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Holmes-Martin v. Sebelius

March 17, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Re Document No.: 33




This matter is before the court on the defendant's renewed motion for summary judgment.*fn1 The plaintiff, the former Deputy Director of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization ("OSDBU"), commenced this action against her former employer, alleging that she was subjected to racially-motivated disparate treatment, retaliation and a hostile work environment, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("§ 1981") and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.*fn2 The defendant contends that it is entitled to summary judgment on all of the plaintiff's claims because the actions she complains of are justified by legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons, because many of those actions do not qualify as adverse employment actions and because she was not subjected to severe or pervasive hostile conduct based on her race or her involvement in protected activity.

For the reasons discussed below, the court concludes that the plaintiff has raised an issue of material fact concerning whether the reassignment of her Deputy Director duties was motivated by discriminatory intent, and denies the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the disparate treatment claim premised on this conduct. The plaintiff, however, has failed to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue of material fact with respect to any of her remaining claims, including her disparate treatment claims based on the reassignment of her project duties and her termination, her retaliation claims and her hostile work environment claim. Accordingly, the court grants summary judgment to the defendant on these claims.


A more detailed presentation of the factual allegations underlying this case can be found in a prior decision of this court. See generally Mem. Op. (Aug. 7, 2008). By way of brief background, in January 2000, the plaintiff, an African-American woman, began working as the Deputy Director of the OSDBU, an office within the Department of Health and Human Services. Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 3. Her first line supervisor was Debbie Ridgely, a white female, the Director of the OSDBU. Id.

In 2004, Ridgely hired Clarence Randall, a white male, to serve as her "Special Advisor," a position created, the plaintiff claims, to supersede the plaintiff's position. Id. at 3. The plaintiff alleges that over the following months, Ridgely transferred many of the plaintiff's responsibilities to Randall, such that Randall effectively assumed the role of Ridgely's deputy.

Id. Meanwhile, the plaintiff was relegated to working as a staffer on specific OSDBU projects and no longer held the broad supervisory authority she had exercised as the Deputy Director. Id. at 3-4 & Ex. 2 ("Pl.'s Decl.") ¶ 3.

The plaintiff asserts that not long after relegating her to project work, Ridgely began transferring the plaintiff's project responsibilities to other employees. Id. at 6. As a result of these reassignments, the plaintiff allegedly had nothing to do seventy-five to eighty percent of the work day. Def.'s Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mot.") at 7; Pl.'s Decl. ¶ 15.

The plaintiff also contends that during this period, Ridgely subjected her to a pattern of hostile behavior. Pl.'s Opp'n at 10. For instance, the plaintiff states that Ridgely humiliated her in front of the staff by insinuating that she was incompetent and irresponsible and scrutinized her more closely than other employees. Id. Ridgely also purportedly undermined the plaintiff by telling other employees not to listen to her or respect her opinion, and directed the plaintiff to communicate with her exclusively by e-mail. Id. at 10-11. Furthermore, the plaintiff alleges that Ridgely mishandled a salary waiver request submitted by the plaintiff, imposed unrealistic deadlines on the plaintiff and included unwarranted criticisms in the plaintiff's 2004 performance evaluation. Id. at 12.

The plaintiff alleges that this mistreatment resulted in a rapid deterioration of her psychological and physical health, leading to severe depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Id. at 12-13. In June 2006, the plaintiff's physician recommended that the plaintiff, who had already missed a number of days of work, take extended leave to address her health issues, which she did. Id. at 13; Compl. ¶ 13. In an October 2006 letter, a Human Resources Specialist informed the plaintiff that "her . . . absence [was] placing a considerable strain on the staff and their daily operations" and that "[she] was required to [return to] her office on November 13, 2006." Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Partial Summ. J. ("Def.'s 1st Mot."), Ex. 35. The plaintiff's physician, however, recommended extending the leave for an undefined period, informing the agency that "it may be possible for [the plaintiff] to return to a position . . . in a part time capacity in 6-8 months." Def.'s 1st Mot. at 9 & Exs. 29, 40.

In January 2007, Ridgely proposed the plaintiff's removal, citing the plaintiff's inability to perform her job. Pl.'s Opp'n at 13; Compl. ¶ 14. In the notification of proposed removal, Ridgely informed the plaintiff that her decision was "based on the fact that the Agency needs someone in your position of record who can carry out the duties and responsibilities of the position on a full-time, regular basis." Def.'s Mot., Ex. 21 at 3. The defendant terminated the plaintiff from employment in June 2007. Compl. ¶ 15.

After exhausting her administrative remedies, the plaintiff filed a complaint in this court in November 2007 alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. See Compl. ¶¶ 1, 16-19. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment in February 2008. See generally Def.'s 1st Mot. In her opposition to that motion, the plaintiff for the first time raised claims of a hostile work environment and disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act. See generally Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss. In August 2008, the court dismissed the plaintiff's Rehabilitation Act claim but denied the remainder of the defendant's motion. See generally Mem. Op. (Aug. 8, 2007).

