UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
December 6, 2011
SHEILA A. BLOOM, PLAINTIFF,
JOHN MCHUGH, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth Chief Judge United States District Court for the District of Columbia
Sheila A. Bloom, a former employee of the United States Army Corps of Engineers proceeding pro se,*fn1 brings this action against John McHugh, Secretary of the Army, and Robert L. Van Antwerp, Jr., Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers.*fn2 Bloom alleges harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; the Civil Service Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 95-454, 92 Stat. 1111 (1978) (codified in scattered sections of 5 U.S.C.); and the Whistleblower Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 101-12, 103 Stat. 16 (1989) (codified in scattered sections of 5 U.S.C.). Before the Court is defendants' motion to dismiss her complaint in part and for summary judgment [Dkt. # 44].*fn3 Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the Court concludes that defendants' motion should be granted.*fn4
Bloom was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers as a civil engineer in 1986. Compl. ¶ 15. In June 1996, she began serving as a program manager in the Corps's Baltimore District office, working on, among other things, the "Spring Valley" project. Compl.¶ 17.*fn5 Bloom states that between 1996 and 1998 she raised with her supervisors concerns about environmental and public health dangers at the Spring Valley site.Compl.¶ 18. In retaliation, Bloom contends, the Corps replaced her as the program manager at the Spring Valley site. Compl.¶ 19. Bloom also alleges that the Corps initially attempted to interfere with her transfer to another position, which she was later permitted to accept. Compl.¶ 20.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice allegedly began investigating the Spring Valley site and interviewed Bloom. Compl.¶ 21. Bloom contends that before her interview, she informed individuals in the Army Corps's Baltimore District office and its Office of the General Counsel about her concerns regarding the Spring Valley site, after which it allegedly "became known to the command structure" of the Corps that Bloom planned to move forward with raising her complaints externally. Compl.¶ 21. Bloom also contends that she spoke with the Corps Inspector General about the Spring Valley site in November 2002. Compl.¶ 23.
Earlier that year, Bloom had accepted a position within the Corps's Command Planning Group.Compl.¶¶ 22, 24.In this position, she worked under a team of three managers: Bruce Elliott, Sean Wachutka, and Toni Trombecky (collectively, the "management team"). Compl.¶ 26. Bloom contends that she experienced "significant retaliation" during this assignment as a result of her "protected disclosures" regarding the Spring Valley site. Compl. ¶ 22.
Bloom also alleges that the management team subjected her to a "pattern of discrimination" beginning in September 2002. Compl. ¶ 29. Specifically, Bloom says that Wachutka "continually presented" her with job announcements. Compl. ¶ 30. Trombecky allegedly accused Bloom of attempting to undermine her authority, belittled Bloom in front of her male colleagues, and refused to assign Bloom work in areas where she had experience. Compl. ¶ 31. The management team also purportedly refused to change Bloom's title from "facilitator" to the "more distinguished and prestigious" title of "strategic planner," which allegedly resulted in her being designated an "overhire" in the Corps's January 2004 reorganization. Compl. ¶¶ 34--36.
In July 2002, Bloom attended a Corps work party where, she says, Trombecky's husband "made inappropriate sexual advances" toward her. Compl.¶ 27.She contends that Trombecky's husband "grabbed . . . Bloom and pulled her towards him into a hug," saying "'take me away from them, they don't understand me.'" Compl.¶ 27.Bloom also alleges that, several days later, Trombecky "trapped" her in her cubicle and "berated her." Compl.¶ 28.
In November 2002, Trombecky allegedly told Bloom that her husband was going to "joke" with Bloom at the Corps's upcoming holiday party and said, "in a very sexual tone . . . '[o]h he really likes you.'" Compl. ¶ 32. At the party, Trombecky's husband allegedly "grabbed [Bloom] and tickled her arms near her breasts." Compl. ¶ 33. Bloom says that he then "stood against the wall and stared at [her] for a long time." Compl. ¶ 33.
In January 2003, Trombecky allegedly "subjected . . . Bloom to harassment" at a work conference, prompting Bloom to report Trombecky's harassment to Elliott. Compl. ¶¶ 37--38. After lodging this complaint, Bloom contends that she became "the subject of retaliation by her supervisors." Compl. ¶ 91. Specifically, on February 3, 2003, Trombecky allegedly informed Bloom that her Quality Step Increase would not take effect, even though Bloom had previously been told that the increase had been approved. Compl. ¶ 39. On February 4, 2003, Trombecky allegedly "verbally abused" Bloom, prompting Bloom to request that Elliott remove her from the "hostile work environment." Compl. ¶¶ 40--41.
