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Maxine Blocker-Burnette v. the District of Columbia

February 10, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James E. Boasberg United States District Judge


In November 2007, Plaintiff Maxine Blocker-Burnette was terminated without cause from her job at the District of Columbia's Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration (APRA) after approximately 29 years of service. She was 59 years old at the time and was responsible for caring for her daughter and father -- each of whom had significant health problems. A few months before Blocker-Burnette was fired, 32-year-old Tori Fernandez-Whitney was appointed to run the agency. Fernandez-Whitney quickly determined that APRA needed to be reorganized and began implementing a plan to do so. As part of the plan, the Medicaid Division was dissolved, and many of its staff members, including Blocker-Burnette, were transferred to the Assessment and Referral Center (ARC). Soon thereafter, Fernandez-Whitney terminated Blocker-Burnette.

Representing herself, Blocker-Burnette filed an action against the District of Columbia alleging discrimination on the basis of age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and on the basis of family responsibilities, in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq. The District has now moved for summary judgment. As Blocker-Burnette has presented evidence that Fernandez-Whitney's purported reasons for discharging her were a pretext for age discrimination, the Court finds that Plaintiff's age-discrimination claim related to termination withstands summary judgment. By contrast, there is virtually no evidence that she was reassigned to the ARC because of her age or terminated because of her family responsibilities; the Court will, accordingly, grant summary judgment on those claims.


From 1978 until her termination on November 8, 2007, Plaintiff was employed by APRA, which coordinates substance-abuse prevention and treatment programs. See Compl. at 1, 3. In 2000, she became APRA's Medicaid Program Manager. See Mot., Exh. 9 (Deposition of Plaintiff) at 25, 30; Compl. at 1. Her duties in that position included helping to write "the state planning amendment for Medicaid," by which APRA would seek approval to receive Medicaid reimbursement, and overseeing the billing of Medicaid services for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients entitled to Medicaid services for substance abuse treatment. See Pl. Dep. at 30-44.

On June 25, 2007, Tori Fernandez-Whitney was appointed Senior Deputy Director of APRA, the agency's highest ranking position. See Mot., Exh. 10 (Declaration of Fernandez-Whitney), ¶ 2. Prior to her appointment, Fernandez-Whitney was a member of D.C. Councilmember David Catania's staff, and in that capacity, she served as Deputy Committee Clerk and Policy Director for the City Council's Committee on Health, which oversees APRA. Id., ¶ 3. During her tenure, KPMG, an independent auditing firm, was commissioned by the Department of Health "to conduct an organizational assessment" of APRA. See Mot., Exh. B (KPMG Report) at i. It published its report on April 20, 2007 -- about two months before Fernandez-Whitney left Catania's staff. Id. The report discusses a host of agency shortcomings, including deficiencies in its policies and procedures, budget management, and staffing. Id. at 11-18.

Fernandez-Whitney was aware of the KPMG report when she started in her position at APRA, and thereafter she observed firsthand many flaws in the management and operations of the agency. See Fernandez-Whitney Decl., ¶¶ 4-6. With respect to the Medicaid Division, in which Blocker-Burnette worked, Fernandez-Whitney noted that, with the exception of two pilot programs, APRA was not approved to receive Medicaid funds. Id., ¶ 8; see also Pl. Dep. at 40. The Division had been seeking Medicaid approval for at least six years -- to no avail -- when Fernandez-Whitney became Senior Deputy Director. See Pl. Dep. at 35; Fernandez-Whitney Decl., ¶¶ 8-9. Fernandez-Whitney also observed that "there were people with clinical backgrounds that were not working in a clinical capacity even though APRA had deficiencies in staffing in clinical areas." See Fernandez-Whitney Decl., ¶ 7.

Based on her own observations as well as KPMG's findings, Fernandez-Whitney determined that the agency needed to be reorganized, in what she refers to as a "functional realignment." Id., ¶ 10; see also Mot., Exh. C (Letter from Fernandez-Whitney explaining functional realignment). As part of the realignment, the Medicaid Division was dissolved, and the Assessment and Referral Center -- which "is the central portal for District residents' entry into treatment programs" -- was expanded. See Fernandez-Whitney Decl., ¶¶ 11-12.

In early October 2007, Blocker-Burnette and her staff in the Medicaid Division were transferred to the ARC. Id., ¶¶ 13-14. The ARC assesses clients' treatment needs and determines their financial eligibility for APRA services. Id., ¶14. If the person qualifies, the ARC issues him a voucher, which allows him to get treatment from the provider of his choice. Id. According to Fernandez-Whitney, Blocker-Burnette was assigned to be the Manager of Voucher Services -- a position Fernandez-Whitney believed she was qualified for because she was a licensed professional counselor. Id. Blocker-Burnette contends, however, that she was never given a new title; she was simply told to report to Charles Brown and "he would explain what [her] duties were." Pl. Dep. at 77, 87.

Shortly after assuming her position in the ARC, Blocker-Burnette was asked to cover some of the tasks of her direct supervisor, Charles Brown, while he was away. See Opp., Exh. 1 (October 2007 email exchange regarding Blocker-Burnette's duties in Brown's absence). Among other things, she would be responsible for "administrat[ing] voucher production" and performing "clinical reviews and intervention" in his absence. Id. Replying to an email from Brown describing these duties, Blocker-Burnette wrote that she had "never performed clinical treatment" and that she had "had limited training on vouchers and no training as a super user with the current duties [Brown] utilize[d] as a supervisor." Id. She nevertheless stated that she would "perform the duties as well as [she could]." Id. Blocker-Burnette copied Fernandez-Whitney on this correspondence.

Two days later, on October 17, 2007, Fernandez-Whitney instructed Larry Ricks, a Program Manager, that "effective immediately and until Mr. Charles Brown returns from training," he would "act as the Program Manager for the Assessment and Referral Center." Mot., Exh. H (Memo Delegating Authority to Larry Ricks). She indicated that her memorandum "supersede[d] all previous delegation of authority." Id. Fernandez-Whitney later explained that the representations in Blocker-Burnette's email, though "in direct conflict with Ms. Blocker Burnette's credentials as a licensed professional counselor," led her to believe that Blocker-Burnette "was not qualified to cover the additional responsibilities in Mr. Brown's absence." See Fernandez-Whitney Decl., ¶ 15. They suggested, furthermore, that Blocker-Burnette "was not qualified to carry out the duties of her assigned position as Manager of Voucher Services." Id.

Fernandez-Whitney was also dissatisfied with Blocker-Burnette because she failed to attend a meeting Fernandez-Whitney had scheduled for October 12, 2007, and, according to Fernandez-Whitney, had not notified her of her inability to attend. Id., ¶¶ 17-19. Blocker-Burnette maintains that she informed her direct supervisor, Charles Brown, that she could not be at the meeting because she had to take care of her father and daughter. See Opp. at 8. Brown confirmed this and indicated that he reported Blocker-Burnette's reasons for not being able to attend the meeting to Fernandez-Whitney. See Opp., Exh. 5 (July 2011 email exchange between Blocker-Burnette and Brown).

On October 24, 2007, at age 59, Blocker-Burnette was given written notice that she would be terminated, effective November 8, 2007. Mot., Exh. A (Termination letter to Blocker-Burnette); Pl. Dep. at 9. On June 9, 2009, she filed this action against the District of Columbia alleging discrimination on the basis of age and family ...

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