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Holston v. City of Hope

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Texarkana Division

January 6, 2020

KIM HOLSTON PLAINTIFF
v.
THE CITY OF HOPE, ARKANSAS; CATHERINE COOK, in her Individual and Official Capacity as City Manager; and LARRY YORK, in his Individual and Official Capacity as Public Works Director DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Susan O. Hickey Chief United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 27). Plaintiff has responded. (ECF No. 38). Defendants have replied. (ECF No. 41). The Court finds this matter ripe for consideration.

         BACKGROUND

         This case is an employment discrimination and civil rights action brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12112; and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff Kim Holston is an epileptic, African American female who alleges that Defendants discriminated against her during the course of her employment on the basis of her race, sex, and disability.

         Defendant City of Hope, Arkansas (“the City”) maintains wastewater treatment facilities for the purpose of treating and disposing of the City's raw sewage. Plaintiff was hired by the City in January 1987, as a laboratory technician in the City's Wastewater Department. In 1992, the City promoted Plaintiff to Assistant Superintendent of the Wastewater Department, and in 1999, Plaintiff was again promoted to the position of Wastewater Superintendent. As Wastewater Superintendent, Plaintiff oversaw the City's two wastewater treatment plants, wastewater collection lines, and manholes.

         Defendant Cook-a Caucasian female-has been employed by the City since 1990, serving as City Manager since 1996. As City Manager, Defendant Cook oversees all City operations and reports to the City's Board of Directors. Defendant York-a Caucasian male-has served as the City's Public Works Director since 2009. As Public Works Director, Defendant York oversees several of the City's departments, including the Wastewater Department.

         Plaintiff started having seizures in April 2014. On October 4, 2014, Plaintiff suffered a severe grand mal seizure, requiring her to be hospitalized for three days.[1] Due to complications from this seizure, Plaintiff took sick leave from October 28, 2014, through July 3, 2015. While Plaintiff was out on sick leave, Defendant York became more involved in the day-to-day operation of the Wastewater Department.

         Defendants contend that after Defendant York became more hands-on in the Wastewater Department, he discovered that the wastewater facilities were in a state of disrepair, operating poorly, and struggling to comply with environmental laws. Defendants attribute the substandard state of their wastewater facilities to Plaintiff mismanaging her department and not performing her job duties as Wastewater Superintendent. Defendants further state that the deterioration of their wastewater facilities had obviously been going on for years, not just in the time that Plaintiff had been out on sick leave. However, Plaintiff alleges that the City had an antiquated sewer system slated for major overhauls and that Defendants were well aware that the facilities were in disrepair. Plaintiff also alleges that she was adequately performing her job duties, with Defendants urging her to keep the ailing wastewater system running at maximum capacity despite any potential consequences.

         While Plaintiff was on sick leave, Defendant York brought in Michael Arney-a Caucasian male-and Scott Ross-an African American male-to help run the Wastewater Department. Arney was serving as the Superintendent of the Street Wastewater Department and took over the running of the Wastewater Department, essentially combining the two departments. Ross, who had been previously employed by the Wastewater Department under Plaintiff, was brought in as a plant operator.

         On July 13, 2015, Plaintiff was released to return to work with the following restrictions: no driving, climbing, or heavy work, office work only, and no starting and stopping pumps, engines, or generators to control flow of raw sewage. Plaintiff alleges that when she returned to work, she was relegated to sitting in an office and told to do nothing because she had been replaced by Arney and Ross. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Arney had assumed all of her administrative duties and that Ross was performing all of her physical duties. Plaintiff also alleges that she was willing and able to perform her job duties, but that Defendant York was upset that she was allowed to return to work and told her to stay out of Ross's way because he was now in charge of the wastewater facilities.

         In the fall of 2015, Plaintiff thought she would have to have surgery and knew she would be terminated if she was absent from work past February 2016 because she had used all of her available sick leave. Plaintiff expressed her concerns to Defendant Cook and told her that she was thinking about retiring.

         In October 2015, Plaintiff communicated to Defendant Cook that she was going to retire at the end of the calendar year. Defendant Cook allowed Plaintiff to use her remaining sick leave and vacation time to extend her employment through her January anniversary date in order to obtain another year of service in the state retirement system. Plaintiff's retirement date was set for February 1, 2016.

