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Childs-Pierce v. Utility Workers Union of America

August 10, 2005

LINDA CHILDS-PIERCE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UTILITY WORKERS UNION OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

In this action brought pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("§1981"), plaintiff Linda Childs-Pierce claims that she was the victim of racial discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment by defendant Utility Worker's Union of America ("UWUA" or "Union").*fn1 Defendant and plaintiff have submitted cross-motions for summary judgment on all claims.*fn2 For the reasons explained below, the Court grants summary judgment in favor of defendant on all claims.

BACKGROUND*fn3

Plaintiff, a female African-American, began her employment with defendant UWUA as a senior document data secretary in March 1997 in the Washington, D.C. office. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 11, 12. Plaintiff was hired by John Walsh, who was then serving as the UWUA's National Secretary-Treasurer. Id. ¶ 13. In 1999, Walsh was replaced as National Secretary Treasurer by Gary Ruffner. Def. Mem, Ex. A, Gary Ruffner Declaration ("Ruffner Decl.") ¶ 2. During the period of alleged discriminatory conduct, plaintiff was the only African-American employee working at the Washington, D.C. office. Pl. Mem., Ex. 3, Gary Ruffner Deposition, Mar. 16, 2004 ("Ruffner Dep. I") at 97-98. The other employees in Washington included Ruffner, a Caucasian; Rosanna Farley, a Caucasian office manager; Barbra Bennett, a Caucasian head booker; Theodora ("Teddi") Morris, a Caucasian bookkeeper; and Cheryl Mansfield, a Caucasian senior document data secretary. Id.; Pl. Mem., Ex. 2, Gary Ruffner Deposition, Sept. 8, 2004 ("Ruffner Dep. II") at 4-5, 10; Pl. Mem., Ex. 4, Def. Resp. to Pl. Interrog. No. 2. The Washington office was small, thus there were no strict job duties for each employee. Ruffner Dep. I at 68-69. Ruffner acted in a supervisory role with respect to all the staff at the Washington office. Def. Resp. to Pl. Interrog. No. 3.

In July 2002, a couple who had received a letter from plaintiff on UWUA letterhead, Joseph and Joy Freeman, contacted Ruffner and informed him that plaintiff had been using company letterhead in communications related to her administration of an estate settlement. Ruffner Decl. ¶ 11. In particular, the Freemans, who had a financial interest in the estate, accused defendant of allowing plaintiff to use the letterhead so that she might exert undue influence over certain potential beneficiaries of the estate. Id. On August 14, 2002, Ruffner provided plaintiff with a letter that asserted that she had engaged in various actions involving the estate which were not consistent with her obligations as a UWUA employee and may have resulted in an adverse impact on the Union, and specifically cited her use of UWUA letterhead without authorization or approval for personal business, performance of work in her role as administrator of an estate on work time, and her charging of long distance phone calls, with respect to this estate, on company telephone lines. Pl. Mem., Ex. 5, Letter of Aug. 14, 2002 from Ruffner to Childs-Pierce. The letter further alleged that plaintiff failed to comply with Ruffner's earlier request to provide defendant with copies of all correspondence that she sent out from the office on company letterhead. Id.

On August 16, 2002, a disciplinary hearing was held regarding the allegations in Ruffner's August 14th letter, at which plaintiff admitted to using UWUA letterhead and other company resources in administering the estate. Def. Mem., Ex. B, Pl. Admissions ¶¶ 10, 11. Shortly thereafter, defendant learned that plaintiff had requested security tapes to discover the identity of the third party who complained about the use of letterhead, despite being specifically told by Ruffner that the Freemans' identity was being withheld to protect them from any retaliation in the settlement of the estate. Pl. Mem., Ex. 6, Letter of Aug. 30, 2002 from Ruffner to Childs-Pierce ("Suspension Letter"). Citing the foregoing instances of misconduct, defendant imposed a five-day unpaid layoff on plaintiff beginning on September 3, 2002. Id. On September 16, 2002, plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that her disciplinary suspension was a result of discrimination based on her race and age. Pl. Mem., Ex. 8, Charge of Discrimination of Sept. 16, 2002.

In November of 2002, while preparing pension-related documents for UWUA's actuary, Ruffner noticed that plaintiff's personnel file contained documentation with three different birth dates. Ruffner Decl. ¶ 15. Two documents listed plaintiff's birth date as November 28, 1953. One document listed her birth date as November 28, 1954, and another document listed her birth date as November 28, 1993. Id. On November 18, 2002, Ruffner, together with Barbra Bennett, who served as shop steward for Local 2 members employed at UWUA, approached plaintiff to inquire about these differences. Id. ¶16. During this conversation, Ruffner requested that plaintiff submit a copy of her birth certificate to verify her correct birth date. Id.

Three days after her conversation with Ruffner about her birth date, on November 21, 2002, plaintiff presented UWUA office manager Rosanna Farley with a letter from her treating physician, Dr. Gladys Hammond, indicating that plaintiff was under her care and unable to come to work for the next three to four weeks due to job-related stress. Pl. Mem., Ex. 9, Letter of Nov. 20, 2002 from Hammond; Am. Compl. ¶ 26. Ruffner reviewed the letter and informed plaintiff that the letter was not sufficient to authorize sick leave. Ruffner Dep. I at 110-111. Ruffner requested that plaintiff provide defendant with more information, such as diagnosis and prognosis, in order to verify her medical condition. Id. Plaintiff left work after speaking with Ruffner and did not report to work thereafter. Id. She amended her EEOC charge of discrimination on that same day to include Ruffner's inquiry about her birth certificate and his statement that he would require more information to support her request for sick leave. Pl. Mem., Ex. 8, Charge of Discrimination Amendment of Nov. 20, 2002. She later amended her EEOC complaint on December 2 and 31, 2002, citing defendant's repeated requests for specific medical documentation and the opening of a letter by a co-worker as additional evidence of racial and age-based discrimination. Pl. Mem., Ex. 8, Charge of Discrimination Amendment of Dec. 2, 2002 & Charge of Discrimination Amendment of Dec. 31, 2002.

