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Hartranft v. UT Health Science Center-Houston

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

June 26, 2018


          On Appeal from the 270th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2015-63281

          Panel consists of Justices Higley, Brown, and Caughey.


          Laura Carter Higley Justice

         This is an employment-discrimination case. Jeanne Hartranft sued her former employer, UT Health Science Center-Houston (UTHealth), alleging it had engaged in racial and gender discrimination against her and had retaliated against her for opposing discriminatory practices in the workplace. Hartranft claimed that the discriminatory and retaliatory practices had created a hostile work environment, resulting in her constructive discharge.

         UTHealth filed a traditional motion for summary judgment, asserting that its proffered evidence established that Hartranft's claims fail as a matter of law. After Hartranft responded, offering her own evidence, the trial court granted the motion in UTHealth's favor. On appeal, Hartranft raises four issues to challenge the summary judgment. Because we hold that the summary judgment was properly granted in UTHealth's favor as to Hartranft's gender-discrimination claim, but it was improperly granted as to the remainder of her claims, we affirm the judgment in part and reverse in part and remand.


         Jeanne Hartranft, who is Caucasian, was hired on March 3, 2014, by UTHealth to work as a telephone-triage nurse. After working in the position for approximately four months, Hartranft resigned. After her resignation, Hartranft filed suit, asserting that her UTHealth supervisor, David Riley, who is African American, subjected her to harassment, threats of physical violence, and abusive treatment based on her gender and race. Hartranft further asserted that Riley treated other non-African- American female nurses in the same manner. Hartranft claimed that the only African American female nurse in the telephone-triage department was not subjected to the same ill-treatment but was instead treated with respect and given preferential treatment.

         Hartranft avers that she verbally complained about Riley's abusive treatment to UTHealth human-resources representative Sandra Kelley and to Dr. Tyson, the department manager. However, Hartranft contends that her complaints were disregarded.

         Another Caucasian triage nurse, Christie Carver, sent a written grievance to Dr. Tyson and to Kelley. Carver informed Kelley and Dr. Tyson that "hostile working conditions" had been "allowed to persist" in the telephone triage office. She alleged that the nurses had been "targets of David Riley's volatile temper, bullying, and inappropriate reprimands."

         Carver also stated that Riley's behavior resulted in "a stressful and unhealthy working environment," that she "constantly worr[ied]" about herself and her team members, and that the threat of Riley's "explosive temper" kept her "on edge." She also described several specific instances during which Riley became angry with individual nurses for asking job-related questions. Carver said that, during one such incident, Riley told her the answer to her question was "in the policy" and to use her nursing judgment. When she told him she only wanted to do a good job, Riley had ordered her into the hallway. She said that she was frightened "by [Riley's] irate pointing, tone and gestures as he told me that I was the only one confused and I was insubordinate."

         On another occasion, Carver and another nurse, Nancy Perkins, were discussing policy when Riley "exploded into a huge outburst at Nancy," yelling from across the room "no more sidebar conversations!" Then, during a meeting, Riley "lost it" when Nancy Perkins explained something to him. "Riley wildly kicked a chair and waved his arms as he loudly yelled at [Nancy Perkins]."

         Carver stated that Monica Smith, Riley's supervisor, witnessed Riley's outburst at the meeting. Carver reported that she also told Smith that Riley had frightened her. She said that Smith was "dismissive" of her concerns. Carver averred that Smith "failed to address [the] problems [with Riley] or take corrective action to ensure a violent free, productive and supportive training and work environment." Carver also said in her grievance that she "spoke to Human Resources who agreed to address my concerns" but nothing had changed.

         In response to Carver's grievance, Dr. Tyson conducted an investigation. As part of the investigation, Dr. Tyson interviewed a number of the triage nurses. Hartranft was one of the nurses interviewed. Hartranft would later testify that she told Tyson that Riley had nearly hit her in the face during the meeting, albeit unintentionally, when he became angry with Perkins. When he kicked his chair back and lunged toward Perkins, Riley made what Hartranft described as a "tomahawk chop" motion with his arm, almost striking Hartranft. Hartranft testified that she had described this to Tyson, but Dr. Tyson immediately had characterized Riley's action "just . . . pointing down at the ground." Hartranft said that she then corrected Dr. Tyson, reiterating that Riley had made a striking motion.

         In her report summarizing the findings of her investigation, Dr. Tyson concluded that Riley presented no threat to Carver or the other nurses. Dr. Tyson found that the nurses interviewed "do not feel scared" of Riley, "nor do they feel unsafe in any way." She also explained that, in her interviews, she had asked each nurse if Riley had "discussed sexual activities; told off-color jokes concerning race, sex, disability, or other protected classes; engaged in unnecessary touching; commented on physical attributes; displayed sexually suggestive, or racially insensitive pictures; used demeaning or inappropriate terms, or epithets; used indecent gestures; used crude language; sabotaged anyone's work; or engaged in hostile physical conduct." Dr. Tyson stated that each nurse interviewed "gave a resounding 'No' to each one."

