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Wicks v. American Transmission Co. LLC

March 31, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge


Tonja Wicks ("Wicks"), who is Black, brings this action against her former employer, American Transmission Company, LLC and its corporate manager, ATC Management, Inc. (collectively "ATC").*fn1 Wicks alleges that ATC unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of her race and gender in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code §§ 2-1401 et seq.*fn2 Presently before the Court is ATC's motion for summary judgment [#26]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the Court concludes that the motion must be granted.


ATC owns and operates transmission lines that are used to convey energy in the upper Midwest part of the United States. In January 2006, Wicks began working for ATC in its D.C. office as Director of Federal Affairs and at some point began working in the D.C. office with William Burlew, who, as Manager of Federal Affairs, reported to Wicks. Before ATC hired Wicks, Burlew expressed interest in becoming the Director of Federal Affairs, but was not considered for the position. However, he was part of the team that interviewed applicants for the position and ultimately recommended that Wicks be hired over other candidates.

Nina Plaushin, Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs, served as Wicks's immediate supervisor and Burlew's second-line supervisor. In November 2006, Plaushin left ATC and was replaced by Randall Satterfield.

A few weeks after Wicks assumed the Director of Federal Affairs position, Burlew and Wicks's relationship began deteriorating. Wicks claims that Burlew was "bad-mouthing" her to people inside and outside ATC and was insubordinate, delaying or failing to complete particular assignments. Wicks also asserts that Burlew made racially offensive comments about her race to other individuals, though not to her.

Burlew also made several complaints about Wicks. According to Plaushin, Burlew "was not satisfied with the distribution of job responsibilities in the DC office and he felt that [Wicks]'s management style failed to adequately show respect for his abilities." Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 4 ("Plaushin Letter") at 1. Burlew also stated in his response to his performance review that he believed Wicks was attacking his ethics and integrity by stating that he engaged in acts of plagiarism. Both Wicks and Burlew made ethics complaints against the other, but neither complaint resulted in any findings of unethical behavior.

In February 2006, Plaushin hired Hope Hills of Circle Consulting Group "to coach [Wicks] and [Burlew] to resolve the conflict." Id. A couple of months after seeking Hills's help, Plaushin met with Wicks and Burlew and advised them that the "end of the year was the timeline [she] had for seeking marked improvement," and that "lacking additional progress in resolving the conflict, other actions would need to be considered." Id. at 2. By the end of the summer, Hills told Plaushin that she "had come to an impasse." Id. According to Plaushin, Hills felt that Burlew "was unable to take responsibility for his role in the conflict and was not open to working to resolve the issues." Id.

In December 2006, Satterfield replaced Plaushin as Director of Regulatory Affairs. Satterfield and Dale Landgren, Vice President and Chief Strategic Officer of ATC, met with Wicks and Burlew in early or mid-December and shared their concerns about the state of the D.C. office. In late December, Satterfield returned to the D.C. office and explained to Burlew and Wicks that he would return in early January with someone in Human Resources to engage in a discussion regarding the roles and responsibilities of Wicks and Burlew and of the D.C. office. Satterfield testified that he informed Wicks and Burlew that "the office had been dysfunctional from that professional communication standpoint for a while and we were going to engage in a process . . . to see if we could fix those difficulties and that if we weren't able to one of the results might be that one or both might lose their jobs." Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Defs.' Mot."), Satterfield Dep. at 95.*fn3 Also in December 2006, Satterfield hired another consultant, John Heidke of Right Management, Inc., to "make an assessment as to the ability of the staff of the office to function professionally and competently to the benefit of the company going forward." Id. at 36.

In early January 2007, Heidke met with Satterfield to develop a plan and a time line to improve Burlew and Wicks's relationship. On January 17, 2007, Satterfield returned to D.C., with Jackie Wirth who was employed in the Human Resources Department to meet with Wicks and Burlew. The parties reached an agreement regarding Wicks and Burlew's respective roles and responsibilities. See Defs.' Mot., Wicks Dep., Ex. 12 ("2007 Agreement"). The 2007 Agreement also listed ATC's expectations going forward. At the meeting, Satterfield and Wirth gave Wicks and Burlew specific "to do's" and asked them to create a stakeholder list.

Later in January, on January 25, Heidke met with Wicks and Burlew individually and as a team to assess their working relationship and how their relationship affected the functioning of ATC's D.C. office. In a letter to Maureen Hogan, ATC's Director of Human Resources, and Satterfield, Heidke stated that "[t]he ATC Washington office appears to be functioning poorly and not meeting objectives as required," and "[t]here was plenty of blame to go around." Def.'s Mot., Wicks Dep., Ex. 11 ("Heidke Letter") at 3. Based upon his interaction with Wicks and Burlew, the data he collected from ATC leaders, and a work style instrument Wicks and Burlew completed, Heidke concluded that "such an intractably broken and distrustful relationship is unlikely to be brought back to a fully workable, high functioning level in the near future." Id.

In an email exchange dated February 1, 2007, Wicks and Burlew argued regarding the creation of the stakeholder list that they were asked to construct. Burlew forwarded the email exchange to Wirth, who forwarded the emails to Hogan. In an email to Wicks and Burlew dated February 2, 2007, Hogan wrote that "[c]onsidering the difficulty the two of you are already having on what would seem to be a simple task, [Satterfield] and I have determined that we need to return to your office next week to deal with these issues." Defs.' Mot., Satterfield Decl., Ex. 5. On February 7, 2007, Hogan and Satterfield visited ATC's D.C. office and terminated Wicks and Burlew. Satterfield told Wicks that deficiencies in her "judgment, listening, and management" were factors that led to her termination. Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 5 ("Wicks Dep.") at 97. Satterfield stated that Wicks had failed to curtail the behavior of Burlew, her "direct report," and that she had not effectively performed the responsibilities of the office. Id. at 96.

This suit followed.


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