Third Circuit: Former Thomas Jefferson University nurse's termination not discriminatory

By Nicholas Malfitano | Aug 22, 2018

PHILADELPHIA – A federal appellate court has upheld the dismissal of the litigation filed by a former nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, deciding she had not offered sufficient evidence to show her termination was based on racial discrimination.

On Aug. 20, Third Circuit judges Michael A. Chagares, Thomas I. Vanaskie and D. Michael Fisher affirmed the ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, when it ruled plaintiff Mattie M. Cooper had not proven a case for discrimination against Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

In Pennsylvania, individuals employed as registered nurses must be licensed, must renew their licenses every two years, and must meet all state requirements before they can claim a renewed license. Starting in January 2015, the Commonwealth began requiring registered nurses to take a three-hour course in child abuse recognition and reporting, in addition to paying a license fee and 30 continuing education units.

According to federal law, hospitals accepting federal Medicare and Medicaid funds are mandated to ensure that their employees comply with state licensing requirements. Likewise, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital offered on-site continuing education and issued its own reminders of license renewal deadlines.

The hospital’s Policy 200.04 made the “employee…responsible for completing the necessary procedures for renewal of his/her license.” The policy created processes for verifying license renewal, and suspending employees who did not renew in advance of the deadline. It provided a 10 business-day grace period after expiration, but ultimately called for the termination of any employee who failed to renew a required license.

“Cooper became a registered nurse in 1981 and began working as a staff nurse at Jefferson Hospital in 2007. She was due to renew her license on Oct. 31, 2015, as had been required every two years throughout her career. Although she had paid the fee and obtained the required continuing education units, her license expired on Oct. 31 because she had not completed the newly-mandatory child abuse class,” Fisher said.

“Cooper continued to work and completed the class online on Nov. 16 and her renewed license was issued the next day. Also on Nov. 16, human resources manager Kathleen Shannon recommended that Cooper’s employment be terminated for failing to meet job requirements by not renewing her nursing license and working without a valid license. On Nov. 18, Shannon met with Cooper and terminated her.”

Cooper argued that her supervisor, Barbara Alpini, engaged in discriminatory behavior at various times during her employment. However, Alpini went on medical leave on Nov. 16, 2015 and did not return for more than a month. Alpini, therefore, did not make the termination decision – a fact that Cooper does not dispute.

Cooper filed a grievance and the hospital upheld the termination. After then filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Cooper initiated suit against the hospital in the District Court for discrimination, under 42 U.S.C. Section 1981.

Cooper claimed she was terminated due to race discrimination – specifically, Alpini’s personal bias, and resentment over Cooper’s complaints that Alpini made professional decisions based on race.

“Cooper also contended that the hospital’s failure to suspend her in accordance with Policy 200.04 evidenced a discriminatory plan to terminate her employment. Being suspended, she says, would have made it clear to her that her license had not yet renewed. Having not been suspended, Cooper worked throughout the first two weeks of November with an expired license. Yet Cooper admitted that license renewal was her duty,” Fisher explained.

After discovery, the District Court granted the hospital’s motion for summary judgment because Cooper did not establish a prima facie case of discrimination, and Cooper appealed.

On appeal and by the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, Cooper was bound to show that 1) She is a member of a protected class; (2) She was qualified for the position; (3) She suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) The circumstances could give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.

Cooper qualified for the first and third criteria, that she was an African-American who had suffered an adverse employment action of termination. However, due to the fact that she worked without a license for several days, the Third Circuit did not feel she met that evidentiary mandate.

While Cooper also argued the facts give rise to an inference of discrimination, because her supervisor gave her the benefit of the doubt and believed her when she said she had renewed her license – the Third Circuit disagreed with that point as well, and did not believe there was an inference of discrimination.

“Cooper also argued that there could be an inference of discrimination because Alpini made supervisory decisions based on race—something Cooper had complained about in the past. Cooper admits, however, that Alpini did not terminate her; Alpini was on leave, and HR manager Kathleen Shannon made the decision. Therefore, Cooper failed to make out a prima facie case, and the District Court correctly granted summary judgment,” Fisher said.

Fisher stated Cooper failed to illustrate a prima facie case for her termination being discriminatory – but another reason to affirm the trial court’s ruling was that “the record shows that the hospital’s proffered reason for terminating Cooper was legitimate, non-discriminatory and not pre-textual.”

“Policy 200.04, the hospital’s cited reason for terminating Cooper, provided for the termination of any employee who failed to renew a required license within ten business days of its expiration. Cooper contends this was not a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason because neither state law nor the hospital’s accrediting body required termination. Cooper cites no authority to support this novel position, which is entirely unpersuasive…Cooper has not pointed to evidence that would allow a factfinder to reasonably conclude that the hospital’s articulated reason for termination was a pretext for discrimination,” Fisher concluded.

“Cooper argues that Alpini’s asserted bias shows that the reason for termination was pre-textual. As explained, however, Alpini did not terminate Cooper. Therefore, Alpini’s behavior does not establish that Policy 200.04 was merely a pretext for termination. We will affirm the District Court’s judgment.”

The plaintiff is represented by Robert T. Vance Jr. in Philadelphia.

The defendant is represented by Robert M. Goldich, Adam R. Roseman and Sarah Rachel Goodman of Greenberg Traurig, also in Philadelphia.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 17-2982

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:16-cv-05587

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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