         Dr. Tyson also concluded that Riley's supervisor, Smith, had acted appropriately. She stated that Smith had not been dismissive of Carver's concerns or of Riley's behavior. Dr. Tyson wrote that she had learned that, after the meeting in which Riley had kicked his chair and yelled at Perkins, Smith had met with Riley and Perkins. Dr. Tyson said that Smith had reported that they talked about each person's side and that Riley and Perkins had then apologized to one another.

         Dr. Tyson learned that Carver intended to appeal her response. She also learned that Carver had emailed three of the other triage nurses about the grievance. Dr. Tyson went to the area where the phone-triage nurses worked, told them about Carver's grievance, warned them not to discuss or work on the grievance during work time, and informed them were not obligated to assist Carver.

         Carver appealed Dr. Tyson's response to her grievance by sending a letter to Andrew Casas, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of UTHealth. Carver not only contested Dr. Tyson's factual findings, she complained about the manner in which Dr. Tyson had publically announced to the telephone-triage department that Carver had filed a grievance and that the other nurses were not required to assist with the grievance. Carver indicated that she had learned from other nurses that Dr. Tyson's announcement had a chilling effect on other nurses' willingness to support her grievance.

         Carver also said, "I did not complain about protected class discrimination. I do not know why Dr. Tyson addressed those things in her response." Carver further asserted that Dr. Tyson's findings misrepresented the facts provided by the employees Dr. Tyson had interviewed. For example, Carver wrote, "Despite Dr. Tyson's findings that no one worried or worries about David Riley's temper, I believe 3 interviewees told her they did and they still do. Each one told me that their answers were very different than Dr. Tyson wrote in her response to me." She averred that Hartranft told her that, during the meeting in which Riley had become enraged at Perkins, Riley had nearly hit Hartranft "as he waved his hand violently in front of her face."

         Carver stated that Perkins told her, contrary to what Dr. Tyson found in her report, "that David Riley never apologized to [Perkins] for his temper outbursts." The next day, Perkins was fired "for not being a team player," and she was escorted from the premises by UT police.

         About one month later, Hartranft resigned. She stated in her resignation letter that she had "agonized over [her] decision for over a month" but had decided to resign following "a heated discussion" she had with Riley the previous week, which she later testified was regarding overtime. She said that Riley had yelled at her, screaming several times that he was her "superior." During her deposition, Hartranft cited this as another time she feared Riley might assault her because he had charged out of his office yelling at her during the incident.

         In her resignation letter, Hartranft had also said that she suffered from fibromyalgia. She indicated that the pain associated with the disease had worsened during her employment.

          Carver's appeal to Casas about her grievance was never answered. Carver resigned two weeks after Hartranft's resignation.

         Two weeks after Carver resigned, another telephone triage nurse, Anna George, sent an email to a number of people, including UTHealth human resources' representative Sandra Kelley. George was transferred from the telephone triage department to cardiology.

         The subject of George's email was "Hostile [W]ork Environment." George wrote, "I am really frightened to work under my current manager D. Riley RN because he was yelling again today at me for asking for a clarification to schedule a [patient.]" She said that Riley "had yelled at other nurses in the past and they no longer work here." She pointed out that that several nurses had already been fired or had quit because of Riley's behavior.

         George continued, "I can't work under this situation." She explained that she was "really scared [Riley] is treating me like this." George related that Riley "is really upset about my transfer to cardiology and called me few times and harassed me about it. I am really upset, scared and worried about my health also at this time."

         Jeanne Hartranft sued UTHealth for violations of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). See Tex. Lab. Code Ann. §§ 21.001-.556 (West 2015). Her petition included the following factual allegations:

• "Hartranft was a good employee who did her job well."
• "She was discriminated against because of her race and gender and was retaliated against for opposing discriminatory practices in the workplace."
• "Hartranft was a nurse in the DSRIP [Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment] office."
• "David Riley did not like Jeanne Hartranft because she is female and is not African American."
• "Riley is male and African American."
• "He managed Jeanne Hartranft and the other female, non-African-American nurses in the office by bullying them, throwing temper tantrums, and routinely trying to intimidate them."
• "There were several incidents where Jeanne Hartranft feared that David Riley would physically assault her and other nurses."
• "Hartranft was screamed at and was told repeatedly by David Riley that he was her superior."
• "[N]umerous good nurses were either fired or quit because of the hostile work environment created by David Riley, and his supervisors' failure to correct the situation."
• "Hartranft was retaliated against when she supported a grievance filed by Christie Carver, who grieved about . . . discrimination."
• "Perkins was also a witness to a grievance filed by Christie Carver, which complained about David Riley's ...

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