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SINGH v. UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

January 22, 2004.

SAVITRI SINGH, Plaintiff
v.
UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROSEMARY COLLYER, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Savitri Singh sues the Committee on Ways and Means of the United States House of Representatives ("Committee") for race, color, and national origin discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e ("Title VII"), and the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, 2 U.S.C. § 1301 ("CAA"). She alleges hostile work environment, salary discrimination, and discriminatory discharge. At the close of discovery, the Committee filed a motion for summary judgment, which Ms. Singh opposes. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion and dismiss the complaint.

I. BACKGROUND

  A. Facts

  Ms. Singh is of Indian origin. She was born in British Guyana and emigrated to the United States when she was 18 years old; she is now a citizen of this country. Ms. Singh has a master's degree in endocrinology and biochemistry from Howard University and, in 1987, she received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. Thereafter, she worked in private Page 2 practice as a staff attorney at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP and as an attorney/advisor for the United States Customs Service before becoming a professional staff member on the Subcommittee on Trade ("Subcommittee") in October 1998.

  During the hiring process for the Subcommittee position, Angela Ellard, Ms. Singh's soon-to-be immediate supervisor, purportedly received several negative references from Ms. Singh's former employers.*fn1 See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mot.") Exh. 3. Notes from Ms. Ellard indicate that Ms. Singh's last supervisor at the United States Customs Service reported that Ms. Singh "pisses people off left and right" and "doesn't want to listen to other people." Id. Exh. 4. In addition, Ms. Singh's former supervisor at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP apparently stated that Ms. Singh left that job over a "quality of work issue." Id. Despite these references, Ms. Singh obtained employment with the Subcommittee because Congressman Phil Crane (R-IL), chairman of the Subcommittee, strongly recommended her. See Pl.'s Opp. at 2 (acknowledging that Ms. Singh "was hired on the recommendation of Philip Crane, a member of Congress and Chair of the Trade Subcommittee, over the objections of the Staff Director of the Trade Subcommittee, Angela Ellard, and the Ways and Means Committee's Chief of Staff, Pete Singleton"). Ms. Singh was the only non-Caucasian on the professional staff of the Committee during the time of the Republican majority prior to her discharge. See Pl.'s Opp. Exh. 11. Like all Committee staff, she was an at-will employee without an employment contract. See Def.'s Mot. Exh. 1 at 83-84. Ms. Singh's starting salary was $60,000 per year; at the time of her termination, she earned $62,000 per year. Page 3

  Ms. Singh alleges that, upon her arrival at the Subcommittee, she "immediately experienced Ms. Ellard as hostile and unreceptive." Pl.'s Opp. at 6. She further asserts that Committee staff subjected her to hostile and discriminatory treatment throughout the course of her employment, including "mocking her ability to speak English, frequently abusing, berating and degrading her, excluding her frommeetings, unfair evaluation of her work, unfair demands, denying travel opportunities, and a variety of other measures designed to diminish her stature and stifle her professional growth." Compl. ¶ 6.

  In January 2001, the chairmanship of the full Committee changed when Congressman Bill Archer (R-TX) retired and Congressman Bill Thomas (R-CA) succeeded him as chairman. Congressman Thomas had been the third-ranking member in seniority on the Committee, behind Congressman Crane, and some "political tension" was created on the Committee when the normal seniority rules were ignored and Congressman Thomas was made chairman. See Def.'s Mot. Exh. 9 (Kelliher Dep.) at 65. The new chairman hired Allison Giles as chief of staff and John Kelliher as chief counsel for the Committee in February 2001. While Ms. Giles was the primary decision-maker for personnel issues, she was assisted by Mr. Kelliher, Otto Wolff (who had worked for Congressman Thomas for a number of years), and Bob Winters (who had worked for Congressman Thomas for approximately 20 years in his personal office). See id. at 15-18. This group reviewed the personnel working for the Republican majority on the Committee and its various subcommittees. According to Mr. Kelliher, "[T]here's a period at the turn of a Congress, and particularly with a new chairman, where people are leaving simply for any variety of reasons. . . . So there was some of that churning that had to be dealt with. And we reviewed the staff and what they did and made some personnel decisions." Id. at 15. A number of people who had worked for Congressman Archer Page 4 "understood that there was a change in the regime and . . . they went out and found themselves other employment, and so it never came to termination." Id. at 29.

