UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
August 17, 2012
CENNY C. NORRIS, PLAINTIFF,
KENNETH LEE SALAZAR, SECRETARY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Beryl A. Howell
The plaintiff, Cenny C. Norris, brings this action against her former employer, the Commission of Fine Arts ("CFA"), alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 791 et seq. Specifically, the plaintiff alleges that the CFA discriminated against her based on her race and disability (a back injury) by awarding her a bonus of $4000 in 2004 instead of the $5000 she had hoped to receive, as well as by, inter alia, placing her on Absence Without Leave ("AWOL") status and denying her request to work from home on a part-time basis. See generally Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl."), ECF No. 14.*fn1
Pending before the Court is the defendant's Motion to Dismiss the plaintiff's Amended Complaint, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). ECF No. 18. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant the defendant's Motion to Dismiss.
A. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS
The plaintiff, Cenny C. Norris,*fn2 is an African-American woman who was hired in February 2000 as the Administrative Officer of the CFA. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4, 6. The CFA, established in 1910, "is charged with giving expert advice to the President, Congress, and the heads of departments and agencies of the Federal and District of Columbia governments on matters of design and aesthetics, as they affect the Federal interest and preserve the dignity of the nation's capital." Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss ("Def.'s Mem."), ECF No. 18, at 2 n.2 (quoting the Commission of Fine Arts website, available at http://www.cfa.gov).*fn3
At the time of the plaintiff's employment, the CFA had a total of eleven salaried employees, including the Secretary and the plaintiff. See id. at 3. The Secretary of the CFA supervised the plaintiff as well as seven other CFA employees: an "Assistant Secretary, a Technical Information Specialist, an Administrative Assistant, a Staff Architect, an Architectural Historian and two Architects." Am. Compl. ¶ 8. In addition to the salaried employees, there are seven unpaid Commissioners (one of whom is Chairman of the Commission) appointed by the President of the United States. See id. ¶ 9; Def's Mem. at 3.
The plaintiff was employed as an Administrative Officer at the CFA "at all times relevant to this lawsuit." Am. Compl. ¶ 4. Her responsibilities as Administrative Officer "included, but were not limited to, managing the budget by preparing reports, scheduling travel arrangements, organizing training for staff and supervising the work of the administrative assistant." Id. ¶ 7.
In 2000, the Secretary of the CFA and the plaintiff's immediate supervisor, Charles Atherton, managed the "day to day operations of the CFA." Id. ¶ 8. The Secretary "made assignments to Ms. Norris, conducted her performance rating, and evaluated her performance." Id.
1. The Plaintiff's Performance Awards and Promotion at the CFA
The plaintiff alleges that, on November 2, 2004, she was informed that she would receive an annual bonus of $4,000, instead of the $5,000 she was anticipating. See id. ¶¶ 35-36. Since two of the plaintiff's three claims arise from the 2004 bonus, the Court provides a brief background about bonuses at the CFA.
For its salaried employees, including the plaintiff, the plaintiff alleges that the "CFA practice is to conduct performance evaluations and award bonuses based on the evaluations once a year." Id. ¶ 20. The "practice" is for each staff member to present to the Secretary a self-prepared "memo . . . listing [his or her] accomplishments for the year." Id. The Secretary then "evaluates the employee, [and] meets with the employee to discuss [his or her] performance." Id. The Secretary then recommends to the Chairman of the Commission what amount should be awarded to each employee. See id. ¶ 21. The plaintiff alleges that, in practice, the Chairman "always signs the recommendations of the Secretary." Id.
On September 6, 2000, seven months after the plaintiff's employment with the CFA began, "she received a performance award of $1000." Id. ¶ 18. The next year, the CFA quadrupled her bonus and she received $4,000. See id. In 2002, she received a $4500 bonus, and, in 2003, she received $4000. See id.
While the plaintiff's bonus in 2003 was slightly less than the year before, she alleges that other CFA employees "received an increase in their performance award over the previous year."
