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Philadelphia-Area Hospital Awarded Summary Judgment in Federal Case Involving Two-Day Temporal Proximity and Nurse's "Cat's Paw" Claim

Post & Schell Employment & Employee Relations Principal Andrea M. Kirshenbaum and Associate Darren M. Creasy recently secured summary judgment on behalf of client Mercy Catholic Medical Center (MCMC) on all claims in a case involving a former nurse’s allegations of racial discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation. A full copy of the judgment is available by clicking here.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Baylson, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, rejected the Plaintiff-Nurse’s three claims of race discrimination, a racially hostile work environment and retaliation after the Plaintiff was terminated two days after complaining that her charge nurse had called her a racially charged epithet. Following the close of oral and written discovery, MCMC moved for summary judgment on all three claims, on which the Court held oral argument.

As to the Plaintiff’s claim of retaliation, while the Court found that a two-day time lapse between the Plaintiff’s protected conduct and termination satisfied Plaintiff’s prima facie burden, the Court held that the temporal proximity was insufficient to show pretext. Finding that, “Mercy’s evidence demonstrates there was no causal relationship,” between Plaintiff’s protected conduct and her termination two days later, the Court held that the, "Plaintiff has not provided a reasonable factfinder a basis on which to conclude retaliatory animus played any part in Mercy’s termination decision.”

Finding that Plaintiff had failed to state a prima facie case of race discrimination and a racially hostile work environment, the Court granted summary judgment to MCMC as to both of those claims. In trying to stave off summary judgment on the race discrimination claim, Plaintiff urged application of the “cat’s paw” theory of liability, which the U.S. Supreme Court found cognizable in 2011. The cat’s paw theory provides for employer liability where discriminatory animus of a supervisory-level non-decision maker proximately causes an adverse employment action.  Notably, the District Court rejected the Plaintiff’s “cat’s paw” argument, agreeing with MCMC’s position that the Plaintiff’s charge nurse did not qualify as a supervisor under the cat’s paw case law, and that the charge nurse’s actions in reporting the Plaintiff’s misconduct were not the proximate cause of her termination.

The Court also rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that a single alleged use of a racially charged epithet could create an issue of fact for trial as to whether the Plaintiff was subjected to a racially hostile work environment, holding that “[a]s a matter of law, one incident of a racial slur being used in the workplace by a co-worker is insufficient to demonstrate pervasive and regular discrimination, as is required to make out a prima facie case of a hostile environment.”

If you would like to discuss the Court’s decision or the underlying claims, please contact Employment & Employee Relations Principal Andrea M. Kirshenbaum at, or (215) 587-1126.