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Black v. Valley Behavioral Health System, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

June 16, 2016




         Before the Court are Defendants' Valley Behavioral Health System, LLC's ("Valley") and Acadia Healthcare Company, Inc.'s ("Acadia") motion for summary judgment (Doc .29), Plaintiff Jennifer K. Black's response, Defendants' reply, and the parties' supporting documents; Black's motion for leave (Doc. 39) to file her separate statement of facts in opposition to Defendants' motion for summary judgment out of time, and Defendants' response; Defendants' motion to bifurcate any punitive damages phase of the jury trial (Doc. 43); and Defendants' motion in limine (Doc. 45). Having thoroughly reviewed the filings and exhibits on record in this case, the Court finds that Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 29) should be GRANTED. Accordingly, all other pending motions (Docs. 39, 43, and 45) are DENIED AS MOOT.[1]

         I. Background

         In June 2013, Black started working as a registered nurse at Valley's acute psychiatric facility in Barling, Arkansas.[2] Throughout her employment with Valley, Black was subject to disciplinary actions on multiple occasions. In July 2013, Black was issued a written warning for potentially neglectful behavior toward a minor patient Black had been tasked with preparing for discharge from the facility. In October 2013, observations and complaints about Black's communications and dealings with her coworkers led her to receive a performance evaluation that noted the need to improve in how she treated and communicated with her coworkers. In January 2014, Black was again issued a written warning for unacceptable behavior, at least some of which she admitted to in her deposition. Black received yet another written warning in April 2014 for yelling at a coworker, and one week later was placed on a 90-day probationary period due to continued complaints about her inappropriate behavior toward coworkers. Similar altercations continued through July 17, 2014, when the Clinical Director counseled Black for her interactions with coworkers. On September 2, 2014, after Black's behavior continued throughout August 2014, the Director of Nursing, Cynthia Ellis, approached Black with the most recent coworkers' complaints in an attempt to have Black improve her behavior.

         Black contends that during her meeting with Ellis, Ellis forced Black to pray with her and several others, and assigned Black to bring Bible verses to work every day thereafter. Apparently, Black brought Bible verses to work on three or four occasions after that meeting. In addition, Black contends that on a separate occasion a coworker attempted to grab Black's hand as Black was walking down a hall, which Black believes was an effort to again force Black into prayer.

         On October 14, 2014, Black made a call to Valley's Compliance Hotline to submit a complaint about Ellis having required Black to bring Bible verses to work approximately five weeks prior. Black contends that Ellis implied Black's job would be terminated if she did not bring in the Bible verses. Black did not inform Ellis or any other supervisor about having made this call, and Black has otherwise provided no evidence that Ellis or any other supervisor was aware of it having been made.

         On October 15, 2014, Ellis met individually with Black, as well as other employees, about attendance issues.[3] Ellis noted that Black had eight absences, but Black countered that she had made arrangements to switch workdays with coworkers and otherwise had been excused. Black contends that Ellis was unware of the arrangements because Ellis had not taken on the role of nursing director until after certain absences had occurred. Ultimately, Ellis informed Black that further absences would result in her termination.

         On October 26, 2014, Black went to an emergency room with gastrointestinal problems and was ultimately hospitalized for five days. Black soon after inquired about receiving FMLA leave for time missed related to her treatment and was advised of the appropriate procedure to follow. On November 5, 2014, Black's supervisors received another complaint about Black's behavior toward a pediatric patient, and an anonymous complaint was made through the Compliance Hotline.

         On November 11, 2014, Black's supervisor conferred with Valley's Chief Executive Officer, and they ultimately decided to terminate Black's employment. Coincidentally, also on November 11, 2014, Black was hand-delivering her FMLA paperwork-which she mistakenly believed was already faxed to Valley from her doctor's office-when she was informed of her termination.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that "[t]he 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." In order to grant summary judgment, the evidence must be such that no reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). Therefore, the moving party must demonstrate the absence of genuine issues of material fact to be resolved. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must resolve all controversies in favor of the non-moving party, take the non-moving party's evidence as true, and draw all justifiable inferences in favor of that party. Matsushita Elect. Indus. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). However, in opposing a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party may not rest on allegations or denials in its pleadings but must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. These specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial are to be established by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute[.]" Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Ultimately, "[w]hile employment discrimination cases are often fact intensive and dependent on nuance in the workplace, they are not immune from summary judgment, and there is no separate summary judgment standard for employment discrimination cases." Fercello v. Cnty. of Ramsey, 612 F.3d 1069, 1077 (8th Cir. 2010) (rejecting prior assertions that summary judgment should rarely be granted in employment discrimination cases). In addition, the Court agrees with the principle propounded by the Seventh Circuit that "a lawsuit is not a game of hunt the peanut. Employment discrimination cases are extremely fact-intensive, and neither appellate nor district courts are obliged in our adversary system to scour the record looking for factual disputes . . . ." Greer v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Chicago, Ill., 267 F.3d 723, 727 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation and internal quotations omitted).

         III. Analysis

         Throughout this case, Black's theories of liability have been unclear. As best the Court can discern, however, Black has asserted claims for: (1) discriminatory retaliation under Title VII for having been terminated after complaining about forced religious-based practices; (2) discriminatory retaliation under the FMLA by being terminated in retaliation for submitting FMLA paperwork; and (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress.[4]

         A. Title VII and FMLA ...

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