In this Title VII racial discrimination case, Alma Knight appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to her former employer, Baptist Hospital of Miami, Inc. (Baptist). The district court concluded that Knight failed to establish a prima facie case. We affirm.
In May 1996, Knight, an African-American female, was hired by Baptist to work as a clinical nurse in the surgical services department. She worked as a Charge Nurse and had various responsibilities. Knight was supervised by Isabel Hotchkiss (Nurse Manager) and Jessy Theisen (Assistant Nurse Manager). Hotchkiss and Theisen were supervised by Michele Ryder the Assistant Director of Surgical Services. Knight claims that Ryder often treated her with intolerance, unfairness, and a lack of objectivity. Knight was employed by Baptist until her termination on 23 May 2000.
Baptist utilizes a 4-step disciplinary process: (1) "informal discussion and agreement," (2) "discussion and formal written agreement," (3) "decision-making leave," and (4) termination. Decision-making leave is a paid day of suspension for the employee to decide whether they want to continue working for Baptist. During decision-making leave, the employee is required to draft and to submit an "action plan" that proposes a solution to the noted deficiencies. If no "action plan" is submitted,
Knight was given decision-making leave on 9 May 2000. Knight's decision-making leave arose out of an incident where Knight was rude and disrespectful to two other employees: Patrice Hines and Doctor Wendy Whittick. Hines complained to her supervisor, Robert Zayas, about Knight's conduct and then filed a complaint with Ryder about the incident.
Ryder investigated the complaint. She then met with Hotchkiss and Theisen, and they decided to place Knight on decision-making leave based on the incident and Knight's "well documented disciplinary history." This four-year history included several performance issues: (1) failing to check refrigerator temperatures; (2) failing to comply with latex-allergy procedures; (3) scheduling standby cases without permission; (4) failing to send for patients in a timely manner; (5) unnecessarily calling in staff; (6) on other occasions, acting rudely and disrespectfully toward coworkers; and (7) having substantial problems of absenteeism and tardiness. Knight earlier received formal counseling, the second step in the disciplinary process, for her tardiness and for unnecessarily calling in staff.
Along with the decision-making leave, Knight was asked to submit an action plan covering two problems: her tardiness and her unprofessional and disrespectful behavior. Following her decision-making leave, on 11 May 2000, Knight turned in an action plan. Knight's action plan adequately addressed her tardiness issues but did not mention her behavior problems. Knight was asked to turn in a second action plan addressing this issue by 12 May. Knight missed this deadline.
Knight submitted her second action plan on 22 May. Ryder rejected this plan as inadequate, because the "action plan" was argumentative and proposed no solution. The plan merely restated Knight's version of the incident with Hines and said that it was "petty." On 23 May 2000, Knight's employment was terminated.
Knight filed a grievance through Baptist's grievance program. Her termination was upheld. Knight then filed this lawsuit in the Southern District of Florida. She alleged that she was the victim of disparate treatment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Right's Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq., 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992, Florida Statutes, § 760.10 (2000).
Arnold was a Caucasian nurse at Baptist. Knight claims that Arnold had significant tardiness and behavioral problems but was not severely disciplined. Arnold's 1997 performance evaluation noted that "[o]n occasion, severe, unproductive, and inappropriate exchanges occur with coworkers." She was not placed on decision-making leave, and her employment was not terminated.
The district court concluded that Arnold and Knight were not similarly situated and granted Baptist's motion for summary judgment.
Summary judgment is only appropriate where there "is no genuine issue as to any
The district court granted Baptist's motion for summary judgment because it determined that Knight failed to establish a prima facie case.
For the purpose of the motion for summary judgment, Baptist concedes that (1) Knight was a member of a racial minority; (2) she was subject to adverse employment actions — including being placed on a decision-making day and being fired — and (3) she was qualified for her job. Baptist argues, and the district court concluded, that Knight cannot establish a prima facie case because she cannot show that similarly situated employees of other races were treated better.
