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Bellisle v. Landmark Medical Center

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

September 15, 2016



          John J. McConnell, Jr. United States District Judge

         Landmark Medical Center terminated Kayleigh Bellisle from her employment as a registered nurse after it investigated several reports of inappropriate behavior by her including: dyeing her hair during a work shift, swearing at and harassing fellow employees and patients, using a cell phone at the nurses' station in contravention of hospital policy, and possessing an illegal weapon[1]- a stun-gun - at work. Her union, United Nurses & Allied Professionals, Inc. ("Union") provided representation during the disciplinary and termination process in accordance with its role set forth in the collective bargaining agreement ("CBA"), and the parties eventually settled Ms. Bellisle's grievances by agreement.

         Ms. Bellisle sued Landmark, Landmark's owner Prime Healthcare Services-Landmark, LLC, and two Landmark employees, Charlene Elie and Glenn Miller, charging them with various discrimination and retaliation claims as well as state law tort claims. She alleges that Defendants subjected her to a hostile work environment and ultimately terminated her because of her sexual orientation and that she was retaliated against after taking an approved medical leave of absence. Ms. Bellisle has also sued Union for failing properly to represent her in breach of the terms of CBA during the several grievance procedures following her disciplinary actions. All Defendants have moved for summary judgment. Because the Court finds that it is undisputed that Landmark terminated Ms. Bellisle because of inappropriate conduct, not her sexual orientation, and that Landmark did not retaliated against her or subject her to a hostile work environment, the Landmark Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 33) is GRANTED. The Court GRANTS the Union's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 36) as well.


         On March 5, 2012, Landmark hired Ms. Bellisle to work as a registered nurse in its Progressive Care Unit. Several months into her employment, Ms. Bellisle discovered that she was pregnant and took a four month medical leave of absence. Upon her return, she requested and received a transfer to the Emergency Department.

         Sometime in September or October of 2013, Ms. Bellisle claims that it became known at Landmark that she is a lesbian and she believes that her problems at work began with that knowledge. Ms. Bellisle reported to her supervisor, Melissa Frias, that her shift supervisor was treating her poorly. Ms. Frias notified the human resources department about Ms. Bellisle's complaint and as a result, the shift supervisor was informed about standards for behavior at Landmark. Landmark did not conclude any wrongdoing because it could not substantiate Ms. Bellisle's complaint.

         During the course of her employment, Ms. Bellisle and her co-worker, Defendant Glenn Miller, engaged in several text message exchanges discussing Ms. Bellisle's relationship with her girlfriend and her interactions with other employees at Landmark. The messages included a string of scissor emoji's that Ms. Bellisle indicates is a lesbian symbol. Ms. Bellisle alleged that Mr. Miller made two offensive comments about her sexual orientation in the text message exchanges. Ms. Bellisle told Mr. Miller that the comments were offensive, but she did not report this to anyone at Landmark.

         On January 5, 2014, while she was working the night shift, Ms. Bellisle dyed her hair in the sink of the hospital's break room. Dr. John Jardine, who observed this behavior, reported the incident to Ms. Bellisle's supervisor, Melissa Frias. The next day, Ms. Frias met with Ms. Bellisle to discuss Dr. Jardine's report. Ms, Bellisle admitted to dyeing her hair, but asserted that she was on an unpaid break, even though she also admitted that she did not notify anyone that she was taking a break. Landmark considered terminating her, but instead gave Ms. Bellisle a written warning. Represented by the Union, Ms. Bellisle grieved the discipline because she argued that the break was unpaid.[2] Landmark's chief nursing officer, Charlene Elie denied the grievance at step two, A few days after the hair dyeing discipline, Ms. Bellisle e-mailed Ms. Frias that she would be unable to work because her daughter's father had passed away. She then e-mailed the president, human resources director, and chief nursing officer to report her belief that on a number of occasions Dr. Jardine communicated with her less than he did with other employees because of her sexual orientation. Ms. Elie responded to Ms. Bellisle's e-mail and informed her that Landmark would conduct an investigation. Approximately a week later, Ms. Bellisle dropped her claims of discrimination against Dr. Jardine while continuing to maintain that he had treated her in an unprofessional manner. Afterwards, Landmark instructed Dr. Jardine to communicate with Ms. Bellisle in a professional manner.

         After returning from a one-week leave, Ms. Bellisle sent an e-mail to Ms. Frias stating that she felt that her co-workers were subjecting her to harassment and discrimination because of her sexual orientation. She based this on the fact that she overheard staff speaking about her sexual orientation. Ms, Frias forwarded the e-mail to human resources for further investigation.

