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LEE v. CHRISTIAN COALITION OF AMERICA

July 27, 2001

ELIZABETH LEE ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
V.
CHRISTIAN COALITION OF AMERICA, INC. ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

    MEMORANDUM OPINION

GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART THE PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR A PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION

I. INTRODUCTION

Both sides in this racially charged case frame their positions with incendiary rhetoric. The plaintiffs, ten current and former African-American employees of the Christian Coalition of America ("the Coalition"), move the court for a preliminary injunction to prevent their employer from engaging in any retaliatory conduct toward them. The plaintiffs, all of whom work or worked in the data-entry or remittance departments of the Coalition's Washington, D.C. office, filed their complaint on February 23, 2001. They explain that they brought this "lawsuit in 2001 concerning Jim Crow-style racial discrimination." See Pls.' Reply ("Reply") at 16. The plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint on May 25, 2001. On July 5, 2001, the plaintiffs moved this court for a preliminary injunction, arguing that in retaliation for their lawsuit, the defendants*fn1 have cut their work hours dramatically, forcing several of them to quit.

Firing back, the Coalition contends that the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction "is merely an attempt to generate negative publicity against the Coalition and to force wide-ranging discovery prior to a ruling on defendants' dispositive motions to dismiss and accompanying motions to stay discovery." See Defs.' Opp'n to Mot. for Prelim. Inj. ("Defs.' Opp'n") at 1. The defendants argue that because the plaintiffs have made a relatively weak showing in their motion for injunctive relief, the court should deny the plaintiffs' motion.

For the reasons that follow, the court will grant in part and deny in part the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Factual History

Founded in 1989 by Pat Robertson "to give Christians a voice in government," the Christian Coalition "represent[s] a growing group of nearly 2 million people of faith to have a voice in the conversation we call democracy." See http://www.cc.org/aboutcca/mission.html, last visited on July 25, 2001. The Coalition, a non-profit corporation under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, is incorporated under the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia. See First Am. Compl. at 3.

In June 2000, the Coalition moved its headquarters from Chesapeake, Virginia to Washington, D.C. See Defs.' Opp'n at 7; First Am. Compl. at 3. To help staff its Washington office, the Coalition hired All-U-Need personnel, an employment agency. See Defs.' Opp'n at 8. When she was first hired in June 2000, Elizabeth Lee, an African-American woman, was an hourly employee of this agency and had no supervisory authority. In mid-November 2000, the Coalition offered her, and she accepted, a promotion to a salaried supervisory position, Remittance Manager. See id.

The other nine plaintiffs — Eboni N. Coatley-el, Monica Hagans, Latasha Lee, Lanae McCollum, Cynthia Moore, Tina M. Smith, Lisa J. Sutton, Norma Vaughn, and Marion R. Wilson — are all African-American women. Hired between June 2000 and January 2001, these nine plaintiffs work or worked at an hourly rate of pay between $6.50 and $8. See First Am. Compl. at 3. Elizabeth Lee earns a salary of $12 per hour. See E. Lee First Decl. at 3. Every plaintiff works or worked in the Coalition's remittance and data entry department. See First Am. Compl. at 3.*fn2 According to the defendants, the remittance and data processing department, which Elizabeth Lee supervises, is divided into two parts. See Defs.' Opp'n at 8. The department's main function is to process the mail containing contributions to the Coalition. See id. As the defendants explain:

The duties of the plaintiffs who are, or were, in the Remittance division include counting the pieces of mail, opening them, and tabulating the total amount of the checks and/or cash received. When Remittance finished this processing, the mail was forwarded to Data Processing. The duties of the plaintiffs who were in the Data Processing division included entering the name and address of the contributor and total amount of the contribution into the Coalition database.

Id. (citing Cardenas Decl. at 2).

B. Procedural History

On February 23, 2001, the plaintiffs filed their initial complaint. They alleged that the Coalition had a "front door/back door policy." See Compl. at 6. Specifically, they claimed that while white employees were allowed to use the front door, which leads into the reception area and is accessible to the public, black employees were instructed to use only the back door. See id. at 67. According to the plaintiffs, Roberta Combs, the Coalition's Executive Director, justified this policy by saying "that she did not want important people seeing the girls from remittance/data entry in the reception area." See id. at 8.

