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Nwachukwu v. Vinfen Corporation

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 4, 2019




         I. Introduction.

         Plaintiff Solomon Nwachukwu brings this employment discrimination lawsuit against defendant Vinfen Corporation, alleging he was fired because of his race, color, and national origin. See #26 ¶¶ 5, 14, 16. Mr. Nwachukwu was terminated on March 4, 2011 and subsequently filed an administrative complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Id. ¶¶ 4, 14. On May 10, 2016, plaintiff filed suit against Vinfen in the Massachusetts Superior Court, Middlesex County. (#1-3 at 4-9.) Vinfen timely removed the case to this court on September 6, 2016. Id. at 1-3. After the case was removed, plaintiff amended his original complaint, claiming violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq.: unlawful termination on the basis of race, color, or national origin (Count I); hostile work environment (Count II); and denial of compensation and other terms (Count III). (#26 ¶¶ 15-25.)

         On December 28, 2018, Vinfen filed a motion for summary judgment on all of plaintiff's claims (#71), which Plaintiff opposed. (#81.) Vinfen filed a reply. (#88.) The motion is now ready for disposition.

         II. The Facts.

         The following facts are undisputed except as indicated. Vinfen is a private organization that provides healthcare services to people with mental and physical disabilities, some of whom are referred by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (“DMH”). (#75 ¶¶ 3-4.) Plaintiff, who is of Nigerian descent, was hired as a Nurse Coordinator for Vinfen in April 2010. (#76 ¶ 3; #82-1 ¶ 21; #85 at 31, ll. 14-16; #85-1 at 79, ll. 4-8.)

         Before being hired by Vinfen, plaintiff worked as a registered nurse for approximately fourteen years and had experience caring for patients with mental health issues. (#85 at 13, ll. 16- 21; 17, ll. 7-15.) His job responsibilities at Vinfen included, but were not limited to, assisting patients with various health-related tasks, discharge planning for patients in the hospital, and taking vital signs. Id. at 32, ll. 3-18. Plaintiff often travelled offsite to meet with patients at their homes, residential facilities, hospitals, and nursing homes throughout northeastern Massachusetts. Id. at 34, ll. 5-22. Plaintiff, like all other Vinfen employees, used his personal vehicle to visit patients and then submitted a mileage log for reimbursement from Vinfen. (#89 ¶ 30.)

         When Vinfen employees visit a patient, they use a template available in Vinfen's system to record service notes. (#85 at 97-98, ll. 24-10.) The service notes include information about medications, objectives, services performed, and patient goals. Id. at 83-84, ll. 6-4. Service notes are printed, signed, and submitted to the team administrative assistant to be filed and given to the team leader. Id. at 98, ll. 13-17; 102, ll. 18-22. On occasion, Vinfen team members discuss the service notes and patients during morning meetings, which occur each day at 8:00 a.m. Id. at 35, ll. 12-14; 102, ll. 1-5. Service notes are submitted to the DMH for billing. Id. at 107, ll. 11-14.

         Plaintiff asserts in his affidavit in opposition to Vinfen's motion for summary judgment that he was never paid for any mileage he traveled to visit patients. (#82-1 ¶ 68.) He does not, however, dispute the validity of the paystubs on the record, which indicate he was paid “Expense Reimbursements” for mileage on July 23, 2010 and March 18, 2011. (#92-1; #92-2; #92-3; #92-4.)

         Plaintiff's relationship with his supervisor and team leader, Susan Squiers, was strained. Plaintiff indicates in his affidavit that Squiers was “extremely hostile” towards him, by making fun of the way he spoke “especially in front of other employees and during [] usual morning staff meetings, ” questioning whether patients would allow him into their homes, and stating she was “not sure” she wanted him to administer her flu shot. (#82-1 ¶¶ 70-73.) Plaintiff also maintains that Squires denied his requests for trainings during work hours and made him use personal time off when he returned to the office late after an offsite meeting, though she did not require the same of other employees who also returned late, and, on August 12, 2010, made “a jest and caricature” of him by claiming that a form he had submitted regarding a patient's doctor's orders was not valid. Id. ¶¶ 77-78; #84 at 27.

         Plaintiff further alleges that he emailed Squiers on August 17, 2010 to complain about a colleague's “continued abuse and derogatory comment[s]” and again on October 3, 2010 regarding her own treatment of him. Id. Plaintiff claims that, in the October 3rd email, he threatened to approach “higher management staff” if Squiers did not end the “very stressful environment and working under constant pressure.” Id. Plaintiff also testified at his deposition that he spoke to Tania Ruiz, Squiers' supervisor, more than once to complain about his “concerns” regarding his working relationship with Squiers. (#85 at 62, ll. 3-13; #85-1 at 154, ll. 11-13.)

         On November 30, 2010, plaintiff noticed that his family photograph he kept on his desk had been defaced, in that someone had written “U SUCK” across his face in black marker. (#84 at 28; #84-1 at 7.) He informed Squiers and asked colleagues who did it, but ultimately did not find out who had defaced his photo. (#82-1 ¶ 79.) Plaintiff alleges that Squiers ignored his complaint and did not investigate the defacement. Id. ¶ 79.[2]

         Multiple complaints were lodged against plaintiff regarding his treatment of colleagues and his work practices during his tenure at Vinfen. Colleagues emailed Squiers on September 28, 2010 and October 13, 2010 informing her that plaintiff was being “intimidating and uncomfortable, ” and “verbally aggressive.” (#77-2; #77-3.) The October 13th complaint further alleged that plaintiff failed to “properly communicate” information about a patient's doctor, leaving his colleague without appropriate documentation at a patient visit. (#77-3.) An October 14, 2010 email to plaintiff directly from a colleague noted that he failed to show up at a scheduled patient appointment. (#74-2 at 6.)[3]

