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Yolanda Young v. Covington & Burling Llp

March 6, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge


The plaintiff, Yolanda Young, brought this lawsuit against the defendant, the law firm of Covington & Burling, LLP ("Covington"), asserting that the defendant violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (2006), the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code § 2-1402.11(a)(1) (2006), and section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (2006), when it allegedly discriminated against her based on her race during her employment at Covington and then retaliated against her based on her complaints about the purported discrimination. First Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl.") ¶¶ 1-4. This case is now before the Court on the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mot."). After carefully considering the parties' arguments,*fn1 and the entire record in this case, the Court concludes that the plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact with respect to any of the six claims remaining in this lawsuit that would preclude the resolution of this case by summary judgment.*fn2 Accordingly, the defendant's motion will be granted.


The plaintiff is an African-American female. Am. Compl. ¶ 7. She "graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center in May 1995[,] with a C/C average." Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 63. In the years following her graduation from law school, from 1995 until 2005, Def.'s Mot., Exhibit ("Ex.") A at 4 (November 23, 2009 Deposition of Yolanda Young ("Young Depo.") 17:17-23:14),*fn3 the "plaintiff has worked as a temporary contract lawyer at 10 to 15 [different] law firms[,] performing document reviews" at each firm. Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 66. She "has never worked as an associate in a law firm[,] nor as a lawyer for the government[,] a company, or a non-profit" organization. Id. ¶ 65.

As noted above, Covington is a law firm. Am. Compl. ¶ 12. Its largest office, consisting of approximately 1,000 attorneys and staff, is located in Washington, D.C. Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 1. In February 2005, after the plaintiff submitted an application to Covington for a position as a staff attorney-and only as a staff attorney, Young II, 740 F. Supp. 2d at 23, n.5-Covington hired the plaintiff, who was employed as a staff attorney until August 2007.*fn4 Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 3 (Affidavit of Yolanda Young ("Young Aff.") ¶ 7; Am. Compl. ¶ 7.

A. Covington's anti-harassment/anti-retaliation Policies and Procedures

Covington's Policies and Procedures handbook explains that the firm "strive[s] to provide a work environment free of sexual, racial[,] or other unlawful harassment." Def.'s Mot., Ex. A at 45 (Covington's Policies and Procedures). In relevant part, Covington's Policies and Procedures provides:

All supervisory and management personnel and all lawyers are responsible for ensuring adherence to the Firm's equal employment opportunity policy. They are also expected to take immediate and appropriate action to prevent or stop any racial harassment, sexual harassment or other improper harassment of employees in the workplace of which they become aware, whether by Firm personnel or by individuals outside the Firm. Any individual who violates the Firm's equal employment opportunity policy will be subject to appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

Any employee who believes that he or she has been the subject of sexual, racial or other unlawful discrimination, or the victim of sexual, racial or other unlawful harassment, should bring the matter to the attention to any of the following: (1) his or her supervisor, (2) the Chief Human Resources Officer, (3) the Executive Director, (4) the Managing Partner for Operations, (5) the Managing Partners for Legal Personnel, (6) the Office Director or (7) the Office Managing Partner. If an employee is dissatisfied with the action taken by one of these persons, the employee may ask for an additional review of the matter by the Employment Review Committee. Any such complaints will be investigated as promptly as reasonably possible. Confidentiality will be maintained to the extent practical and appropriate under the circumstances.

The Firm will not retaliate, nor will it tolerate any attempt at retaliation, against a person who raises employment discrimination or harassment concerns in good faith. Retaliation is a serious violation of the Firm's policy. Concerns about attempted retaliation should be raised (and will be handled) in the same manner as any other concern about equal opportunity.

Id. The plaintiff was aware of these policies and procedures. Def.'s Mot., Ex. A at 13 (Young Depo. 60:8-60:17).

B. Covington's staff attorney program

In 2005, Covington created a staff attorney program "to handle the review of electronic documents in large litigations." Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 2. "Five to ten staff attorneys were generally assigned to a work room, where each had a desk and a computer on which to review electronic documents." Id. ¶ 4. Although the number of staff attorneys employed by Covington varied depending on the firm's workload, by June 2006, the number of staff attorneys had reached 102. Id. ¶ 2. That number fluctuated between 40 and 80 over the next two years. Id. No new staff attorneys were hired after February 2008. Def.'s Mem. at 3. In the fourth quarter of 2009, Covington decided to terminate the program, and by the end of 2009, after laying off staff attorneys as the matters they worked on came to closure, the firm employed only 20 staff attorneys. Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 2. Twenty-two former staff attorneys moved to other positions within the firm, eight to the lower paid project attorney position and fourteen to the position of senior staff attorney, which involved coordinating the work done by third-party contract attorneys.