On February 11, 2003, Trombecky purportedly had security staff escort Bloom through the building and then issued her a letter of reprimand, after which Bloom initiated an informal administrative grievance. Compl. ¶¶ 43--45. Bloom contends that her efforts to seek redress through the Corps's chain of command were "continuously denied." Compl. ¶ 45. On March 13, 2003, Bloom purportedly received notification that she had been charged with being away without leave ("AWOL") for 3.75 hours, causing her to lose $157.50 in "pay and benefits." Compl. ¶¶ 51, 99.
In April 2003, Trombecky allegedly referred Bloom to a mandatory anger management program. Compl. ¶ 53. Trombecky also allegedly "targeted [Bloom], unlike her male counterparts," by requiring her to: (i) provide a fixed arrival and departure schedule; (ii) sign in and out on a timesheet for her time in, time out, and lunch hours; (iii) sign in and out any time she was away from her desk for more than thirty minutes; and (iv) alert Trombecky any time she attended a meeting that went longer than expected. Compl.¶¶ 53--54. In May 2003, Trombecky and Elliot purportedly denied Bloom's request to attend a conference. Compl.¶ 56. In June 2003, Trombecky allegedly wrote a derogatory e-mail about Bloom and requested information from Bloom's physician. Compl.¶¶ 59--60.
In August 2004, Bloom received a thirty-working-day suspension. Compl.¶ 70. The specific bases for the suspension were "communicating a threat, failure to follow instructions, and lack of candor." Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss in Part and for Summ. J. ("Defs.' Mem.") at 18. Bloom contends that, as a result, she lost $10,080 in wages and was denied other benefits, including matching contributions to her retirement account, health benefits, leave accrual, and insurance benefits. Compl. ¶ 139. Bloom says that she did not engage in the misconduct used as the basis of her suspension, or in the alternative, that any misconduct was "provoked." Compl.¶¶ 140--141.
Bloom contends that in August 2004, Wachutka refused to allow her to reapply for a security clearance because "he was not going to require a clearance for her position." Compl. ¶ 75. She alleges that the lack of a security clearance "limited [her] mobility for placement into available openings from the overhire position" and "impacted her ability to . . . obtain promotions or assignments to key projects." Compl.¶¶ 75--76.
In October 2004, Bloom received a "[f]ailing (5) performance appraisal." Compl.¶ 81. As a result, Bloom was placed on a performance improvement plan and "was ineligible for a cash award in both 2003 and 2004." Compl.¶¶ 106, 108. Bloom argues that the Corps's failure to issue her "legitimate performance appraisals" from November 2002 to October 2004 "denied her the opportunity to transfer into another position and be promoted." Compl.¶¶ 82, 107.
Bloom contends that throughout this period, she repeatedly complained about her working environment to her supervisors and requested to be transferred. See Compl. ¶¶ 29--86. Specifically, Bloom says that she complained of Trombecky's "harassment" to Elliott in January 2003 and asked Elliott to remove her "from the hostile work environment" in February 2003. Compl. ¶¶ 38, 41. Between February 2003 and April 2003, Bloom allegedly filed informal and formal administrative grievances, to no avail. Compl. ¶¶ 44--45, 49. In March 2003, Bloom's request for a transfer was allegedly denied. Compl. ¶ 48. In May 2003, Bloom avers that she reported to a different Corps division for a permanent transfer, but the transfer was subsequently reversed. Compl. ¶ 57. Bloom contends that she alerted Lieutenant General Robert Flowers in May 2003 that she was being discriminated and retaliated against as a result of "her whistleblower activity" regarding the Spring Valley site and "her prior EEO protected activities"; Flowers allegedly took no action. Compl. ¶ 58. In October 2003, Bloom's request to be removed from her position was again denied. Compl. ¶ 64.
Between May 2003 and February 2005, Bloom filed four complaints with the Army Equal Employment Opportunity Office. See Compl. ¶¶ 52, 68--69, 86. In September 2005, she commenced this action. From May 2008 through May 2009, this action was stayed pending the Court of Appeals' resolution of the dismissal of a related civil action, Bloom v. Geren, No. 07- 0979 (D.D.C. Jan. 18, 2008). The D.C. Circuit resolved that appeal by summary affirmance, see Bloom v. Geren, 2009 WL 1953632 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 3, 2009), and the defendants then brought this motion to dismiss and for summary judgment.
