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Black Physician Proves State Agency Discriminated By Failing To Interview Her And By Revoking Her Credentials
Dr. Vickie Mabry-Height is a Black physician who was 52-years-old in May 2008. In February 2008, she applied for a physician/surgeon position at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) in Blythe, California. After the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Department) confirmed she met the minimum qualifications and she passed the examination, the Department notified her that she would be placed on an eligibility list. Mabry-Height initially withdrew her application, but about two months later, she reconsidered her decision and informed the Department that she wanted to be considered for an interview again.
Although the Department had already filled the position at CVSP in Blythe, the Department decided to interview Mabry-Height and others in May 2008 in an attempt to fill vacant positions in another region. After informing Mabry-Height of the situation, the medical director persuaded her to continue with the interview. The medical director would have offered Mabry-Height a position in the other region; however, she was not willing to relocate.
In June 2008, Mabry-Height started working for a third-party provider that contracts with the Department to provide needed medical personnel to correctional institutions. Mabry-Height then worked various shifts at Centinela State Prison (CSP) between June and October 2008. During this time, Mabry-Height submitted a second application for employment with the Department, again seeking a physician/surgeon position. She indicated she was willing to work at CVSP, CSP, or the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC).
After submitting her second application, Mabry-Height inquired with the CVSP facility. A doctor informed her that there was an open position and that the Department was beginning to schedule interviews. However, no one at the Department contacted Mabry-Height to schedule an interview. Four days later, the Department hired Dr. James Veltmeyer, a Hispanic male between 21 and 39 years of age, to fill a physician/surgeon position at that facility. According to the Department’s documentation, Veltmeyer interviewed for the position in March 2008 and did not submit his employment application until more than two weeks after the interview.
On July 29, 2008, the Department interviewed for another open physician/surgeon position at CVSP. Dr. Mabry-Height was not invited to participate. For this position, the Department hired Dr. Patricia James, a white woman between 40 and 69 years of age. James’ qualifications were comparable to Mabry-Height’s.
In August 2008, Mabry-Height told the health care manager at CSP she was interested in a position there. Mabry-Height then spent more than an hour in the cafeteria working on her application during one of her regular shifts. The health care manager informed her this area was “off grounds” because it was not within the medical provider area. Mabry-Height also deducted the time she spent working on her application from her timesheet. However, the health care manager mentioned this when the credentialing unit inquired about Mabry-Height’s suitability for future employment. The health care manager also indicated that Mabry-Height’s “levels of enthusiasm, confidence, and cooperative behavior were not always as consistently high as other registry physicians.”
Around this time, Dr. Ko, an Asian male, was hired for a physician/surgeon position at CSP. Again, Mabry-Height was not invited to interview. One month later, Mabry-Height learned that the credentialing unit would be revoking her credentials; she was told not to report for any future shifts.
Mabry-Height then filed a complaint with the State Personnel Board (Board). After the Board determined that Mabry-Height failed to establish unlawful discrimination, she filed a writ of administrative mandamus in superior court to challenge the Board’s decision. That court granted the petition and directed the Board to set aside its decision and reconsider the matter.
Upon reconsideration, the Board again determined that Mabry-Height failed to establish discrimination as to the position she interviewed for in May 2008. This time, however, the Board determined that the Department failed to give any legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its decision not to interview her for positions at CVSP in July and August 2008 or at CSP in August 2008. In addition, the Board determined the Department’s vague and inconsistent reasons for revoking her credentialing failed to show that its decision was taken for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason.
Next, the Department filed a writ petition seeking to set aside the Board’s decision on reconsideration. The trial court denied the petition, and the Department appealed.
The California Court of Appeal noted that California has adopted a three-stage burden-shifting test for discrimination claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. First, the employee must establish a prima facie case of discrimination. If the employee does so, a presumption of discrimination arises. Second, the burden then shifts to the employer to rebut the presumption by producing evidence that it took the action for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons. If the employer does so, the presumption of discrimination disappears. Third, the employee can attack the employer’s reasons for acting as a pretext for discrimination or can offer any other evidence of discriminatory motive. Evidence of dishonest reasons, for example, may show unlawful bias. If the case includes evidence of both discriminatory and nondiscriminatory motives, the employee must prove discrimination was a “substantial factor” in the employment decision.
On appeal, the Department argued that Mabry-Height was required to show by a preponderance of the evidence that discrimination was a “substantial motivating factor” in the adverse employment decisions. While the court agreed that this burden exists, it disagreed with the Department as to how this inquiry fits into the analysis. The court concluded that this burden only applies to the third stage of the analysis if the presumption of discrimination has dropped out of the case.
In addition, the court concluded there was no abuse of discretion when the Board concluded the Department did not satisfy its stage-two burden of producing substantial evidence of legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the challenged conduct. Indeed, the court noted that the Department failed to present any evidence explaining why Mabry-Height was not interviewed for the positions that Veltmeyer, James, and Ko filled. Further, the Department could not meet its burden as to its decision to revoke Mabry-Height’s credentialing. The reasons the Department provided at the time to Dr. Mabry-Height were later contradicted by the testimony offered at the hearing. No one from the credentialing unit testified as to the actual reasons for revoking her credentialing.
For these reasons, the court affirmed the Board’s second decision.
Dep’t of Corr. & Rehab. v. State Pers. Bd., 2022 WL 354657 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 7, 2022).
This case shows that an employer’s decisions must be supported by legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. Before deciding not to interview a qualified candidate and before deciding to revoke a credential, for example, the employer or agency should document all of the legitimate reasons for its decision in an attorney-client memorandum or in consultation with an attorney. If the reasons for a decision are vague or conflicting, then the employer should reconsider.