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Stringel v. Methodist Hospital of Indiana

July 12, 1996

GUSTAVO STRINGEL, M.D.,

PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

THE METHODIST HOSPITAL OF INDIANA, INC., AND EULA DAS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS SENIOR VICE-PRESIDENT OF METHODIST HOSPITAL,

DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 92 C 816--John D. Tinder, Judge.

Before FLAUM, ROVNER, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

ROVNER, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED OCTOBER 27, 1995

DECIDED JULY 12, 1996

Dr. Gustavo Stringel sued his former employer, The Methodist Hospital of Indiana, Inc., and his supervisor at Methodist, Eula Das, Ph.D., contending that he had been discharged in retaliation for filing an EEOC complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of his race and national origin. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that the hospital had legitimately terminated Stringel on the basis of his insubordination during a meeting with Das that culminated in the discharge. Stringel had covertly recorded that meeting, and the district court relied in part upon that recording in granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Although he did not object to the admission of the tape below, Stringel contends on appeal that the court committed plain error in considering the tape. We reject that argument and affirm.

I.

Methodist hired Stringel in 1990 to become its medical director of pediatric surgery and trauma department for a term of five years. Das, as the Senior Vice President for Patient Care Services, was his designated supervisor. The physician agreement that Stringel entered into with the hospital provided that either party could terminate the contract within the five-year term for "good cause."

By the Spring of 1992, relations between the hospital and Stringel had deteriorated. According to Stringel, within six months after he assumed his new position at Methodist, co-workers began to harass and discriminate against him because of his race and national origin (Stringel is Hispanic and was born in Mexico), giving rise to a hostile working environment. Among other disparagement, Stringel asserts that people made fun of his accent and that Das told him to "correct" it. Hospital personnel also expressed negative opinions about "foreign" doctors. For example, in November 1991, several physicians serving with Stringel on a search committee for a pediatric gastroenterologist made remarks impugning "foreign-trained" doctors and doctors with accents. In February 1992, Stringel reported that the head of neonatology, Dr. Tom Malone, had ridiculed his accent in the presence of nurses and patients, and had changed one of Stringel's orders without first discussing the matter with him. Stringel brought his complaints to Das and asked her to investigate. Ultimately, he threatened to leave if appropriate actions were not taken. Stringel asserts that Das became angry with him, refused to investigate his complaints, and did nothing. Das and the hospital's attorney met with Stringel and his own attorney in March 1992 to discuss Stringel's complaints. Shortly after that meeting, Stringel filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

Meanwhile, Das had begun to receive complaints about Stringel in November of 1991. Stringel's initial performance reviews had been positive (his first had been outstanding), but beginning in the Fall of 1991 Stringel had purportedly displayed unprofessional behavior. Nurses complained that he frequently raised his voice to them, was rude and demeaning, and became hostile when they questioned his orders. Stringel was also accused of refusing to meet with the parents of one of his pediatric patients and to assist other physicians when asked to do so.

Das responded to the complaints by issuing a memorandum to Stringel on March 24, 1992 notifying him that this conduct was unsatisfactory and should cease immediately. Stringel was warned in particular that he must control his temper and be more cooperative. He was admonished that he would be terminated forthwith if he did not demonstrate improvement in these areas. It was on the day after he received this memorandum that Stringel filed his EEOC charge.

Events came to a head on April 9, 1992, when Stringel and Das met to discuss Stringel's performance. From the outset, Stringel and Das disagreed about the purpose of the previously scheduled meeting: Das had expected Stringel to bring with him a written plan of action to address the various problems that the hospital had attributed to him, whereas Stringel believed that the purpose was to discuss his latest performance review. When Das told Stringel that he would have to submit his written plan by the end of the following day or face termination, Stringel accused her and the hospital of retaliating against him for his EEOC complaint. Stringel wanted to delve into the merits of his claims of discrimination, but Das demurred. Ultimately, Stringel told Das that she might as well spit in his face. Das became exasperated with what she perceived as Stringel's "badgering." In Stringel's presence, she telephoned William Loveday, the hospital's president, and requested permission to terminate Stringel. She received it, and Stringel was fired on the spot for his purported insubordination during the meeting.

After receiving a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, Stringel filed a four-count complaint against Das and the hospital. Stringel alleged that the defendants had knowingly failed to investigate a hostile working environment and ultimately had fired him in retaliation for filing an EEOC charge, in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e, et seq. He also alleged that the defendants had discriminated against him in the performance and termination of his employment contract, in violation of 42 U.S.C. sec. 1981(a). Finally, Stringel asserted state law claims for a purported bad faith breach of contract and for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. William Loveday was among the defendants named in the complaint, but he was dismissed from the litigation early on. The court also dismissed the emotional distress claim against Das.

The district court subsequently granted summary judgment in favor of the Hospital and Das on the remaining claims. The court found the evidence insufficient to support Stringel's claims of discrimination under Title VII and section 1981(a). In support of the allegation that he had been made to endure a hostile environment, Stringel had proffered evidence which to a great extent was inadmissible hearsay. Moreover, the acts of harassment to which Stringel pointed were, in the court's view, neither severe nor pervasive enough to establish a hostile environment. As to the allegation that Stringel had been discharged in retaliation for filing an EEOC charge, the court reasoned that even if Stringel had presented enough evidence to establish a prima facie case of retaliation (see generally Dey v. Colt Constr. & Dev. Co., 28 F.3d 1446, 1457 (7th Cir. 1994)), the defendants had articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Stringel--insubordination--and Stringel had tendered no evidence tending to suggest that this reason was pretextual.

Indeed, Stringel brought forward nothing demonstrating that the Hospital tolerated outbursts similar to his by non-Hispanic doctors. Likewise, Stringel failed to show that non-Hispanic doctors were not terminated for insubordination or for their refusal to modify behavior they had been warned was unacceptable. Additionally, Stringel failed ...


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