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Margaret Elaine Rand v. Secretary of the Treasury

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


October 6, 2011

MARGARET ELAINE RAND, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY, DEFENDANT.

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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Margaret Rand has sued the Secretary of the Treasury ("Secretary") in his official capacity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 633a. The Secretary now moves to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, arguing that Rand failed to file a complaint within forty-five days of the alleged discriminatory event. For the reasons stated below, the Secretary's motion for summary judgment will be granted.

BACKGROUND

At all times relevant to the case, Rand worked as a GS-13 "management analyst" in the Office of Strategic Planning and Evaluation at the Department of the Treasury. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2, 7.) In her administrative complaint, Rand alleged that she was "always being given more work than others similarly situated, yet always being paid at one full grade level lower than all of those employees." (Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. 1 ("EEO Complaint"), at 4.) She alleges that from 1998-2002, her "male and substantially younger co-workers" held GS-14 level positions despite performing "equal work requiring skill, responsibility and effort under similar working conditions." (Am. Compl.¶ 7.)

In a declaration attached to her opposition, Rand states that in September 1999 she asked her supervisor, John Murphy, what she "could do to advance to the grade 14 level." (Pl.'s Opp'n, Decl. of Pl. ("Pl.'s Decl.") ¶ 4.) Murphy informed her that she "would need to take on some bureau assignments." (Id.) Rand alleges that she "often held discussions" with her supervisor about her GS-13 status and that she suffered from "not having respect of my colleagues" because she was a "lower-level employee." (EEO Complaint at 4-5.) Rand acknowledges that her colleagues were "paid at the grade 14 level," but argues nonetheless that the agency "had no legitimate, non-discriminatory reason" for paying her less. (Am. Compl. ¶ 7.) Rand states that in "late 2000," her team leader supported her "promotion" to grade 14, but her request was denied by Murphy. (Pl.'s Decl. ¶ 6.) Although Murphy allegedly agreed to a desk audit to determine whether she "was working at the grade 14 level" (Am. Compl. ¶ 5),*fn1 Rand never received the results of the audit.*fn2 (Pl.'s Decl. ¶ 6.) Murphy retired in January 2002. (Def.'s Mot., Ex. 2 ¶ 6.)

Rand alleges that after the agency failed to conduct the "desk audit," she filed a "timely administrative complaint" with the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO"). (Am. Compl. ¶ 5.) In her initial interview with an EEO counselor, Rand stated that the "matter" causing her complaint was that she had "requested a desk audit but did not receive the results, therefore she did not receive a promotion." (Def.'s Mot., Ex. 4 at 2.) Rand requested "remedial action": namely, a "retroactive promotion," and back pay "in conjunction" with the promotion. (Id. at 3.) Rand's subsequent EEO complaint alleged that the discriminatory action taken against her was the "failure to pay" the "same salary as others in the office for doing the exact same level and difficulty of work." (EEO Compl. at 3.) She was of the view that her supervisor "never saw to it that [she] got the 'accretion of duties' promotion" she deserved. (Id.) Within ninety days of receiving a final decision from the EEO, Rand filed suit, and the Secretary has now moved to dismiss or, alternatively, for summary judgment.

ANALYSIS

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face,'" such that a court may "draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). In ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached to or incorporated in the complaint, matters of which courts may take judicial notice, and documents appended to a motion to dismiss whose authenticity is not disputed, if they are referred to in the complaint and integral to a claim. U.S. ex rel. Folliard v. CDW Tech. Servs., Inc., 722 F. Supp. 2d 20, 24-25 (D.D.C. 2010). However, since the Court has considered matters outside the pleadings (including those submitted by plaintiff) to resolve the Secretary's motion, it will treat defendant's motion as one for summary judgment under Rule 56.

Summary judgment is appropriate only if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, and affidavits filed pursuant to discovery show that, first, 'there is no genuine issue as to any material fact' and, second, 'the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" Pardo-Kronemann v. Donovan, 601 F.3d 599, 604 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (quoting Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006) and Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "An issue is 'genuine' if the 'evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor. Chambers v. U.S. Dep't of Interior, 568 F.3d 998, 1003 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (quoting McCready v. Nicholson, 465 F.3d 1, 7 (D.C. Cir. 2006)). Plaintiff's opposition must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits or other competent evidence setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322; Fed. R. Civ. P. 56.

II. STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

Title VII makes it unlawful for "an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . sex[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. The ADEA similarly makes it "unlawful for an employer" to "discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age." 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). There are "two elements for an employment discrimination case: (i) the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action (ii) because of the employee's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Brady v. Office of the Sergeant at Arms, 520 F.3d 490, 493 (D.C. Cir. 2008).

"[A] timely administrative charge is a prerequisite to initiation of a Title VII action in the District Court." Jarrell v. U.S. Postal Serv., 753 F.2d 1088, 1091 (D.C. Cir. 1985)."[U]ntimely exhaustion of administrative remedies is an affirmative defense." Bowden v. United States, 106 F.3d 433, 437 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Thus, if Rand failed to comply with the EEO's time limits, the Court will dismiss her claims unless she can "plead[] and prov[e] facts supporting equitable avoidance of the defense." Id.; see also, e.g., Hamilton v. Geithner, 743 F. Supp. 2d 1, 13 (D.D.C. 2010).

