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Adjei-Poku v. The University of Utah

United States District Court, D. Utah

December 6, 2019




         This matter is before the court on Defendant the University of Utah's Motion for Summary Judgment. The court held a hearing on the motion on November 19, 2019. At the hearing, Defendant was represented by Adam S. Kunz, and Plaintiff was represented by Mary J. Woodhead. The court took the matter under advisement. The court considered carefully the memoranda and other materials submitted by the parties, as well as the law and facts relating to the motion. Now being fully advised, the court issues the following Memorandum Decision and Order.


         Plaintiff Gladys Adjei-Poku (“Adjei-Poku”) is a Ghanaian immigrant and a nurse who has been employed by the University of Utah hospital since 1995. The University of Utah (the “University”) is a public institution of higher education and a subdivision of the State of Utah. Over the course of her career, Adjei-Poku has risen from a clinical nurse to a nurse director, and she is currently a nurse manager.

         In 2012, Adjei-Poku's supervisor, Jeremy Fotheringham (“Fotheringham”) promoted her to become the new Associate Director of Cardiovascular Medicine (“CVMU”), AirMed, and Endoscopy services. After Fotheringham left in 2013, Laura Adams (“Adams”) became Adjei-Poku's supervisor for a short time period. During that time, Adams asked Adjei-Poku to assist at the Midvale Clinic, a volunteer clinic with low income patients, along with her other duties. Although she was aware that the position at the Midvale Clinic could potentially expand in the future, Adjei-Poku initially spent only a few hours working there each week. Adams was impressed with Adjei-Poku's work performance at the Midvale Clinic along with her other duties. Specifically, Adams praised Adjei-Poku for being a role model in the Cultural Diversity Program, a program that the University was implementing, and for her outstanding contributions to cultural diversity more generally.

         Beginning in late 2013, Margaret Pearce (“Pearce”), the Chief Nursing Officer of the University of Utah Health Department, began a significant restructuring of the nursing department. As a part of that process, Pearce asked Tracey Nixon (“Nixon”), the Director of Capacity Management and Cardiovascular Services, to expand the cardiovascular services unit. Importantly, the restructuring involved CVMU. Because Adjei-Poku was the Associate Director of CVMU, the reorganization eventually resulted in a change to her chain of command. Instead of continuing to report to Adams, Adjei-Poku now reported to Nixon. In her initial assessment of Adjei-Poku, Nixon recognized that she was fairly new in her position as the Associate Director, and she felt that Adjei-Poku was struggling to make the transition from the role as a nurse manager to that of an associate director. Although she noted various areas where Adjei-Poku was excelling, she further acknowledged some areas in which she and Pearce determined that Adjei-Poku could improve. Based on her assessment, Nixon directed Adjei-Poku to take a step back and run everything through her.

         Over the course of the restructuring process, other departments were added to the services that Nixon was over. These departments included PICC, Wound, and Ostomy; a new cardiovascular intensive care unit; the interventional labs; and preventative cardiology. With the addition of these new departments, Nixon continued to note what she perceived to be inadequacies in Adjei-Poku's skillset as an associate director. Specifically, Nixon felt that Adjei-Poku struggled to work with teams and displayed an inability to manage the complex political relationships that were required of an associate director. Accordingly, after more than a year of working with Adjei-Poku, in late 2015, Nixon determined that CVMU “need[ed] a new face” and that Adjei-Poku should no longer be an associate director over CVMU as a whole, but should have charge over the smaller PICC, Wound, and Ostomy services.

         In December 2015, Nixon met with Adjei-Poku to discuss her job reassignment. After the meeting, Nixon clarified to Adjei-Poku through an email exchange that Nixon would be shifting responsibilities based on certain business needs, but that Adjei-Poku would continue to support PICC, Wound, and Ostomy; the Office of Diversity; and the Midvale Clinic. Despite this alteration to her responsibilities, Nixon confirmed that Adjei-Poku was not changing positions and so would not receive a title change. However, Adjei-Poku was uncomfortable with the shift in her responsibilities and believed that Nixon may be discriminating against her. Accordingly, on December 29, Adjei-Poku went to the University's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (the “OEO”) to meet with investigator Brian Nicholls (“Nicholls”) to consider her options for filing a complaint with the OEO. During that meeting, Nicholls explained to Adjei-Poku that she could not successfully raise a discrimination complaint without legally sustainable proof. Because Adjei-Poku felt that she lacked such proof, she decided against moving forward with a complaint at that time. Nevertheless, Nicholls provided Adjei-Poku with the appropriate paperwork in case she decided to file a complaint at later date.