II. LEGAL STANDARDS
A. Judgment on the Pleadings Under Rule 12(c)
Defendants move to dismiss some of Bloom's claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), but such a motion is untimely because they have already filed an answer. See FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b) ("A motion asserting any [Rule 12(b)] defenses must be made before pleading if a responsive pleading is allowed."). Because, however, the standards for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion and a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings are identical, courts routinely construe motions to dismiss that are filed after a responsive pleading as motions for judgment on the pleadings, and this Court will do likewise. See, e.g., Langley v. Napolitano, 677 F. Supp. 2d 261, 263 (D.D.C. 2010); Lenox Hill Hosp. v. Shalala, 131 F. Supp. 2d 136, 140 (D.D.C. 2000).
Accordingly, defendants' motion will be granted only if Bloom's complaint fails to plead "enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). To state a plausible claim, the complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, but it must recite facts sufficient to at least "raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Id. at 555. A "pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). At bottom, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter that, accepted as true, would allow the Court "to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id.*fn6
B. Summary Judgment Under Rule 56
Defendants move for summary judgment on another of Bloom's claims. A motion for summary judgment should be granted only "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). A material fact is one that "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The movant must support its factual positions by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . , admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)(1)(A); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).
If the moving party meets its burden, the non-moving party must then establish that a genuine dispute as to any material fact actually exists. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). To meet its burden, the non-moving party must show that "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict" in its favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Such evidence must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine dispute for trial. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)(1), (e); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322 n.3. If the evidence is "merely colorable" or "not significantly probative," summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249--50.
Bloom's complaint presents five counts. Two allege violations of the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Civil Service Reform Act. The remaining three allege violations of Title VII: sex discrimination, retaliation for engaging in protected activity, and the creation of a hostile work environment. The Court begins by addressing Bloom's claim under the Whistleblower Protection Act.*fn7
A. Bloom's Whistleblower Protection Act Claim is Barred By Res Judicata
Defendants contend that Count IV of Bloom's complaint, titled "Whistleblower Discrimination," is barred by the doctrine of res judicata. Defs.' Mem. at 5--6. They argue that Count IV is duplicative of claims that Bloom raised before the Federal Circuit in 2007, see Bloom v. Dep't of the Army, 245 F. App'x 953 (Fed. Cir. 2007), as well as those presented to this Court in Bloom v. Geren. Defs.' Mem. at 5--6. Bloom does not address the Federal Circuit appeal, but argues that Count IV is "distinctly different" from the claims she raised in Bloom v. Geren. Pl.'s Mot. to Dismiss Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss ( "Pl.'s Opp'n") at 3. Bloom's argument is unavailing.*fn8
Res judicata, or claim preclusion,holds that "a subsequent lawsuit will be barred if there has been prior litigation (1) involving the same claims or cause of action, (2) between the same parties or their privies, and (3) there has been a final, valid judgment on the merits, (4) by a court of competent jurisdiction." Smalls v. United States, 471 F.3d 186, 192 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (citing Blonder-Tongue Labs., Inc. v. Univ. of Ill. Found., 402 U.S. 313, 323--24 (1971)). Two claims involve the same cause of action if they share a common nucleus of fact. Drake v. FAA, 291 F.3d 59, 66 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In short, the doctrine prevents parties "from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised" in a prior action. Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980) (emphasis added).
Bloom's Whistleblower Protection Act claim is clearly barred by her prior litigation. Bloom here alleges that she "raised significant concerns to her supervisors" regarding a number of "major flaws" with the Spring Valley project site. Compl. ¶¶ 129--30. As an alleged result of these disclosures, Bloom experienced several retaliatory actions. Compl.¶¶ 131--34. Similarly, Bloom argued before the Federal Circuit (where she was appealing the dismissal of her complaint by the Merit Systems Protection Board) that "she suffered reprisals in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act . . . as a result of protected disclosures she made in connection with the 'Spring Valley' project." Bloom, 245 F. App'x at 954. Although Bloom describes some retaliatory actions here that she did not raise before the Federal Circuit, her new allegations "could have been raised" in that court, Allen, 449 U.S. at 94, and the claims she raised there plainly share a nucleus of fact with those she asserts here. See Drake, 291 F.3d at 66. The Federal Circuit's dismissal of Bloom's Whistleblower Protection Act claims-essentially because they were frivolous, see 245 F. App'x at 955--56-constituted "a final, valid judgment on the merits" of those claims. See Smalls, 471 F.3d at 192. Accordingly, Bloom may not now relitigate those claims, or others that she could have raised in that action. Her Whistleblower Protection Act claim will therefore be dismissed.*fn9
B. Summary Judgment as to Bloom's Civil Service Reform Act Claim
The defendants next argue that the Court should grant summary judgment in their favor on Count V, which alleges that Bloom's thirty-day suspension in August 2004 violated the Civil Service Reform Act. Bloom was suspended for lack of candor, issuing threats, and failure to follow instructions. Def.'s Mem. Ex. 28 at 1--2. The Civil Service Reform Act provides a grievance process and remedies to federal employees who believe that they have experienced prohibited personnel practices, which include personnel actions that are arbitrary, discriminatory, or based on personal favoritism. See 5 U.S.C. §§ 2301--2302. Before addressing the defendants' arguments, the Court will briefly clarify the procedural posture of this claim.
