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Stewart v. Dartmouth Hitchcock Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 26, 2018

Tasheena V. Stewart, Plaintiff
v.
Dartmouth Hitchcock Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, Defendant

          Tasheena V. Stewart, pro se

          William D. Pandolph, Esq.

          ORDER

          Steven J. McAuliffe United States District Judge

         Tasheena Stewart brings this action against her former employer, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital) (“DHMC”), claiming she was subjected to unlawful workplace sexual and racial discrimination, in violation of federal law.[1] DHMC now moves for summary judgment on each of Stewart's federal discrimination claims. Stewart objects.

         For the reasons discussed, DHMC's motion for summary judgment is granted.

         Standard of Review

         When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court is “obliged to review the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and to draw all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor.” Block Island Fishing, Inc. v. Rogers, 844 F.3d 358, 360 (1st Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “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). In this context, a factual dispute “is ‘genuine' if the evidence of record permits a rational factfinder to resolve it in favor of either party, and ‘material' if its existence or nonexistence has the potential to change the outcome of the suit.” Rando v. Leonard, 826 F.3d 553, 556 (1st Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). Consequently, “[a]s to issues on which the party opposing summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial, that party may not simply rely on the absence of evidence but, rather, must point to definite and competent evidence showing the existence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Perez v. Lorraine Enters., 769 F.3d 23, 29-30 (1st Cir. 2014). In other words, “a laundry list of possibilities and hypotheticals” and “[s]peculation about mere possibilities, without more, is not enough to stave off summary judgment.” Tobin v. Fed. Express Corp., 775 F.3d 448, 451-52 (1st Cir. 2014). See generally Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         Background

         At the outset, it is probably worth noting that Stewart has decided to represent herself in this action. Recognizing that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure can be complex and - at least for those not trained in the law - difficult to understand, the court provided Stewart with a “Notice Regarding Summary Judgment” (document no. 20). That notice included copies of Rule 56, as well as the court's local rule governing summary judgment. The court highlighted for Stewart her obligation to respond to DHMC's motion for summary judgment with competent evidence, in the form of admissible affidavits, deposition testimony, and documents. Stewart was also reminded of her obligation to set forth “a short and concise statement of material facts, supported by record citations, ” as to which she contends there is a genuine dispute so as to require a trial. Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis supplied). Stewart has, for the most part, failed to comply with those requirements.

         While she has submitted a “Performance Evaluation Report” dated August 31, 2011 (document no. 21-2), and a few emails she says support her position, the majority of “facts” upon which Stewart relies are unsupported by competent, admissible evidence. She has not, for example, submitted any affidavits. Nor has she referenced any of the deposition testimony or hearing testimony submitted by DHMC. Instead, her narrative of the relevant background is characterized by her feelings, her beliefs, and her subjective interpretations of various events she describes. See, e.g., Plaintiff's Memorandum (document no. 21) at 2 (“Plaintiff Tasheena V. Stewart started working for [DHMC] in June of 2011, and was treated unfairly, disrespectfully, and made to feel uncomfortable on almost a daily basis.”); Id. at 4 (“Andrea Rhodes enjoyed making Plaintiff Tasheena V. Stewart uncomfortable.”); Id. at 5 (“Andrea Rhodes' corrective actions were not true accounts of the events that took place.”); Id. at 8 (“[U]ntruths were gathered to unjustly terminate Plaintiff Tasheena V. Stewart.”); Id. at 9 (“It is my belief that because I, Plaintiff Tasheena V. Stewart, am a Black woman whom was mistreated and discriminated [against], and spoke up about it, was wrongfully terminated on a first warning and fake correctives from a racist and disrespectful supervisor.”). See also Plaintiff's Sur-Reply (document no. 25) at 2 (“When I found out from the EEOC that the hospital hired the Black woman, I was not surprised. If you are accused of being racist and fostering a racist environment it would make sense because you can now say look we hired a Black woman.”); Id. (“This seems to be the climate of our nation at this time, where you see major institutions hiding, covering up, or protecting management, supervisors, and/or people in leadership roles that are outright mistreating employees and abusing their power.”).

         Putting aside, for the moment, Stewart's subjective beliefs and interpretations, the facts pertinent to summary judgment (as supported by competent evidence of record) are as follows. In 2011, Andrea Rhodes was (and had been for approximately four years) the Supervisor of DHMC's Cytogenetics Laboratory, where she oversaw the work of several clinical lab scientists and lab aides. In May of that year, she interviewed and hired Stewart as clinical lab scientist. Stewart began working in the lab in June of 2011, and her initial performance was quite good (indeed, her skills as a lab scientist never seem to have been in question). In August, Rhodes gave Stewart a very favorable “Performance Evaluation - 90 Day Introductory Review” (document no. 19-2).

         The following month, Rhodes had an “awareness conversation” (DHMC's lowest level of counseling/discipline) with Stewart after Stewart “responded negatively” to having her work reviewed by a colleague whom Stewart believed had less experience than she. See Affidavit of Andrea Rhodes (document no. 19-16) at para. 14. Nevertheless, on December 1, 2011, Rhodes again gave Stewart a very positive performance review (document no. 19-3).

