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Coleman v. Home Health Resources Inc.

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 28, 2017

Norma Coleman, et al, Plaintiffs,
v.
Home Health Resources Incorporated, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          Neil V. Wake Senior United States District Judge

         Before the Court are the Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Home Health Resources, Inc. and The Crossing: Hospice Care, Inc., (Doc. 82) the Response, and the Reply.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The following facts are construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, who is the non-moving party.

         Defendants are companies who provide hospice care and home nursing services to patients in Arizona. (Doc. 82 at 2.) Plaintiff Norma Coleman is a seventy-six-year-old African-American woman who worked for Defendants (she was jointly employed by both) from February 7, 2007, until July 11, 2011. (Doc. 92, ¶ 296.) She began as an administrative assistant to Defendants' chief financial officer. (Doc. 92, ¶ 306.) In her first performance evaluation, issued three months into the job, Coleman's supervisor rated her as meeting or exceeding expectations in every category assessed. (Doc. 92-1 at 3.)

         In August of 2007, within about six months of starting, she was promoted to the position of Human Resource/Payroll Manager, in which she took on new duties managing Defendants' human resources department while still retaining the bookkeeping responsibilities that were originally the sole province of her job. (Doc. 92, ¶¶ 310-311; Doc. 79, ¶ 58.) Her first three performance evaluations in this new position again reflected that she met or exceeded the expectations of her supervisor in every category of review. (Doc. 79-2 at 29, 31, 13.)

         Over time, however, Coleman came to believe she was making less than her younger, non-African-American colleagues. (Doc. 92, ¶ 320.) In the early fall of 2010, she decided to ask for higher pay, but Coleman's supervisor, Lori Thomas, denied her request on the purported grounds that the company had implemented a “freeze” on all pay raises. (Doc. 92, ¶ 321.) The parties disagree as to whether there was in fact a freeze in place at the time. (Doc. 92, ¶ 323; Doc. 79, ¶ 73.) Coleman, however, heard about other employees receiving raises and went to her supervisor a second time to seek a pay increase. (Doc. 92, ¶ 324.) She was again rebuffed. Coleman's salary was never increased, but Defendants did pay her a discretionary bonus at the end of 2010. (Doc. 79, ¶ 99; Doc. 92, ¶ 330.)

         On October 15, 2010, shortly after Coleman requested a formal raise, Thomas issued her a “written warning for her work performance” identifying four areas “requiring immediate improvement.” (Doc. 92, ¶ 327; Doc. 79-2 at 15.) First was “Employee Files”: The warning specified that after auditing the company's personnel files, several required items were found to be incomplete or missing. (Doc. 79-2 at 15.) Second was “Time Management”: The warning noted that while there was a “back log [sic] of HR” work, “[a]ssistance has been offered . . . but has not been utilized.” (Id.) Third was “Attitude”: The warning stated that Coleman “becomes very unapproachable” when situations upset her, and that it is “inappropriate to vent to clerical staff.” (Id.) Fourth, framed more as an instruction, was “Become more empowered in her role”: The warning reminded Coleman of her specific responsibilities to ensure HR compliance. (Id.) At the end of the document was a general admonition: “Failure to adhere to the conditions of this written warning, development of new or related problems, and/or continued unsatisfactory performance will lead to more serious corrective action up to and including discharge.” (Id.) Coleman maintains that Defendants had a stated policy of giving employees an oral warning before a written one, but that Defendants did not give her an oral warning before issuing her the written document on October 15, 2010. (Doc. 79-1 at 581-85.)

         On November 1, 2010, Coleman filed a Charge of Discrimination against Defendants with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “2010 EEOC Charge”). (Doc. 92, ¶ 331.) The charge alleged race, gender, and age discrimination, as well as a claim of retaliation. (Doc. 79, ¶ 135; Doc. 92, ¶ 135.) It covered “all allegations of discrimination against Defendants prior to October 15, 2010.” (Doc. 79, ¶ 136; Doc. 92, ¶ 136.) The charge was ultimately dismissed by the EEOC on October 19, 2011. (Doc. 79, ¶ 149; Doc. 92, ¶ 149.)

         On November 10, 2010, Defendants issued Coleman a verbal warning related to her earlier performance evaluation; Defendants did not know about the 2010 EEOC Charge until after they issued the warning.[1] (Doc. 82 at 5; Doc. 79-5, ¶ 19; Doc. 79-1, ¶ 45.) Nevertheless, following the charge Defendants engaged in a variety of conduct Coleman interprets as retaliatory:

- Shortly after Coleman filed the charge, Theresa Lungwitz, Defendants' founder and CEO, met with Coleman, expressed “bewilderment” about the charge, and suggested Coleman withdraw the charge, doing so in a way that made Coleman feel “intimidated” and “scared.” (Doc. 79, ¶¶ 144-45; Doc. 92, ¶¶ 333-35.)
- On December 13, 2010, just one month after Coleman filed the claim, Lori Thomas admonished Coleman for failing to update employee files in a timely fashion when the delay may actually have been the fault of someone else. (Doc. 92, ¶ 337-38.; Doc. 79, ¶ 80.)
- On May 24, 2011, Defendants issued Coleman a written warning for missing a work-related telephone hearing when in fact, according to Coleman, she merely arrived seven minutes late. (Doc. 79-1 at 448.) She listened in on the proceeding by phone since she was neither a witness nor a company representative for the hearing. (Doc. 92, ¶ 338-39.)
- Defendants assigned Coleman to work the office's reception desk on top of her other job duties, which interfered with her ability to complete her work as Human Resource Manager. (Doc. 92, ¶ 341.) Coleman maintains she was “the only management employee” routinely required to work the reception desk. (Doc. 92, ¶ 342.)
- After Coleman filed her first charge, Defendants began to exclude her from meetings relevant to her work in human resources. (Doc. 92, ¶ 343.)
- They also began excluding her from employee exit interviews despite having previously required that she attend them. (Doc. 92, ¶ 344.)
- Defendants' management staff “stopped greeting Ms. Coleman and virtually refused to speak to her.” (Doc. 92, ¶ 345.) In one instance, Coleman greeted Theresa Lungwitz, and Lungwitz replied, “[W]hy are you still here.” (Doc. 92, ¶ 346.)
- Defendants excluded Coleman from a co-worker's birthday party despite inviting “everyone else in the office.” (Doc. 92, ¶ 347.)
- Lori Thomas began telling employees to no longer direct employee-related documents to Coleman. (Doc. 92, ¶ 348.)
- On her May 31, 2011 performance evaluation, Coleman's supervisors gave her a “needs improvement” rating for nine different areas of her job. (Doc. 92, ¶ 349.) She also received a rating of “exceeds the standard” in one area and “meets the standard” in three other areas. (Doc. 79, ¶ 192; Doc. 92, ¶ 192.)
- Despite asking Thomas to discuss the evaluation with her, Thomas did not meet with her to go over it. ...

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