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Smith v. O'Neill

July 30, 2003

GALE A. SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PAUL O'NEILL, SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Gale Smith, an African-American woman, filed this lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, alleging that she has suffered from race and color discrimination and retaliation in connection with work assignments and performance appraisals that she received, as well as other job requirements of her position, at the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS" or "Agency"). She also alleges that she was subjected to a hostile work environment based on her race and color. Defendant Paul O'Neill is Secretary of the Treasury, of which the IRS is a component. He is being sued in his official capacity. Pending before the Court is the IRS's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, which Ms. Smith opposes. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Ms. Smith is a GS-14 Program Analyst in the Research Division of the IRS. In 1998, the IRS formed a new group within the Research Division, called the Earned Income Tax Credit ("EITC") group. At that time, Marguerite Kinney, a Caucasian woman, became chief of the EITC group. Under her were six employees, including Ms. Smith, three of whom were African-American and three of whom were Caucasian.

Ms. Smith claims that, from the beginning, Ms. Kinney assigned her "duties which were primarily administrative in nature." Compl. ¶ 25. Ms. Kinney allegedly refused to give any of the African-American employees in the EITC group "work commensurate with their position[s]," instead assigning all tasks "involving coordinating and managing research projects" to the Caucasian employees. Id. ¶ 18. Ms. Smith further asserts that the African-American employees in the group were subjected to harassment and repeated verbal abuse.

In November 1999, Ms. Smith received an overall rating of "Fully Successful" on her performance appraisal, which she contends was "significantly lower" than those she had received earlier in her career. Id. ¶ 34. In May 2000, she requested four days of leave, but was granted only two days by Ms. Kinney. According to Ms. Smith, three other employees had been granted leave for this same time. While out on leave, Ms. Smith again requested the additional two days off and Ms. Kinney granted her an additional one-half day. Although she was to report back to work at noon on May 18, 2003, Ms. Smith did not return to work until the following day. Upon her return, she was questioned by Ms. Kinney and directed to write a memorandum explaining her absence.

In June 2000, five of the EITC group employees, including Ms. Smith, sent a memorandum to Jim Alzheimer, Director of the Research Division, complaining about Ms. Kinney's alleged treatment of her subordinates and the hostile work environment she allegedly created. Because of their problems with Ms. Kinney's management style, all five employees requested reassignment or detail away from her supervision.*fn1 It appears that nothing was done with this memorandum, however, as Ms. Kinney apparently was not informed of it.

Ms. Smith contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") counselor on July 12, 2000, and filed her first formal administrative complaint on September 2, 2000. This EEO complaint presented three concerns: (1) that Ms. Smith had not been assigned work commensurate with her position as a GS-14 Program Analyst; (2) that she had been asked to write a memorandum explaining her absence from the office after a leave request had been denied; and (3) that IRS management had not responded to the memorandum sent to Mr. Alzheimer. See Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 6.

At the end of September 2000, Ms. Smith received an overall rating of "Met" on her annual performance evaluation. After learning of this rating in early December 2000, she again contacted an EEO counselor. Ms. Smith filed a second EEO complaint on January 20, 2001, alleging that she had received a lower rating on her September 2000 performance evaluation and was given an impractical budget assignment because of her race and in retaliation for filing her first EEO complaint.*fn2 Thereafter, Ms. Smith avers that the EEO counselor recommended she withdraw her January 2001 EEO complaint because the allegations concerning her second performance appraisal would become made part of the first complaint investigation and consolidation would "expedite processing the case." Pl.'s Opp. to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss ("Pl.'s Opp.") at 43. She accepted this advice and withdrew her second EEO complaint, signing a withdrawal form acknowledging that she understood she could "no longer file a complaint on the same issues." Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 8.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests whether the plaintiff has properly stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. In reviewing such a motion, the complaint's factual allegations must be presumed true and all reasonable inferences drawn in the plaintiff's favor, although the Court need not "accept legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations." Kowal v. MCI Communications Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). "[A] complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [her] claim which would entitle [her] to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).

Even when a plaintiff has stated a claim, summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows that no genuine issue exists as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Summary judgment is not a "disfavored legal shortcut[;]" rather, it is a reasoned and careful way to resolve cases fairly and expeditiously. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). To be "material" and "genuine," a factual dispute must be capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 247-48.

In the context of Title VII – absent direct evidence of discrimination – courts apply the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), when deciding a motion for summary judgment. Under McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case.

[T]o state a prima facie claim of disparate treatment discrimination, the plaintiff must establish that (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) the unfavorable action gives rise to an inference of discrimination. For retaliation claims... the prima facie requirements are slightly different. The plaintiff must show '1) that she engaged in a statutorily protected activity; 2) that the employer took an adverse personnel action; and 3) that a causal connection existed between the two.' A common element required for ...


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