The Civil Service Reform Act allows an employee who has experienced a prohibited personnel practice that was motivated by discrimination in violation of Title VII to file a "mixed case" alleging violations of both the Civil Service Reform Act and Title VII. A mixed case complainant may file either a complaint with her agency's equal employment opportunity office or a "mixed case appeal" directly with the Merit Systems Protection Board. See Butler v. West, 164 F.3d 634, 638 (D.C. Cir. 1999); 29 C.F.R. § 1614.302(b). If she elects the former route, the complainant may appeal the agency's decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board or file a civil action in federal court. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 1614.302(d)(1)(ii), 1614.302(d)(3), 1614.310(a). The same options are available if 120 days pass without a final decision by the agency. See 5 U.S.C. § 7702(e); Butler, 164 F.3d at 638.
Here, Bloom first filed a mixed case complaint regarding her thirty-day suspension with the Army's equal employment opportunity office. Compl. ¶¶ 7, 69. A month later, she filed a mixed case appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board, which was dismissed without prejudice as premature because her EEO complaint was still pending. See Bloom v. Dep't of the Army, 2004 M.S.P.B. LEXIS 3025, at *4--6 (Oct. 20, 2004). The equal employment opportunity office, however, did not act on Bloom's complaint within 120 days. Compl. ¶ 7.
Bloom's Civil Service Reform Act claim thus arrives here in an unusual posture; neither the EEO office nor the Merit Systems Protection Board has addressed its merits. Nevertheless, district courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to review the Civil Service Reform Act component of a mixed case even absent a final agency decision on the merits. Ikossi v. Dep't of Navy, 516 F.3d 1037, 1042--44 (D.C. Cir. 2008). In such cases, the Court's review is de novo. See id. at 1043--44; accord Seay v. TVA, 339 F.3d 454, 472 (6th Cir. 2003).
To earn summary judgment on Bloom's Civil Service Reform Act claim, therefore, defendants must demonstrate that any reasonable jury would find the agency's reasons for suspending Bloom to be "supported by a preponderance of the evidence . . . and that the penalty imposed was reasonable." Vickers v. Powell, 493 F.3d 186, 191 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 7701(c)(1)(B); Douglas v. Veterans Admin., 5 M.S.P.R. 280 (1981)). Defendants must also prove that the thirty-day suspension "promote[d] the efficiency of the [civil] service."
5 U.S.C. § 7513(a). The Court will first address the evidence supporting the penalty, and then the propriety thereof.
1. Evidence Supporting the Lack of Candor Charge
Defendants contends that Bloom's suspension was partially based on her lack of candor. Bloom allegedly made a number of untruthful statements to a supervisor in December 2003.
Def.'s Mem. at 19--21. According to memoranda written by both Bloom and her supervisor Wachutka, on December 19, Bloom announced to Wachutka that she planned to visit the Army's equal employment opportunity office. Def.'s Mem. Ex. 28, Attach. 5 at 1--2; Def.'s Mem. Ex. 29 at 2.*fn10 Wachutka asked whether Bloom had an appointment there; Bloom said that she did. Bloom then admitted that her appointment had actually been two days prior, but she had been unable to make it. Def.'s Mem. Ex. 28 at 1--2; Def.'s Mem. Ex. 29 at 2. After Wachutka confirmed that Bloom did not have an appointment with the EEO office for that day, Bloom allegedly told Wachutka that she had permission to go to there at any time to review her file. Def.'s Mem. Ex. 28, Attach. 5 at 2. Wachutka again contacted the EEO office, which informed him that Bloom had not had an appointment on record for December 17 and that there was no standing invitation for Bloom to visit. Def.'s Mem. Ex. 28, Attach. 5 at 2.
