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Karla Saunders v. Karen G. Mills

February 8, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge


Karla Saunders is a long-time federal employee currently employed with the Small Business Administration ("SBA" or "Agency"). She complains here of discrimination based on her sex (female) and race (African American); retaliation for protected Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") activity; and a hostile work environment. Karen Mills is sued in her official capacity as the Administrator of the SBA. The SBA has moved for partial dismissal of Plaintiff's complaint, arguing that Ms. Saunders has failed to state a claim for relief. The Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's motion.


Karla Saunders is a Black female employed with the SBA. In October 2005, Ms. Saunders applied for and was selected as the Chief of the Training and Benefits Division ("Training Chief") in the Agency's Office of Human Capital Management. As Training Chief, Ms. Saunders managed the Agency's centralized training and benefits program. She supervised a total of seven subordinates, including one GS-14 Training Specialist, three GS-13 Training Specialists, one GS-12 Benefits Specialist, and one GS-4 Administrative Assistant. Richard Brechbiel, the Chief Human Capital Officer, selected Ms. Saunders for the position and became her supervisor. Mr. Brechbiel consistently rated Ms. Saunders as "Highly Successful" or "Outstanding" and promoted her to the GS-15 level after she had been serving as Training Chief for approximately one month.

Sometime in 2005, Janice Chiverton, an African American female employee, applied for a position within the SBA under Mr. Brechbiel. Mr. Brechbiel did not select Ms. Chiverton for the position and instead hired Sharon Brown, a Caucasian female. Ms. Chiverton initiated a discrimination complaint against the Agency based upon her nonselection. Ms. Saunders supported Ms. Chiverton's complaint by filing an affidavit and giving deposition testimony indicating that Ms. Brown was not qualified for the position and was selected because she was romantically involved with Mr. Brechbiel.

Ms. Saunders claims that shortly after her deposition testimony (in January 2007) Mr. Brechbiel began to harass her in retaliation for her testimony. On April 9, 2007, Ms. Saunders and two co-workers filed a "request for intervention" alleging that Mr. Brechbiel and his supervisors had committed illegal, discriminatory, and retaliatory acts and requesting help from the Small Business Administrator. After receiving the request, the SBA hired Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, LLP ("Paul Hastings") to investigate the claims. After the investigation began, Ms. Saunders filed a formal EEO complaint with the Agency on July 6, 2007 alleging discrimination and retaliation by Mr. Brechbiel.

Paul Hastings completed its investigation in the fall of 2007. Shortly thereafter, both Mr. Brechbiel and his supervisor were transferred to other positions within the SBA.

Napoleon Avery took over Mr. Brechbiel's position on November 2, 2007. Two months later, Ms. Saunders was informed that she would be detailed to the Department of Labor ("DOL"). Ms. Saunders' detail extended from February 11, 2008 to July 30, 2008. Mr. Avery detailed Dionne Martin (a Black female) to replace Ms. Saunders as Training Chief. When Ms. Saunders left for the DOL detail, she was supervising five Training Specialists: one GS-14, one GS-13, one GS-12, and two GS-11.

On July 30, 2008, Ms. Saunders sent an email to Mr. Avery indicating that her detail to the DOL was ending and asking when she could return to her position as Training Chief. Mr. Avery did not respond. Ms. Saunders went in person to the SBA on July 31, 2008 and spoke with Mr. Avery. Mr. Avery indicated that Ms. Martin was still detailed to the Training Chief position, and he told Ms. Saunders that she would be detailed to the Agency's Office of Entrepreneurial Development ("OED"). Ms. Saunders opposed the second detail but was given no choice in the matter.

Ms. Saunders began the detail to the OED on August 11, 2008. Seven months later, Ms. Saunders sent an email to Mr. Avery indicating that her OED detail had ended and asking whether she could return to her former position as Training Chief. Mr. Avery responded that the Agency was still trying to determine where her skills could best be utilized. Shortly thereafter, the SBA reassigned Ms. Saunders to the Agency's Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives as a Senior Advisor. Ms. Saunders opposed the reassignment because the position was not managerial or supervisory and was thus inferior to her position as Training Chief. Plaintiff subsequently contacted the EEO Office charging that the reassignment to the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives was discriminatory and retaliatory.

Ms. Saunders reported to her new position with the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives on May 24, 2009. She served in this position for one year. She complains here that she had no work during most of that time, that she had no performance standards, and that she did not receive a performance evaluation.

In June 2009, Ms. Martin's detail as Training Chief ended. The SBA issued an announcement that the position was vacant and that it was accepting applications. Ms. Saunders applied for the position but was not interviewed or selected.

A hearing was held on Ms. Saunders' original discrimination complaint in February 2010. The Administrative Judge ultimately held that Mr. Brechbiel had not discriminated against Ms. Saunders and did not retaliate against her after she testified in support of Ms. Chiverton's discrimination claim. Before this ruling issued, however, the Office of Special Counsel and the SBA entered into an oral agreement under which Ms. Saunders was to be returned to her position as Training Chief. Ms. Saunders alleges here that the Agency restored her job title but severely diminished her responsibilities. Specifically, Ms. Saunders alleges that the SBA reduced the number of employees she supervised and assigned oversight of many programs from her to other employees within the SBA. Additionally, a few months after returning to the position, Ms. Saunders received a letter of counseling from Kevin Mahoney, her direct supervisor. Ms. Saunders claims that the letter was retaliatory and "based on bogus, inaccurate and contradictory information . . . ." Compl. ¶ 100.

In December 2010, Plaintiff learned that she received a performance rating of "4" ("Highly Successful") for fiscal year 2009. Ms. Saunders complains that this evaluation was discriminatory and retaliatory. She filed an EEO ...

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