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Johnson v. Mental Health Institute

Court of Appeals of Iowa

January 10, 2018


         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Buchanan County, Michael J. Shubatt, Judge.

         The employee appeals from the district court's grant of summary judgment for the employer, dismissing the employee's claims for racial discrimination and retaliation.

          Bruce H. Stoltze Jr. of Stoltze & Stoltze, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and John B. McCormally and Barbara E.B. Galloway, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellees.

          Heard by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Potterfield and McDonald, JJ.

          POTTERFIELD, Judge.

         Antoinette Johnson filed a cause of action against her former employer, the Mental Health Institute, [1] claiming racial discrimination and retaliatory discharge.[2]MHI filed a motion for summary judgment and, following a hearing, the district court granted it-dismissing both of Johnson's claims.

         On appeal, Johnson maintains the district court erred in its determination that she could not establish a prima facie case for discrimination because she could not prove she was performing her work satisfactorily at the time she was fired. Regarding her claim for retaliation, Johnson maintains the district court erred when it ruled she could not prove a causal connection between her complaints about being discriminated against and harassed and MHI's decision to fire her. In the alternative, the district court found that even if Johnson could prove both of her prima facie cases, her claims still failed because she was unable to establish that MHI's stated non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons for firing her were merely pretext; Johnson maintains this was in error.[3]

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Johnson began working at MHI in August 2007 as a residential treatment worker. She was responsible for the direct care of individual patients and worked under the supervision of a registered nurse. Part of the official description of Johnson's position includes "attendance at work and timeliness at work." Additionally, the "performance criteria" include: "[is] routinely at work on time" and "[i]s routinely at work as scheduled."

         In January 2011, Georgeanne Cassidy-Wescott-a named defendant- became the Director of Nursing for MHI, putting her in charge of the nursing department. This placed Johnson in Cassidy-Wescott's chain of command.

         In 2011, Cassidy-Wescott developed a progressive discipline schedule for unauthorized absences and tardiness, including disciplinary actions of written reprimands, suspension without pay, and termination. Under the policy, neither a supervisor's coaching and counseling session nor a written work directive given to the employee is considered a disciplinary action.

         In March 2012, Mark Lyman, a registered nurse and another named defendant, became Johnson's supervisor.

         In April, Lyman had a coaching and counseling session with Johnson to discuss her job performance because she had six incidents of unscheduled absences within the previous twelve months.

         Johnson received two coaching and counseling sessions in May-one because she arrived twenty-five minutes late and another because she failed to inform her supervisor she had been arrested within twenty-four hours of the arrest, as work rules required.

         Lyman had two more coaching and counseling sessions with Johnson in July due to an unexcused absence and her failure to follow the call-in procedure when she was absent.

         In August, Lyman had a coaching and counseling session with Johnson after she was tardy to work. Lyman gave Johnson a written reprimand for a separate incident of tardiness when she arrived at work two hours late. Johnson received a second written reprimand in August when she had an unscheduled absence-her eighth in twelve months.

         Johnson was given a one-day suspension without pay to be served on September 11 as a result of her five tardies between April and September.

         In December, Lyman had a coaching and counseling session with Johnson after another unscheduled absence.

         In January 2013, Johnson received a written reprimand for failing to follow the call-in procedure when she was absent and for having another no-call, no-show for work-her second since June 2012.

         Johnson also received a written reprimand on February 14 for being fifty minutes tardy to work on February 2.[4]

         On February 5, a verbal incident occurred at MHI between Johnson and a registered nurse, Tanya Keppler. According to the report from MHI's internal investigation, Johnson left a patient alone in the shower; Keppler reminded Johnson that it was against the institution's policy, as any patient in the "tub room" must be continuously observed. Keppler then told other employees, "Now I'm going to be accused of being a racist." A short time later, Keppler noticed Johnson had left a second patient unattended in the tub room. When Keppler again told Johnson that patients were not to be left alone, Johnson responded, "Whatever, Tanya." Within a few minutes, Johnson entered the nurse's station and overheard Keppler saying Johnson does not respect her. This led to a verbal confrontation between Keppler and Johnson, with both raising their voices. Another employee reported that Johnson attempted to walk away, but Keppler followed her. Johnson was seen bent over, rocking back and forth, covering her ears, and stating, "Stop, please stop" and "leave me alone." At least one employee reported Johnson was tearful by the end of the encounter.

         Afterward, Johnson made multiple phone calls to Cassidy-Wescott to discuss the incident. During the first call, Johnson reported that she felt picked on and did not believe it would get better. Johnson also reported for the first time that there was a doll[5] hung by its neck in the nursing station and claimed that it had been there for over a month.[6] During one of the calls, Johnson informed Cassidy-Wescott she had "just contacted [her] civil rights lawyer and showed him the papers from the last time."[7]

         Cassidy-Wescott made the decision to separate and schedule the nursing staff so that Johnson would not be working on the same ward with Keppler. The new work schedule was effective the next day, February 6.

         On February 13, as Lyman continued an investigation into the February 5 incident, Johnson stated the doll she saw at the nursing station was racially offensive and she believed it was meant to represent a black person. Johnson also reported that she believed the doll had been placed on the ward by Keppler and that she had heard another employee name Keppler as the person who had brought it. When that employee was asked to confirm Johnson's statement, he denied having any knowledge Keppler placed the doll on the ward.

         The same day, Johnson followed up with a written complaint stating Keppler had harassed her.

         On February 21, the investigation into the incident ended. It did not resolve who had brought the doll onto the ward, [8] but MHI concluded there had been no discriminatory behavior. It determined, however, that a number of DHS work rules had been violated, and Lyman had individual coaching and counseling sessions with both Keppler and Johnson. Keppler's session included notes about ensuring her approach was appropriate when correcting or advising Johnson, and she was encouraged to seek help from her supervisor if necessary. Johnson's session involved coaching regarding her admitted violations of policy, including leaving a patient in the shower unattended and allowing patients to use her electronic device to play games.

         On March 14, Johnson sent an email to DHS, complaining about Lyman and the results of the investigation into the February 5 incident. She again referenced being the "only black female in the ...

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