The African-American remittance/data entry employees also claimed that the Coalition maintained segregated kitchen and break facilities. See Compl. at 9. Whereas white employees were allowed to use the kitchen — which contained a refrigerator, microwave, dishwasher, bottled water service, coffeemaker, and television — the black remittance and data entry employees allegedly had to take breaks in a segregated break area "consisting of tables shoved against the wall of the remittance/data entry room." See id. at 9.

The plaintiffs also charged that the Coalition excluded black employees from the Christmas party and from events revolving around the inauguration of President George W. Bush, provided no health-care coverage to any of the black employees, and refused to pay the black employees overtime. See Compl. at 10-15.

The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants have violated the D.C. Human Rights Act, D.C.Code § 1-2501 et seq., have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2001 et seq., and have committed intentional infliction of emotional distress. See Compl. at 16-19. On May 4, 2001, the defendants responded by filing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) (lack of subject-matter jurisdiction) and 12(b)(6) (failure to state a claim). See generally Defs.' Mot. to Dis.

On May 25, 2001, the plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint. They now contend that after they filed this lawsuit, the "[d]efendants engaged in a course of conduct intended to force one or more Plaintiffs to resign." See First Am. Compl. at 15. Among other things, the plaintiffs charge that before they filed their original complaint, the Coalition maintained a policy of paying a minimum of four hours pay when an hourly employee reported to work, even if there was insufficient work to perform. See id. at 16. After the employees filed their suit, however, the Coalition allegedly adopted a policy of refusing to pay them the four-hour minimum. See id.

The remittance and data-entry employees also assert that the previous requirement that each employee process a minimum of 300 transactions per day was increased to 2,000 transactions per day. See id. at 17. Moreover, the defendants' outside consultants allegedly told Elizabeth Lee that the plaintiffs would be allowed only one bathroom break per day, and "would be expected to type continuously from 9 am [sic] until lunchtime at 12:45." See id.

In addition to the counts alleged in the original complaint, the plaintiffs added two counts in their amended complaint: intentional racial discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 on behalf of all the plaintiffs, and constructive discharge based on a hostile work environment on behalf of the four plaintiffs who allegedly had been forced to quit by the defendants' conduct. Through their briefs and the affidavits of employees, the defendants deny all charges of racial discrimination and retaliation.

C. Background to the Motion for a Preliminary Injunction

Before they filed their suit, the plaintiffs maintained that they "regularly worked full days" in the remittance and data-entry departments. See Mot. for Prelim. Inj. at 2. After they filed their suit, however, the work in the office began to decrease and the work conditions allegedly grew more hostile, forcing some of the plaintiffs to resign. Only five plaintiffs remain at the Coalition: Elizabeth Lee, Lanae McCollum, Tina Smith, Lisa Sutton, and Marion Wilson. See id. at 3. "According to the Coalition, the work originally performed by ten full-time, hourly employees is now only sufficient to occupy four hourly employees at less than half-time, an estimated reduction in workload of 80%." See id. (citing E. Lee Decl. at 3).

On June 14, 2001, a memo from defendant Roberta Combs was distributed which was "purportedly meant to `clarify'" that the regular workday for the hourly employees was from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each weekday. See Mot. for Prelim. Inj. at 3. The memo explained that there was "not enough work" to maintain a full-time schedule for the hourly employees. See id. The employees take issue with the Coalition's assertion that it has the right to "agree" with the hourly employees to a work schedule of less than four hours per day under D.C. law. See id. (citing D.C. Mun. Regs. Tit. 7, § 907.1). The employees note that at three-and-a-half hours per day, they are grossing between $26.25 and $28 per workday. If the court accepted the defendants' logic, they argue, the defendants could continue to reduce the "assigned" work hours to one or two hours per day. See id. "Defendants are slowly forcing Plaintiffs['] pay down to a level where it is less than their commuting and child care costs." See id. at 3-4.

