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Coleman v. Home Health Resources Inc.

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 11, 2018

Norma Coleman and Booker Coleman, Plaintiffs,
v.
Home Health Resources, Inc., and The Crossing Hospice Care, Inc., Defendants.

          ORDER

          Neil V. Wake Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Norma and Booker Coleman sued Norma Coleman's former joint employers, Defendants Home Health Resources, Inc. and The Crossing: Hospice Care, Inc., alleging retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. On August 28, 2017, this Court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants. See generally Coleman v. Home Health Res. Inc., 269 F.Supp.3d 935 (D. Ariz. 2017). Now before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Award of Attorneys' Fees (Doc. 118), the Response, and the Reply.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The summary judgment order (Doc.116) states the underlying facts of the case. The Court assumes familiarity with that order but reiterates the following for ease of reference.

         A. Pre-Litigation

         Plaintiff Norma Coleman (“Coleman”) is an African-American woman. She was jointly employed by Defendants Home Health Resources, Inc. and The Crossing: Hospice Care, Inc. (“Defendants”) from February 7, 2007, until July 11, 2011.

         Coleman was first hired as their chief financial officer, which primarily involved bookkeeping. Three months later, she received a positive performance evaluation. Roughly six months after starting, she was promoted to Human Resource/Payroll Manager. Coleman's new position carried her original bookkeeping duties but also included managerial duties in the human resources department. Her next three performance reviews were uniformly positive.

         Coleman began to suspect she was being paid less than Defendants' younger, non-African-American employees. She approached her supervisor in early fall of 2010 and asked for a pay raise-a request that was denied because of a supposed pay freeze. But Coleman had heard of other employees receiving raises, so she asked again and was again rejected. She received a discretionary bonus at the end of 2010.

         Shortly after first requesting a raise, on October 15, 2010, Coleman's supervisor issued her a “written warning for work performance, ” which identified four areas “requiring immediate improvement.” Coleman failed to include complete information in personnel files, ran a backlog of work, exhibited an inappropriate attitude, and demonstrated unfamiliarity with the requirements of her job. Coleman says Defendants had a policy of providing verbal warnings before written ones, a policy not adhered to in this instance.

         Coleman filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC on November 1, 2010 (the “2010 EEOC Charge”). She alleged race, gender, and age discrimination, as well as retaliation. The EEOC dismissed the Charge on October 19, 2011.

         On November 10, 2010, without knowledge of the 2010 EEOC Charge, Defendants gave Coleman a verbal warning. But Coleman pointed to other conduct that she interpreted as retaliatory for having made the Charge:

o Defendants' CEO expressed “bewilderment” about the Charge and suggested, in a way that “intimidated” and “scared” Coleman, that Coleman withdraw it.
o On December 13, 2010, Coleman's supervisor admonished her for failing to update files in a timely fashion, which may have been someone else's fault.
o On May 24, 2011, Defendants gave Coleman a written warning for missing a work-related telephone hearing. Coleman was actually seven minutes late, not missing entirely.
o Defendants assigned Coleman to work the office reception desk on top of her other duties. She claims to have been the only managerial employee required to work at the desk.
o Defendants excluded Coleman from meetings relevant to her human resources work. They also excluded her from employee exit interviews, despite having previously required that she attend them.
o Management staff stopped greeting Coleman and “virtually refused to speak to her.” Once, Coleman greeted the CEO, and she responded, “[W]hy are you still here.”
o Defendants invited everyone except Coleman to a co-worker's office birthday party.
o Coleman's supervisor told employees to stop directing employee-related documents to Coleman.
o Coleman's May 31, 2011 performance evaluation showed a “needs improvement” rating in nine areas. She exceeded the standard in one area, and met the standard in three others. Her supervisor refused to go over the evaluation with Coleman when Coleman asked her to do so. Coleman asked the CEO to review the evaluation with her. The CEO said she would do so upon returning from a vacation. But Coleman was terminated on July 11, 2011, before any meeting ever took place.

         Coleman filed a second Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC on September 26, 2011 (the “2011 EEOC Charge”). The 2011 EEOC Charge alleged Defendants retaliated against Coleman for the 2010 EEOC Charge. On October 19, 2011, the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe Defendants retaliated against Coleman by terminating her for engaging in a protected activity. It “made no finding regarding any other allegations raised in this charge.” (Doc. 131-1, Ex. A.)

         B. Litigation

         Nearly four years later, on July 15, 2015, Coleman filed this action. Coleman's original Complaint categorized itself as redressing “racial discrimination and retaliation in the workplace.” (Doc. 1 at ¶ 1.) It contained 22 paragraphs of various facts and events without differentiating what was discrimination and what was retaliation. The discrimination allegations originally included in the 2010 EEOC charges were time barred. On December 16, 2015, in response to a motion, Coleman amended her Complaint to list her husband as a co-plaintiff. (Doc. 33.) On January 19, 2016, Coleman again amended her Complaint with the same 22 paragraphs of substantive allegations as the original and first amended complaints. The only substantive difference between the 22 paragraphs of the Second Amended Complaint and the original Complaint was in the first line of the first paragraph. Instead of characterizing the complaint as alleging “racial discrimination and retaliation in the workplace, ” it now characterized it as redressing only “retaliation in the workplace.” (Doc. 38.)[1] Thus, only the retaliation claims, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), remained.

         This Court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants on August 28, 2017. (Doc. 116). It explained that Coleman's only protected activity was filing the 2010 EEOC Charge. 269 F.Supp.3d at 941. It was not a protected activity to ask for higher pay or to challenge the truth of the pay freeze, which Coleman styled an “informal complaint, ” because she “pointed to nothing in the record here indicating she even hinted at discrimination on the basis of any status protected under Title VII or the ADEA.” Id. at 941-42. Next, the Court analyzed which of Defendant's actions could be construed as adverse employment actions-non-trivial actions that would deter reasonable employees from making Title VII complaints. It concluded that only the termination and negative performance reviews and admonishments (the December 13, 2010 admonishment, the May 24, 2011 written warning, and the May 31, 2011 performance evaluation) qualified. Id. at 943. All other claims failed either because they reflected mere ostracism, lacked evidentiary support, or were otherwise too trivial to deter a reasonable employee as a matter of law. Id. at 943-45.

         Next, the Court found that there was no prima facie causal link between Coleman's discharge and her 2010 EEOC Complaint because there was an eight-month gap between the Complaint and her termination. Id. at 945. With only the performance reviews and admonishments remaining, the Court determined that Defendants indisputably had a legitimate, non-retaliatory rationale: Coleman “was not able to meet the demands of the job.” Id. at 946. In addition to various specific instances, pre- and postdating her 2010 EEOC Complaint, Defendants had an independent, outside consultant “who identified at least twelve significant deficiencies in Coleman's job performance that could expose Defendants to liability and advised them to hire a ‘human resources professional' to take over.” Id. Consequently, as recommended by the independent consultant, Defendants eliminated Coleman's position entirely “and brought in a number of outside groups to run the department before settling on someone satisfactory.” Id. Finally, the Court found no genuine dispute that the proffered rational was non-pretextual: Coleman received good performance reviews until Defendants discovered the undisputed deficiencies in her work. Id. at 947. “Overpromotion, if that's what it was, does not vest an employee with a Title VII or ADEA right to tenure after the employer discovers its mistake and takes action to get the job done.” Id.

         C. ...


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