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Yvonne M. Brooks v. Hillary Clinton

January 30, 2012

YVONNE M. BROOKS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Beryl A. Howell

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The plaintiff, Yvonne Brooks, is an African-American woman who worked as an administrative officer for the State Department from November 2003 to March 2007 pursuant to a contract that was renewable in one-year increments for a maximum period of five years. The plaintiff's supervisors decided not to renew her contract following its annual expiration in March 2007. Subsequently, the plaintiff brought this lawsuit against the State Department ("State") alleging that she was the victim of workplace discrimination. Specifically, the plaintiff alleges that her supervisors subjected her to racially disparate treatment and a racially hostile work environment, that State terminated her contract in retaliation for her seeking Equal Employment Opportunity counseling, and that State failed to provide reasonable accommodation for an alleged eye disability. The defendant has moved for judgment on the pleadings or, in the alternative, for summary judgment on the plaintiff's claims. The plaintiff opposes the defendant's motion. For the reasons explained below, summary judgment is denied on the plaintiff's retaliation claim and granted on all other claims.

I. BACKGROUND

The plaintiff filed this action against Hillary Clinton, in her official capacity as Secretary of State, on April 26, 2010. Compl., ECF No. 1. The Complaint alleges that the defendant violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981a, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., by unlawful and intentional discrimination based on her race, retaliation, hostile work environment, and failure to accommodate her physical disability. Id. ¶ 1.

The plaintiff began working for State in November 2003. Id. ¶ 11. She worked as an Administrative Officer, Personnel Service Contractor to the Management Support Division ("MSD") at State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations ("OBO"). Id. The plaintiff's contract with State was a one-year contract that could be renewed in one-year increments up to a total of five years. See Def.'s Ex. 1, hereinafter "Contract," at 5, art. 5. The last renewal of her contract was for the year commencing April 2, 2006 and ending March 31, 2007. Def.'s Ex. 1A at 3.

Initially, the plaintiff's immediate supervisor was Brian Clark and her second-line supervisor was Roberto Coquis. Compl. ¶ 11. During 2004 and 2005, Coquis, who is a Hispanic man, recognized the plaintiff's work as "outstanding" and "exemplary" and she received awards for her performance. See Pl.'s Exs. 4-13. Brian Clark left the OBO in 2005. Compl. ¶ 13. The plaintiff applied for Clark's position, but she was not selected. Id. ¶ 15. Instead, Coquis selected David Spinale, who is a white man, to fill Clark's former position.*fn1 Id. Spinale thus became the plaintiff's immediate supervisor. The plaintiff asserts that in July 2006, after Spinale became her manager, her workplace environment changed and Spinale, along with Coquis, began subjecting her to a hostile work environment and discrimination. Pl.'s Opp'n at 5; Compl. ¶ 16.

A. Racial Discrimination and Hostile Work Environment Allegations

The Court will first address the plaintiff's allegations that her supervisors subjected her to racially disparate treatment and a racially hostile work environment. The plaintiff, in her opposition brief and the Complaint, identifies nine main categories of actions that allegedly created a hostile work environment for her and constituted acts of racial discrimination. Pl.'s Opp'n at 5; Compl. ¶¶ 24-32, 41.

First, the plaintiff alleges Spinale sent her "hostile" email that "challenged and criticized her work product." Pl.'s Opp'n at 5. For example, she contends that Spinale "falsely" claimed that her "work-related reports were not substantially detailed and were sometimes submitted late." Id. at 6.

Second, the plaintiff cites a "hostile" email received from Coquis in November 2006 that described her work as "crap." Id. at 5. Coquis inadvertently sent this email to the plaintiff. Id. at 8-9. In a private email to a third-party, the plaintiff acknowledged that Coquis likely intended to send this "hostile" email to her immediate supervisor, Spinale, rather than to her, but she also added that Coquis's email represented "[j]ust more ammo for my case and how he is so unprofessional." Pl.'s Ex. 30.

Third, the plaintiff claims she received unwarranted discipline regarding computer use. Compl. ¶¶ 20-21; Pl.'s Opp'n at 6. In late November 2006, the plaintiff received a negative counseling statement for allegedly saving two inappropriate images on a State Department hard drive. Compl. ¶ 20; Pl.'s Opp'n at 6. Apparently, one of the images was labeled "Spiderman" and the other depicted an aborted fetus. See Def.'s Stmt. of Mat. Facts Not in Dispute ("Def.'s SMF"), ¶ 11. Coquis had previously cautioned the plaintiff about inappropriate computer use in May 2006 when the plaintiff circulated an email containing racial jokes with the subject line "FW: Ten Truths." Id. ¶ 10. The body of the email message contained lists of "10 Truths Black and Hispanic people know but White people wont [sic] admit," "10 Truths White and Black People know but Hispanic people wont [sic] admit," and "10 Truths white and Hispanic people know but Black people wont [sic] admit." Id. ¶ 10; see Def.'s Ex. 9 ("10 Truths" email and response from Coquis). The plaintiff disputes that the racial jokes email "was an inappropriate email because Coquis knew that other employees in his office forwarded email containing humorous material." Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s SMF ("Pl.'s SMF Resp.") ¶ 10. The plaintiff also denies knowledge of the inappropriate images found on her computer, pointing to the fact that, at Coquis's alleged instruction, she allowed other employees to use her computer login. Id. ¶ 11;

Pl.'s Opp'n at 7. She contends that Coquis's instruction to allow others to use her login also constituted part of the hostile work environment and discrimination. Pl.'s SMF Resp. ¶ 11; Pl.'s Opp'n at 6-7.

