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Crotteau v. St. Coletta of Wisconsin

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

August 3, 2016


          OPINION & ORDER

          JAMES D. PETERSON District Judge

         Plaintiff Gina Marie Crotteau was fired from her job as a “direct support professional” at St. Coletta of Wisconsin, a provider of support services for people with developmental disabilities, run by an order of Catholic nuns. Plaintiff believes she was fired and subjected to a hostile work environment because she is Baptist and because she is over 40 years old. She brings claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) against defendant for subjecting her to a hostile work environment and ultimately firing her because of her religion and age. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and then supplemented that motion after I allowed plaintiff to add her ADEA claims to the case.

         After considering the parties’ briefs and supporting evidence, I will grant defendant’s motion for summary judgment because defendant is exempt from religious-discrimination claims under Title VII, and because no reasonable jury could conclude on the facts before me that defendant subjected plaintiff to a hostile work environment based on her age or was lying when it explains that it fired plaintiff for leaving clients unattended, rather than because of her age.


         Plaintiff Gina Marie Crotteau is a resident of Jefferson, Wisconsin. Defendant St. Coletta of Wisconsin, Inc. is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi and located in Jefferson. St. Coletta provides residential, day, and vocational programs and services for persons with developmental disabilities and “other challenges.”

         The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi is a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. The Sisters are the sole members of St. Coletta of Wisconsin, Inc., and own all of defendant’s assets. Defendant’s corporate bylaws specifically require that the corporation’s activities be consistent with the “mission, philosophy and values” of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi and that the Board of Directors include three members of the Sisters. Defendant’s mission statement provides: “Inspired by the Franciscan Values of compassion, dignity and respect, we support persons with developmental and other challenges to achieve their highest quality of life, personal growth and spiritual awareness.”

         A Catholic mass, attended by residents and employees, is held at the chapel every Thursday, and a recorded mass is available at all times. Prayers are regularly spoken at meetings and in the residents’ homes. Symbols of the Catholic religion are located throughout defendant’s property, including crucifixes and religious statues depicting the Virgin Mary, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Colette, among others. The religious nature and operation of defendant’s organization is represented to the public in various forms, including on its website.

         Plaintiff began working for defendant as a “direct support professional” (DSP). Plaintiff was responsible for providing support to residents (also called clients), who are individuals with moderate to severe developmental disabilities. These duties included monitoring clients during snack and lunch times to ensure their safety. DSPs are allowed two 15-minute breaks, which are to be taken before and after client programming. If a DSP needs to use the restroom or take an emergency phone call outside of her scheduled break period, she is allowed to do so, but must first arrange for another staff member or a supervisor to be present in her room, or with her clients during the lunch period (during which time everyone is together in the lunchroom), so that that her residents are not left unattended.

         Plaintiff generally found it uncomfortable that she could use only her two breaks to use the bathroom. Plaintiff thought lunch time “was the best time to use the restroom since all staff and clients were together in the lunchroom, ” and “[t]his would not be an issue if there had been any such 15 minute scheduled breaks at any time.” Dkt. 44, at 3. Plaintiff states that she “was asked/told several times by staff, who, during lunch, needed to use the restroom, ” id. at 3, and that she “provided coverage for any staff that needed to use the restroom at that time, as well, ” id. at 7.

         Defendant’s employee handbook states that “if an employee leaves a work area with clients unsupervised, it will result in immediate termination, ” and that “leaving a client(s) unattended” constitutes serious misconduct and is grounds for immediate termination. The parties dispute whether plaintiff received full training over her first three weeks on the job, but plaintiff does not dispute that she was aware that leaving clients unattended was considered misconduct.

         On September 9, 2013, plaintiff was assigned to the Community Room, which had five individuals who required continued monitoring. Defendant says that plaintiff was responsible for two of the individuals. Plaintiff says that she was assigned to the room as an extra staff member, and was allowed to leave the room at least twice to collect supplies and meet with Stephanie McDonald for training.

         Defendant says that at some point during lunch, plaintiff left the lunch area (I take the parties to be saying that the staff and clients in the Community Room were part of a larger gathering in the lunch area). McDonald says that employees alerted her to plaintiff’s absence. Plaintiff says that her coworkers “were well aware where [she] was at all times.” Dkt. 44, at 5. McDonald eventually found plaintiff back in the Community Room. McDonald says she asked plaintiff where she was, plaintiff said that she was at the human resource offices, and McDonald told plaintiff that she needed to be in the lunchroom with her assigned clients during the lunch hour. It is unclear whether plaintiff disputes that she was not in the lunchroom during the entire lunch hour. Plaintiff says that she “completed all [of her] assignments on September 9, ” id., at 6, which I will construe to mean that plaintiff disputes McDonald’s statement that plaintiff left the lunchroom.

         On September 10, 2013, plaintiff left the lunchroom to use the bathroom, fax a document, and make a phone call. Plaintiff says that she talked to another staff member before leaving the lunchroom, and “alerted [the] co-worker for any coverage that day before I left the lunchroom.” Id. at 7. Plaintiff says, “The staff, my co-workers at the time, are very capable and professional persons and would not be compromised by my absence for a short time using the bathroom, nor desperately need one specific staffs’ help in the lunch room with the clients.”

         On September 10, 2013, several employees approached McDonald, reported that plaintiff had been gone for at least 15 minutes and stated that they needed help. McDonald confirmed that plaintiff was not in her work area, ensured that plaintiff’s clients were being cared for, and began looking for plaintiff. She asked two other employees to help her: Geralyn Dorn, the manager of Day Programs and Services, and Mario Dealca, the senior director of Programs and Services.

         McDonald, Dorn, and Dealca eventually found plaintiff as she was finishing her phone call. McDonald began talking in a raised voice, and plaintiff asked her not to yell at her. Plaintiff “started to feel harassed, as [McDonald] appeared to be losing her temper.” McDonald explained to plaintiff that she was not being yelled at, but that she needed to ensure that there was always coverage for the developmentally disabled clients in her care. As McDonald was talking to her, plaintiff walked away. Plaintiff says this is because she “felt that [McDonald] needed a private moment to ‘cool down.’” Id. at 10. Plaintiff believes that she followed defendant’s procedures for ensuring coverage. She was back in her assigned room at 12:30 p.m., when client programming began.

         McDonald and Dorn met to discuss plaintiff’s continued employment. They say that they decided to fire plaintiff because of plaintiff’s behavior that day, her behavior the previous day, and her response to McDonald’s criticism. Plaintiff came to work on September 11, 2013, and she was summoned to the human resources office. Dorn and a human resources official met with her. They gave plaintiff a letter saying that she was terminated for leaving several clients unattended.

         Plaintiff says that, on some unspecified date, she complained about moldy cabinets and an abusive client in a certain room, and Dorn responded that she would find someone “younger” for that room. Plaintiff also says that “[a]ll staff should not have to endure being ignored, interrupted when speaking, negative attitudes shown towards them, nor hearing “old bitch” muttered under their bosses breath.” Id., at 12. I take plaintiff to be saying that Dorn was the person who called her an “old bitch.”

         From January 1, 2013 through September 11, 2013, defendant terminated fourteen direct support professionals in addition to plaintiff. Thirteen of those individuals were under the age of 40. Two of those under-40 DSPs were fired for leaving clients unattended. Plaintiff asserts that shortly following her firing, defendant fired at least three DSPs who ...

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