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Beckford v. Geithner

October 15, 2009

YASMIN A. BECKFORD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER, SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ellen Segal Huvelle United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Yasmin Beckford has sued the Department of the Treasury ("Treasury") for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17.*fn1 The Treasury now moves for summary judgment, and for the reasons stated herein, the motion will be granted.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Ms. Beckford began working as a GS-301-12 Staff Assistant in Information Technology Services ("ITS") at the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") of the Treasury in February 2004. (Compl. ¶ 4.) Prior to her hiring at the IRS, Ms. Beckford had worked for over five years in the United States Peace Corps. (Id.) As a Staff Assistant in ITS, Ms. Beckford reported directly to Terence Lutes, then the Associate Chief Information Officer for ITS. (Dep. of Yasmin Beckford ["Beckford Dep."] at 27.) A description of the position for which Ms. Beckford was hired states that the job requires "[s]kill in dealing efficiently and effectively with top level executives" and the "[a]bility to establish and maintain effective relationships with and gain confidence and cooperation of supervisors, managers, and co-workers to accept proposals on complex issues." (Attach. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Report of Investigation ["ROI"] at 149.) Ms. Beckford's responsibilities included: management of Mr. Lutes' calendar, meeting schedule, and travel arrangements; distribution of correspondence; maintenance of office logs; and other related duties. (Compl. ¶ 8; Beckford Dep. at 27.) Much of Ms. Beckford's job involved communication with the employees who reported directly to Mr. Lutes and other third parties. (Compl. ¶ 10.)

In October 2004, Mr. Lutes met with Ms. Beckford to provide her with a mid-year performance review. (Id. ¶ 26.) At that time, Mr. Lutes informed Ms. Beckford that there were areas in which she needed to improve her performance, such as maintenance of Mr. Lutes' calendar. (ROI at 28, 105.) Mr. Lutes also discussed "problems reported with interpersonal relationships between [Ms. Beckford] and the reporting offices, other staff and executives." (Id. at 28.) In a narrative summary received by Ms. Beckford after the meeting, he described "unsolicited feedback" he had received regarding Ms. Beckford's conflicts with other staff and executives and that there were reports of "major issues" regarding Ms. Beckford's dealing with immediate staff members. (Id. at 105; Beckford Dep. at 60.) Mr. Lutes reminded her that she was responsible for being a "team player" and stated that he believed in her ability to do so. (ROI at 105.)

In December 2004, Mr. Lutes again met with Ms. Beckford to discuss her work performance. (Compl. ¶ 33.) He informed her that he "was not pleased with [her] progress on the teamwork front" and that he had received comments from individuals inside and outside the office regarding Ms. Beckford's difficulties in working with others. (ROI at 26, 103.) He also noted that "there continue to be oversights on [Ms. Beckford's] part that detract from [her] overall job performance," including calendar updates and the execution of her other duties. (Id. at 103.) He stated that teamwork was a "significant component of [her] critical job elements" and that to be successful, Ms. Beckford would need to demonstrate "significant improvement" in this area. (Id.)

On March 15, 2005, Mr. Lutes and Ms. Beckford had another meeting, prior to Ms. Beckford's departure from ITS on a work detail. (Compl. ¶¶ 46, 48.) At that time, Mr. Lutes again encouraged Ms. Beckford to focus on her working relationships. (Id.; ROI at 102.) He informed Ms. Beckford that she would receive an annual appraisal before the end of April and that it would not be "complimentary." (ROI at 102; Beckford Dep. at 66.) That same day, after her meeting with Mr. Lutes, Ms. Beckford filed an informal Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint with the IRS accusing Mr. Lutes of sexual harassment. (Compl. ¶ 47.) Approximately six weeks later, Ms. Beckford received her annual appraisal, covering the period from April 2004 through March 2005. (ROI at 162.) Ms. Beckford received an overall rating of 2.4 or "minimally acceptable." (Id.) Ms. Beckford's lowest ratings were the areas of Workplace Interaction, Workplace Involvement, Workplace Environment, and Communication (Oral and Listening). (Id.) In the narrative portion of his review, Mr. Lutes cited Ms. Beckford's "regular conflict with almost every member of the staff" and complaints about her "rudeness and lack of cooperation" as reasons for her low ratings. (Id. at 163.)

In May 2005, after Ms. Beckford received her annual appraisal, the National Background Investigations Center ("NBIC") completed a background check of Ms. Beckford. (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J ["Def.'s Mot."] Ex. 2, at 4.) The background check, requested by the IRS on March 24, 2004-nearly a year before Ms Beckford filed her informal EEO complaint-was done for all IRS employees, including those who had previously worked in other government agencies and thus had undergone earlier background checks. (Id.; Dep. of Kathy P. Jantzen ["Jantzen Dep."] at 18, 22-25; Dep. of Sandra Strakal ["Strakal Dep."] at 35, 48-49.) Ms. Beckford's background check revealed that when she filled out her Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions Standard Form 85P ("Form 85P") in 2004 as part of her hiring process, she failed to report that she had filed for bankruptcy on three occasions in the previous seven years, but instead had only disclosed one bankruptcy in 1997. (Def.'s Mot., Ex. 2, at 4, 10-12, 15, 23.)

