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Johnson v. Dallas County Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science & Medical Examiner Department

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

January 16, 2014



SIDNEY A. FITZWATER, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Natausha K. Johnson ("Johnson") alleges that her former employer, defendant Dallas County, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e et seq., by discriminating against her based on pregnancy and retaliating against her for engaging in protected conduct. Dallas County moves for summary judgment, presenting the question whether a reasonable jury could find in Johnson's favor on either claim. Concluding that it could not, the court grants the motion and dismisses this action by judgment filed today.


Johnson began her employment as a medicolegal death investigator for Dallas County in August 2006.[1] In July 2009 she requested and was granted leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA")[2] due to a high risk pregnancy. After her pregnancy ended in a stillbirth in August 2009, she took FMLA leave, returning to work on September 11, 2009.

On Johnson's return to work, her coworkers voluntarily handled the investigations of deaths involving babies because they knew Johnson was still grieving from the stillbirth. When Johnson's supervisor Mary Brownlee ("Brownlee") learned of this, she informed Johnson that she did not think it was appropriate or professional for coworkers to handle the investigations of baby deaths.[3]

In November 2009 Johnson learned that she was pregnant again, with an expected due date of June 2010. She was hesitant to inform Brownlee of her pregnancy because she felt Brownlee had not been sympathetic or understanding following her August 2009 stillbirth. Nonetheless, in January 2010 Johnson informed Brownlee that she was pregnant. Brownlee's first comment in response was, "Natausha Why." P. Br. 7. During the same conversation, Johnson inquired about light duty work, and Brownlee told her there was no light duty available for her position. According to Brownlee, "[Johnson's] position was all or nothing." Id. But two other employees, Cathy Garvin ("Garvin") and Glynda Ray ("Ray"), were permitted to work light duty, and Dallas County created a modified light duty position to accommodate Ray's restrictions as a result of undergoing knee surgery.

Johnson alleges that her coworkers helped her during her pregnancy with the bending, reaching, and climbing required of her while conducting investigations in the field. Brownlee told Johnson that she did not approve of the other detectives helping Johnson perform some of the physical responsibilities of her job because of her pregnancy.

Brownlee issued Johnson a Job Attendance Policy Compliance Review Form ("Compliance Review") on March 23, 2010, citing the fact that Johnson had taken six unscheduled absences. The Compliance Review stated that "[o]ther employees must perform tasks during absences" and "[o]ffice productivity and service quality is negatively impacted by absences." Id. at 9. The Compliance Review also stated: "[u]nscheduled time off equals 50.9 hours as of 03-23-10. This does not include other time off which was considered excused. Excessive absences [a]ffect[] the operations of this office and decrease[] the ability for our staff to serve the public in the way they deserve." P. App. 11 (alterations added). That same day, Dallas County posted a medicolegal death investigator position. In response to the Compliance Review, Johnson stated that the reasons for her absences were her pregnancy and a case of the flu. Johnson provided doctor notes for her January 6, January 22, February 22, and March 11 absences.

On April 9, 2010 Johnson's physician recommended that she remain off work from April 9, 2010 until six weeks post partum. Four days later, Johnson applied for and was granted FMLA leave through May 10, 2010, the date when her FMLA leave was exhausted for the calendar year. Brownlee told Johnson that, if she required additional leave, she would have to request a leave of absence from Dr. Jeffery Barnard ("Dr. Barnard"), the Director and Chief Medical Examiner for Dallas County. Johnson did so, attempting to hand deliver to Dr. Barnard a letter requesting a leave of absence. Dr. Barnard refused to accept the letter, informing Johnson that she would need to talk to Brownlee or to Human Resources Representative Cathy Self ("Self") about requesting leave. After this conversation, Johnson contacted the Human Resources Department and spoke with Carmen Brown ("Brown"), who informed Johnson that she could access and print the leave of absence request paperwork from the Dallas County website and that she needed to complete the form and return it to her immediate supervisor. Johnson followed these instructions, printing the paperwork, completing it, and placing it in Brownlee's mailbox.

On April 21, 2010 Johnson sent an email to Brownlee informing her that her physician had recommended that she not return to work until six weeks following her delivery. On May 10, 2010 Johnson sent an email to Brownlee inquiring about the status of her leave of absence request. The next day, Johnson telephoned Brownlee, and, during this conversation, Brownlee informed Johnson that Self was still working on the leave of absence paper work. Two days later, Johnson received from Dallas County a termination letter, dated May 11, 2010, that stated:

when an employee is unable to return to work after the end of FMLA and is not granted a Leave of Absence, any continued absences from work shall be counted as excessive and the employee is subject to termination.... It is with regret that I inform you that I am unable to grant you a Leave of Absence due to business necessity and critical staffing needs in our Medicolegal Death Investigation office. Therefore, effective May 13, 2010, your employment with the Dallas County Institute of Forensic Sciences will end.... I encourage you to reapply for a position with us when you are available to return to work.

D. App. 12. According to Johnson, Brownlee and Self informed her that, when she was ready to return to work, she could reapply if her position had not been filled. The position was filled, however, by Elza M. Davis ("Davis"), although Davis did not begin her employment with Dallas County until after Johnson would have returned to work. At the time of her termination, Johnson was the second most tenured agent in the office and had never been disciplined prior to her pregnancies.

Johnson filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. After receiving a right to sue letter from the EEOC, Johnson filed suit against Dallas County asserting claims for sex discrimination and retaliation, in violation of Title VII.[4] Dallas County ...

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