To show that employees are similarly situated, the plaintiff must show that the "employees are similarly situated in all relevant respects.... In determining whether employees are similarly situated ... it is necessary to consider whether the employees are involved in or accused of the same or similar conduct and are disciplined in different ways." Id. at 1562.
Knight argues that Jean Arnold was a similarly situated Caucasian nurse who was treated more favorably.
A review of Knight's and Arnold's cumulative records reveals that the two were
Both Arnold and Knight have documented histories of problems with coworkers. Knight's history includes the incident involving Ms. Hines and Dr. Whittick (which led to the decision-making leave) and two prior documented instances of rude and disrespectful conduct. Arnold's record includes two instances where surgeons complained about her disrespectful attitude.
Knight's history of performance problems is substantially worse than Arnold's. Knight's four-year history includes documented instances of these things: (1) failure to check refrigerator temperatures, (2) failure to comply with latex-allergy procedures, (3) scheduling standby cases without permission, (4) failure to send for patients in a timely manner, and (5) unnecessarily calling in staff.
Knight and Arnold's problems with absenteeism and tardiness are very different. While both had problems in this area, their problems were not of the same nature. Arnold's record indicates someone who had problems, but was improving. Her record also indicates that she took on extra responsibilities to compensate for some of her problems. Knight's problems progressively worsened, and despite counseling, she made little, if any, effort to compensate for her problems. The differences between Knight and Arnold are apparent from the performance evaluations.
In December 1995, Arnold received a 1.74
Knight's record is substantially less good. In her 1997 evaluation, Knight received a 2.92 in Dependability/Reliability. In 1998 this had fallen to 2.13. In October 1998, Knight was counseled on her tardiness and told that she "needs to come to work on time and have no more occurrences."
In the light of the entire record, Knight and Arnold are not similarly situated. Knight's documented performance and tardiness problems were much worse than Arnold's in both number and nature. Knight's problems did not improve after she was counseled and warned in writing about them. Because Arnold and Knight
POGUE, Judge, dissenting:
In my view, the majority opinion's discussion addressing the comparability of Knight and Arnold's job performance does not draw reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-1, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). Drawing reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor, on the record here, a reasonable jury could conclude that Ms. Knight and Ms. Arnold are similarly situated.
With regard to their documented histories of problems with coworkers, the majority appears to agree that Ms. Knight and Ms. Arnold are similarly situated. The majority claims that the differences in their performance histories and records of absenteeism and tardiness would preclude a reasonable fact-finder from finding them comparable on the basis of their cumulative employment record as a whole.
With regard to their performance histories, however, because Arnold was given an Agreement for Performance Improvement for the blood refrigerator incident (a written disciplinary action), a reasonable jury could conclude that the employer considered that infraction to be more serious than the incidents documented in Knight's record (mere oral reprimands).
With regard to absenteeism and tardiness, the record indicates that both Knight and Arnold were given an Agreement for Performance Improvement, a formal (written) disciplinary action because of their absenteeism or tardiness. Accordingly, drawing reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff, Knight and Arnold appear similarly situated in this regard.
Accordingly, with regard to Knight's and Arnold's respective employment records taken as a whole, the employer's own progressive disciplinary system provides a basis to infer that Knight and Arnold are similarly situated. The fact that Arnold had twice previously been given an Agreement for Performance Improvement, two formal (written) disciplinary actions whereas the incident that led to Knight's termination was only her second formal (written) discipline provides a reasonable basis for a jury to conclude that Arnold's historical record was at least as negative as Knight's. Consequently, a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendant's action with regard to Knight's problem with her coworkers (requiring an Agreement for Performance Improvement and imposing a suspension or decision-making day) was not even-handed when compared to its response to Arnold's similar problems. Moreover, Knight's 2000 evaluation, issued contemporaneously with the disciplinary action at issue here, rated her performance overall as 3.39, more than "fully meets expectations." Therefore, a reasonable jury could find the employer's explanation for its actions lacks credibility.