Def.'s Mem. at 3-4. "In all, Covington hired 170 staff attorneys as part of the program in D.C. [started] in 2005." Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 3. Not one of the 170 staff attorneys hired in the same staff attorney program as the plaintiff, the program created in 2005, was ever promoted to the position of associate, counsel, or partner. Def.'s Mem. at 1, 6; Young Aff. ¶ 15.

Applicants for staff attorney positions were required to be members of the District of Columbia Bar and to have previous document review experience. Def.'s Mot., Ex. C at 23 (December 16, 2009 Deposition of Patrick Davies ("Davies Depo.") 120:14-21). The grades and law school of an applicant for a staff attorney position were less important than previous document review experience, id. (Davies Depo. 121:16-122:3), which was ascertained through a review of resumes, id. (Davies Depo. 122:4-5). The hiring criteria for staff attorneys was thus unlike the hiring criteria for associates, which was "extremely elaborate and detailed." Def.'s Mot., Ex. D at 12 (Huvelle Depo. 44:18-19). With a hiring process that begins with an on-campus interview, prospective associates are evaluated on "analytic ability, . . . writing ability, commitment to excellence in their work, willingness to work hard, collegiality, the ability to work effectively with others, interest in the private practice of law, [and the] ability to communicate." Id. at 12-13 (Huvelle Depo. 45:18-46:4). Prospective associates are also evaluated as participants in a summer program before being offered full-time employment at Covington. Def.'s Mot., Ex. C at 38 (Davies Depo. 184:11-21).

In March 2005, Patrick Davies, a partner at Covington, was placed in charge of the staff attorney program, but it was the associates of the firm assigned to the matters worked on by staff attorneys who were generally "responsible for providing guidance to the staff attorneys and overseeing the quality of the work product." Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 5. In 2006, the plaintiff was one of several staff attorneys assigned to a litigation matter overseen by Caroline Reid, then an associate at Covington. Id. ¶ 10; Young Aff. ¶ 18. "For a period of time in 2006, [the] plaintiff shared an office with, among others, staff attorneys Sarah Wittig, Vanessa Natale, Kim Brown, and Heidi Riviere." Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 7.

C. The plaintiff's request for training

On March 21, 2006, the plaintiff "overhead Ms. Natale discussing information given to her and [Ms.] Brown by [Ms. Reid] regarding" the coding of documents for the document review project on which the plaintiff, Ms. Brown, and Ms. Natale were all working. Young Aff. ¶ 58. The plaintiff then e-mailed Ms. Reid, asking that "clarification[s] made on documents or office policy" be communicated "via group e[-]mail." Id. ¶ 59. In her reply to the plaintiff's e-mail, Ms. Reid acknowledged that she had "responded to some questions lately, but . . . thought they were just applicable to those individuals' documents." Id. "Sometime later," id. ¶ 60, the plaintiff overheard other staff attorneys discussing a "quicker, more efficient way of coding documents," which concerned her because staff attorneys were "evaluated" based on how quickly they performed their work, id. When the plaintiff e-mailed Ms. Reid about the additional training she believed the "white staff attorneys" had been given, Ms. Reid responded within two minutes and suggested that the plaintiff come to her office. Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 12; Def's Mot., Ex. A at 16 (Young Depo. 70:14-20). At the plaintiff's request, Ms. Reid then provided the plaintiff with the coding training. Young Aff. ¶ 60; Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 13; Def.'s Mot, Ex. A at 17 (Young Depo. 74:6-74:9).

D. The Wikipedia incident, the plaintiff's complaint to Pat Davies concerning the incident, and Mr. Davies' response

According to the plaintiff, on December 9, 2005, one white, female staff attorney began reading "aloud . . . racial slurs and their definitions from a Wikipedia page." Young Aff. ¶¶ 27, 30, 31. The slurs allegedly disparaged "Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and bi-racial groups." Id. ¶ 30. After unsuccessfully attempting "to block out the conversation" she was hearing, the plaintiff heard the offending staff attorney ask if anyone knew the meaning of the word "'hapa.'" Id. ¶¶ 32-33. Receiving no answer, the staff attorney who had asked the question volunteered that she believed "it was the Haw[ai]ian equivalent of the word 'nigger.'" Id. ¶ 33. While these comments were being made, the plaintiff exchanged e-mails with another African-American staff attorney, Heidi Riviere, regarding what was being said, Def.'s Stmnt. ¶ 20, e-mails that she decided to save because she "knew that if [the staff attorney reading the slurs] could use such a word and not draw any admonishments from her co-workers[,] this type of outburst would likely become routine," Young Aff. ¶ 38. And, she asserts that "it did" become routine. Id.

