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Tucker v. THC-Chicago, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 31, 2017

ROSALINE M. TUCKER, Plaintiff,
v.
THC-CHICAGO, INC., d/b/a KINDRED-CHICAGO-CENTRAL HOSPITAL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          John Z. Lee United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Rosaline Tucker (“Tucker”) has sued Defendant THC-Chicago, Inc., d/b/a Kindred-Chicago-Central Hospital (“Kindred”), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981, alleging she was terminated from her position as a registered nurse because she is African-American. Kindred now moves for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, Kindred's motion [54] is granted.

         Background[1]

         Kindred-Chicago-Central Hospital is located on Chicago's Northwest Side and provides “aggressive, specialized interdisciplinary care to medically complex patients who require extended recovery time.” Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 2-3, ECF No. 56. Tucker worked at Kindred and its predecessors from 1994 until her termination in 2012. Id. ¶ 4. Tucker is from Sierra Leone and identifies her race as Black. Id. ¶¶ 6-7. In fall 2010, she suffered a stroke, but she returned to work in 2011. Id. ¶¶ 29, 31.

         The parties agree that, prior to the events leading up to her termination, Tucker provided patient care that was generally satisfactory and at times excellent. Def.'s Resp. Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶¶ 1, 3, ECF No. 68. Tucker claims that her level of care earned her great respect at the hospital, both among patients, who called her “Mama Rose, ” and nurses, who called her “Rose of Kindred.” Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶¶ 1-2, ECF No. 65.

         Beginning in May 2012, a series of incidents occurred that caused Kindred to discipline Tucker for what it perceived to be care-related misconduct. First, on May 23, 2012, Tucker was given a written warning for failing, on four different occasions in a two-month period, to properly complete documentation related to the administration of narcotic medications. Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 35. The written warning listed several different errors that Tucker committed from April through May 2012, including failing to record the patient's name, the dosage given, or whether a dosage was wasted and the reason for waste. Id.; see id., Ex. C, at 7, ECF No. 56-4. The warning also noted Tucker's failure to sign the documentation and to verify by signature that a dosage was wasted. Id. Tucker acknowledged the written warning with her signature and wrote, “floor was busy with a rush at all times but hope to improve.” Id. ¶ 36; see id., Ex. C, at 8.

         For her part, Tucker denies that she failed to complete the necessary narcotics documentation on the four different days. Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(B) Stmt ¶ 35, ECF No. 64.[2] She maintains that, on at least one occasion, she threw a sheet in the trash and intended to fill out a clean sheet in accordance with what she states is hospital policy, only to have a co-worker retrieve the sheet from the garbage and give it to management. Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 38-40.

         On May 23, 2012, Tucker was also given a final written warning based on her care of a certain patient (“Patient X”), who later died. Id. ¶ 42. The warning charged that Tucker had failed to adequately monitor Patient X's blood sugar levels and to ensure that a physician-ordered IV solution was infusing in a prompt manner. Id. Tucker, however, refused to acknowledge the warning with her signature. Id. ¶ 44. She maintains that she checked Patient X's blood sugar at appropriate intervals given the number of patients she was asked to care for at the time. Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(B) Stmt. ¶ 46. As for the IV solution, Tucker claims that she was merely following the orders of Patient X's primary care doctor, and thus should not have been faulted for any delay. Id. ¶¶ 42-43.

         Then, on July 9, 2012, Tucker was discharged after she failed to sign another narcotics sheet on June 27, 2012. Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 54, 57.[3] Although Tucker admits that she did not sign the narcotics sheet, she claims that she had an agreement with another nurse, Winona, to sign on her behalf, Id . ¶ 58, and that a nurse supervisor had approved this arrangement, Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 29.

         Bruce Carey made the decision to terminate Tucker. Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 54. The decision to terminate her was based on her numerous narcotics documentation errors and the deficient care she provided to Patient X. Id. ¶¶ 54- 55; Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 32.[4] At her termination meeting, Carey also noted that he was concerned about Kindred losing its narcotics license as a result of Tucker's many errors. Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 59.

         Tucker believes that her termination was not warranted and suggests that she should only have been suspended. Id. ¶ 60; see Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(B) Stmt ¶¶ 54-55. She further asserts that the real reason for her termination was her race, her national origin, and the disability she experienced from her stroke. Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 40.

         Legal Standard

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is 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). To survive summary judgment, the nonmoving party must “do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986), and instead must “establish some genuine issue for trial such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in her favor.” Gordon v. FedEx Freight, Inc., 674 F.3d 769, 772-73 (7th Cir. 2012). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court gives the nonmoving party “the benefit of conflicts in the evidence and reasonable inferences that could be drawn from it.” Grochocinski v. Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, LLP, 719 F.3d 785, 794 (7th Cir. 2013). The Court must not make credibility determinations or weigh conflicting evidence. McCann v. Iroquois Mem'l Hosp., 622 F.3d 745, 752 (7th Cir. 2010).

         Analysis

         When Kindred filed its motion for summary judgment, the Seventh Circuit had not yet decided Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 834 F.3d 760 (7th Cir. 2016). In Ortiz, the Seventh Circuit elaborated upon the approach that district courts should take in evaluating discrimination claims. Eschewing “the rat's nest of surplus ‘tests'” that had developed to evaluate such claims, id. at 765-66, the court refocused the inquiry on “simply whether the evidence would permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the plaintiff's race, ethnicity, sex, religion, or other proscribed factor caused the discharge or other adverse employment action.” Id. at 765. Under this inquiry, “[e]vidence must be considered as a whole, ” regardless of whether it is “direct” or “indirect” in nature (and without reference to those terms). Id. Still, the burden-shifting framework under McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), remains a valid (but nonexclusive) method of proving a Title VII claim.[5] Id. at 766; see David, 846 F.3d at 224. Moreover, while Ortiz specifically addressed Title VII claims, claims under § 1981 are subject to the same requirements as claims under Title VII, and thus are also governed by Ortiz's mode of analysis. Smart v. DHL Express (USA), Inc., No. 15-CV-1598, 2017 WL 449178, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 2, 2017).

         On this basis, in evaluating whether Tucker's claims survive summary judgment, the Court will consider evidence she presents as a whole. In doing so, the Court will consider whether she has made out a prima facie case under the traditional McDonnell Douglas framework. Ultimately, however, the Court will focus on the more general inquiry of whether a reasonable jury could find that Kindred terminated her employment because of her race. See Pearson v. Ill. Bell Tel. Co., No. 15 C 653, 2016 WL 7374235, at *6 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 20, 2016) (adopting a similar approach in the wake of Ortiz).

         I. Discrimination Based on Race

         An initial problem confronting Tucker's § 1981 claim is her own deposition, during which she repeatedly testified that she was discriminated against because of her national origin and disability, rather than race. See Pourghoraishi v. Flying J, Inc., 449 F.3d 751, 756 (7th Cir. 2006) (observing that a § 1981 claim is limited to race-based discrimination).

         In an initial exchange, Tucker explained as follows:

Q: When you went to the EEOC . . . you thought Kindred had discriminated against you?
A (Tucker): Yes.
Q: Because you were black?
A: Yes.
Q: Okay.
A: You know, because of my disability and because of my ...

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