Granting summary judgment in favor of an employer in a race discrimination case under the Tennessee Human Rights Act and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, a federal district court in Tennessee has ruled that an African-American employee, who had Multiple Sclerosis (“MS”) and was unable to perform her job safely, failed to establish a prima facie case because she could not demonstrate she was similarly situated to a Caucasian employee who also had MS. Grimes v. Middle Tennessee Hospitalists, PLC, No. 3:12-cv-1231, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173391 (M.D. Tenn. Dec. 11, 2013). The Court found the other employee had more experience, a higher salary, and her MS did not affect her ability to perform her job. The Court also found the plaintiff did not prove the employer’s reasons for her termination were pretextual.
From April 2011 to May 14, 2012, Joy Renee Grimes, an African-American who suffered from MS, worked for Middle Tennessee Hospitalists, PLC (“MTH”) as one of two nurse practitioners. The other nurse practitioner was Melissa Loyd, a Caucasian who suffered from MS, although MTH was unaware of her condition.
In March 2012, Grimes suffered a stroke that impaired her cognitive functions. She returned to work in early April 2012. On April 21, 2012, Grimes left work and was hospitalized for her condition. Grimes was absent for 23 days; during her absence, Grimes did not submit an expected return-to-work date or a release from a physician indicating she could return to work. On May 14, 2013, MTH terminated Grimes’s employment because her medical condition rendered her unable to do her job and care safely for MTH’s patients.
Grimes subsequently sued MTH for race discrimination in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”) and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“Section 1981”), and MTH moved for summary judgment.
Section 1981 and THRA claims are analyzed identically to claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under that framework, to produce a prima facie case of racial discrimination, an employee must show:
(1) she is a member of a protected class;
(2) she was qualified for her position;
(3) she was subject to an adverse employment action; and
(4) she was treated differently than similarly situated employees outside the protected class for the same or similar conduct.
To be “similarly situated,” the individuals with whom the employee compares her treatment must have dealt with the same supervisor, have been subject to the same standards and have engaged in the same conduct without such differentiating or mitigating circumstances that would distinguish their conduct or their employer’s treatment of them for it.
If the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision. The employee next must prove the stated reason is pretextual by showing the proffered reason is untrue, did not actually motivate the employer’s conduct, or was insufficient to warrant the challenged conduct.
Not Similarly Situated
MTH argued that Grimes failed to establish a prima facie claim because she and Loyd were not similarly situated. The Court agreed. It noted that, although Grimes and Loyd performed similar work, Loyd had more experience than Grimes and earned a higher salary. In addition, MTH was unaware Loyd suffered from MS, and Loyd’s condition did not affect her performance. On the other hand, Grimes’s medical condition affected her job performance and caused her extensive absences. Grimes also failed to provide MTH with a physician’s release to allow her to return to work. Accordingly, the Court ruled Grimes had failed to establish a prima facie race discrimination claim.
The Court further found that, even if Grimes had established a prima facie case, she failed to prove MTH’s reasons for her termination were pretextual. MTH terminated Grimes because she was unable to perform her job due to her medical condition. Grimes’s condition caused her to suffer mental or physical episodes that impaired her cognitive skills and, consequently, rendered her incapable of properly caring for MTH’s patients. Grimes also was absent from work for an extended period and failed to provide a release to allow her to return to work. Accordingly, the Court concluded Grimes had failed to show the reasons for her termination were pretextual.
This court provides useful guidance on the standards for comparators and confirms that comparators must be similarly situated in “all respects.” Here, the employee and the comparator had the same medical condition, but their similarities ended there. If faced with a discrimination claim, employers should examine carefully the employees to which the plaintiff compares himself or herself and should work closely with experienced employment counsel to assess whether they are valid comparators.
If you have any questions about this or other workplace developments, please contact the Jackson Lewis attorney with whom you regularly work.