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Sharpe v. Bair

September 30, 2008


Memorandum Opinion

This matter is before the Court on the defendant's motion to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) or, alternatively, for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (collectively, the "Def.'s Mot.").*fn1 The plaintiff, Stacey K. Sharpe, brought this lawsuit against the Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation ("FDIC"), alleging discrimination based on her race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a) (2000), as a result of the defendant's decision to involuntarily reassign her from a paralegal position to a position in the benefits department of the FDIC's Office of the Inspector General ("OIG"). Upon consideration of the filings submitted by the parties and for the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny the defendant's motion to dismiss and grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background

The plaintiff, an African-American, "holds a Bachelor of Art's Degree in Journalism from the University of the District [of] Columbia and a second undergraduate degree in Paralegal Studies from the University of Maryland." Complaint ("Compl.") ¶ 6. The plaintiff "has also completed two semesters of law school at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law" and, at the time this lawsuit was brought, was "working on obtaining her Master's Degree in Management, with a concentration in Human Resources, from [the] University of Maryland University College." Id.

In March of 1998, Patricia Black, then Counsel to the Inspector General, hired the plaintiff to work for the FDIC as a Paralegal Specialist in the Office of Counsel ("OC") to the OIG. Id. ¶ 4; Defendant's Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute (Def.'s Stmt.") ¶ 1. In this position, the plaintiff conducted legal research, drafted memoranda, maintained an opinions log, processed Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests, prepared briefs on Equal Employment Opportunity related cases, commented on policies, and generally provided support to the Counsel to the Inspector General and other attorneys on the OIG's legal staff. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 3; Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mem."), Exhibit ("Ex.") 1 (Affidavit of Stacy K. Sharpe, Apr. 23, 2005 ) ("Sharpe Aff.") at 1, Ex. 2 (Affidavit of Frederick W. Gibson, May 13, 2005) ("Gibson Aff.") at 2. When the plaintiff assumed the position, she was a Grade 7 employee, but she was promoted to the Grade 9 level in 1999 and ultimately reached the Grade 11 level. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 1-2.

In early 2000, Frederick Gibson, a Caucasian male, became the plaintiff's immediate supervisor. Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment ("Pl.'s Opp'n"), Ex. 3 (Deposition of Frederick W. Gibson, Feb. 7, 2006) ("Gibson Dep.") at 15:9-10, 118:10-119:22. Gibson was responsible for assigning the plaintiff work assignments and overseeing completion of those assignments. Id. at 118:10-119:22.

When the plaintiff was hired in 1998, approximately 230 employees worked in the OIG. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 12; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 10 (Affidavit of Patricia Black, May 19, 2005) ("Black Aff.") at 2. By 2004, as a result of downsizing efforts and employee attrition, the OIG had only approximately 160 employees. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 22; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 10 ("Black Aff.") at 2. Also in 2004, Black, the Deputy Inspector General, spoke with each of her four office heads and "requested that they determine which positions in their organizations were surplus to future needs," or what vacancies might exist. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 25; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 10 ("Black Aff.") at 2; Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 4 (Deposition of Patricia Black, Feb. 7, 2006) ("Black Dep.") at 50:6-52:8. Black specifically asked Gibson to evaluate "the work [the OC] had and the work that [the OC] needed to be doing," determine whether the OC was "staffed at the appropriate levels," and whether Gibson had "the correct skill sets" and "the right people in the right jobs." Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 4 ("Black Dep.") at 65:9-66:1.

In July or August 2004, Gibson told the plaintiff that the Human Resources Branch of the OIG ("HRB") was going through reorganization, asked the plaintiff if she was interested in a position in the HRB, and recommended that she speak to an employee in that office named Trina Petty. Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 1 (Declaration of Stacey Sharpe, June 7, 2006) ("Pl.'s Decl.") ¶ 15. After speaking with Petty, the plaintiff told Gibson that she was not interested in the HRB position because she had no desire to do the type of work she would have to perform in the position. Id. ¶ 17, Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 3 ("Gibson Dep.") at 89:12-22. Then, on August 24, 2004, the plaintiff sent an e-mail to Gibson and Petty stating that she felt her "skills as well as [her] interests [were] better suited for employee relations and/or classification" and she preferred not to accept a transfer to the HRB. Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 42 (E-Mail from Stacey K. Sharpe to Fred. W. Gibson and Trina F. Petty, Sept. 26, 1999) at 1.

On September 23, 2004, Black informed the plaintiff that she was being reassigned to the HRB effective October 17, 2004 due to the diminished volume of work she had been hired to perform in the OC. Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 44 (Letter from Patricia M. Black to Stacey Sharpe, Sept. 23, 2004) at 1. To facilitate the plaintiff's reassignment, Petty used an "In-Service Placement,"which, according to Petty, is typically used for voluntary transfers from one office to another in situations where management modifies qualification standards for under-qualified employees. SeePl.'s Opp'n at 16, Ex. 5 (Deposition of Trina F. Petty, Mar. 14, 2006) ("Petty Dep.") at 79:1-80:21. Petty acknowledged that the plaintiff's reassignment was the only instance when she had used an In-Service Placement for an involuntary transfer.*fn2 Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 5 ("Petty Dep.") at 79:13-19.