The NBIC sent a report on Ms. Beckford to the IRS Human Capital Office, Labor Relations ("LR") Section, identifying the discrepancy between Ms. Beckford's Form 85P and her background check. (ROI at 111-12.) The report was received by Sandra Strakal on June 7, 2005. (Id. at 112.) At the IRS, when an employee background investigation reveals a problem, the LR Section works with the employee's manager to decide whether a suitability determination should be made or if disciplinary action should be imposed. (Strakal Dep. at 19; Jantzen Dep. at 29-31, 33, 74-75.) The manager who handles the disciplinary determination is the employee's manager of record. (Jantzen Dep.at 11-12, 34.) Ms. Beckford's manager of record was Mr. Lutes. (Id. at 8-12, 51, 55, 68; Strakal Dep. at 138.) Ms. Strakal advised Mr. Lutes of the range of penalties for false statements in a job application. (ROI at 112.) According to the IRS Guide for Penalty Determinations, the penalty range for an employee's first offense of "false statements or misrepresentation on a job application concerning other documents or matters pertaining to qualifications or concerning any official record or proceeding such as background investigations" is anywhere from a "written reprimand to removal." (Id. at 201-02, 206.) Mr. Lutes proposed that Ms. Beckford receive the minimum penalty-a letter of reprimand. (Dep. of Terence Lutes ["Lutes Dep."] at 226-27; Strakal Dep. 100.) Under IRS regulations, when an employee is to be issued a letter of reprimand, the agency must offer the employee "alternative discipline." (Strakal Dep. at 103.) Alternative discipline, if accepted, results in a nullification of the letter of reprimand so that it does not become a part of the employee's permanent record. (Id.; ROI at 112; Beckford Dep. at 90.) Mr. Lutes was required to offer Ms. Beckford the opportunity to request a form of alternative discipline, but he had the discretion to deny her request and issue the letter of reprimand. (Strakal Dep. at 103-04.)

On August 2, 2005, Ms. Beckford received a letter from Mr. Lutes, informing her that the IRS was contemplating giving her a letter of reprimand based on her false statements regarding her bankruptcies. (Def.'s Mot., Ex. 3 at 1.) The letter offered Ms. Beckford the option of requesting an alternative form of discipline. (Id.) The next day, Ms. Beckford sent a letter to Mr. Lutes, apologizing for the "omission of the dates of [her] prior bankruptcy actions" and requesting alternative discipline in the form of a donation of used clothing, books, and games to a charity in Maryland. (ROI at 77, 82.) Mr. Lutes asked Ms. Beckford to include a cash donation of at least fifty dollars along with the other items but accepted her proposed alternative discipline on August 9. (Id. at 82.) Ms. Beckford agreed to the cash donation, and Ms. Strakal sent Mr. Lutes an alternative discipline agreement for him and Ms. Beckford to sign. (Strakal Dep. at 117-18.) Although Ms. Beckford carried out her obligations under the agreement, she did not sign the agreement. (Id. at 126.) Mr. Lutes continued to contact Ms. Beckford in an effort to obtain her signature on the agreement, but ultimately the matter was closed without Ms. Beckford's signature. (ROI at 84-85; Lutes Dep. at 227-29; Strakal Dep. at 135; Def.'s Mot., Ex. 7.)

The IRS accepted Ms. Beckford's formal EEO complaint in September 2005. (Compl. ¶ 49.) She later amended her complaint to include retaliation claims. (Id. ¶ 54.) In October 2005, Ms. Beckford was reassigned to the Data Management Services Branch of the Business Systems Development Division of the IRS. (Id. ¶ 55.) She is still employed by the IRS. (Beckford Dep. at 5.) Ms. Beckford now alleges that the low rating in her April 2005 annual appraisal and the suitability determination and discipline she received were retaliatory measures taken against her as a result of filing her original EEO complaint against the Treasury.

ANALYSIS

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A motion for summary judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). There is a "genuine issue" of material fact if a "reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Galvin v. Eli Lily and Co., 488 F.3d 1026, 1031 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). A moving party is thus entitled to summary judgment against "a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Waterhouse v. District of Columbia, 298 F.3d 989, 992 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). When considering a motion for summary judgment, "[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; see also Wash. Post Co. v. U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 865 F.2d 320, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1989). However, the non-moving party "may not rely merely on allegations or denials in its own pleading." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). "While summary judgment must be approached with special caution ...


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