Fired Female Health Technician Has Triable Sex Bias Claim

By Jennifer L. Gokenbach Mar 23, 2016
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A female mental health technician for a Detroit hospital who alleged she was unlawfully fired because of her sex can proceed with a discrimination claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Karon Jackson began working as a mental health technician (MHT) at VHS Detroit Receiving Hospital in the hospital’s Mental Health Crisis Center in 1998. As an MHT, Jackson’s duties generally involved assisting registered nurses (RNs) with the treatment and processing of psychiatric patients. Jackson received favorable performance reviews and was never disciplined throughout her employment, with her most recent review giving her a rating of 3.63 on a 4-point scale.

On Sept. 6, 2013, Jackson was assigned to work the morning shift as an MHT in the crisis center. At the beginning of her shift, Jackson’s manager held a meeting with the crisis center staff to emphasize the importance of checking patient identification wristbands prior to discharge to verify that the correct patient was being discharged. Later that morning, Jackson assisted an RN with the discharge of a patient who was not supposed to be discharged—one who had checked himself into the crisis center the night before complaining of depression and suicidal thoughts. Approximately seven hours after being discharged, the patient returned to the crisis center on his own. 

At an emergency meeting later that day with hospital administrators, Jackson admitted that she made a mistake in discharging the wrong patient, but explained that she was acting on the instructions of the RN. Three days later, the hospital terminated Jackson’s employment, citing her violation of the hospital’s disciplinary policy, which prohibits any action or conduct that endangers or may be detrimental to the well-being of a patient.  

Jackson filed a lawsuit alleging that the hospital’s termination of her employment constituted sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. She claimed that two male MHTs were disciplined less severely for improprieties in discharging patients, although the details differed from those in her case. 

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted summary judgment to the hospital, dismissing the claim.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and held that Jackson’s case could proceed to trial. Even though arguments could be made that the two male employees did not engage in the same conduct as Jackson, she presented enough evidence as to the similarities in order to allow a jury to decide the matter.  

The court also noted that, even though a majority of the crisis center staff was female, the fact that Jackson was the only female MHT out of 14 MHTs supported Jackson’s contention that the hospital showed a preference for men for the MHT position. 

Jackson v. VHS Detroit Receiving Hosp. Inc., 6th Cir., No. 15-1802 (Feb. 23, 2016).

Professional Pointer: For a claim alleging discrimination based on differing discipline due to sex or another protected characteristic, it is not necessary that the employees to which the plaintiff is compared engaged in exactly the same conduct to permit a reasonable inference of intentional discrimination. Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether the comparator’s conduct was substantially identical in all of the relevant aspects. 

Jennifer L. Gokenbach is the founding attorney for Gokenbach Law LLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Denver.

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