Defendants have offered evidence that Bloom responded untruthfully or evasively to a number of Wachutka's questions on December 19, 2003. Bloom has introduced no evidence to the contrary, nor disputed that these events occurred substantially as described in defendants' exhibits. Bloom does state broadly that the parties disagree about the facts of the case, see Pl.'s Opp'n at 43, but a pro se plaintiff, like any other, cannot defeat summary judgment by making mere allegations or denials that are unsupported by affidavits or other competent evidence. Prunte v. Universal Music Grp., Inc., 699 F. Supp. 2d 15, 21--22 (D.D.C. 2010). Further, Bloom's own description of the events of December 19 asserts that Bloom first told Wachutka that she had an appointment that afternoon at the EEO Office, and then later admitted that she did not. Def.'s Mem. Ex. 29 at 2. Because a lack of candor charge may be proven by showing that the employee failed "to disclose something that, in the circumstances, should have been disclosed in order to make the given statement accurate and complete," Ludlum v. Dep't of Justice, 278 F.3d 1280, 1284 (Fed. Cir. 2002), the Court finds defendants have met their evidentiary burden with respect to the lack of candor charge. Cf. Smith v. Dep't of Interior, 112 M.S.P.R. 173, 180--81 (2009) (finding that the agency had met its evidentiary burden to sustain a lack of candor charge where the employee had admitted to "c[oming] up with" excuses for her absences from work); see also Weaver v. U.S. Information Agency, 87 F.3d 1429, 1433 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (noting that "[t]he [Merit Systems Protection Board's] interpretation [of the Civil Service Reform Act] is entitled to deference") (citing Lovshin v. Dep't of Navy, 767 F.2d 826, 840 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (en banc) (holding that "deference is appropriately given to the [Merit Systems Protection Board's] interpretation" of the Civil Service Reform Act)).*fn11
2. Nexus Between Adverse Action and the Efficiency of the Service
Under the Civil Service Reform Act, an agency can take action against an employee "only for such cause as will promote the efficiency of the service." 5 U.S.C. § 7513(a). The "efficiency of the service" standard requires that there be a "nexus between the employee's misconduct and the work of the agency, i.e., the agency's performance of its functions." Doe v. Dep't of Justice, 565 F.3d 1375, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2009). The Merit Systems Protection Board has held that "an agency has a right to expect its workers to be honest, trustworthy, and candid" and that a "lack of candor strikes at the very heart of the employer-employee relationship." Ludlum v. Dep't of Justice, 87 M.S.P.R. 56, 68 (2000) (citing Stein v. U.S. Postal Serv., 57 M.S.P.R. 434, 441 (1993)). And the Federal Circuit has suggested that a sufficient nexus is established where the employee's misconduct occurred at work. Parker v. U.S. Postal Serv., 819 F.2d 1113, 1116 (Fed. Cir. 1987). Here, defendants have shown that Bloom was dishonest and evasive with her supervisor, while at work. That showing is sufficient to establish a nexus between the employee's misconduct and the efficiency of the service. See Probasco v. Dep't of the Air Force, 2009 M.S.P.B. LEXIS 6354, at *24 (Sept. 29, 2009); Ludlum, 87 M.S.P.R. at 68.
3. Appropriateness of the Penalty Imposed
The Court reviews an agency-imposed penalty under the Civil Service Reform Act only to determine if the agency considered all the relevant factors and exercised management discretion within tolerable limits of reasonableness. Douglas, 5 M.S.P.R. at 306; see also Dunn v. Dep't of the Air Force, 96 M.S.P.R. 166, 170--71 (2004). Accordingly, the Court's function is not to decide what penalty it would impose, but rather to ensure that the agency's judgment has been properly exercised and that the penalty does not exceed the maximum limits of reasonableness. Kamahele v. Dep't of Homeland Sec., 108 M.S.P.R. 666, 670--71 (2008); Douglas, 5 M.S.P.R. at 306.
Bloom's complaint alleges that the suspension was overly harsh, that the agency failed to properly consider the required factors, as listed in Douglas, 5 M.S.P.R. 280,*fn12 and that Bloom was "otherwise subject to disparate treatment." Compl. ¶¶ 142--144. Defendants respond that the agency properly considered each of the Douglas factors and that the severity of the suspension was well within the bounds of reasonableness. Defs.' Mem. at 28--29. Defendants have the stronger position.