A key point in the dispute is the plaintiffs' contention that the volume of work has not decreased by 80 percent. See Mot. for Prelim. Inj. at 4. Rather, the plaintiffs claim, the defendants "began implementing a scheme" to reassign work "secretly" from the plaintiffs to the single white employee in the remittance area, and to other employees who had never done remittance or data-entry work before. See id. In her declaration, Elizabeth Lee says that on June 20, 2001, she found signed documentation showing that "Walter (`Rob') Schmidt, the single white employee in remittance, Arlynn Gray, and Tracy Ammons, had been performing data entry work on June 19, after the black hourly employees who are Plaintiffs left the office." See E. Lee Decl. at 5. Ms. Lee states that because the data-entry work was beginning to pile up, she called Ms. Combs at about 12:20 p.m. on June 20, 2001 to ask her if the black employees could stay after 12:30 p.m. to finish the work, but that Ms. Combs refused. See id. Ms. Combs "said she had somebody else to do the work. I had to stay and show and tell Tracey [sic] Ammons and Arlynn Gray how to do the work." Id.

The employees contend that Mr. Ammons, the Human Resources Director, does not have any responsibility for remittance and data-entry work. See E. Lee Decl. at 6. Elizabeth Lee also states that Rob Schmidt came to her on the morning of June 21, 2001 and asked her to apologize for him to the black hourly employees for doing work that they could be doing. See id. She added that despite Roberta Combs's statement that Rob Schmidt was performing the remittance and data-entry work as a volunteer, Rob Schmidt told Elizabeth Lee that the Coalition was paying him to do the work. See id.

The second principal point of contention revolves around the Coalition's hiring of an outside consultant, Campaign Mail and Data, Inc. ("CMDI"), to do the data-entry work. On July 2, 2001, Elizabeth Lee noticed that 12 shelves that had previously been filled with data-entry work to be performed just a week before were now empty. See E. Lee Decl. at 7. She learned the next day that the work had been sent to CMDI for data entry. See Mot. for Prelim. Inj. at 5.

To further support their motion for a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs include declarations from three former Christian Coalition employees: Trent Barton, Candace Wheeler, and Joel Garrett.*fn3 Mr. Barton, a white man who worked at the Coalition from about December 26, 2000 to February 27, 2001, said he learned that the Coalition prohibited African — American employees who worked in remittance and data entry from using the "front door" into the Coalition's reception area. See Barton Decl. at 1. "When I asked an employee why this policy existed, I was told that Roberta Combs did not want `important people' to see the girls from the back." Id. He also learned that the Coalition prohibited these employees from using the kitchen, and that Candace Wheeler — a white employee who began working at the Coalition in December 2000 — was receiving health insurance benefits, while Elizabeth Lee was not. See id. at 2. Finally, Mr. Barton says he was fired because he refused to spy on his co-workers. As he explains:

On or about Thursday, February 22, 2001, Tracy Ammons asked me to enter the remittance/data entry room and eavesdrop on the African-American employees. . . . On Monday, February 26, 2001, I told Tracy Ammons that I was unwilling to eavesdrop or spy on fellow employees. On the evening of February 27, 2001, at approximately 10:30 p.m., Tracy Ammons phoned me and told me that my services at the Coalition were no longer needed. Mr. Ammons said to me that he knew I would not cause trouble for the Coalition, since I was a good Christian and [a] man of integrity. I took his statement to mean that any support for the racial discrimination lawsuit would be contrary to my religious and ethical beliefs as a Christian.

Barton Decl. at 3.

Candace Wheeler, a white woman who served as Director of Membership Services at the Coalition from December 12, 2000 to April 30, 2001, also states that the Coalition had a "back door" policy for the African-American employees. See Wheeler Decl. at 1-2. She says she learned that none of the black employees had been invited to the office's Christmas party in December 2000, and that they were regularly excluded from other office social events. See id. at 2. Ms. Wheeler explains that "[u]pon learning these facts, I became very concerned that the leadership of the Coalition was intentionally discriminating against the black women who worked for the Coalition. It is contrary to my beliefs as a Christian to treat persons as lesser human beings because of their race." See id. at 3. Lastly, Ms. Wheeler said that at several prayer meetings after the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, "Roberta Combs told the group that she and Pat Robertson were anointed of God. Mrs. Combs stated that she felt sorry for anyone who crossed them because `God would deal with them.'" See id.