Following discovery, the defendant filed this renewed motion for summary judgment in July 2009. See generally Def.'s Mot. With the motion now fully submitted, the court turns to an analysis of the applicable legal standards and the parties' arguments.


A. Legal Standard for a Motion for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Diamond v. Atwood, 43 F.3d 1538, 1540 (D.C. Cir. 1995). To determine which facts are "material," a court must look to the substantive law on which each claim rests. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A "genuine issue" is one whose resolution could establish an element of a claim or defense and, therefore, affect the outcome of the action. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. A nonmoving party, however, must establish more than "the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show that the nonmoving party "fail[ed] 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." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the nonmoving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Id.

The nonmoving party may defeat summary judgment through factual representations made in a sworn affidavit if he "support[s] his allegations . . . with facts in the record," Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (quoting Harding v. Gray, 9 F.3d 150, 154 (D.C. Cir. 1993)), or provides "direct testimonial evidence," Arrington v. United States, 473 F.3d 329, 338 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Indeed, for the court to accept anything less "would defeat the central purpose of the summary judgment device, which is to weed out those cases insufficiently meritorious to warrant the expense of a jury trial." Greene, 164 F.3d at 675.

Finally, the D.C. Circuit has directed that because it is difficult for a plaintiff to establish proof of discrimination, the court should view summary judgment motions in such cases with special caution. See Aka v. Washington Hosp. Ctr., 116 F.3d 876, 879-80 (D.C. Cir. 1997), overturned on other grounds, 156 F.3d 1284 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (en banc); see also Johnson v. Digital Equip. Corp., 836 F. Supp. 14, 18 (D.D.C. 1993).

B. The Court Grants in Part and Denies in Part the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on the Plaintiff's Disparate Treatment and Retaliation Claims

1. Legal Standard for Race Discrimination

Generally, to prevail on a claim of discrimination under Title VII,*fn3 a plaintiff must follow a three-part burden-shifting analysis known as the McDonnell Douglas framework. Lathram v. Snow, 336 F.3d 1085, 1088 (D.C. Cir. 2003). The Supreme Court explained the framework as follows:

First, the plaintiff has the burden of proving by the preponderance of the evidence a prima facie case of discrimination. Second, if the plaintiff succeeds in proving the prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant "to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee's rejection" . . . . Third, should the defendant carry this burden, the plaintiff must then have an opportunity to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination . . . . The ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff.

Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-53 (1981) (internal citations omitted) (quoting McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973)).

To establish a prima facie case of race discrimination under Title VII, the plaintiff must show that "(1) [he] is a member of a protected class; (2) [he] suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) the unfavorable action gives rise to an inference of discrimination." Brown v. Brody, 199 F.3d 446, 452 (D.C. Cir. 1999); Stewart v. Ashcroft, 352 F.3d 422, 428 (D.C. Cir. 2003); Carroll v. England, 321 F. Supp. 2d 58, 68 (D.D.C. 2004). "The burden of establishing a prima facie case of disparate treatment is not onerous." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253. If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, a presumption then arises that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee. Id. at 254. To rebut this presumption, the employer must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action. Id. The employer "need not persuade the court that it was actually motivated by the proffered reasons." Id. Rather, "[t]he defendant must clearly set forth, through the introduction of admissible evidence, reasons for its actions which, if believed by the trier of fact, would support a finding that unlawful discrimination was not the cause of the employment action." St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502 (1993) (quoting Burdine, 450 U.S. at 254-55).

If the employer successfully presents a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions, "the McDonnell Douglas framework -- with its presumptions and burdens -- disappears, and the sole remaining issue is discrimination vel non." Lathram, 336 F.3d at 1088 (internal citations omitted); Brady v. Office of the Sergeant at Arms, U.S. House of Representatives, 520 F.3d 490, 494 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (noting that "the prima facie case is a largely unnecessary sideshow"). The district court need resolve only one question: "Has the employee produced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the employer's asserted non-discriminatory reason was not the actual reason and that the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin?" Brady, 520 F.3d at 494. The court must consider whether the jury could infer discrimination from (1) the plaintiff's prima facie case, (2) any evidence the plaintiff presents to attack the employer's proffered explanation, and (3) any further evidence of discrimination that may be available to the plaintiff. Waterhouse v. District of Columbia, 298 F.3d 989, 992-93 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Aka, 156 F.3d at 1289). The plaintiff need not present evidence in each of these categories in order to avoid summary judgment. Aka, 156 F.3d at 1289. Rather, the court should assess the plaintiff's challenge to the employer's explanation in light of the totality of the circumstances of the case. Id. at 1291.

2. Legal Standard for Retaliation

The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework also governs claims of unlawful retaliation. Taylor v. Solis, 571 F.3d 1313, 1320 n.* (D.C. Cir. 2009) (observing that "[r]etaliation claims based upon circumstantial evidence are governed by the three-step test of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green"); Morgan v. Fed. Home Loan Mortgage Corp., 328 F.3d 647, 651 ...

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