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Wright v. St. Vincent Health System

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

September 18, 2013

Janice Wright Plaintiff- Appellant
St. Vincent Health System, (originally named as St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center) Defendant-Appellee

Submitted: May 24, 2013

Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

Before RILEY, Chief Judge, GRUENDER and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

RILEY, Chief Judge.

Janice Wright sued her former employer, St. Vincent Health System (hospital), alleging racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. After a two-day bench trial, the district court[1] found in favor of the hospital on all claims. Wright appeals the judgment, arguing the district court's factual findings were clearly erroneous. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.


In November 2007, Janice Wright began working for the hospital as a surgical technologist.[2] In 2008, Wright accepted a newly created position working the night shift (7:00 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.) in the operating room (OR). Before Wright accepted the position, two registered nurses, Bill Rieske, a Caucasian man, and Nancy Bell, an African-American woman, performed most of the duties the hospital asked Wright to perform. After training Wright and Bell to complete the night duties as a team, Rieske moved to a weekend shift. When Wright and Bell were not assisting with emergency surgeries, they cleaned rooms, moved and made surgical beds, stocked supplies, assembled equipment, and set up operating rooms for the next day's surgeries.

A few months after Wright and Bell began working together, Bell suffered an injury at home that prevented her from coming to work. Other nurses initially assisted in covering Bell's shifts in addition to their regular duties, but Wright was the only employee dedicated to the night shift. The covering nurses carried the phone and responded to emergencies, but did not help Wright prepare the operating rooms. After three months, the nurses stopped taking Bell's shifts. When Bell did not return as expected, Wright was left alone on the night shift to complete all the duties she and Bell previously shared.

Wright's performance began to suffer. On September 25, 2008, in response to a complaint that Wright had not prepared the operating rooms properly on September 23, 2008, Patient Care Coordinator (PCC)[3] Darla Tiner, Wright's direct supervisor, issued Wright a Counseling/Corrective Action Form (disciplinary form). Wright explained she was assisting with surgery for several hours on the night in question, but Tiner believed Wright could have completed her duties during the rest of her shift. Wright refused to sign the form, and another PCC, Verda Degerald, reported that Wright became defensive and did not indicate a "desire to correct [her] behavior."

After that incident, Tiner prepared a checklist of equipment Wright was required to ensure was in each operating room. On September 29, 2008, Wright received a second disciplinary form for failing to complete the checklist on September 26, 2008. Tiner also noted Wright failed to report orally the events of the night shift as required.

On October 6, 2008, Tiner and Laurie Voigt, then Interim Director of Surgical Services, provided Wright a prioritized, written list of duties the PCCs expected Wright to perform each night. Tiner and Voigt advised Wright that if there were no further disciplinary issues for three months, they would remove the September 29, 2008, disciplinary form from Wright's file. When Wright asked to be returned to the day shift, Tiner and Voigt advised Wright the staffing matrix was being evaluated and no permanent changes would be made until further notice.

On January 21, 2009, Tiner gave Wright a final warning for two incidents occurring in December 2008. The disciplinary form indicated that on December 16, 2008, Wright was wrapped in a blanket and sleeping in a recliner, and she failed to prepare properly the operating rooms for surgery. At trial, Wright admitted she was reclined in the chair and covered with a blanket, but denied she was sleeping or that it was unusual for staff to be in the lounge during down periods. The disciplinary form further indicated that on December 18, 2008, "Wright delayed emergency care for a patient in the ICU who needed surgical treatment for a nose bleed." Tiner advised Wright any further disciplinary action "could result in further corrective action up to and including termination."

Wright appears to have worked without further incident until July 2009. On July 9, 2009, Cindy Sacker, then Director of Surgical Services, [4] received a complaint from a doctor that Wright had failed to inform the day staff that the doctor wanted to perform surgery the morning of July 3, 2009, forcing the doctor to delay the surgery. Degerald also advised Sacker that Wright had not been properly setting up the operating tables. On July 9, 2009, at 11:14 a.m., Sacker contacted Wright at home by telephone to discuss the complaints and schedule a meeting for Monday, July 13, 2009. Wright attempted to explain each of the issues and complained of a double standard at the hospital. Wright testified Sacker became angry, while Wright remained agreeable. In contrast, Sacker testified Wright became "belligerent" and "insubordinate" and told Sacker, "Just fire me, go ahead and fire me."

After the call, Sacker contacted Chris Cockrell, the hospital's Employee Relations Coordinator, to inform him of Wright's "inappropriate" and "aggressive" behavior and ask what disciplinary steps she could take. Cockrell advised Sacker she could discipline Wright, including termination. When Sacker called Cockrell again to determine whether she could terminate Wright over the phone, Cockrell advised it was permissible, but not ideal. Sacker testified she also met with the PCCs that afternoon to inform them, for scheduling ...

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