Fourth, the plaintiff alleges she was charged for leave without pay for two hours when she had paid leave available. Compl. ¶ 32B.

Fifth, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant refused to reimburse her fully for travel expenses related to her attendance at a "Blacks in Government" conference. Id. ¶ 32A. It is undisputed, however, that the plaintiff ultimately received reimbursement for all travel expenses except for a $70 taxi fare for which the plaintiff produced no documentation. Def.'s SMF ¶ 9; Pl.'s SMF Resp. ¶ 9.

Sixth, she alleges that her supervisors required her to submit daily reports of her work, but that other MSD administrative employees were not required to do so. Compl. ¶ 32H.

Seventh, she alleges that her supervisors required her to turn in her government-issued cell phone in September 2006, but that white employees were not required to do so. Pl.'s Opp'n at 7-8.

Eighth, the plaintiff alleges that she was not allowed to attend a training seminar that she had previously been told she could attend. Compl. ¶ 32J.

Finally, the plaintiff claims that the termination of her employment was the "ultimate act of discrimination . . ." Compl. ¶ 41.

B. Allegations Of Failure To Accommodate Disability

In addition to her claims of a hostile work environment and discrimination, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant "failed to reasonably accommodate [the plaintiff's] severe eye disability, despite her repeated requests for an accommodation." Id. ¶ 34. The plaintiff contends that she has an eye condition known as iritis that "sometimes causes inflammation, inability to see, and blurred vision," and that "interferes with her ability to do many things, including looking at a computer screen, reading small print, and performing other activities that require acute visual acuity." Pl.'s Opp'n at 9.

The plaintiff provided the defendant with three doctor's notes regarding her eye condition. Def.'s SMF ¶ 20; Pl.'s SMF Resp. ¶ 20.*fn2 The first note, dated January 20, 2006, stated that the plaintiff's eyes were dilated and she would have problems focusing for six to twelve hours. Pl.'s Ex. 36. It also stated "Pt is being treated for a serious eye problem & will need to be excused until resolution or able to keep eyes open." Id. The second note, dated January 24, 2006, indicated that the plaintiff was being treated for a severe eye condition reducing her visual acuity. Def.'s Ex. 14 at 11. The note asked that this be taken into account when tasks were assigned to the plaintiff and indicated that the plaintiff was on light duty. Id. The third note -- dated September 24, 2007, several months after the end of the plaintiff's tenure at State -- purports to convey the contents of a prior note provided to the plaintiff's employer in December 2006 that stated the plaintiff "is being treated for a chronic severe eye condition (since April '06) that decreases visual acuity. Please keep this in mind when assigning tasks until resolution or improvement occurs." Pl.'s Ex. 35.

The plaintiff contends she requested a reasonable accommodation for her eye disability on December 15, 2006 and thereafter by requesting that a portion of her duties involving the review of PowerPoint slides created by other managers be reassigned to another employee. Compl. ¶¶ 37-40. The plaintiff alleges that Coquis and Spinale refused to even entertain this request for reasonable accommodation. Id.

C. Retaliation Allegations

The plaintiff also alleges that Coquis and Spinale retaliated against her for engaging in protected Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") activity by declining to renew her contract. Id. ¶¶ 41-42. The plaintiff contends that she first informally complained to an EEO counselor, Anita Carey, on November 16, 2006. Pl.'s SMF Resp. ¶ 22; Pl.'s Ex. 44. The plaintiff also asserts that she complained to Coquis about alleged harassment in October 2006 and on other dates. Pl.'s Ex. 61, Affidavit of Yvonne M. Brooks, sworn to Sept. 28, 2007 ("Brooks Aff.") ¶ 79; Pl.'s Ex. 44. On January 26, 2007, the plaintiff submitted an "informal" EEO complaint letter to the director of OBO, General Williams. Brooks Aff. ¶ 106. The plaintiff was notified that her contract would not be renewed in February 2007, although the record shows that Coquis decided not to renew the plaintiff's contract on November 24, 2006. Brooks Aff. ¶¶ 107-109; Def.'s Ex. 15. The plaintiff formally sought EEO counseling on March 13, 2007. Def.'s SMF ¶ 22; Pl.'s SMF Resp. ¶ 22. The plaintiff's contract expired on March 31, 2007. Def.'s Ex. 1A at 3.

D. Relief Sought

The plaintiff's Complaint alleges four counts: Retaliation (Count I), Racial Discrimination (Count II), Failure to Reasonably Accommodate Disability (Count III), and Hostile Work Environment (Count IV). Compl. ΒΆΒΆ 43-49. Based on these counts, the plaintiff seeks reinstatement, back pay with interest and benefits, compensatory damages, record ...


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