The evidence offered by defendants establishes that the agency properly considered all of the relevant factors before issuing Bloom's thirty-day suspension. In an interview with an EEO counselor, Wachutka, the proposing official, stated that he had both considered the Douglas factors and consulted with the Army Corps's Human Resources department before deciding that Bloom's purported misconduct warranted a thirty-day suspension. Def.'s Mem. Ex. 31 at 4. Elliott, the deciding official, specifically stated in his "notice of decision" that he had "given full consideration to all of the Douglas factors." Def.'s Mem. Ex. 30 ¶ 2. Elliott also completed a "Supervisor's Checklist of Douglas Factor Considerations" in which each of the twelve listed factors is followed by a handwritten notation indicating the application of the factor to the situation at hand. See Def.'s Mem. Ex. 33.*fn13 In light of this uncontroverted evidence, the Court concludes that the Corps properly considered all of the requisite factors.
The Court also finds that the severity of the thirty-day suspension
was within the limits of reasonableness. Although the suspension was
based on the agency's conclusion that Bloom had committed all three of
the offenses charged, the penalty cannot be viewed as anything other
than reasonable even if considered solely in relation to the lack of
candor charge. In evaluating the reasonableness of a penalty, the
Court considers first and foremost the nature and seriousness of the
misconduct and its relation to the employee's duties, position, and
responsibilities. Singletary v. Dep't of the Air Force, 94 M.S.P.R.
553, 559 (2003), aff'd, 104 F. App'x 155 (Fed. Cir. 2004). A lack of
candor charge is a serious offense that "strikes at the heart of the
employer-employee relationship." Jackson v. Dep't of the Army, 99
M.S.P.R. 604, 607 (2005). That fact is reaffirmed by the agency's
"Table of Penalties," which suggests that a first offense for
"exaggeration, concealment, [or] withholding of a material fact"
warrants anything from a written reprimand to removal. See Def.'s Mem.
Ex. 36 at 5--6. Bloom provides no basis for the Court to conclude that her suspension for committing this significant
offense was unreasonable. She claims that any misconduct on her part
was "provoked" by officials at the agency, Compl.
¶ 141, but offers no evidence to support such a claim.*fn14
The Court therefore finds that the imposition of a thirty-day
suspension was a reasonable penalty and that no reasonable juror could
conclude otherwise on this record.
4. Bloom's Affirmative Defense of Disparate Treatment
Lastly, the Court turns to Bloom's contention that her suspension was motivated by disparate treatment. Compl. ¶ 143. Disparate treatment that would violate Title VII constitutes an affirmative defense under the Civil Service Reform Act that, if proven, requires a penalty to be overturned even if otherwise justified. See 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b); 5 C.F.R. § 1201.56(a)(2)(iii), (b). Defendants argue that Bloom's accusation of disparate treatment is without support. The Court agrees.
Under the Civil Service Reform Act, an employee may establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that she was treated less favorably than a similarly situated employee who is not a member of her protected class. See Buckler v. Fed. Ret. Thrift Inv. Bd., 73 M.S.P.R. 476, 497 (1997). Here, Bloom can make no such showing. Defendants concede that Bloom's gender places her in a protected class, but rightly points out that Bloom has not identified any similarly situated comparators outside of her protected class who were punished less harshly than she was for similar conduct. Accordingly, Bloom's affirmative defense fails, and defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Count V of Bloom's complaint.*fn15
C. Bloom's Sex Discrimination Claim (Count III) Is Dismissed
Count III of Bloom's complaint alleges that Bloom experienced discrimination based on sex in violation of Title VII. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a) (requiring federal employment decisions to "be made free from any discrimination based on . . . sex").*fn16 Defendants argue that Count III should be dismissed because Bloom has not alleged that she experienced an adverse employment action. Defs.' Mem. at 10--11. The Court agrees that Bloom has failed to state a disparate treatment claim, but for a different reason.*fn17
An adverse employment action is "a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761 (1998); accord Taylor v. Small, 350 F.3d 1286, 1293 (D.C. Cir. 2003). The employee must "experience materially adverse consequences affecting the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment or future employment opportunities such that a reasonable trier of fact could find objectively tangible harm." Forkkio v. Powell, 306 F.3d 1127, 1131 (D.C. Cir. 2002). "For employment actions that do not obviously result in a significant change in employment status . . . an employee must go the further step of demonstrating how the decision nonetheless caused . . . objectively tangible harm." Douglas v. Donovan, 559 F.3d 549, 553 (D.C. Cir. 2009).
