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Naomi E. Darden v. Ingalls Memorial Hospital

March 21, 2012

NAOMI E. DARDEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
INGALLS MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles P. Kocoras, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This case comes before the Court on Defendant Ingalls Memorial Hospital's ("Ingalls") motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted.

BACKGROUND*fn1

Ingalls employed Plaintiff Naomi Darden ("Darden") as a Food Service Assistant from approximately September 1992 until April 2010, when it terminated her employment. Darden, an African-American woman, was 53 years old at the time of her termination.

Darden subsequently filed suit against Ingalls, alleging race and sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 623, and disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12112. Aside from her general allegations of discrimination, Darden also alleges that Ingalls discriminated against her because of her husband's disabilities and for expressing an interest in joining a union ten years before her termination.

Darden's Employment with Ingalls

As a Food Service Assistant, Darden worked on the tray line. The tray line operates like an assembly line, with a Food Service Assistant assigned to each station on the line: coordinator, soups, entrees, dessert, coffee, and checker. Darden was assigned to the entrees station. As trays move past the stations on a conveyor belt, each Food Service Assistant consults a menu ticket, which is completed by a patient or doctor, to determine the appropriate type and amount of food to place on the plate. Because meals are being prepared for hospital patients with varying dietary restrictions and allergies, it is important for the Food Service Assistants to place the correct food item and amount on the tray. The Food Service Assistants use different size serving utensils to properly apportion food. Darden understood the importance of accuracy and that a patient could become ill or die if the patient received the wrong amount or type of food.

Because the tray line operates as an assembly line, Ingalls requires Food Service Assistants to remain at their stations while the tray line is operating. If a Food Service Assistant leaves the tray line, trays may pass a station without having the appropriate items placed on them. So that Food Service Assistants need not leave the tray line, Food Service Assistants running low on food ask the cooks to bring additional food to their stations. Also, to ensure proper food temperature, Food Service Assistants must maintain proper water levels in the steam wells.

Jennifer Aidinovich ("Aidinovich") supervised the Food Service Assistants and was Darden's direct supervisor from 2002 until Darden's termination in 2010. During that same time period, Katie Freese ("Freese") was Aidinovich's immediate supervisor and oversaw all employees in Ingalls' Food and Nutrition Department. To evaluate the Food Service Assistants' accuracy on the tray line, Aidinovich, Freese, or a dietetic intern regularly conducted Tray Accuracy Audits. During these audits, items on the meal trays were checked against patients' prescribed diets.

Aidinovich and Freese were also responsible for administering disciplinary action according to Ingalls' progressive discipline policy. Under this policy, discipline begins with a verbal warning and then progresses to a written warning, a one day unpaid suspension, and then termination. An employee usually first receives a verbal warning for unsatisfactory work performance or minor violations of hospital policy. A written warning generally follows a verbal warning if the violation is not corrected. According to Ingalls' Code of Conduct, an employee's failure to improve job performance after oral or written warnings may lead to an unpaid suspension day or discharge. Darden knew of and understood Ingalls' progressive discipline policy. Darden's Work Performance

Aidinovich prepared Darden's annual performance reviews each June for her work performance the year before. On Darden's 2006-2007 performance review, which Aidinovich discussed with Darden in June 2007, Aidinovich rated Darden as meeting expectations. For the following year, Aidinovich directed Darden to improve her accuracy on the tray line and maintain proper water levels in the steam wells.

Darden was disciplined on three occasions in the year following her 2006-2007 performance review. Specifically, on July 25, 2007, Darden received a verbal warning from Aidinovich for failing to give the cooks sufficient notice that she needed additional food, which caused the tray line to stop, and failing to fully replenish the steam wells with water before leaving her station after breakfast. Then, on September 19, 2007, Freese issued Darden a written warning because Darden left the tray line to obtain additional food instead of asking the cooks to bring it to her station. Finally, on January 30, 2008, Freese verbally counseled Darden for failing to maintain the proper food temperature by pre-plating food. Although Darden does not remember this event, Aidinovich documented it in a "verbal discussion documentation."

On Darden's 2007-2008 performance review, which Aidinovich discussed with Darden in June 2008, Aidinovich again rated Darden as meeting expectations. For the upcoming year, Aidinovich directed Darden to maintain proper food and equipment temperature and to not pre-portion food. Between June 2008 and June 2009, Darden was disciplined on four occasions. Specifically, on February 25, 2009, Aidinovich verbally counseled Darden for using the wrong size serving utensil for an entree. Then, on March 11, 2009, Aidinovich issued Darden a verbal warning for leaving the tray line. A few months later, on May 1, 2009, Aidinovich and Freese asked Darden to improve her accuracy on the tray line and communication with co-workers. The next day, on May 2, 2009, Darden received a written warning after a Tray Accuracy Audit revealed that she made twelve errors. Darden admittedly performed worse than any of her co-workers during the audit.

On Darden's 2008-2009 performance review, which Aidinovich discussed with Darden in June 2009, Aidinovich rated Darden as meeting expectations. For the following year, Aidinovich advised Darden to focus on tray accuracy by not missing more than three food items per ...


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