         As a matter of standard practice, following Nicholls' meeting with Adjei-Poku, he neither instituted an investigation nor notified Pearce, Nixon, or anyone else outside the OEO about the meeting. It is only under exceptional circumstances, which Nicholls determined were not present, that anyone outside the OEO is notified about a potential complaint before the actual complaint is filed.

         In January 2016, Nixon sent an email to various individuals in her department with information regarding department changes. She stated that, moving forward, Adjei-Poku's responsibilities would be limited to PICC, Wound, and Ostomy. She also explained that Adjei-Poku would serve as a nursing liaison to the diversity committee within the University hospital system, and that such changes would be effective January 18. In addition, she explained that two other employees' roles would change.

         At some point during January, Adjei-Poku hand-delivered a memorandum to Nixon wherein she raised concerns about racial stereotyping, her diminishing work responsibilities, losing her job, and her diversity role. Furthermore, she arranged a meeting with Pearce to share her concerns about Nixon. This meeting was a result of communications between Adjei-Poku and Quinn McKenna (“McKenna”), the Utah Hospital Chief Operating Officer, in which she had told McKenna that she believed she was being discriminated against. In her meeting with Pearce, Adjei-Poku expressed her unhappiness and difficulties in working with Nixon but explained that she desired to remain in charge of PICC, Wound, and Ostomy. Pearce responded that if Adjei-Poku wanted to continue working in those areas, she would need to learn to work with Nixon given that Nixon was over those services. Pearce also told Adjei-Poku that, given her dissatisfaction with her current situation, there was an opportunity to take a newly-expanded role as the Director of Diversity. While the position was new and would need to be approved through the appropriate channels, Pearce felt that Adjei-Poku would be the ideal candidate if she were interested. Adjei-Poku seemed to embrace the suggestion with enthusiasm.

         Given that Nixon had informed Adjei-Poku that her new roles would commence on January 18, 2016, and her conversation with Pearce regarding the Director of Diversity position, Adjei-Poku showed up at the Midvale Clinic on January 18 to begin her new diversity role. However, when she arrived, the Diversity MD, Dr. Gopez, had not known she was coming. After speaking with Dr. Gopez, Adjei-Poku followed up with Pearce who informed her that the University had not yet created the Director of Diversity position. As such, the purported role had neither a budget nor a position description, but Pearce asked Dr. Gopez and Adjei-Poku to assist in creating them. Despite the uncertainty regarding the specifics of her new position, Adjei-Poku retained the same salary, benefits, hours of work, office, and title as an associate director.

         Over the next several months, Adjei-Poku had various meetings and communications with Nixon, Pearce, and Dr. Gopez regarding the details of Adjei-Poku's diversity position. By April, Adjei-Poku began reporting directly to Dr. Gopez and ceased reporting to Nixon. Yet, Adjei-Poku began to feel stronger that her reassignment to the diversity position was a result of discrimination. Accordingly, at some point in time, she went to speak with Dr. Cohen, the University Ombudsman, to explain her situation. In turn, Dr. Cohen directed her to the OEO, but she explained that she had already been there. After that, she went to the Attorney General's office and sought further guidance regarding her rights, and she began actively looking for another job. Then, in June, she filed a charge of discrimination with the Utah Labor Commission claiming that Nixon had discriminated and retaliated against her based on her race and national origin. Around that time period, Pearce was contacted by the Utah Adjudication and Labor Division (“UALD”) to provide a witness statement regarding Adjei-Poku's claim of discrimination. Pearce claims that this was the first time she became aware that Adjei-Poku felt that Nixon was discriminating against her. Eventually, Adjei-Poku accepted a new job as a nurse manager in endocrinology, and following her departure, the diversity position ceased to exist.

         Adjei-Poku filed the instant suit on October 31, 2017 in Utah state court. In February 2018, the University removed the case to this court. In her complaint, Adjei-Poku raises claims of discrimination and retaliation based on race and national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. More specifically, she contends that Nixon discriminated against her by (1) eroding her work-related authority; (2) diminishing the scope and responsibilities of her work; (3) humiliating her in staff meetings by saying that people could not understand her because of her accent[1]; (4) mocking her accent; (5) moving her to a non-existent position in diversity in which she had no previous experience; (6) removing her from her nursing duties despite her exemplary performance; and (7) ...

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