Here, Bloom identifies four distinct actions as being "targeted" at her but not her male counterparts. First, Trombecky "insisted" that Bloom provide a fixed schedule indicating her arrival and departure times, even though her male colleagues were not required to do so. Compl. ¶ 123. Second, Trombecky instructed Bloom to sign in and out on a timesheet to account for her arrival, departure, and lunch breaks, and to report to Trombecky anytime a meeting went longer than expected. Compl. ¶ 124. Third, Trombecky and Elliott denied Bloom's request to attend a conference even though two male colleagues were permitted to go. Compl. ¶ 125. Finally, the management team refused to change Bloom's job title from "facilitator" to "strategic planner" as required by a Permanent Change of Station (i.e., an official reassignment) that she received in 2002. Compl. ¶¶ 10, 25, 126.*fn18
Trombecky's instructions to follow certain scheduling practices do not rise to the level of adverse employment action. Bloom makes no allegations suggesting that these instructions "caused . . . objectively tangible harm," Douglas, 559 F.3d at 552, or otherwise impacted her employment status. At most, these instructions constituted an inconvenience to Bloom. See Zelaya v. UNICCO Serv. Co., 733 F. Supp. 2d 121, 129--30 (D.D.C. 2010)(finding that, inter alia, the removal of the plaintiff's fifteen-minute break and the assignment of an employee to monitor her were "minor inconveniences and alteration[s] of job responsibilities [that did] not rise to the level of adverse action necessary to support a claim." (quoting Taylor v. Solis, 571 F.3d 1313, 1321 (D.C. Cir. 2009)) (first alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted)). For the same reason, the denial of Bloom's request to attend a conference is not adverse. Nurriddin v. Bolden, 674 F. Supp. 2d 64, 89 (D.D.C. 2009) (holding that "denial of travel to conferences is not an adverse employment action" because it has no material consequences).
Conversely, Bloom's final allegation-that managers refused to change Bloom's job title to reflect her reassignment-does plausibly suggest that Bloom experienced adverse action. Although defendants rely on Bloom's assertion that "strategic planner" is a "more distinguished and prestigious" title than "facilitator," Compl. ¶ 36, to argue that Bloom alleges a mere "bruised ego," Defs.' Mem. at 11, the Court disagrees. Construed in her favor, Bloom's complaint plausibly alleges that she was denied a title that confers a professional benefit. Indeed, courts in this district regularly conclude that personnel actions do not constitute adverse action where the plaintiff has shown "no effect on [her] grade or salary level, job title, duties, benefits or work hours." Runkle v. Gonzales, 391 F. Supp. 2d 210, 225 (D.D.C. 2005) (emphasis added); accord McGrath v. Clinton, 674 F. Supp. 2d 131, 147 (D.D.C. 2009); Harris v. Potter, 310 F. Supp. 2d 18, 21 (D.D.C. 2004); see also Keith v. Duffey, 77 F. Supp. 2d 46, 51 (D.D.C. 1999) ("It would be inconsistent to hold that Title VII did not provide protection against allegedly negative changes in plaintiff's position title and duties when it protects against less concrete actions such as a low performance rating."). Accordingly, the Court concludes that Bloom has alleged an adverse employment action.
Nevertheless, Bloom's complaint fails to state a claim of disparate treatment. Although Bloom has alleged an adverse action, she presents no facts that would allow the Court to reasonably infer the presence of the other "essential element" of a disparate treatment claim: that the adverse action was taken "because of the plaintiff's . . . sex." Baloch, 550 F.3d at 1196. The paragraphs of Bloom's complaint describing her job title dispute state that none of Bloom's male counterparts held the "facilitator" title that she was allegedly forced to keep. Compl. ¶¶ 125-- 126. But that assertion alone is insufficient to "nudge [Bloom's] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. There is no suggestion that any of Bloom's male colleagues were ever granted a title change pursuant to a Permanent Change of Station (or for any other reason). Nor are there any allegations suggesting that Bloom was denied a title change because of her gender. Although a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must recite facts sufficient to at least "raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. As to this claim, Bloom's complaint fails to do so. See Taylor v. FDIC, 132 F.3d 753, 761 (D.C. Cir. 1997) ("Dismissal under Rule 12[(c)] is proper when, taking the material allegations of the complaint as admitted, and construing them in plaintiffs' favor, the court finds that the plaintiffs have failed to allege all the material elements of their cause of action." (internal citations omitted)).
D. Bloom's Retaliation Claim (Count II) Is Dismissed
Defendants next argue that Bloom's complaint fails to state a claim of retaliation under Title VII because the activity that allegedly spurred retaliation against Bloom was not "protected activity" within the meaning of the statute. Defs.' Mem. at 12. Title VII prohibits employer reprisals in response to two types of protected activity: opposition activity, i.e., opposing "any practice made an unlawful employment practice by" Title VII; and participation activity, i.e., making a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a); see Crawford v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville and Davidson Cnty., 129 S. Ct. 846, 850 (2009). To state a Title VII retaliation claim, a plaintiff must allege materially adverse action in response to one of these types of protected activity. See Stewart v. Evans, 275 F.3d 1126, 1134 (D.C. Cir. 2002).