         Shortly thereafter, however, Rhodes reports that Stewart's attitude deteriorated and her interactions with colleagues and superiors became more volatile, hostile, and insubordinate. Stewart was, for example, openly rude to Rhodes at a staff meeting, she often complained about her co-workers, she was not bashful about telling Rhodes (her supervisor) that Rhodes was not doing her job properly, and she acted inappropriately toward one of the lab aides who required minor accommodations due to a medical issue. The latter prompted another “awareness conversation” with Rhodes in April of 2012. Rhodes Affidavit at para. 18. A few months later, Stewart had “a loud, angry outburst at a staff meeting, ” Id. at para. 20, which prompted Rhodes to contact Human Resources seeking assistance with shaping Stewart's style of communication. On September 25, 2012, Rhodes, Stewart, and Stephen Woods (Senior Employee Relations Advisor) met and discussed Stewart's “unprofessional manner of communication” and what she might do to correct it. According to Rhodes, Stewart “repeatedly interrupted us and would not allow us to finish speaking, which demonstrated the very conduct we were coaching her about.” Rhodes Affidavit at para. 23. See also Affidavit of Stephen Woods (document no. 19-17) at para. 5 (“Ms. Rhodes explained that we were meeting to discuss Ms. Stewart's communication manner and style at work. Ms. Stewart immediately interrupted Ms. Rhodes. When I tried to answer Ms. Stewart's questions, she also kept interrupting me. I finally told her that she needed to give us a minute to explain what the documented coaching was about. Ms. Stewart's behavior during the coaching meeting was consistent with the problems Ms. Rhodes had described.”).

         The following day, Stewart, Rhodes, and Woods met again. According to Woods, “when Ms. Rhodes tried to explain the reasons for the coaching, Ms. Stewart angrily pointed her finger in Ms. Rhodes' face and called her a liar. I told Ms. Stewart her behavior during the meeting was not acceptable.” Woods Affidavit at para. 6. See also Rhodes Affidavit at para. 25. Stewart was then presented with a “written coaching, ” which had been prepared by Rhodes and reviewed by Woods. It provided the following:

In [our] conversation, we talked about how the manner (tone, volume, body language, persistence/interrupting) in which you communicate sometimes distracts from the message you are trying to deliver and can be disruptive and unprofessional. Though you may not intend it, you often communicate with myself and others in a manner that is perceived as loud, angry, and disruptive. Your manner of communication has disrupted team meetings and has been perceived by your co-workers as unprofessional. Unfortunately, in addition to being unprofessional, your manner of communication often does not have the desired effect of convincing others of your point of view. I know that you strive to act in a professional, collaborative, and respectful manner. I expressed to you my respect for your technical skills. However, this unprofessional manner of communicating is not acceptable, is contrary to D-H policy, and must stop. I am committed to helping you achieve that goal.

Documentation of Coaching Session (document no. 19-4). Despite the measured tone of that document, Stewart's response to it was plainly not professional (and certainly tone-deaf). In the “Employee Comments” section, Stewart wrote:

I will not sign this document because what Rhodes is saying are lies! I intend on taking this matter as far as it needs to go until the truth comes out. [Andrea] Rho[d]es is a compulsive liar and extremely manipulative. I intend to have her and her behavior exposed in the coming days. I will not have my character marred by someone who is not truthful and cannot be trusted.

Id. Stewart's response illustrated the very workplace behavior with which Rhodes and Woods were concerned. But, notwithstanding the disrespectful and insubordinate comments Stewart had directed at her, Rhodes chose not to pursue the matter any further. Rhodes Affidavit at para. 27.

         After a brief interlude of calm, Stewart resumed her disrespectful, coarse, and/or inappropriate behavior. In November, Rhodes had another “awareness conversation” with Stewart about a disrespectful email she sent to Rhodes (see document no. 19-5). In early February of the following year, Rhodes had yet another “awareness conversation” with Stewart after Stewart refused to take a mandatory competency assessment that Rhodes had asked her to complete. Stewart acquiesced only after being informed that she would be subject to disciplinary action if she remained steadfast in her obstinance. Two weeks later, Rhodes was made aware of at least two occasions on which Stewart had adopted an “unprofessional tone and manner” toward a subordinate. One of those interactions had been witnessed by two other lab technologists, who confirmed to Rhodes that Stewart's behavior toward the co-worker was inappropriate. According to Rhodes, because she was already aware of other occasions on which Stewart had acted inappropriately toward that individual, and because she “felt that Ms. Stewart was creating a hostile work environment by bullying a subordinate, ” Rhodes Affidavit at para. 36, she decided she needed to discuss the situation with Stewart. But, in light of the “poor interactions in the past with Ms. Stewart when discussing her communication issues and recognizing this as a potentially volatile conversation, ” Rhodes asked Dr. Mohandas (Clinical Director of the Cytogenetics Lab) to be part of the conversation. Although Rhodes originally planned to give Stewart a “written warning” for her conduct, she ultimately decided to downgrade the discipline and give her a “written coaching.” Id. at para. 38. That written coaching provided:

I would like to document the conversation we had on 2/20/2013 with Dr. T. K. Mohandas about your communication style, specifically when talking to [a Lab Aide]. In that conversation we heard your version of the events that [the Lab Aide] had reported. We talked about how certain things that [the Lab Aide] does aggravates/frustrates the situation. We also talked about how communications can be misinterpreted, even with the best of intentions. We agreed that the workplace should be free from communications that could be interpreted as demeaning or disrespectful.
To address this issue, you agreed to do the following: Add work related tasks to [the Lab Aide's] clipboard. Minimize conversation with [the Lab Aide] for a few weeks. If there are items or situations that you would like addressed, you will relay them to Andrea Rhodes and in Andrea's absence, to Dr. Mohandas. We will meet again in mid-March to reassess the situation.
If your performance in this area does not improve within the stated period, I will have to initiate formal corrective action. As I said in our meeting, you are welcome to any and all resources available to you through this or any other department. However, I'm counting on you to take ...

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