More than three months later, on March 23, 2006, after learning from a fellow staff attorney that a supervisor had referred to the work room in which she worked as a "social room," Young Aff. ¶ 53, the plaintiff e-mailed Mr. Davies and expressed her belief that the number of people assigned to the work room was "problematic," Def.'s Stmnt. ¶¶ 16-17. The plaintiff explained in her e-mail to Mr. Davies that she believed that "cliques" had formed within the group of staff attorneys assigned to her work room, which she asserted resulted in "a lack of teamwork." Id. ¶ 17. As proof of the existence of cliques within the work room, she pointed to the fact that some of the staff attorneys had discovered "a faster way to code documents," but had not shared that method with her. Id.; see supra at 5.

In her March 23, 2006 e-mail to Mr. Davies, the plaintiff also made reference to "one . . . occasion," when a white staff attorney had read aloud a list of racist slurs from the website Wikipedia, Def.'s Mot., Ex. A at 54 (March 23, 2006 e-mail chain between Yolanda Young and Pat Davies ("March 23, 2006 Davies e-mail chain")), and explained that as a person of color, she had found this offensive. Def.'s Stmnt. ¶¶ 18-19. The plaintiff's exact words to Mr. Davies were:

I am posed with the challenge of having to share a room with a group of people who talk incessantly. Often the chatter is benign; however, it has on occasion veered into inappropriate terrain-some sexually overt references and on one unfortunate occasion a staff attorney was reading aloud a host of derogatory jokes based on different racial stereotypes. As a person of color, I found this particularly offensive.

Def.'s Mot., Ex. A at 54 ("March 23, 2006 Davies e-mail chain"). Six minutes after receiving the plaintiff's e-mail, Mr. Davies asked the plaintiff to meet him "immediately." Id. The plaintiff observed that Mr. Davies was visibly "angry" and "upset" upon hearing about the Wikipedia incident. Def.'s Mot., Ex. A at 21 (Young Depo. 89:9-89:12). Mr. Davies told the plaintiff that he would fire the employee who had read the derogatory slurs, but the plaintiff asked that he instead simply move that staff attorney to a different work room. Def.'s Mem. at 5; Def.'s Mot., Ex. C at 5 (Davies Depo. 18:19-19:9); Def.'s Mot., Ex. C at 8 (Davies Depo. 31:4-31:19). Mr. Davies met with Sarah Wittig, the staff attorney who had read the Wikipedia comments aloud, and informed her that her conduct was "stupid" and that she would be fired if similar conduct occurred again. Def.'s Mem. at 5. Ms. Wittig was then moved to a new work room that same afternoon. Id. at 6.

The next day, March 24, 2006, Mr. Davies met with all of the staff attorneys and, after reading them the firm's policy on racial harassment, informed them that harassment would not be tolerated. Id. At the conclusion of this meeting, Mr. Davies told a story about a pet monkey he and his siblings had as a child. Def.'s Mem at 12, n.1; Young Aff. ¶ 106. Although the plaintiff maintains that the manner in which Mr. Davies told the story was inappropriate and racially charged because, she believes, he analogized the monkey to a staff attorney at Covington, Young Aff. ¶¶ 107-109, the defendant asserts the story was told by Davies to convey that no excuses would be tolerated for harassment, Def.'s Mem at 12, n.1. The plaintiff maintains that she "complained about this incident to Ms. Jessica Charles Turner and told her how it was hard [to believe] that a Covington partner was unaware of the offensiveness of equating a monkey to a black person." Young Aff. ¶ 110.

E. Staff attorney evaluations and bonuses

In January or February 2006, almost a year after she began her employment with Covington, the plaintiff was given her first evaluation. Young Aff. ¶ 14. "Covington awarded bonuses in 2006 based on the total number of billable hours recorded by each staff attorney [during the previous year]." Def.'s Mem. at 23. The plaintiff received a favorable review from Mr. Davies, and therefore was given the maximum bonus for which she qualified, approximately $9,000. Young Aff. ¶¶ 14-15; see also id. ¶ 22. According to the plaintiff, Mr. Davies told the plaintiff that her billable hours and her evaluations were among the best at the firm. Id. ¶ 22. In addition to the bonus, the plaintiff was also given a $2,500 salary increase. Id. ¶ 22.

The following year, 2007, Covington decided to base the bonuses for its 54 staff attorneys it employed at that time on the ratings they received from the associates supervising the document reviews to which the staff attorneys were assigned. Def.'s Mem. at 23-24. Mr. Davies implemented this change in policy after concluding that overtime pay was sufficient compensation for staff attorneys who worked a high number of hours and that hours-based bonuses might create a disincentive for staff attorney efficiency. Id. at 24. The plaintiff did not receive any high ratings for her performance in 2006, Def.'s Mot., Ex. A at 94-95 (December 19, 2006 Evaluation), and her bonus of $5,000 ...

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