  As a result of the review of Committee procedures and staffing, three staff members were terminated involuntarily: Timothy Hanford, Michael Superata and Ms. Singh.*fn2 Messrs. Kelliher and Wolff met with each of these employees and "just simply stated that [they] were reevaluating the Committee's structure and personnel, and that [they] didn't see a role" for that individual. Id. at 73-74; see also Def.'s Mot. Exh. 1 (Pl.'s Dep.) at 205 ("They told me I was being terminated, and it had nothing to do with my work, that-1 believe they used the words that I didn't fit in with the new Committee. . . ."). As part of this process, Mr. Kelliher developed the impression that there were conflicts between Ms. Singh and Ms. Ellard over work-related issues.*fn3 See Def.'s Mot. Exh. 9 at 102. However, the group evaluating Committee employees did not consult with Ms. Ellard about Ms. Singh's performance "because the transition was a delicate time with respect to all employees and there was no certainty any one supervisor would continue employment." Def.'s Mot. Exh. 10 (Kelliher Aff.) ¶ 5. Input on Ms. Singh's performance was received from Mr. Winters and Chris Smith, the Committee's former deputy chief of staff. Mr. Kelliher explained: Page 5

 
I had been told that [Ms. Singh] had a connection or allegiance to Congressman Crane. Chairman Thomas had ascended to the Chairmanship past Congressman Crane . . . bypassing the traditional emphasis on seniority. As a result, I believed that [Ms. Singh's] association with Congressman Crane could negatively affect the efficient functioning of the Committee.
Another reason for the termination decision was [Ms. Singh's] poor reputation and unsatisfactory job performance. Winters had worked with [Ms. Singh] and indicated that [she] did not have a good professional reputation, that she had limited substantive experience, and that she had problems getting along with others. I was also informed that several individuals complained about [Ms. Singh's] performance.
These were the factors I had in my mind when I concurred in the decision to terminate [Ms. Singh's] employment.
Id. ¶¶ 12-14; see also Def.'s Mot. Exh. 11 (Giles Aff). At the time Ms. Giles and Mr. Kelliher reached these personnel decisions, each had been working for the Committee for only about two weeks. See id. ¶ 12. Ms. Singh was officially discharged from her position on the Subcommittee on February 12, 2001.

  B. Statutory Framework

  Once immune from suit for employment-related claims, Congress adopted the CAA to put itself voluntarily under the jurisdiction of the federal courts to resolve employment discrimination (and other) disputes if an administrative resolution process, which includes counseling and mediation, fails.*fn4 The CAA incorporates parts of Title VII and requires that "[a]ll Page 6 personnel actions affecting covered employees shall be made free from any discrimination based on . . . race, color, religion, sex, or national origin[.]"*fn5 Id. § 1311(a). Due to the inherent political nature of Capitol Hill, the CAA specifically allows an employing office to consider an employee's party affiliation, domicile, or political compatibility in making employment-related decisions. 2 U.S.C. § 1432(a).

  It is uncontested that the CAA applies to Ms. Singh as a "covered employee" in the legislative branch. 2 U.S.C. § 1301(3)(A), 1301(9)(B). Moreover, she appears to have fulfilled her statutory obligation to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing suit on March 18, 2002.*fn6 Remedies under the CAA include, as appropriate, back pay, reinstatement, and compensatory — but not punitive — damages. 2 U.S.C. § 1311(b)(1)(A) and (B).

  II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

  Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). This procedural device 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 Page 7 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. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Tao v. Freeh, 27 F.3d 635, 638 (D.C. Cir. 1994). To be "material" and ...


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