An employee of the federal government complaining of discrimination must "initiate contact" with an EEO counselor within forty-five days of the allegedly discriminatory action. 29 C.F.R. § 1614.105(a)(1). The forty-five day period begins to run when an employee has a "reasonable suspicion" of a discriminatory action. Adesalu, 606 F. Supp. 2d at 102."The applicable case law and regulation . . . do not allow a plaintiff to wait until [she] has direct proof of the allegedly discriminatory actions; rather, they require a plaintiff to file an EEO charge even if [she] is not in possession of the 'supportive facts' necessary to prosecute a discrimination charge." Johnson v. Gonzales, 479 F. Supp. 2d 55, 59 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Paredes v. Nagle, No. 81-1374, 1982 WL 319, at *4 (D.D.C. Jan. 17, 1982)).

Congress was concerned that this system, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), "unduly restrict[ed] the time period in which victims of discrimination [could] challenge and recover for discriminatory compensation decisions or other practices." Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act ("Ledbetter Act"), Pub. L. No. 111-2, 123 Stat. 5 (Jan. 29, 2009). In response, it passed the Ledbetter Act, which deems "each payment" resulting from a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice to be an unlawful employment practice under Title VII or the ADEA.*fn3 See Johnson v. District of Columbia, 632 F. Supp. 2d 20, 21 (D.D.C. 2009). The Ledbetter Act allows plaintiffs to recover "back pay for up to two years preceding the filing of the charge," provided that the "unlawful employment practices" that occurred during the filing period are "similar or related to unlawful employment practices with regard to discrimination in compensation that occurred outside the time for filing a charge." Ledbetter Act § 3.

III. FAILURE TO EXHAUST

A. The Desk Audit

The Secretary argues that Rand's claim of discrimination based on the desk audit should be dismissed because "the desk audit issue is not an adverse action upon which" an EEO claim may be based. (Def.'s Mot. at 8.) Rand argues that she exhausted her administrative remedies, but does not respond to the Secretary's argument that failing to provide a desk audit is not an adverse action. (Pl.'s Opp'n at 5.) Therefore, the Court will treat this issue as conceded. Hopkins v. Women's Div., Gen. Bd. of Global Ministries, 284 F. Supp. 2d 15, 25 (D.D.C. 2003) ("well understood" in this Circuit that when a plaintiff's "opposition to a dispositive motion . . . addresses only certain arguments raised by the defendant, a court may treat those arguments that the plaintiff failed to address as conceded"). The Court will dismiss Rand's claim that the Secretary discriminated against her by failing to complete a desk audit.

B. Pay Discrimination

The Secretary argues that Rand's remaining claims must be dismissed because she did not exhaust them. The "administrative time limits created by the EEOC erect no jurisdictional bars to bringing suit. Rather, functioning like statutes of limitations, these time limits are subject to equitable tolling, estoppel, and waiver." Bowden, 106 F.3d 437."[I]t is the defendant's burden to show the plaintiff did not timely contact an EEO counselor." Miller v. Hersman 594 F.3d 8, 13 (D.C. Cir. 2010). According to Rand's EEO complaint, she "first bec[a]me aware of the alleged discrimination" on June 30, 1999, and Rand admits that she was denied a promotion in "late 2000." (Pl.'s Decl. ¶ 6.) Rand did not contact a counselor until August 16, 2002. (EEO Compl. at 2.) Thus, the Secretary has successfully shown that Rand did not timely contact an EEO counselor within the required forty-five day period.

Rand's only argument in response is that her claim is timely under the Ledbetter Act because she alleges pay discrimination. (Pl.'s Opp'n at 5-7.) Rand observes that the Ledbetter Act applies to "all claims of discrimination in compensation under Title VII and the [ADEA], pending on or after May 28, 2007." (Id. at 6.) She notes that her claim was pending on that date and argues that the Ledbetter Act "forecloses Defendant's argument that [her] claims are untimely." (Id. at 5.) The Court disagrees.

1. The Ledbetter Act

The Secretary argues that the Ledbetter Act does not apply because Rand has not alleged the existence of a discriminatory compensation practice. (Def.'s Mot. at 7.) The Court of Appeals has held that "the decision whether to promote an employee to a higher paying position" is not a "discriminatory compensation decision or other practice" under the Ledbetter Act. Schuler v. PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP, 595 F. 3d 370, 374-75 (D.C. Cir. 2010). The Ledbetter Act prevents employers from "paying different wages or providing different benefits to similarly situated employees." Id. at 374. Therefore, it is not implicated when a company makes a decision to "promote one employee but not another to a more remunerative position." Id. Following Schuler, two other judges on this Court have held that failing to grant a promotion on the GS scale "was not a 'discriminatory compensation decision or other practice.'" Johnson v. Vilsack, No. 04-1609, 2011 WL 4527065, at *6 n.7 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2011) (Sullivan, J.); Lipscomb v. Mabus, 699 F. Supp. 2d 171, 174 (D.D.C. 2010) (Bates, J.); see also Canaday v. Wynne, No. 09-247, 2010 WL 2688065, at *10 (N.D. Fla. Apr. 26, 2010) (decision not to grant plaintiff temporary promotion to GS-12 did not implicate Ledbetter Act).

