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Hamilton v. Howard University

November 13, 2008


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA8378-02) (Hon. John M. Campbell, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Associate Judge

Argued November 28, 2007

Before RUIZ and FISHER, Associate Judges, and SCHWELB, Senior Judge.

Tomika Hamilton and Jonathan Hamilton allege that Howard University Hospital and Mark Furline took adverse employment actions against their late mother, De'Borah Hamilton, for discriminatory reasons or in retaliation for opposing unlawful discrimination.*fn1 They also claim that the defendants violated their mother's rights under the District of Columbia Family and Medical Leave Act. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants. We affirm.

I. Background

Our recent decision in Furline v. Morrison, 953 A.2d 344 (D.C. 2008), issued after this case was briefed and argued, discusses many facts relevant to this appeal. Furline concerned another plaintiff (Cynthia Morrison) who worked in the same emergency room at Howard University Hospital, under the same supervisor (Furline), during the same period. All parties acknowledge that Furline dealt with "nearly identical facts," and the same law firm represented both Morrison and Hamilton. Morrison brought an action against Howard University and Furline alleging age discrimination, retaliation, and creation of a hostile work environment. Prior to trial, the court granted partial summary judgment to the defendants on the hostile work environment and age discrimination claims. Id. at 345-46. Morrison persuaded a jury that the defendants retaliated against her for lodging an age discrimination complaint. Id. at 346. Each party appealed its respective loss (except for the hostile work environment claim, which was not appealed). Id. We reversed the judgment entered on the jury's verdict and affirmed the trial court's grant of partial summary judgment because "no jury reasonably could attribute the upper-level decision to suspend Morrison to Furline's bias or find that the stated reason, Morrison's absence from work, was a pretext for discrimination or retaliation." Id. at 357-58. Because the factual underpinnings of these cases are nearly identical, we rely heavily on the narrative and analysis in Furline.

Hamilton worked at Howard University Hospital for approximately twenty-five years, from August 1977 until her termination on January 18, 2002. Before she was terminated, Hamilton worked as a registrar in the admitting department of the Emergency Care Area ("ECA"). In March 2001, Hamilton complained about a discriminatory message left on a computer terminal. In Furline,we described the facts that gave rise to this complaint:

[T]he hospital hired Mark Furline as an ECA supervisor and some thirteen new registrars in late 2000. Most of the new hires were in their twenties. Morrison and others perceived that Furline, who was one of three ECA supervisors, exhibited favoritism toward the younger registrars and hostility toward the older workers. Further roiling the workplace, rumors spread that the younger workers were being paid more than the older veterans, though in fact that was not so.

On March 16, 2001, a screen saver message was left on a computer in the registrars' work area asking why the younger registrars were (supposedly) better compensated than their older, more experienced colleagues. This message came to Furline's attention and he chose to respond with a screen saver message of his own, which he placed on a computer in a registration booth frequently used by Morrison. Furline wrote that the younger employees were being paid more because "they are younger, dependable, and more productive, that's why!" Witnesses testified that Furline told them he "would like to see the expression on Ms. Morrison's face when she sees this."

Id. at 346.

Not surprisingly, Morrison was offended. Hamilton also found Furline's sarcasm upsetting and complained about the "disrespectful & discriminatory" message to Benjamin Zachariah, the hospital's Director of Business Operations.*fn2 In response to complaints about the screen saver message, Zachariah verbally reprimanded Furline.Furline apologized to the entire ECA staff, personally and in writing.There was no direct evidence that Furline knew Hamilton had complained; however, we shall assume for the sake of argument that Furline was aware or at least suspected that Hamilton had lodged an age discrimination complaint against him.

Given the nature of the services it provides, the ECA has a critical need for timely and consistent attendance by its staff. Howard University makes newly hired ECA registrars aware of the "vital expectation" of "punctuality and reliable attendance," and anyone unable to meet these expectations is "encouraged to take another position at the hospital." Nevertheless, the admitting department had serious problems with tardiness and absenteeism--"know[ing] who was going to be at work, who was showing up, who ran late, who was calling in.""'Call-ins' by ECA registrars could cause a'chain reaction' of disruption to ECA and hospital operations," and could leave the hospital responsible for large amounts of overtime pay.

When time and attendance problems became even more critical after an increase in patient volume, Howard University hired two new supervisors, including Mark Furline, in part to "take on the tasks of enforcing time and attendance policies among ECA registrars...." With the agreement of hospital management, the supervisors conducted a time and attendance study. They notified the staff that they would be monitoring and recording time and attendance from November 1, 2000, until January 31, 2001, and that individual staff members could be subject to disciplinary measures based on the results of the study.

"The study confirmed that problems of absenteeism, lateness, and apparent abuse of leave were widespread[.]" Furline, 953 A.2d at 347. In February 2001, hospital management counseled sixteen of the nineteen registrars about the need to improve their attendance. Id. Hamilton was one of the sixteen employees who received counseling; three of the disciplined registrars were less than thirty years old.Howard University also issued commendations for "extraordinary adherence to time and attendance standards"; three employees (ages 41, 59, and 62) received these letters.

In addition to her job at Howard University, Hamilton also worked as an Emergency Medical Technician ("EMT") for the District of Columbia Fire Department beginning sometime in 2000. This was a full-time job, and Hamilton would return home from her shift around four or five p.m. She would sleep for a few hours before going to work at Howard University at eleven or eleven-thirty p.m. Hamilton accepted Howard University's offer to adjust her schedule so that she would start one half-hour later because she ...

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