Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.


United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 20, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lamberth, District Judge.


Plaintiff Lawrence Lewis was dismissed by his employer, NVT Technologies, Inc. (NVT), on September 30, 1998. He sued, alleging that NVT discriminated against him on the basis of his race in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. 2000(e) et seq.,*fn1 and that NVT violated the terms of his employment contract as embodied in NVT's employee manual.*fn2 NVT has moved for summary judgment on all counts. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants NVT's motion.

I Background

Lawrence Lewis began working at NVT in 1991 on a contract with the federal government to provide services to the Hubert H. Humphrey building. He was employed as the lead engineer on the project. He also, for much of the time of his employment, worked for a competitor of NVT, Griffin Services. This was consistent with the conflict of interest policy at NVT, and Mr. Lewis' supervisors were kept aware of his outside employment.

On September 1, 1998, NVT sent a memorandum to all of its employees at the H.H. Humphrey building asking them to disclose any other employment so that it could be evaluated for potential conflicts of interest. Mr. Lewis reported that he continued to work for a competitor, Griffin Services. NVT at that point decided to change its policy with respect to conflicts of interest. Mr. Lewis was told that he would need to demonstrate to NVT that he had terminated his employment relationship with Griffin Services by September 30, 1998 or he would be terminated. On September 30, when he had not demonstrated that he had ended his relationship with Griffin, he was fired.

II Race Discrimination Claim

Under the framework established in McDonnell Douglas v. Green a plaintiff in a Title VII case must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. 411 U.S. 792, 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). Normally, in a case involving a job termination, this requires demonstrating that (1) the plaintiff was a member of a protected class, (2) the plaintiff was qualified for the job in question, (3) the plaintiff was fired and (4) either the person hired was not a member of a protected class or the position was unfilled for a significant amount of time. See id.

The plaintiff cannot meet element (4) in this case because the person who replaced him is black. See Defendant's Reply Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (Defendant's Reply) Ex. 1 at 1; Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Plaintiff's Opposition) at 14. However, as plaintiff argues, the framework for establishing a prima facie case from McDonnell Douglas is not meant to be inflexible. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802 n. 13, 93 S.Ct. 1817 ("The facts will necessarily vary in Title VII cases, and the specification above of the prima facie proof required from the respondent is not necessarily applicable in every respect to differing factual situations."). See also, Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 n. 6, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981) (the McDonnell Dauglas four element test for a plaintiff's prima facie case "is not inflexible.").*fn3 While the McDonnell Douglas elements are one useful way of establishing a prima facie case for a Title VII plaintiff, the underlying determination is whether the employee can demonstrate that there is a coherent reason to think that he was fired "under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination" Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253, 101 S.Ct. 1089. The Court adopts this more flexible approach in determining whether the plaintiff has made his prima facie case.

The plaintiff argues that because his supervisor, Mr. Cleveland, made a number of racially offensive remarks, and discussed the racial characteristics of applicants when making employment decisions, he has made his prima facie case. See Plaintiff's Opposition at 8-10; Ex. 1. However, NVT has demonstrated that the president of the company, V. Thanh Nguyen, was the person at the company who decided to investigate conflicts of interest more aggressively, not Mr. Cleveland. See Defendant's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (Defendant's Memorandum), Ex. 4, Ans. No. 17; Defendant's Reply, Ex. 1 at 2. According to Mr. Lewis, on the night he was terminated, he recalls being told that Mr. Cleveland "didn't have anything to do with it" and that the decision to terminate him was made by of the "owner of the organization." Defendant's Memorandum, Ex. 3 at 17. Mr. Nguyen has stated that he was the person who made the decision to terminate Mr. Lewis because he was in violation of NVT's conflict of interest policy. See Defendant's Reply, Ex. 1 at 2. The plaintiff has produced no evidence that Mr. Nguyen made any racially offensive remarks.

The plaintiff has not raised a question of material fact as to whether the decision to terminate Mr. Lewis was made by Mr. Nguyen. Nor has the plaintiff made any showing that Mr. Cleveland had any role in implementing the conflict of interest policy adopted by NVT in September of 1998. Further, defendant has produced evidence, which plaintiff has not challenged, that three non-African-Americans were terminated at approximately the same time as the plaintiff for violations of NVT's conflict of interest policy and that both African-Americans and non-African-Americans who did not have employment outside of NVT continued working at the company after it implemented its conflict of interest policy in September of 1998. See Defendant's Memorandum, Ex. 5; Ex. 2 at 42-44; Ex. 6 at 2; Ex. 4 answer 16; Ex. 3, at 146-48 and Ex. 4 thereto.

Under the flexible test for whether the plaintiff has met his prima facie case which this Court adopts, Mr. Lewis must show that he suffered the adverse employment action because of his race. Because Mr. Lewis has not linked his supervisor's comments with his adverse employment action and there is undisputed evidence that the conflict of interest policy was applied without regard to race, he has not met this burden.

Summary judgment in favor of NVT on this claim is therefore appropriate.

III. Breach of Contract Claim

The plaintiff contends that NVT impermissibly changed its policy with respect to outside employment. See Complaint at 5. NVT had distributed an employee handbook, which stated that its policy with respect to conflicts of interest was one of `full disclosure' of outside work with competitors. See Plaintiff's Opposition, Ex. 9 § 5.3. When NVT told Mr. Lewis to end his employment with Griffin or he would be fired, he alleges they violated a term of his employment contract with them, as embodied in the employee policy manual. See Complaint at 5.

The defendant notes that Mr. Lewis was an at-will employee. See Defendant's Memorandum Ex. 3 Ex. 11 thereto. NVT argues that because Mr. Lewis was an at-will employee, NVT was free to change any policy in the employee manual at its discretion and terminate him if he violated the newly adopted policy. See Defendant's Memorandum at 18.

The law in the District of Columbia is clear — there is a strong presumption that at-will employees do not gain contractual rights based on the statements in an employee policy manual. See, Perkins v. District Government Employees Federal Credit Union, 653 A.2d 842, 843 (D.C. 1995) (ambiguous language is "insufficient to overcome the well-established presumption of an at-will agreement"). See also Fleming v. AT & T, 878 F.2d 1472, 1474-75 (D.C.Cir. 1989) (holding that company literature stating a preference for "a term of life time employment" cannot form the basis for a breach of contract claim for an at-will employee).

While NVT has produced a form signed by the plaintiff indicating that he acknowledges that he is an at-will employee, see Defendant's Memorandum, Ex. 3, Deposition of Lawrence Lewis, Ex. 11 thereto, the plaintiff has not pointed to any evidence that suggests that he was not an at-will employee. The statement in the employee manual that "[w]e ask that you discuss all possible conflicts with your supervisor," see Plaintiff's Opposition ex. 9, does not unambiguously confer a contractual obligation on NVT to limit its conflict of interest policy. While the plaintiff has directed the Court to a number of cases where employee policy manuals have been found to change the contractual terms of an employment relation, none of these cases involves an at-will employment arrangement. See Plaintiff's Opposition at 17-18. Because Mr. Lewis was an at-will employee, NVT was free to change its policy with regard to outside employment and terminate him for violating that policy.

The Court grants summary judgment in favor of the defendant on this count.

IV. Conclusion

For the forgoing reasons, the Court grants summary judgment for defendant on all counts.


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.