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Robinson-Reeder v. American Council on Educ.

December 4, 2009


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


Plaintiff Jacqueline T. Robinson-Reeder, proceeding pro se, brings this action against her former employer the American Council on Education ("ACE"), asserting a retaliation claim in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and a claim that ACE violated the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act ("COBRA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1161 et seq. Before the Court are numerous motions for summary judgment filed by both parties on both claims. Upon careful consideration of the parties' memoranda, the applicable law, and the entire record herein, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of ACE on both counts.


The Court, and the parties, are by now familiar with the allegations underlying this case. They have spawned three separate actions -- before both this Court and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia -- and are the subject of voluminous briefing.

Robinson-Reeder began working on a full-time basis for ACE in September 2006. See Pl.'s Brief in Supp. of Summ. J. [Docket Entry 73], Exhibit 9 (Dec. 15, 2008 EEOC Charge of Discrimination).*fn1 During her employment, Robinson-Reeder complained that a new office assistant with whom she worked was "insubordinate," "refused to complete assignments and disrespected the plaintiff" during October and the beginning of November of 2006. Robinson-Reeder v. Am. Council on Educ., 532 F. Supp. 2d 6, 10 (D.D.C. 2008) (quotation omitted). As a result of what she considered "intolerable" working conditions, Robinson-Reeder met with ACE's Executive Director to air her complaints about the new office assistant. Id.

Following this meeting, the Executive Director informed Robinson-Reeder that her concerns regarding the office assistant would be addressed, but that Robinson-Reeder was being placed on probation "because the Executive Director had received complaints about her 'rude' behavior from four different departments." Id. Upset at this probation, and based on other complaints she had with ACE, Robinson-Reeder immediately submitted a letter of resignation to ACE. See id.; see also Pl.'s P. & A. in Supp. of Summ. J. [Docket Entry 73], Exhibit 4 (Robinson-Reeder Letter of Resignation). Thereafter, she filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), contending that she had been discriminated against on account of her race. See Dec. 15, 2008 EEOC Charge of Discrimination. In that charge, plaintiff offered that she had been "unjustly placed on probation for 30 days based upon complaints that [she] had been rude to individuals." Id. She also suggested that she resigned "due to this intolerable treatment." Id.

After Robinson-Reeder resigned from ACE, she attempted to find employment elsewhere. See Robinson-Reeder, 532 F. Supp. 2d at 11. She alleges, however, that she has been unable to secure permanent employment because she "has been denied a standard job reference on three separate occasions" by ACE. Compl. at p. 3. And, according to Robinson-Reeder, where ACE did provide references, they were "negative and defamatory." Compl. at p. 3. In light of her inability to obtain permanent employment, she filed a second Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC, alleging retaliation for filing her original EEOC charge. See Docket Entry 73, Exhibit 2 (March 1, 2007 EEOC Charge of Discrimination). It is this second charge of discrimination that gives rise to this action. Robinson-Reeder also asserts a claim for penalties under COBRA based on ACE's alleged failure to provide a required COBRA notice to her after her resignation. Compl. at p. 17.


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 movant 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 identifying those portions of "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits" that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

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. Thus, the non-moving party cannot rely on mere speculation or compilation of inferences to defeat a motion for summary judgment. See Hutchinson v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 393 F.3d 226, 229 (D.C. Cir. 2005). Nor can the non-moving party rely on hearsay statements or conclusory statements with no evidentiary basis to establish a genuine issue of material fact. See Assoc. of Flight Attendants v. Dep't of Transp., 564 F.3d 462, 465 (D.C. Cir. 2009). "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted). Moreover, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment by pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the non-moving party. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252 (summary judgment appropriate if the non-movant fails to offer "evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant]").


I. Robinson-Reeder's Retaliation Claim

The Court analyzes plaintiff's retaliation claim pursuant to the familiar burden-shifting analysis set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under this framework, a plaintiff has the burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation by a preponderance of the evidence. See id. at 802; see also Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-53 (1981). If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. And if the employer is successful, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the employer's stated reason was a pretext for discrimination or retaliation. See id. at 804; see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143 (2000). "'The ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff.'" Reeves, 530 U.S. at 143 (quoting Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253).

The parties here stop at the plaintiff's prima facie case for retaliation. So too will the Court.*fn2 To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must show: "'(1) that she engaged in statutorily protected activity, (2) that the employer took an adverse personnel action; and (3) that a causal connection existed between the two.'" Mitchell v. Baldrige, 759 F.2d 80, 86 (D.C. Cir.1985) (quoting McKenna v. Weinberger, 729 F.2d 783, 790 (D.C. Cir.1984)); accord Brown v. Brody, 199 F.3d 446, 452 (D.C. Cir.1999). The parties do not contest the first and third elements; thus the only issue is ...

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