         On January 15th, several hours after she was disciplined for the hair-dyeing incident, Dr. Jardine and Ms. Frias observed Ms. Bellisle using her cell phone at the nurses' station, in violation of Landmark's personal communication device policy. The prohibition on cell phone use had been discussed at a staff meeting five days earlier. Ms. Bellisle singed that she received a copy of the cell phone prohibition policy. Landmark issued Ms. Bellisle a second written warning for violating this policy. Although she declined union representation, the Union filed a second grievance at step two in response to Landmark's disciplinary action, In February 2014, Ms. Frias received a few reports that Ms. Bellisle was verbally abusive to co-workers and patients. First, Mr. Frias received a report that after getting into an argument with a doctor, Ms. Bellisle berated him to other staff members. Second, a co-worker informed Ms. Frias that Ms. Bellisle was arguing loudly with a psychiatric patient and when confronted, Ms. Bellisle stormed out of the room. Third, Landmark's risk manager informed Ms. Frias that a patient's family called to complain that she heard Ms. Bellisle telling a patient, "Shut up, shut up! You did this to yourself. You are a cocaine addict." Lastly, a fellow nurse observed Ms. Bellisle swearing at a doctor in front of a patient. Landmark supervisory personnel were preparing a third warning to Ms. Bellisle about her behavior when Landmark terminated her employment for the incident that ultimately became the straw that broke the camel's back.

         That same month, a Landmark employee reported that she observed Ms. Bellisle with a taser while at work at the hospital. Ms. Bellisle denied bringing the weapon to the hospital, yet she had posted to her Facebook page, "I think it should be legal for nurses on duty to carry tasers . . . many animals out there these days." Landmark conducted an investigation, in which three employees reported that they observed Ms. Bellisle possessing a taser at the nurses' station. Landmark concluded that Ms. Bellisle had brought an illegal weapon to work. It terminated her employment, Ms. Bellisle's union representative filed a grievance at step three in response to the termination, The grievance process proceeded for several weeks. Ms. Bellisle became impatient at the pace of the process. Ultimately, in April 2014, Ms. Bellisle, the Union, and Landmark signed and executed a Memorandum of Agreement whereby Ms. Bellisle voluntarily resigned from Landmark and Landmark agreed not to object to her application for unemployment benefits. Ms. Bellisle and the Union agreed to withdraw any pending grievances from arbitration with prejudice.

         Ms. Bellisle filed this twelve count complaint alleging violations of the: (1) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") for hostile work environment against Landmark and Prime; (2) Title VII for retaliation against all the Defendants; (3) Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. ("FMLA") against all the Defendants; (4) Hybrid-Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185 ("HLMRA") against Landmark; (5) duty of fair representation under HLMRA against the Union; (6) Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act, R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-1, et seq. ("RIFEPA") against all the Defendants; (7) Rhode Island Civil Rights Act, R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-112-1, et. seq. ("RICRA") against all the Defendants; (8) Rhode Island Parental and Family Medical Leave Act, R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-48-1, et seq. ("RIPFMLA") against all the Defendants! (9) intentional infliction of emotional distress against Charlene Elie and Glenn Miller; (10) tortious interference with contractual relations against Ms. Elie and Mr. Miller; (ll) defamation against Ms. Elie and Mr. Miller; and (12) defamation against Landmark and Prime. All Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all counts. EOF Nos. 33, 36.


         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the process of summary judgment. Summary judgment is appropriate when (1) the moving party demonstrates the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and (2) the non-moving party fails to demonstrate that a trier of fact could reasonably resolve that issue in the non-movant's favor. Borges ex rel. S.M.B. W. v. Serrano-Isern, 605 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 2010). "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). Even in cases where motive and intent are at issue, the court may grant summary judgment if the non-moving party rests merely upon conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation. See Medina-Munoz v. R.J, Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990); Rossy v. Roche Products, Inc., 880 F.2d 621, 624 (1st Cir. 1989).

         The Court views the evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in her favor. Wilson v. Moulison N. Corp., 639 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 2011).


         A. Hostile Work Environment Claim under Title VII, RIFEPA, and RICRA Counts I, VI and VII

         Ms. Bellisle alleges that Defendants Landmark and Prime created a hostile work environment by allowing several employees to harass, stereotype, and mistreat her based on her sexual orientation. Ms. Bellisle alleges that this discriminatory behavior resulted in unfounded discipline and termination. Not unexpectedly, Landmark and Prime object and move for summary judgment because they argue that Ms. Bellisle was not subjected to an abusive work environment, but was disciplined for inappropriate behavior and ultimately terminated for possessing an illegal weapon at the hospital.

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act contained in Count I is easily dispatched. "Title VII does not proscribe harassment simply because of sexual orientation." See Higgins v. New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc., 194 F.3d 252, 259 (1st Cir. 1999); Ferro v. R.I Dept. of Transp. ex rel. Lewis, 2 F.Supp.3d 150, 156 (D. R.I. 2014). Therefore, Title VII cannot provide Ms. Bellisle with any relief on her hostile work environment claim.[3] Ms. Bellisle brings parallel state law claims, however, under RIFEPA and the RICRA.[4] RIFEPA prohibits discrimination against an employee due to her "race or color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, age, or country of ancestral origin." R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-7(1). In addition, RICRA prohibits discrimination because of "race, color, religion, sex, disability, age, or country of ancestral origin." R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-112-1.

         Under these state law claims, in order to meet her burden to prove that she endured a hostile work environment based on prohibited discrimination, Ms. Bellisle must establish the following prima facie elements: (1) that she is a member of a protected class; (2) that she was subject to unwelcome harassment; (3) that the harassment was based on her membership in a protected class! (4) that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of the plaintiffs employment and create an abusive work environment; (5) the harassment was both objectively and subjectively offensive; and (6) there exists ...

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