THOMPSON v. MEMORIAL HOSPITAL OF CARBONDALE (November 3, 2010)
Archie Thompson was a paramedic with the Jackson County Ambulance Service (JCAS), which served the Southern Illinois Regional Emergency System. Memorial Hospital of Carbondale had medical control of the System. Thompson was the only African-American full-time paramedic in the entire System. In late 2003, Thompson handled a diabetic emergency call. He administered an intravenous solution and revived the patient. The patient declined further medical assistance and Thompson left. After he returned to his base, Tim Brumley (Thompson's supervisor) criticized him for not following the proper protocol of calling medical control before leaving the scene of a diabetic emergency. Thompson claimed not to know the protocol. It was not posted at the base or in his ambulance. Brumley also learned, on inquiry, that other paramedics were doing the same thing. Brumley reported his concerns to Paula Bierman, the System Coordinator. Bierman advised the Hospital's Medical Director that Thompson should be disciplined, citing both his “total disregard” for protocol and a then-recent failing test result. A few days later, Bierman prepared a disciplinary report removing Thompson from primary care medical duties and signed Doolittle's initials. Thompson was placed on paid probation for three months, during which time he was under constant supervision. While on probation, he began seeing a counselor. Shortly thereafter, he took a medical leave of absence and eventually decided not to return to work. Thompson filed suit against Memorial Hospital and the ambulance service, alleging race discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. Judge Murphy (S.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the ambulance service on all claims and to Memorial Hospital on the hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims. A jury heard the race discrimination claim against the Hospital, found in Thompson's favor, and awarded $500,000. The Hospital appeals from the jury verdict -- Thompson cross-appeals from the hostile work environment and constructive discharge summary judgment rulings.
In their opinion, Judges Kanne, Evans, and Williams affirmed in all respects except with respect to the amount of damages. The Court dispensed with the cross-appeal in relatively short order. To be successful, a hostile work environment claim must contain evidence of severe and pervasive harassment -- so much so that it changes the conditions of employment. The test is even higher for a constructive discharge claim. The Court concluded that the evidence here did not reach that level. With respect to the Hospital's appeal, the Court noted that it raised several arguments that were improperly preserved below. First, the Hospital argues that Thompson was not its employee. But it admitted below that this was a factual question and it never presented the issue to the jury. Second, the Hospital argues that the jury should not have heard testimony of the racial comments Bierman made because she was not the decision maker. But the evidence is relevant if she exerted significant influence over the decision maker. Here, the district court made a threshold determination that there was enough evidence on that issue to go to the jury and the Hospital did not seek an instruction on the point. Third, the Hospital argued that the probation was not an adverse employment action. But, although probation is not always an adverse employment action, the district court ruled that whether it was here was a factual question. The Hospital did not argue the point the jury or ask for an instruction. Having decided not to press these issues before the jury, the Hospital cannot rely on them now. Finally, the Court did believe that the $500,000 award was excessive. There was testimony of Thompson's depression and anxiety that his therapist characterized as "severe." But the adverse employment action was only placement on probationary status with no change in compensation. After reviewing awards in similar cases, the Court landed on a remittitur to $250,000.