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Gray v. Kirkwood Dental Associates, P.A.

United States District Court, D. Delaware

September 18, 2019

CHERYL GRAY, Plaintiff
v.
KIRKWOOD DENTAL ASSOCIATES, P.A., Defendant.

          Michelle D. Allen, Caitlyn E. Quinn, ALLEN & ASSOCIATES, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Kristen S. Swift, Robert D. Cecil, Jr, TYBOUT, REDFEARN & PELL, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          STARK, U.S. District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Kirkwood Dental Associates, P.A.'s ("Kirkwood") Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 33). For the reasons discussed below, the motion will be denied in part and granted in part.

         BACKGROUND

         Kirkwood is a Delaware-based dental practice with offices in Glasgow and Wilmington. (D.I. 43 Ex. 1 at 9) The practice is an equal partnership divided between four partner dentists. (D.L 43 Ex. 5 at 8-15) When asked about hiring and firing decisions, Kirkwood partner Robert Christy testified that the "partners have final say over everything, I suppose." (D.I. 33 Ex. H at 6)

         Plaintiff Cheryl Gray ("Gray") began working at Kirkwood on July 6, 1993 as a dental assistant. (D.I. 33 Ex. B at 11) Around six to eight years later, she became a front desk receptionist. (D.I. 43 Ex. 3 at 13) She was terminated in September 2015. (D.I. 43 Ex. 3 at 15)

         Throughout her time at Kirkwood, Gray received mostly positive evaluations. For instance, in her 2012 evaluation - the most recent evaluation in the record - Dusty Meadows, Kirkwood's former office manager and human resources representative, described Gray as "dependable" and a "team player." (D.I. 43 Ex. 4. at 72) That evaluation also listed several "areas for improvement," including "work[ing] on the schedule at both offices" and "keeping day bags up to date." (Id.) Likewise, a 2006 evaluation by Meadows stated that Gray "helped me through some tuff employee problems" but added that Gray "[n]eed[s] to not say negative info about employee to other employees." (D.I. 43 Ex. 4. at 74-75)

         There is no evidence that Gray was formally reprimanded or disciplined. Meadows testified that Gray was never disciplined for "her behavior or conduct towards any other staff member or doctor." (D.I. 43 Ex. 6 at 71) Meadows also testified that she did not receive any complaints about Gray's performance from the practice's doctors and that Gray had no "verbal or written disciplinary action in her file." (D.I. 43 Ex. 6 at 82) Likewise, Kirkwood partner Arthur Young testified that he was unaware of any complaints against Gray. (Ex. 11 at 7-8)

         Gray testified that on two occasions a Kirkwood partner, Dr. Christy, made comments linking her age to possible termination. On one of these occasions, she contends that Dr. Christy told her "they could bring someone in younger and pay them a lot less money." (D.I. 33 Ex. B at 46-47) While she was unclear about the specific timing of the two age-related statements, Gray testified that "[t]he last time was approximately six months before I was let go [in September 2015] and the other was previous to that." (D.I. 33 Ex. B at 47)

         Dusty Meadows testified that sometime before August 2014, Gray had reported to her that Christy had told Gray, "I could hire two people half your age and half your salary to do the same job you do." (D.I. 43 Ex. 6 at 56) Meadows added that when she informed the doctors about this incident at one of their meetings, they "didn't say anything back to me, nothing." (D.I. 43 Ex. 6 at 58) Kirkwood office manager Monica Durante testified that she heard Dr. Christy make this statement. However, Durante said it was made in "2006, maybe 2007" and thought Christy "never directed it to either one of us or to anyone in the office for that matter." (D.I. 33 Ex. G at 29-30) In his deposition. Dr. Christy denied ever making these statements. (D.I. 33 Ex. H at 32)

         On another occasion, Dr. Christy said he "had lots of pink slips on his desk just waiting to go out." (D.I. 33 Ex. B at 59) Gray interpreted this to mean "that people were going to get let go." (D.I. 33 Ex. B at 59) Christy did not deny making this comment. (D.I. 33 Ex. Hat 35) He testified, however, that he was being sarcastic and objected to any "intimation that I was in any way negative or serious about the layoffs." (D.I. 33 Ex. H at 35)

         On September 15, 2015, Kirkwood fired Gray. (D.I. 33 Ex. B at 15) Gray was 58 years old. (D.I. 34 at 14) Dr. Esbitt was the one who informed Gray that she was being terminated, although he testified that "[i]t was a group decision" and that "[e]veryone" (that is, all the partners) "agreed to it." (D.I. 43 Ex. 1 at 24, 54, 57) The record contains evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that it was principally Esbitt and Christy who made the termination decision. (D.I. 33 Ex. F at 5; D.I. 33 Ex. H at 40) (Christy: "I agreed with [Dr. Esbitt] to terminate [Gray]") Kirkwood partner Dr. Nicholas Punturieri said he "liked working with Cheryl" and "had no problems with Cheryl." (D.I. 43 Ex. 13 at 12) After Kirkwood fired her, Dr. Punturieri wrote a recommendation for Gray. (D.I. 43 Ex. 13 at 14)

         As justification for its decision to terminate Gray, Kirkwood points to purported interpersonal conflicts Gray had with her co-workers. On November 23, 2008, "Sheila" - who appears to be someone who worked with Gray at Kirkwood - emailed Kirkwood partner Eric Esbitt to say she had "struggl[ed] with deep depression . .. from Cheryl [Gray] and Dusty [Meadows]'s abuse over the past 7 years." (D.I. 33 Ex. C at 161) "Sheila" alleged that Gray and Meadows "connive to watch each others backs, and the employees that defend themselves or stand up to the[m], end up being punished or fired." (Id.) She urged Esbitt to "[m]ake Cheryl accountable for her work, and stop allowing [her] to prance around the office, completing nothing but ordering lunch and Longerburger, and make that girl work!" (Id.)

         Six years later, in a letter dated November 5, 2014, Kirkwood manager Patricia Boon recalled an incident in which Gray "totally humiliated" her by talking to her over the phone "in a loud tone of voice."[1] (D.I. 33 Ex. C at 158) She noted: "[t]his is not the first time this has happen[ed]," adding that the "first time" was when Gray "was calling an old boyfriend and talking for an hour, on our time, our phone lines." (Id.) One month later, an outside consultant told Dr. Christy that "Patty" - apparently another Kirkwood employee - described "a very ugly screaming match" that had occurred between her and Gray. (D.I. 43 Ex. 7 at 452)

         On August 3, 2015, Dr. Esbitt emailed Dr. Christy and others to complain that Gray's "negativity is again bringing down the office." (D.I. 33 Ex. D at 417) Dr. Esbitt noted that he had met with Gray "months ago," and that Gray had "reassured me that her negative behavior would improve," but also that he was "getting the same consistent complaints from almost every staff member," including that Gray was "constantly making personal phone calls." (Id,) He concluded by pledging to "meet with Cheryl without staff... no more ...


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