Rand seeks to distinguish Schuler, Johnson and Lipscomb by arguing that she already did the work of aGS-14 employee and was denied commensurate title and pay. (Am. Compl. ¶ 7.) Rand alleges that the Secretary "had no legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for paying plaintiff less than her grade 14 co-workers." (Am. Compl. ¶ 7.) Essentially, she argues that she was denied a promotion in order to prevent her from receiving the same compensation as her younger, male co-workers. Thus, on its face, Rand's complaint appears to allege discriminatory compensation. See Ledbetter, 550 U.S. at 623 ("Title VII . . . makes it an 'unlawful employment practice' to discriminate 'against any individual with respect to his compensation . . . because of such individual's . . . sex"). The government counters that Rand's compensation-related claims "are directly tied to her over-arching concern that she should have been elevated from a GS-13 to a GS-14, either through a non-competitive promotion or through a desk audit." (Def.'s Reply at 3.)

Despite her artful pleading, the gravamen of Rand's claim is her failure to obtain a promotion, and this characterization is consistent with the case law in this jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals has previously treated a case with similar facts as claiming "discriminatory refusal to promote." Taylor v. Small, 350 F.3d 1286, 1294 (D.C. Cir. 2003). In Taylor, the plaintiff "claimed she was denied a promotion" because of her race, and "with her current responsibilities, she should have received an increase in grade and salary." Id. The Court found that the plaintiff was required to "show that she sought and was denied a promotion for which she was qualified" and that "other employees of similar qualifications" were promoted "at the time the plaintiff's request for promotion was denied" in order to "make out a prima facie case of discriminatory refusal to promote." Id. (quoting Bundy v. Jackson, 641 F.2d 934, 951 (D.C. Cir. 1981)); see also Bolden v. Winter, 602 F. Supp. 2d 130, 137 (D.D.C. 2009) (Taylor applied "where the plaintiff sought only an increase in grade and pay and not promotion to a vacant position").*fn4 Rand has not alleged any facts that distinguish her case from Taylor. The only discriminatory act Rand alleges is her supervisor's failure to promote her.*fn5

Rand cannot invoke the Ledbetter Act because, if she could, any government employee could circumvent Schuler simply by relabeling their nonpromotion claims. The Circuit defined "discrimination in compensation" as "paying different wages or providing different benefits to similarly situated employees," as opposed to a "decision whether to promote an employee to a higher paying position," which is "not a 'compensation decision or other practice' within the meaning of that phrase." Schuler, 595 F.3d at 374-75. Rand's case resembles the latter far more than the former. She sought a promotion to a higher-paying position to reflect her increased workload, requested a desk audit when her supervisor refused to promote her, then filed a lawsuit alleging discriminatory compensation when it became clear that no desk audit had taken place. Rand essentially alleges that her supervisor wrongly decided not to promote her, that this error was not corrected, and that as a result, she was denied appropriate compensation. If the Ledbetter Act could revive this claim, any government employee denied an accretion of duties promotion could simply recast her claim as one for pay discrimination in order to evade Schuler.

In addition, the legislative history of the Ledbetter Act demonstrates that Congress did not intend it to protect claims like Rand's from exhaustion requirements. See Johnson, 2011 WL 4527065, at *6 n.7.The House Committee on Education and Labor reported that "pay discrimination is incredibly difficult to detect" because employees are often "prohibit[ed] . . . from discussing their wages with co-workers" and because there is "often no clearly adverse employment event that occurs with a discriminatory pay decision." H.R. Rep. No. 110-237, at 7 (2007). Thus, the Committee found, a rule requiring victims of pay discrimination to file "within 180 days of the initial discriminatory pay decision" would "ignore[] . . . reality." Id. The discrimination Rand alleges was clearly linked to an adverse employment event. Rand admits that she was aware that she was paid less than her GS-14 co-workers and that she repeatedly sought a promotion. (EEO Compl. at 3.) Although she believed that the desk audit process was ongoing, she knew that she had not yet been awarded an accretion of duties promotion and would have known if her pay had increased. Thus, distinguishing between pay discrimination and the discriminatory refusal to grant an accretion of duties promotion is "fully consistent with the patent intent of the Congress" and the purposes of the Ledbetter Act. Schuler, 595 F.3d at 375.

The Court therefore concludes that the only discriminatory act Rand alleges was the failure to grant her a promotion based on her accretion of duties. Under Schuler, her claims are not revived by the Ledbetter Act. Id. Therefore, the Secretary is entitled to summary judgment.*fn6

CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Secretary's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted. A separate Order accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.


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