Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-01-5858) (Hon. Natalia M. Combs Greene, Trial Judge)
Before Farrell and Washington, Associate Judges, and Ferren, Senior Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge
Appellant Teru Chang ("Ms. Chang") appeals the trial court's ruling granting summary judgment to her former employer, Institute for Public-Private Partnerships, Inc., Matthew Hensley, and Edward P. White*fn1 (collectively "IP3"). Ms. Chang alleges that IP3 unlawfully fired her both because IP3 regarded her as disabled in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA") *fn2 and in retaliation for exercising her right to protected medical leave in violation of the District of Columbia Family Medical Leave Act ("DCFMLA"). *fn3 Because we find, as a matter of law, that Ms. Chang did not present sufficient evidence that she was "regarded as disabled" under the DCHRA, we affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment on her DCHRA claim. Similarly, we affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment on her DCFMLA claim because we find that Ms. Chang could not show that IP3's legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for firing her were pretext. *fn4
The Institute for Public-Private Partnerships, Inc. ("IP3") was founded in 1994 by Thomas White and appellees, Matthew Hensley and Edward P. White, "to provide global training and consulting services to players in the growing international market in public-private partnerships." *fn5 Prior to starting IP3, the three founders had worked for the Center for Financial Engineering and Development ("CFED") where they initially met the appellant, Teru Chang. Ms. Chang developed a rapport with Thomas White when they worked together at CFED, and she kept in touch with him after he left with the others to form IP3. According to Thomas White, the two would touch base with each other "once a month maybe" to discuss "mostly business."
In 1997, IP3's business had grown to a point where it needed a full-time accountant to perform its bookkeeping activities. At the time, Ms. Chang happened to be looking for a new job so Thomas White submitted her resume to appellants, Matthew Hensley and Edward White, for consideration. IP3 hired Ms. Chang in November 1997 to handle the accounting and bookkeeping functions of the company. From the time she was hired until March 2000, Ms. Chang reported directly to Thomas White, who, as Executive Director, oversaw the bookkeeping activities and managed the day-to-day business operations of the company.
Ms. Chang avers that throughout her employment with IP3, she received nothing but praise from her superiors. *fn6 It is undisputed that during her tenure at IP3, Ms. Chang received significant pay raises, the last of which was given in November of 2000, three months before she was terminated. Thomas White admitted that Ms. Chang "was good at what she did in terms of [the accounting] aspect of her work . . . [S]he could balance checkbooks . . . prepare invoices well . . . match up expense reports with checks needing to go out . . . [and] prepare the information from a bookkeeping standpoint that [he] needed to do [his] job." Similarly, Edward White found her to be a detail-oriented and hard-working employee.
IP3 management expressed dissatisfaction, however, with Ms. Chang's professionalism and ability to communicate with co-workers and vendors. According to Thomas White's deposition, when he was acting as Executive Director, he would often "mediate and manage her relationships" with staff to "keep people from . . . butting heads and having problems" with Ms. Chang. Similarly, Edward White testified that after he took over as Executive Director in April of 2000, he received numerous complaints from employees and vendors regarding Ms. Chang's behavior.*fn7 However, Ms. Chang was unaware of any such dissatisfaction. Her brief to this court states that at no time during her "entire three-year tenure with IP3" did anyone in management criticize her regarding her "ability to communicate or interact with co-workers or vendors, or otherwise state or suggest that her employment was in jeopardy due to poor performance . . . nor was she disciplined."