Lastly, Joel Garrett — who describes himself as "a Christian who generally agrees with the Coalition's political goals" — worked for the Coalition around the time of the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2000. See Garrett Decl. at 1. During his time with the Coalition, he does not recall "ever observing the black employees from remittance using the front door through the reception area. The only places I would see these black employees was in the remittance room or the storage room." See id. at 3.

In response, the Coalition and Ms. Combs vigorously refute the allegations of unlawful retaliation. They note that the decline in the Coalition's contributor mail since December 2000 (about 73 percent) "was probably the result of several factors, including the end of the presidential election cycle and plaintiffs' incompetence in entering data, which resulted in numerous complaints from contributors due to too frequent solicitation." See Defs.' Opp'n at 9 (citing Decl. of CMDI President John Simms at 5-6).

Moreover, in seeking to support their assertion that the court should deny the plaintiffs' motion because the plaintiffs have unclean hands, the defendants charge that plaintiff Elizabeth Lee engaged in mismanagement, misconduct, and nepotism. They state that after she assumed the supervisory position in November 2000, Ms. Lee hired plaintiffs Monica Hagans and Tina Marie Smith. See Defs.' Opp'n at 9. Moreover, although the Coalition suffered a 16 percent decline in incoming mail between December 2000 and January 2001, after all the discriminatory events alleged in the initial complaint had supposedly occurred, Ms. Lee hired three new employees in late January 2001: "plaintiff Latasha Whitfield-Lee (apparently her sister-in-law), plaintiff Lanae McCollum (plaintiff Monica Hagens' roommate), and plaintiff Norma Vaughn." See id. (citing Cardenas Decl. at 3). Seeking to cast doubt on the plaintiffs' overall case, the defendants note that "[w]ithin three weeks, each of these new employees joined the lawsuit, each claiming she was the victim of widespread discrimination. These same employees are now claiming retaliation because their work hours have declined." See Defs.' Opp'n at 9.

In terms of its use of the outside vendor, the Coalition explains that from June to September 2000, CMDI provided on-line data services to the Coalition. Although it ceased its relationship with CMDI in September 2000, the Coalition resumed its business relationship with CMDI in March 2001. At that point, the Coalition gave copies of all the data previously entered to CMDI, which attempted to integrate it with its existing Coalition database. See id. at 10. According to the defendants, "CMDI discovered that the data was incomplete, severely corrupted, and rife with duplicative entries. . . . CMDI discovered that the poor quality of the work done by the Coalition's data processing staff was the primary source of the data problems." Id.; see also Decl. of Coalition employee Susan Floyd at 2-3 (stating that the data processing staff performed well below industry standards, that many were poor typists who use the "hunt and peck" typing system, and that they were not willing to complete even the most basic tasks). In addition, CMDI President John Simms says the remittance staffs work product was "as deficient as the work product of the data entry staff." See Simms Decl. at 5. He adds that the data entry staffs failure to properly maintain the development database may be partially responsible for the decrease in the mail volume experienced by the Coalition since December 2000. See id. at 5-6.

In the defendants' view, the Coalition made a legitimate business decision to farm out the data entry work to an outside vendor since the Coalition's data entry staff could not handle it in a satisfactory manner. Accordingly, starting on June 25, 2001, "in light of the resignations, no shows, and incompetence of the Coalition's data processing personnel, the Coalition stopped using its personnel to do data entry." See Defs.' Opp'n at 11. The vendor now enters all data on its own directly from the remittance data prepared by the Coalition. See id.

In terms of some of the other allegations by the plaintiffs, the defendants offer their version of the facts. For example, Cecelia Cardenas, Mrs. Combs's personal assistant, explains that Ms. Lee's supervisors refused to allow the African-American employees to work past 12:30 p.m. because the Coalition felt the employees should have been able to complete the processing of the day's mail during regular work hours. See Cardenas Decl. at 5. "On those occasions when the Remittance and Data Processing employees dragged their feet and ...


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