carry pagers that would have been activated by the call light; the other nurses were either not carrying their pagers or not responding to them. (Stites Dep. 146, ECF No. 55-1.) At 5:07 a.m., the orientee again answered a call light on the Memory Care Unit for the same resident needing assistance. (Stites Dep. 146, ECF No. 55-1.) Woodland Terrace's Executive Director Cole Stites testified that it was not appropriate to leave the orientee in charge of the Memory Care Unit without a regular employee there to provide supervision. (Stites Dep. 8, 145, ECF No. 55-1.) Besides, that orientee came from outside the Memory Care Unit to respond to the call light; Martin had not responded to the call light. (See Stites Dep. 146, ECF No. 55-1.)

         Johnson was scheduled to work the night shift again on July 19 to 20, 2017. When she reported to work, Woodland Terrace's Executive Director Stites and Health Services Director Diane Kohan told her not to clock in, but to go the conference room. (Johnson Dep. 22, ECF No. 55-3; Stites Dep. 151, ECF No. 55-1.) She was later joined by the other nursing staff who had worked the night shift the day before: Coleman, Martin, Hawa Mengoua, and an aid named Brittany. After Stites and Kohan entered the conference room, Sites asked the staff several times to tell him what had happened the night before. (Johnson Dep. 23, ECF No. 55-3.) Martin asked what he was referring to, and Stites said that if they did not say what had happened, all of them would be fired. (Johnson Dep. 23, ECF No. 55-3.) The staff responded by saying that they did not know what Stites was talking about. (Id.) No. one gave Stites and Kohan any explanation about what had happened the night shift before. (Johnson Dep. 25, ECF No. 55-3.) Stites then announced that all five employees were fired. (Johnson Dep. 23-24, ECF No. 55-3.) Johnson testified that the staff were not given any reason for their terminations, but she did recall being asked who had been on the Memory Care Unit the night before. (Johnson Dep. 23-24, ECF No. 55-3.)

         Woodland Terrace explains that it terminated Johnson's employment on July 19, 2017, for abandonment of residents based on her leaving her assigned duties of licensed residential care to go where there were no licensed residential rooms for extended periods of time and leaving the Memory Care Unit unattended. (Stites Dep. 71-72, 74, ECF No. 55-1.) When Stites and Kohan were reviewing the videos of the night shift and deciding what action should be taken, the issue of race was never discussed. (Stites Dep. 152, ECF No. 55-1.) In deciding to discharge the nursing staff, Stites and Kohan considered the nurses' job duties and abandonment of their assigned areas. (Stites Dep. 152-53, ECF No. 55-1.) Neither Stites nor Kohan said anything to Johnson to suggest that the decision to terminate her employment was on the basis of her race. (Johnson Dep. 28, ECF No. 55-3.)

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “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(a). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine when the “evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). At the summary judgment stage, a court views the facts and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 255.

         III. Discussion

         Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). In deciding whether the evidence would permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the plaintiff's race caused the discharge courts consider the evidence “as a whole.” Ortiz v. Werner Enters., Inc., 834 F.3d 760, 765 (7th Cir. 2016). However, the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) remains a useful tool for presenting and assessing the evidence in discrimination cases. Johnson v. Advocate Health & Hosps. Corp., 892 F.3d 887, 894 (7th Cir. 2018). The parties have employed this framework, and the Court does as well. See id.

         Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was meeting her employer's legitimate expectations; (3) her employer took an adverse employment action against her; and (4) a similarly situated employee outside the protected class was treated more favorably. SeeFields v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Chi.,928 F.3d 622, 625 (7th Cir. 2019); Johnson, 892 F.3d at 894-95. If the plaintiff makes this showing, then the burden shifts to the defendant to “articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action, at which point the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to submit evidence that the employer's explanation is pretextual.” Simpson v. Franciscan Alliance, ...

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