On October 1, 2004, faced with reassignment or termination if she refused to accept the new position, the plaintiff accepted the reassignment as a Grade 11 Human Resources Specialist (Benefits). Def.'s Mem., Ex. 1 ("Sharpe Aff.") at 2; Pl.'s Opp'n at 10, Ex. 5 ("Petty Dep.") at 75:8-76:14. To attain the skills necessary to perform the duties of the new position, the plaintiff had to attend a structured training program for at least one year to "get up to speed in the Benefits area while performing [her] duties." Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 1 ("Pl.'s Decl.") ¶¶ 27-28.*fn3

After accepting the new position, the plaintiff contacted an EEO Counselor on October 27, 2004, and filed a formal administrative complaint of discrimination in regards to her reassignment with the FDIC on February 11, 2005. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 39, 42; see also Def.'s Mem., Ex. 22 (EEO Counselor's Report, Jan. 24, 2005) at 1, Ex. 25 (Plaintiff's Formal EEO Complaint, Feb. 11, 2005) at 1-2. The FDIC rendered a final decision rejecting the plaintiff's formal complaint on July 14, 2006. Pl.'s Opp'n at 18. The plaintiff then brought this action on October 12, 2006, alleging that the defendant discriminated against her based on race in violation of Title VII by reassigning her from the paralegal position in the OC to the human resources benefits position and replacing her with a Caucasian attorney.*fn4 Compl. ¶ 1; Pl.'s Opp'n at 18.

On October 15, 2007, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss this case, or in the alternative moved for summary judgment, asserting the following: (1) the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, (2) the plaintiff's reassignment was not an adverse employment action, (3) the circumstances surrounding the plaintiff's reassignment do not create an inference of discrimination, and (4) even if the plaintiff has established a prima facie case of discrimination, the defendant has provided legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its actions and the plaintiff has not established that those reasons were merely pretextual. See generally Def.'s Mem. In response, the plaintiff challenges each of these assertions arguing that her "claim that she was involuntarily transferred out of her field because of her race is actionable under Title VII and there are significant issues of material fact surrounding the circumstances of [her] forced transfer and the veracity of the [defendant's] justifications for its actions." Pl.'s Opp'n at 1.

II. Standards of Review

A. Rule 12(b)(1)

The defendant requests that the Court dismiss the plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). A motion for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) "presents a threshold challenge to the court's jurisdiction . . . ." Haase v. Sessions, 835 F.2d 902, 906 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (citation omitted). Specifically, Rule 12(b)(1) permits dismissal of a complaint if the Court has a "lack of subject matter jurisdiction[.]" Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Under this rule, "the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that the court has jurisdiction." Fowler v. District of Columbia, 122 F. Supp. 2d 37, 39 (D.D.C. 2000) (citation omitted). To avoid dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1), a plaintiff must establish the Court's jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. Moore v. Bush, 535 F. Supp. 2d 46, 47 (D.D.C. 2008) (citations omitted); see also McNutt v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189 (1936) (noting that jurisdictional facts must be supported by "competent proof" or justified by a "preponderance of evidence"). When determining the question of jurisdiction, federal courts must accept the factual allegations contained in the complaint as true. Cf. Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993) (In reviewing a court's decision to grant a motion to dismiss, a reviewing court "must accept as true all the factual allegations in the complaint."). However, the Court can consider material outside of the pleadings when determining whether it has jurisdiction. Hohri v. United States, 782 F.2d 227, 241 (D.C. Cir. 1986), vacated on other grounds, 482 U.S. 64 (1987) (Because "[t]he District Court . . . is not limited to the allegations of the complaint in deciding a Rule 12(b)(1) motion[,] the District Court properly relied on extra-pleading material in deciding the motion.").; accord Herbert v. Nat'l Acad. of Scis., 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (citation omitted); Haase, 835 F.2d at 906 (citations omitted); Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of the Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F. Supp. 2d 9, 14 (D.D.C. 2001) (citations omitted).

B. Rule 12(b)(6)

The defendant also seeks to dismiss the plaintiff's case pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Under this rule, a plaintiff need not allege specific details that prove the veracity of a claim; rather, a properly pleaded complaint only need contain a clear and concise statement of the claim sufficient to place a defendant on "notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957). However, "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of [her] entitlement to relief [in her complaint] requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do . . . ." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, ____ U.S. ____, ____, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). In evaluating a motion to dismiss, the Court "must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint," Erickson v. Pardus, ____ U.S. ____, ____, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007) (per curiam) (citations omitted), and "grant [the] plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the facts alleged . . . ." Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). On the other hand, the Court need not accept inferences that are unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint or "legal conclusion[s] couched as . . . factual allegation[s] ...

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