In her deposition, Ms. Chang admitted that she had problems working under the supervision of Edward White. Edward White explained that, unlike his predecessor Thomas White, who "would tolerate and not act on [certain situations], my approach was that we need to act and respond to these problems and solve them." In keeping with this pro-active approach, he sent Ms. Chang a letter on April 7, 2000, that simultaneously praised her for her dedication to IP3 and warned her that she was not to continue behaving unprofessionally toward other staff members. *fn8
In November 2000, three months before she was terminated, Ms. Chang received a substantial pay raise of eleven percent. In her brief, Ms. Chang characterized this raise as "reward[ing] her outstanding performance and ensur[ing] her continued good work with IP3." Matthew Hensley characterized the raise somewhat differently in an email sent to Thomas White and Ned White on November 13, 2000. In this email, Mr. Hensley explained that the purpose of the raise was merely to secure Ms. Chang's employment through the end of the year, so that they could better prepare for a merger or acquisition. Mr. Hensley explained,
I believe that if we are serious about transitioning to either a merger, acquisition, or new and improved IP3 starting as soon as possible, we must get through the last quarter of this year on a positive financial and administrative note. . . . [W]e cannot afford to lose Teru at this moment. That said, I also do not believe that it is necessarily in our best interest to have Teru remain with us in 2001 as our Chief [A]ccountant. . . . Effective September 1[,] 2000 (when her review was to have taken place) Teru, as an at will employee, will receive a pay raise from $72,100 to $80,100. She will receive another review no later than January 15, 2001 at which time IP3 will make a decision (after our audits, 990[']s[,] end of year accounting, etc[.] are complete) to terminate, extend and[/]or modify our relationship with Teru. . . . Ned and Tommy, essentially I have told Teru that she has two months to demonstrate to IP3 that she is more than just loyal and hard-working but that she can modify her behavior now to work more productively with management and staff in the future. If she cannot, she will be terminated and knows why.
In her deposition, Ms. Chang denied that Matthew Hensley ever told her that her job was in jeopardy, but she did acknowledge that she was told that any salary increase in January would be conditioned upon an improvement in her relationship with Ned White.
In January 2001, the friction between Ms. Chang and Ned White reached a crescendo after he stepped in to resolve a dispute between Ms. Chang and his new project management assistant, Faye Dance. Ms. Chang and Ms. Dance had sent each other a series of heated email messages and both had complained to Ned White about the conflict. When Thomas White, who was away on business, learned of the ongoing dispute between Ms. Chang and Ms. Dance, he sent Ned White an email stating, "[y]ou have to nip [this] in the bud right now (I hope you have already) and [get] them on a working relationship or . . . we [will] terminate both of them immediately." Ned White replied that he was "heartened to hear of [Thomas White's] resolve to be willing to 'fire them' if they can't act professionally." Ms. Chang neither disputes that this conversation took place nor claims that these email messages were fabrications.
On Thursday, February 1, 2001, Ned White sent Ms. Chang an email stating, "If you believe that Faye ever acts unprofessionally towards you, you are to report it to me. You are not to, as you say 'yell' at her or behave unprofessionally yourself." Her reply to this email indicated that she had no choice but to "yell" at Ms. Dance "[b]ecause you can't or will not take care [of] the problems. . . .
I am very busy, please don't waste my time any more." When he asked her directly if she was refusing to obey his instructions, she told him "yes." According to Ms. Chang, at some point during the week, Ned White had also told her to "watch out" because her performance review was coming up.
On Friday, February 2, Ms. Chang stayed home from work because she was suffering from severe chest pain and dizziness. That morning, she left a message for Thomas White that she was sick and would not be coming into the office. She visited her physician later that afternoon, and he diagnosed her with hypertension, prescribed medication, and recommended that she stay home between February 2 and February 11 so that her blood pressure could stabilize. Ms. Chang and her husband both testified that on February 5, they had each separately informed Thomas White that she had been diagnosed with hypertension and that she had been advised to stay home from work that week. By Monday, February 12, Ms. Chang had recovered sufficiently that she felt able to return to work. Her cardiologist would later confirm that her hypertension was controlled with the medication. By that time, however, she no longer had a job.
Edward White testified that during the weekend of February 3rd and 4th, he and Thomas White had discussed terminating Ms. Chang, and that on Monday, February 5, they agreed to fire her for her "consistent unprofessional behavior, insubordination, and pattern of not responding to directions from supervisors." On February 12, the day she was to have returned to work, Thomas White visited Ms. Chang at her ...