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Stephen H. Graves v. District of Columbia

April 14, 2011

STEPHEN H. GRAVES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Stephen H. Graves ("Graves") commenced this action against the District of Columbia (the "District") on January 22, 2007, claiming that he was subjected to a hostile work environment based on race during the course of his two-decade career with the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Services Department, in violation of both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), and § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Section 1981"). Presently before the Court is the District's [20] Motion for Summary Judgment. Based on the parties' submissions, the relevant authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court shall deny the District's motion in its entirety.*fn1

I. PRELIMINARY MATTERS

At the outset, five overarching observations must be made about the limitations of the District's Motion for Summary Judgment. Succinctly stated, the approach the District has taken in briefing the instant motion leaves much to be desired.

First, nearly all of the arguments tendered by the District in support of its motion are premised, at least to some degree, on the erroneous assumption that Graves intends to pursue individual claims of discrimination for each of the employment-related incidents identified in his Complaint. But in opposition to the instant motion, Graves has made it clear that he only intends to pursue two factually coextensive hostile work environment claims in this action, one arising under Title VII and a second arising under Section 1981, and he expressly disavows an intention to pursue individual claims of discrimination for each separate incident contributing to the allegedly hostile work environment. As a result, the vast majority of the District's motion speaks to claims that simply are not at issue in this action, with surprisingly little attention paid to the only claims that are at issue-that is, Graves' hostile work environment claims.

Second, of the approximately eighty-one incidents that collectively comprise the hostile work environment allegedly suffered by Graves during his employment, only a handful receive even passing mention in the District's moving papers. Specifically, the District has tailored its arguments to the nine incidents that are expressly identified in Graves' Complaint, leaving altogether unaddressed over seventy other incidents that Graves identified as part of his hostile work environment claim during the course of discovery in this action. The omission is no small matter; having failed to account for all or even a majority of these incidents, the District's motion does not speak to the totality of the hostile work environment allegedly suffered by Graves.

Third, with few exceptions, the instant motion turns on straightforward questions of law, such as whether Graves' claims are barred by the applicable statute of limitations and whether his allegations, if assumed to be true, are sufficient to support a claim for relief. Where the District does address a particular incident claimed by Graves to have contributed to the hostile work environment he allegedly suffered, the incident is invariably described in terms of Graves' characterization of the incident, providing the Court with little factual context to resolve the instant motion and leaving the Court with little sense as to what extent the District will controvert Graves' characterization of the events should this action proceed to trial. In other words, the District has more or less assumed Graves' factual allegations to be true for the present moment, making this motion almost more akin to a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim than a motion for summary judgment. As a result, the factual record presently before the Court is considerably less developed than is typical for a motion for summary judgment in an employment discrimination action.

Fourth, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia has supplemented Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure with Local Civil Rule 7(h)(1), which requires that each party submitting a motion for summary judgment attach a statement of material facts for which that party contends there is no genuine dispute. The party opposing the motion must, in turn, submit a responsive statement enumerating all material facts which the party contends are genuinely disputed. See LCvR 7(h)(1). Where the opposing party has additional facts that are not directly relevant to its response, it must identify such facts in consecutively numbered paragraphs at the end of its responsive statement of facts. If additional factual allegations are made, the opponent must file a responsive statement of its own. This well-reasoned rule "places the burden on the parties and their counsel, who are most familiar with the litigation and the record, to crystallize for the district court the material facts and relevant portions of the record." Jackson v. Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, 101 F.3d 145, 151 (D.C. Cir. 1996). The parties in this action have been cautioned on more than one occasion that this Court strictly adheres to the dictates of Local Civil Rule 7(h)(1) when resolving motions for summary judgment. See Scheduling & Procedures Order (June 5, 2007), Docket No. [7], at 4-5; Scheduling & Procedures Order (July 21, 2008), Docket No. [18], at 1-2. Nevertheless, the District has failed to file a statement responding to the additional factual allegations identified by Graves in opposition to the instant motion. In an exercise of its discretion, the Court shall treat those factual allegations as admitted for purposes of resolving the instant motion. However, those factual allegations are few in number and relatively non-controversial when considered in the full context of the instant motion, meaning that the impact of this conclusion is de minimis.