On December 12, 2002 UWUA general counsel Joanne Goldstein sent a letter to plaintiff's counsel, Nathaniel Johnson, seeking further information in support of plaintiff's request for sick leave. Def. Mem., Ex. G, Joanne Goldstein Declaration ("Goldstein Decl.") at Ex. 1, Letter of Dec. 12, 2002 from Goldstein to Johnson. The letter specifically requested the following information: "the diagnosis, a comprehensive treatment plan, the basis on which the diagnosis/treatment plan precludes Ms. Childs-Pierce from working during treatment and any additional information that would assist the Employer in evaluating Ms. Child-Pierce's claim for sick leave." Id. In response to this request, defendant received a note from Dr. Hammond dated December 13, 2002 indicating that plaintiff was to remain under the doctor's professional care as plaintiff was still unable to work. Pl. Mem., Ex. 11, Letter of Dec. 13, 2002 from Hammond. On December 27, 2002, defendant acknowledged receipt of Dr. Hammond's medical note but reiterated the request for more specific medical information. Pl. Mem., Ex. 12, Letter of Dec. 27, 2002 from Goldstein to Hammond. In particular, defendant stated that in order for plaintiff to obtain sick leave and/or pay, Dr. Hammond would have to prepare a "comprehensive medical report." Id.

On January 13, 2003 Dr. Hammond forwarded to defendant a letter stating that plaintiff was currently being treated for "Generalized Anxiety Disorder." Goldstein Decl. at Ex. 4, Letter of Jan. 13, 2002 from Hammond to Goldstein. Defendant responded to the letter on January 27, 2003 explaining that the diagnosis and diagnosis code, by itself, was insufficient for defendant to evaluate plaintiff's request for sick leave. Id. at Ex. 5, Letter of Jan. 27, 2003 from Goldstein to Hammond. Further, defendant stated that if the specified medical information requested was not provided by the close of business February 3, 2003, defendant would begin to review the options available with respect to plaintiff's employment status. Id.

On February 13, 2003, Johnson provided defendant with a letter from Dr. Hammond indicating that plaintiff "continues to exhibit severe symptoms of depression and anxiety caused by environmental work related stress. She is not able to return to work yet and cannot return until her emotions and behaviors are stabilized with psychotherapy and psychopharmacological medication." Id. at Ex. 7, Letter of Feb. 13, 2003 from Johnson to Goldstein. The letter also stated that plaintiff was under the care of a psychiatrist and that she "might" be able to return to work on March 17, 2003. Id. Later that month, on February 26, 2003, plaintiff amended her EEOC charge of discrimination one final time to include a claim of retaliation based on defendant's denial of sick leave and repeated requests for medical documentation. Pl. Mem., Ex. 8, Charge of Discrimination Amendment of Feb. 26, 2003.

Once again believing plaintiff had failed to provide adequate responses to its requests for specified medical documentation, defendant informed plaintiff on March 7, 2003 that defendant had made an appointment for plaintiff "to be evaluated by an outside, independent physician." Pl. Mem., Ex. 16, Letter of Mar. 7, 2003 from Goldstein to Childs-Pierce. The letter further stated that, upon receiving a report from the independent medical examiner ("IME"), defendant would "make a determination of employment status and a decision on whether she is entitled to pay for the last several months." Id.

On March 13, 2003, defendant received a letter from Johnson stating that plaintiff was unwilling to meet with the IME, but would "consult with a psychologist of her own choosing and provide [UWUA] with another prognosis of her anticipated return to work date." Goldstein Decl. at Ex. 10, Letter of Mar. 13, 2003 from Johnson to Goldstein. On March 31, 2003, having received no further information from plaintiff or her attorney regarding plaintiff's appointment with the IME or her own psychologist, defendant sent a letter to Johnson instructing plaintiff to schedule an appointment with the IME no later than the close of business on April 2, 2003. Id. at Ex. 11, Letter of Mar. 31, 2003 from Goldstein to Johnson. In particular, the letter stated that plaintiff's failure to schedule an appointment would "constitute insubordination" and result in the termination of plaintiff's employment with UWUA. Id.

At the close of business on April 2, 2003, defendant received a letter from Johnson stating that plaintiff would be returning to work on April 7, 2003. Id. at Ex.12, Letter of April 2, 2003 from Johnson to Goldstein. The letter did not indicate that plaintiff had complied with defendant's instructions that she meet with an IME, and defendant soon discovered that she in fact had failed to do so. On April 3, 2003, defendant terminated plaintiff's employment. Pl. Mem., Ex.17, Letter from Walsh to Childs-Pierce of April 3, 2003 ("Termination Letter"). In its termination letter, defendant cited the reasons for plaintiff's termination as her "consistent pattern of failure to cooperate with, and refusal to follow direct orders of, the employer," including "fail[ure] to properly and adequately document [her] alleged inability to work due to medical/psychological conditions, . . . refus[al] to comply with the UWUA's directive to be evaluated by [an IME]," and failure to "provide a birth certificate due to the inconsistent dates of birth." Id.

ANALYSIS

I. Analytical and Legal Framework

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the evidence demonstrate that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may successfully support its motion by "informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)).

In determining whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment, the court must regard the non-movant's statements as true and accept all evidence and make all inferences in the non-movant's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A non-moving party, however, must establish more than the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the non-moving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at ...


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