         Plaintiff also received complaints from outside sources. On September 14, 2010, plaintiff visited patient SP at home. (#82-1 ¶ 24.) Plaintiff maintains that SP informed him that a service provider from another organization called Homecare was “rarely available and whenever she visit[ed] she rarely d[id] her job.” Id. SP indicated she was afraid to tell the other service provider about “how dissatisfied she felt with her services[, ]” and plaintiff offered to speak with the organization on her behalf. Id. While Squiers initially commended plaintiff for speaking with the organization (#85 at 69, ll. 17-21), on September 20, 2010, Julie DeLillo, Vinfen's Director of Human Resources, emailed Squiers, notifying her that HR had received a complaint from Homecare. (#77-1 at 2.) The complaint stated that, when plaintiff called Homecare on SP's behalf, he was “yelling at the staff . . . in front of the clients . . . .” Id. Plaintiff argues in his affidavit that he was not disciplined for the alleged events regarding SP or ever informed that this complaint was made prior to his termination, and that the allegations laid out in the email from DeLillo are “completely unfounded and totally false.” (#82-1 ¶¶ 25, 29.)

         Vinfen also alleges that, on separate instances, plaintiff took credit for a colleague's work and fabricated work product. On November 1, 2010, two copies of a service note for a visit to patient EG were submitted, one signed by Beth Ajalat, another Vinfen employee, and one signed by plaintiff. (#74-2 at 10, 11.) The service note signed by plaintiff was not dated. Id. at 10. While plaintiff did not visit patient EG on November 1, 2010 (#82-1 ¶ 65), on November 30, 2010, there was a morning staff meeting, at which Vinfen alleges plaintiff presented the November 1st service note as though it was his work. (#77-4 at 4.) Plaintiff states that he picked up and signed the EG service note in error and that he intended to shred it. (#85 at 116-17, ll. 19-4; #85-1 at 93, ll. 19- 22.) He alleges it was maliciously taken from his desk and submitted by Squiers without his knowledge. Id. at 119, ll. 9-23. Plaintiff also alleges that he was not present at this staff meeting and presents a team schedule to validate this claim, arguing that he could not have attended because he did not begin work until 12:00 p.m. that day. (#84-1 at 5.) However, Vinfen's assertion that plaintiff was at the November 30th meeting is supported by an attendance log, which includes Plaintiff's name and signature on the list of attendees. (#90-4; #85-1 at 168, ll. 2-8.)

         On December 2, 2010, SL, another patient of Vinfin, contacted Squiers to complain that Plaintiff had not visited her in the last two months. (#75-1 at 2-3.)[4] Vinfen filed a formal complaint with DMH, as required under Massachusetts law, and the matter was investigated pursuant to DMH policy. (#75 ¶ 5; #75-3 at 2.) Brad Richardson, DMH's Human Rights Coordinator, contacted Jeanne Russo, Vice President of Vinfen and “Person in Charge” for the DMH Northeast Region, to handle the matter. (#75 ¶¶ 7-9; #75-2 at 2.) Russo assigned Catherine Eccles, Vinfen's Operations Director, to serve as the Fact Finder to investigate SL's complaint. (#75 ¶ 10.)[5] After reviewing documents and interviewing SL and Vinfen employees, Eccles prepared a report, finding that SL's complaint was substantiated. (#91 ¶¶ 7-8; #91-1 at 1-4.) The report stated:

I found that although Solomon [plaintiff] is denying the allegations, evidence exists indicating that Solomon did not make home visits to [SL] on the dates reflected on Service Notes bearing his signature. I found additional evidence indicating falsification of documentation and taking credit for another employee's work, which directly violates Vinfen's standards for employee conduct.

(#91-1 at 3.)

         Plaintiff disputes the validity of SL's complaint and the impartiality of the investigation. He contends that SL was heavily medicated and “pleasantly confused, ” and therefore, could not be relied on to accurately report whether service providers had visited her on a given day. (#85 at 88, ll. 9-17.) He also argues in his affidavit in opposition to Vinfen's motion that Eccles' investigation was “bogus, ” noting that he was only interviewed for about three minutes and was not provided with details of the allegations. (#82-1 ¶¶ 111-12.) However, Vinfen's investigation into the complaint showed that SL kept meticulous notes and always recorded the dates of her appointments in her calendar. (#77-4 at 3-4.) It also showed that SL, Squiers, Ajalat, and plaintiff were all interviewed and numerous documents relevant to the complaint were reviewed. Id. at 2.

         On March 4, 2011, after consulting with Russo and ensuring that all protocol were followed, Vinfen's Senior Human Resources Manager, Ann Tenero, and Vinfen's Operations Director, Tania Ruiz, terminated plaintiff's employment and provided him with a Corrective Action Form, citing SL's complaint and the findings that emerged in the subsequent investigation as the reasons for his termination. (#76 ¶¶ 10-14; #76-1 at 2-3.) Vinfen also cited plaintiff's falsification of the November 1st service note for patient EG. (#76-1 at 2.) On June 6, 2011, Vinfen hired a man of the same race (black) and national origin (Nigerian) as plaintiff as his replacement. (#77 ¶ 10.)

         For the following reasons, Vinfen's motion for summary judgment as to plaintiff's claims for unlawful termination (Count I) and denial of compensation and other terms (Count III) is granted, and Counts I and III are dismissed. Vinfen's motion for summary ...

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