PHILADELPHIA – A federal court ruled Tuesday that a Delaware woman suing her former hospital for race discrimination and retaliation has sufficiently alleged facts for her case to proceed.
Lillian Polk, an African-American phlebotomist (a person trained to draw blood from medical patients), filed suit in April against Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville for alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tied to race discrimination and retaliation, in connection with her termination.
Polk began her tenure at Brandywine in June 2012, where she found herself as the only African-American phlebotomist among four on her shift, and among a total of nine at the hospital. Her supervisors and director over the course of her time at Brandywine were Cathy Scott, Robyn Surrette and Deborah Bradley; all Caucasian females.
In May 2013, Polk began to complain to Human Resources regarding racial discrimination and bias in the workplace, as she felt she was being targeted for write-ups and disciplined for conduct in ways which did not extend to her Caucasian counterparts. Polk continued contact with Human Resources through August 2013.
According to her suit, shortly after that, Polk’s supervisors announced any future complaints would first need to be vetted by them for resolution, before going on to Human Resources.
On Aug. 30, 2013, Polk was written up for three offenses. The first was for supposedly not obtaining permission from a nurse before drawing blood from a patient, which was retracted when the nurse in question informed Polk’s supervisors she had given permission for Polk to draw blood. The second was for leaving a dirty needle an empty tube in a patient room, also later proven to be false. Finally, the third offense was not finding out where a patient was located.
The suit says locating patients whose whereabouts were unknown had never been part of the required job duties for phlebotomists at Brandywine, nor were Polk’s Caucasian counterparts ever written up or disciplined for these same trio of offenses.
On Sept. 20, 2013, Polk took medical leave for severe headaches, not returning to work until Sept. 25, 2013. Polk was fired on October 3, 2013, with the reason given being she had failed to find someone to cover her shift for the weekend days she missed. According to Polk, however, this reasoning for her termination was “mere pretext.”
Polk claimed she had never been informed of a policy requiring her to find someone to cover for her, and had informed multiple technicians at Brandywine she would be out from work, as she had been instructed to do so. Polk alleges none of the technicians Polk spoke with told her she would need to find someone to cover for her, and another phlebotomist covered her shifts without incident.
Polk further claimed in the past, one of her Caucasian co-workers failed to appear for work without providing any notice whatsoever and had not been fired. Polk feels her prior complaints over race discrimination are what led to her termination, as retaliation for voicing said complaints.
Polk claimed to suffer “damages, including lost income, harm to reputation, emotional distress, mental anguish, and pain and suffering,” as a result of the situation at Brandywine.
Brandywine moved to dismiss her complaint in its entirety in April, which brought the matter before Judge Gene E.K. Pratter, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Pratter found Polk made valid claims of discrimination and retaliation against Brandywine.
“Ms. Polk has sufficiently alleged a plausible claim of discrimination based on race. She alleges that, as a black woman, she belongs to a protected class and that she is qualified to be a phlebotomist. She also alleges that she was fired from her job after a summer during which she complained, more than once, of racial discrimination, and during which she was repeatedly written up for conduct for which her white co-employees were not written up,” Pratter said.
“Finally, she alleges that she was fired for failing to find a person to cover for her shift at work, even though she had never been informed of such a requirement and even though one of her white co-workers had, in the past, failed to show up for work without warning and had not been fired. These allegations set forth sufficient factual allegations to assert a plausible claim for race discrimination.”
Pratter outlined similar rationale for the retaliation claim.
“Ms. Polk has sufficiently alleged a claim for retaliation. She alleges that she engaged in a protected activity by complaining about racial discrimination in the workplace on more than one occasion. In particular, she first complained of racial discrimination in May 2013. On Aug. 18, 2013, she complained to the human resources department that she was being singly targeted for ‘write-ups’ by her supervisors. No more than a week later, Ms. Polk’s supervisors announced a new policy requiring Ms. Polk to complain to them before complaining to the human resources department,” Pratter said.
In reference to the offenses Polk had been written up for while Caucasian co-workers supposedly had not, Pratter concurred Polk’s allegations “are sufficient to state a plausible claim for retaliation under Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).”
“Ms. Polk alleges that she was subjected to months of discrimination based on her race, eventually resulting in her losing her employment. These allegations make plausible her claims for damages for lost income, emotional distress, harm to reputation, mental anguish, and pain and suffering. As to punitive damages, punitive damages are recoverable under Title VII when an employer acts ‘with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual,” Pratter said.
Pratter explained Polk had met her burden of proof in establishing a claim for punitive damages at this point in time.
“She alleges that she complained in writing to the human resources department of ‘discrimination and disparate treatment’ prior to her firing. She alleges a pattern whereby her complaints of discrimination were met with further discriminatory conduct,” Pratter said. “At this stage, the Court can reasonably infer that if such allegations are true, Brandywine Hospital was aware that further racial discrimination against Ms. Polk would violate her federal rights, and that Brandywine maliciously or recklessly disregarded Ms. Polk’s federal rights in firing her.”
Pratter concluded by denying Brandywine’s motion to dismiss the complaint.
The plaintiff is seeking a jury trial in this case, for an amount a jury will determine based on pain and suffering, emotional distress, mental anguish, harm to reputation, lost income, punitive damages, reasonable attorney’s fees, court costs and any other relief the Court deems just and fair.
The plaintiff is represented by Samuel A. Dion of Dion & Goldberger, in Philadelphia.
The defendants are represented by Stuart Turville O’Neal III, Joseph L. Gordon and Sasha E. Miller of Burns White, in West Conshohocken.
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:15-cv-01763
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org