from the Iowa District Court for Buchanan County, Michael J.
employee appeals from the district court's grant of
summary judgment for the employer, dismissing the
employee's claims for racial discrimination and
H. Stoltze Jr. of Stoltze & Stoltze, P.L.C., Des Moines,
J. Miller, Attorney General, and John B. McCormally and
Barbara E.B. Galloway, Assistant Attorneys General, for
by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Potterfield and McDonald, JJ.
Johnson filed a cause of action against her former employer,
the Mental Health Institute,  claiming racial discrimination
and retaliatory discharge.MHI filed a motion for
summary judgment and, following a hearing, the district court
granted it-dismissing both of Johnson's claims.
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.
I. Background Facts and Proceedings.
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
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.
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
March 2012, Mark Lyman, a registered nurse and another named
defendant, became Johnson's supervisor.
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
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
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.
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.
was given a one-day suspension without pay to be served on
September 11 as a result of her five tardies between April
December, Lyman had a coaching and counseling session with
Johnson after another unscheduled absence.
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.
also received a written reprimand on February 14 for being
fifty minutes tardy to work on February 2.
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.
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 hung by its neck in the nursing station
and claimed that it had been there for over a
month. 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
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 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.
same day, Johnson followed up with a written complaint
stating Keppler had harassed her.
February 21, the investigation into the incident ended. It
did not resolve who had brought the doll onto the ward,
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.
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 ...