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Naughty Nurse Loses Employment Discrimination Case

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 20, 2013 12:57 PM

In the realm of employment discrimination, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case of Jenny Evance, a nurse at Trumann Health and Rehabilitation Center , a nursing home in Trumann, Arkansas, run by Trumann Health Services, LLC.

Evance sued her former employer and others after she was terminated, alleging federal claims of discrimination based on her gender, religion, and disability.

The case highlights the rule for summary judgment motions in employment discrimination cases.

The classic naughty nurse tale, Evance was terminated based on reports of improper sexual contact between Evance and an elderly resident. Evance sued Trumann Health and a number of her former colleagues for discrimination, in violation of due process, Title VII, the ADA, and the ACRA.

Evance claimed colleagues wanted her fired because of her gender, religion (Pentecostal), and disability (cleft palate).

Summary Judgment of Discrimination Claims

Disparate treatment employment discrimination claims under Title VII, the ADA, and the ACRA are analyzed in the same manner. To survive an employer's motion for summary judgment, an employee must: (i) Produce direct evidence of discrimination, or (ii) show a genuine dispute for trial under the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green.

The district court granted summary judgment to Trumann Health under both the direct evidence and the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis.

Direct Evidence of Discrimination

To show direct evidence of discrimination, you need to show "'a specific link between the alleged discriminatory animus and the challenged decision.'" Here, Evance argued that the termination itself was direct evidence of discrimination because the resident intiated the contact and "[n]o other nurse had ever been criticized for a resident's behavior."

But that argument failed. As a general rule of thumb, speculation and conjecture aren't enough to defeat summary judgment in a discrimination case. Uncorroborated speculation doesn't prove a discriminatory attitude.

In this case, there wasn't anything in the record that directly showed discriminatory behavior. It was only Evance's own speculation that her religion and disability made her unpopular.

McDonnell Douglas Burden-Shifting Framework

To establish discrimination under McDonell Douglas:

  1. The plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination.
  2. Once the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, then the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing the employee.
  3. If the defendant meets that burden, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff, who then must show that the defendant's supposed reason for firing him or her is actually a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

After assuming the existence of a prima facie case, the court concluded that Trumann Health had a perfectly legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing her -- administrators received reports Evance engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with a resident.

It's an awkward reason, but a legitimate one.

To establish that this reason was a pretext for unlawful discrimination, Evance needed to pass the "rigorous" test to show that she and more favorably treated employees were "'similarly situated in all relevant respects.'"

At the end of the day, Evance couldn't provide any evidence that any other employees who were not Pentecostal, female, or disabled were accused of the exact or similar behavior as she was -- because she never reported anything.

The lesson? If you see inappropriate stuff going on, get your observations on the record. It might help your discrimination case someday.

On a side note, the court also sided with Trumann Health for not having a thorough investigation and not having credible employees. The court pointed out, "it is not unlawful for a company to make employment decisions based upon erroneous information and evaluations."

Accordingly, the court affirmed the lower court's judgment. Even though it would be okay, let's hope the naughty nurse wasn't fired for being too attractive.

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