Bloom's complaint alleges that she has experienced retaliation "since lodging her first complaint between January 21--24, 2003." Compl. ¶ 91. That first complaint was prompted by Trombecky's behavior at a conference, where she "subjected Ms. Bloom to harassment." Compl. ¶¶ 37--38. Even when taken as true and construed in her favor, these bare allegations are insufficient to establish that Bloom complained of conduct that is unlawful under Title VII. A complaint that "alleges harassment generally and generically . . . [and does] not refer to harassment . . . based on . . . [a] protected category" is not protected oppositional activity under Title VII. Lemmons v. Georgetown Univ. Hosp., 431 F. Supp. 2d 76, 92 (D.D.C. 2006) (first omission and first alteration in original) (internal quotations marks omitted); cf. Middlebrooks v. Godwin Corp., 722 F. Supp. 2d 82, 89--90 (D.D.C. 2010) (dismissing a § 1981 retaliation claim because the plaintiff, who described reporting unsafe or unlawful behavior but not race discrimination, had not engaged in protected activity). Bloom's complaint neither alleges that Trombecky's harassment was based on a protected characteristic nor that Bloom reported it that way. See Compl. ¶¶ 37--38. There is thus no basis for the Court to conclude that Bloom's complaint constituted protected activity. Accordingly, Bloom has failed to state a claim of retaliation under Title VII.
E. Bloom's Hostile Work Environment Claim (Count I) is Dismissed
Finally, defendants seek the dismissal of Bloom's hostile work environment claim. A hostile work environment exists "[w]hen the workplace is permeated with 'discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult' that is 'sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.'" Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993)) (quoting Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 65, 67 (1986)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). To determine if that is the case, courts consider all relevant circumstances, "including 'the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.'" Curry v. District of Columbia, 195 F.3d 654, 662 n.16 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (quoting Harris, 510 U.S. at 23).
Here, Bloom's complaint describes a welter of incidents that, she alleges, constituted "ongoing and continual harassment in violation Title VII." Compl. ¶ 88. There is, however, one glaring omission: allegations connecting any of the alleged incidents to Bloom's gender or to any protected activity. A hostile work environment is not a stand-alone cause of action under Title VII; a plaintiff must either make out "some linkage between the hostile behavior and the plaintiff's membership in a protected class," Na'im v. Clinton, 626 F. Supp. 2d 63, 73 (D.D.C. 2009); see also Bryant v. Brownlee, 265 F. Supp. 2d 52, 63 (D.D.C. 2003), or establish a connection between the hostile environment and a protected activity. See Hussain v. Nicholson, 435 F.3d 359, 366 (D.C. Cir. 2006) ("In this circuit, a hostile work environment claim can amount to retaliation under Title VII."). Bloom fails to do either.
The only allegations in the complaint that arguably link any specific conduct to Bloom's gender are those describing the harassment she experienced at the two holiday parties in 2002. Bloom asserts that Trombecky's husband engaged in inappropriate and sexual verbal and physical contact with Bloom. See Compl. ¶¶ 27, 32--33. But these incidents did not occur at work and did not involve a co-worker. Bloom has thus failed to state a plausible claim that she experienced gender-based harassment sufficient "to alter the conditions of [her] employment and create an abusive working environment." Harris, 510 U.S. at 21 (emphasis added).
Similarly, Bloom fails to connect any of the incidents she describes to any protected activity so as to state a retaliatory hostile environment claim.Not only does Bloom fail to aver a direct causal connection between the two, but she also presents no allegations plausibly suggesting that the harassment of which she complains either commenced, see Nichols v. Truscott, 424 F. Supp. 2d 124, 141 (D.D.C. 2006), or worsened, see Powell v. Lockhart, 629 F. Supp. 2d 23, 49 (D.D.C. 2009), after she engaged in any protected activity. Simply put, Bloom has failed to present any allegations that would allow the Court "to draw the reasonable inference" that she experienced a hostile environment because she engaged in activity protected by Title VII. See Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. Accordingly, she has failed to state a claim of hostile-environment retaliation.
For the foregoing reasons, on this 6th of December 2011 the Court grants defendants' motion to dismiss in part and for summary judgment. An appropriate order accompanies this memorandum opinion.