Fifth, and finally, the District has elected not to file a reply memorandum responding to the arguments raised by Graves in opposition to the instant motion, despite having more than ample opportunity to do so. While that is certainly the District's right, the failure is particularly problematic in this case because, in opposition to the instant motion, Graves corrects certain misunderstandings underlying the District's opening memorandum, clarifies the scope of the claims that he intends to pursue in this action, and explains why the District's arguments are not tailored to speak to those claims. The upshot is that the Court is left with a motion and an opposition that are not in direct conversation.

None of the foregoing is necessarily fatal to the success of the District's motion; to the extent the District is still entitled to judgment as a matter of law in the face of these various shortcomings, it may secure relief through the vehicle of summary judgment. The Court merely observes that, despite the advanced stage of these proceedings, it remains largely in the dark as to what factual and legal issues are likely to arise at trial or to require greater attention during the course of pretrial proceedings. Nonetheless, the Court shall now turn to the task of delineating the relevant factual and procedural background based upon the limited record presently available.

II. BACKGROUND

Graves self-identifies as an individual of "mixed race," explaining that he has Native American, African American, and Caucasian heritage. Compl., Docket No. [1], ¶ 6. Graves was formerly employed by the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Services Department (the "Department"). Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 1; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 1. Over the course of his two-decade career with the Department, which extended from September 5, 1985 through February 12, 2006, he held a variety of positions and worked at a number of locations. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 1; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 1, 3.

Graves contends that he was subjected to a hostile work environment throughout his two-decade career. Altogether, he has identified approximately eighty-one separate incidents as the component acts comprising the allegedly hostile work environment at issue in this action. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 2-10; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 1, 3. The first contributing incident is alleged to have occurred within days of his hiring, on or about September 19, 1985, and the final contributing incident is alleged to have occurred shortly before the termination of his employment, on or about September 18, 2005. Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 3. The incidents are of a wide variety and cut a broad swath: some involve physical violence; others involve facially discriminatory comments by subordinates, co-workers, and supervisors; and still others involve allegedly punitive assignments or unjustified disciplinary actions. Id. They involve literally dozens of actors working at various locations, and it is often unclear based on the limited record created by the parties what position a given actor held at the time of the events in question and what that actor's relationship was to Graves at that moment in time. Id.

Attempting to identify all of the approximately eighty-one incidents at issue is neither necessary nor helpful in resolving the instant motion. However, the following fifteen incidents provide a useful snapshot of the scope of Graves' hostile work environment claim:*fn2

September 19, 1985. While still in training, Graves began to receive racially charged comments, such as, "[Y]ou think you're too good to be black." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 3.1.

April 1, 1986. While working at Engine No. 16, Graves was repeatedly subjected to racially charged comments such as "Light Bright Wanna-be White" and "High Yellow."*fn3 Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 3.2. August 9, 1986. While requesting assistance from an equal employment opportunity officer, Graves was "rebuffed" and told he was "with the white boys." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 3.4.

September 24, 1986. Graves was criticized by a fire chief "for [his] continued friendship with white firefighters." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 3.5. January 2, 1987. Racially charged comments became "pervasive," occurred "on a daily basis," and included remarks concerning "the color of [Graves'] skin, eyes and hair." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 3.8. June 1, 1988. During morning line-up, a captain singled out Graves and remarked, "That's no way for a Black man to look." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 3.14.

August 27, 1989. An emergency medical technician questioned the authenticity of Graves' African American heritage, and ultimately slapped him across the face after tensions escalated. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 2; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 1, 3.16.

May 10, 1990. Following two days of "constant harassment," an African American employee followed Graves to the instructor's office and physically struck him multiple times, causing Graves to suffer a detached retina. Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 3.20, 4.

April 2, 1995. Graves was reassigned to Engine No. 20, marking the beginning of a series of "punitive assignments." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 3.32.

January 28, 1997. An African American civilian employee accused Graves of stealing equipment and, when Graves attempted to respond, threw various objects in Graves' direction. Def.'s ...


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