Employment Law Daily Black female physician assigned menial tasks advances hostile work environment claim
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Friday, October 18, 2019

Black female physician assigned menial tasks advances hostile work environment claim

By WK Editorial Staff

Being made to do menial jobs like taking out the trash and being referred to by her first name (rather than “doctor”) could be objectively and subjectively hostile.

An African-American medical doctor who worked at a university medical center as a clinical research fellow survived her former employer’s motion for summary judgment on her race-based hostile work environment claim. She was made to do menial tasks like cleaning her supervisor’s desk, taking out the garbage, filing mail, and reorganizing bookcases. She also was referred to multiple times by her first name (rather than as “doctor”) by an administrative assistant. Citing the Second Circuit, a district court in New York explained that a diminution of duties can constitute an adverse employment action “so significant as to constitute a setback to the plaintiff’s career,” and that being “denied recognition for an earned medical degree could be deemed as constantly humiliating.” It was for a fact-finder to decide whether the physician endured a race-based hostile work environment (Watson v. Richmond University Medical Center, October 10, 2019, Hall, L.).

Hostile work environment. The plaintiff presented evidence of numerous slights: petri dishes containing her research were left out of the incubator; she was not invited by her supervisors and peers to join them for lunches; another physician was rude to her; she was accused of locking the lab door and another physician, in her presence, said that “Before certain people showed up here we didn’t have this problem, we didn’t have doors being locked, we didn’t have petri dishes missing and all of these things going on in this lab.” In addition, she was not provided with a machine necessary to complete her research; her research project was changed; and she was not provided with all of the letters of recommendation she requested. But “these incidents are properly viewed as trivial workplace grievances not actionable under law,” the court said.

The court also noted that even if these alleged actions could be deemed sufficiently severe or pervasive, the plaintiff presented no evidence that they were motivated by race. In one instance, before her funding kicked in and she was working without salary or benefits, her supervisor told her, “If you’re so concerned about not having health coverage, why don’t you go across the street to the county hospital and get yourself some Medicare-Medicaid.” The plaintiff conceded that “the mere suggestion to someone to apply for Medicaid is not, in and of itself, a racially tinged statement.” However, she pointed out that the county hospital was “widely known to serve poor people of color who in many cases utilize its facilities with the assistance of Medicaid.” However, she was unable to create a genuine issue of fact as to whether the comment was motivated by race, the court found.

On the other hand, a reasonable jury could find that being assigned menial tasks, being directed to teach African-American high school and master’s level students, and sometimes being called by her first name rather than “doctor,” could be objectively and subjectively hostile, and occurred because of her race, the court stated. The plaintiff asserted that being assigned menial tasks “affected how she was perceived by colleagues and limited her networking opportunities.” As such, she created a triable issue of fact precluding summary judgment on her hostile work environment claim.

Comments not actionable. An African-American administrative assistant told the plaintiff that she was the first African-American physician hired in the pathology department. “None of us have ever worked back there doing what you are going to be doing. Usually we’re here typing or we’re out sweeping as a part of the staff, but we’re not back there doing what you’re doing. So welcome.” This statement prompted the plaintiff to ask one of the physicians if she had ever trained any Ph.D. recipients of color. (The plaintiff is an M.D.)

The physician responded that she had not, explaining: “I can’t find any blacks who are interested because I understand that most blacks really aren’t interested in pursuing Ph.Ds. Blacks are not interested in dedicating a lengthy number of years to advancing medical science. I find that most blacks would just prefer to go to med school for four years, get an M.D., make a lot of money quickly, buy a fancy car for themselves, and then go buy a fancy house for their parents. Blacks just don’t want to work a long number of years to get a Ph.D. to advance medical science, so that’s why I haven’t trained any.”

The physician’s comment, if true, was “abhorrent,” the court said. However, the physician was not her supervisor, and neither of these individuals had a role in the adverse employment decisions challenged here, nor exercised any influence over the decision-makers. And the plaintiff conceded that her own supervisor was not aware of either comment. Therefore, the statements did not lead to an inference of discrimination in support of her disparate treatment claim.

Adverse actions? The plaintiff cited several allegedly adverse employment actions carried out by her supervising physician: She fraudulently induced the plaintiff to work on a second grant while knowing that the plaintiff would be unable to perform the essential functions of that grant without a piece of equipment that was lacking, thus forcing her to choose between “either not doing any productive work at all or alternatively, doing menial tasks she was assigned to perform instead; she also “switched” the plaintiff from one grant to another, and in doing so, readjusted the focus of the plaintiff’s research. She assigned the plaintiff duties that were “materially less prestigious, materially less suited to [her] skills and expertise, or materially less conducive to career advancement.” She terminated the plaintiff prematurely (or alternatively, failed to hire her for the full term of a third grant).

The first two were not actionable: The plaintiff knew that the machine she needed to conduct her research was not functioning when she accepted the job offer, and there was no evidence the switch in the grant and corresponding shift in research focus resulted in reduced pay or benefits; as such, it was merely an “alteration of job responsibilities,” and not actionable. The latter allegations could amount to adverse job actions, the court surmised, but the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence tying them to race, thus giving rise to an inference of discrimination.

No detailed comparator info. In lieu of direct evidence, the plaintiff pointed to comparators whom she said were treated more favorably. But she vaguely referenced other research fellows and could not specifically identify a single purported comparator. Nor did she identify their supervisors, their duties, relative work experience, or other qualifications. Moreover, she offered nothing more than her own personal observations to support her contention that the other research fellows were not assigned menial tasks. “This conjecture is insufficient to create a triable issue of fact, as Plaintiff lacks the requisite personal knowledge necessary to attest to the scope of other fellows’ employment, especially given her previous testimony regarding her limited interaction with other fellows,” the court wrote. Because she could not prove that other research fellows were treated differently—only that they were white—her discrimination case could not move forward on this basis.

Other claims dismissed. The plaintiff’s claims of retaliation, wage violations, breach of contract against the hospital, and her equal protection claim against her former supervisor were also dismissed on summary judgment.

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