         On December 3, 2015, Plaintiff turned in an unsigned return to work note, from Dr. Victor Biton, stating that she had no work restrictions at that time, and that if any seizures with altered awareness occur, restrictions may apply. Plaintiff then informed Defendant Cook that she was no longer going to retire. Defendant Cook responded to Plaintiff via letter.

         In the letter, Defendant Cook detailed how Plaintiff had recently informed Defendant Cook that she had been diagnosed with epilepsy, was continuing to experience seizures, had a tumor on her brain, was experiencing memory loss, had been referred to a brain surgeon, and had indicated that she would be retiring in February 2016. Defendant Cook further explained that she could not accept Dr. Biton's return to work note because Dr. Biton was not the physician who signed Plaintiff's previous return to work note, and she had no knowledge that Dr. Biton was aware of the essential functions of Plaintiff's job or the location at which she worked. Defendant Cook affirmed Plaintiff's retirement date of February 1, 2016.

         Defendants state that the decision to accept Plaintiff's decision to retire was entirely Defendant Cook's and that Defendant Cook was not influenced by anyone else in that decision. Defendants further state that Defendant Cook encouraged Plaintiff to go ahead and retire because Defendant Cook believed that Plaintiff was unable to perform her required job duties and because it had become apparent that Plaintiff had not been satisfactorily performing her job duties in the past. Conversely, Plaintiff argues that she never had poor job performance reviews, that she was given no opportunity to resume her job duties when she returned, and that Defendant York influenced Defendant Cook's decision to not allow her to return to work.

         Plaintiff retired on February 1, 2016. On February 2, 2016, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), contending that the City discriminated against her on the basis of her sex, race, and disability. On August 31, 2016, the EEOC sent Plaintiff a notice-of-right to sue letter. On January 31, 2017, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit, alleging claims of employment discrimination and civil rights violations. Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment and supporting documents (ECF Nos. 27-29) on October 11, 2019, arguing that they are entitled to summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff opposes the motion.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         “Summary judgment is appropriate 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.” Hess v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 898 F.3d 852, 856 (8th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). Summary judgment is a “threshold inquiry of . . . whether there is a need for trial-whether, in other words, there are genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they reasonably may be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). A fact is material only when its resolution affects the outcome of the case. Id. at 248. A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that it could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party. Id. at 252.

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must consider all the evidence and all reasonable inferences that arise from the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Nitsche v. CEO of Osage Valley Elec. Co-Op, 446 F.3d 841, 845 (8th Cir. 2006). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Enter. Bank v. Magna Bank, 92 F.3d 743, 747 (8th Cir. 1996). The nonmoving party must then demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record that create a genuine issue for trial. Krenik v. Cnty. of LeSueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 1995). However, a party opposing a properly supported summary judgment motion “may not rest upon mere allegations or denials . . . but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256.

         “There is no ‘discrimination case exception' to the application of summary judgment, which is a useful pretrial tool to determine whether any case, including one alleging discrimination, merits a trial.” Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1043 (8th Cir. 2011). Accordingly, the Court applies the same summary judgment standard to discrimination cases as it does to all others.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff claims that Defendants violated Title VII, the ADA, and her civil rights pursuant to section 1983 by not allowing her to return to full duty and forcing her to retire from her employment with the City because of her race, sex, and disability. The Court addresses each of Plaintiff's claims below.

         I. Title VII Claims

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “provides remedies to employees for injuries related to discriminatory conduct and associated wrongs by employers.” Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 342 (2013). Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” because of that person's “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). To survive a motion for summary judgment on a Title VII claim, a plaintiff must either offer direct evidence of discrimination or create an inference of discrimination under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Lors v. Dean, 746 F.3d 857, 865 (8th Cir. 2014); Griffith v. City of Des Moines, 387 F.3d 733, 736 (8th Cir. 2004).

         Plaintiff has provided no direct evidence of discrimination on any of her claims, and thus, she must create an inference of discrimination under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.[2]

         To create an inference of discrimination under McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff must first make a prima facie case of discrimination. Rothmeier v. Inv. Advisers, Inc., 85 F.3d 1328, 1332 (8th Cir. 1996). If the plaintiff makes this showing, the burden shifts to the defendant to present evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the action it took. Id. If the defendant makes this showing, the plaintiff must then show that the defendant's proffered reason is merely a pretext for illegal discrimination. Id.

         A. Race Discrimination

         The Court now addresses Plaintiff's race discrimination claim. As discussed above, Plaintiff's race discrimination claim is subject to McDonnell Douglas analysis.

         1. Pri ...


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