Id.*fn4 She also alleges that her white male Administrative Support Assistant, Mr. Lukavic, was given a performance award of $4000 in 2003, even after the plaintiff "verbally informed him and her supervisors, Mr. Lindstrom and Mr. Atherton[,] that his performance was unacceptable," and after "[o]ther staff members complained to her that Mr. Lukavic had allowed his work to pile up . . . [and] spent most of his time surfing the internet." Id. ¶ 28.
The plaintiff was "very disturbed" about what she terms the $500 "reduction" in her bonus and "inquired about the reason for the decision to the Secretary Mr. Charles Atherton and the Assistant Secretary Mr. Frederick Lindstrom." Id. ¶ 19. Both were "unable to provide [the plaintiff] with a reason for the decrease in her award." Id. ¶ 23. The plaintiff informed them that "her performance during the year had been exceptional," id. ¶ 31, and that "she believed . . . she was being discriminated against and that she was disturbed and humiliated," id. ¶ 24. When the plaintiff "stressed the unfairness of the decision regarding her performance award, [the Secretary] told her 'life is not fair.'" Id. ¶ 31. He also, however, promised the plaintiff that "after 6 months he would process paperwork for a promotion on her behalf." Id.
As promised, on July 25, 2004, the plaintiff received a promotion, moving from GS-11 to GS-12, as well as a salary increase of over $18,500 (with her annual salary increasing from $44,148 to $62,659). See id. ¶¶ 6, 26.*fn5
Later that year, following her promotion and pay raise, the Assistant Secretary*fn6 informed the plaintiff that "all staff were going to receive the same [bonus] awards that they received the prior year." Id. ¶ 35. After the plaintiff reminded him that she had not received an increase the prior year, the Assistant Secretary told her that he had "recommended to the Chairman that she receive an award of $5000," or a $1000 increase from the prior year. Id. On November 2, 2004, however, the Assistant Secretary informed the plaintiff that the Chairman had not accepted his recommendation and that the plaintiff would receive $4000. See id. ¶ 36.*fn7
The plaintiff alleges that one other employee, an Architect, received an award in 2004 that was $1000 more than the Architect received in 2003. See id. ¶ 30. The plaintiff alleges that the Architect's award "was increased $500.00 by [the Chairman] above the recommendation of [the] Assistant Secretary." Id.
The plaintiff also alleges that the Assistant Secretary told her that the Chairman, who works in New York and only visits CFA once a month for Commission meetings, "was not aware of the actual performance of the CFA staff." Id. ¶ 38. The Assistant Secretary, however, also "informed her that [the Chairman] had stated that 'Cenny is not performing at the same level as everyone else on staff'" and that the plaintiff was "dropping the ball." Id. ¶ 39.
2. The Plaintiff's Back Injury and Subsequent Termination
In June 2003, over a year before her promotion, the plaintiff injured her back "while performing her job duties" at the CFA, and was diagnosed with a herniated disk. Id. ¶¶ 10-11. The next month she filed a claim with the Office of Workers' Compensation ("OWCP"). See id.
¶ 12. After filing the claim on July 15, 2003, she was "diagnosed . . . as unable to tolerate a normal workday and [her doctor] recommended that she work a limited work schedule." Id. ¶
13. On September 12, 2003, the plaintiff's OWCP claim was approved. See id. ¶ 15.
In October 2004, about three months after her promotion, the plaintiff "re-aggravated" her back injury and "filed a second claim with OWCP." Id. ¶ 16. That claim was also approved. See id.*fn8
"As a result of her condition [the plaintiff] was required to miss some days from work for therapy sessions." Id. In fact, it appears that the plaintiff was absent from the office on OWCP/LWOP [or Leave Without Pay] from March 2005 until her termination on March 6, 2006. See Def.'s Mem., Ex. 5 (Hester v. Dep't of the Interior, No. DC-0752-06-0443-I-1, 2006 MSPB LEXIS 4189, at *2 (M.S.P.B. July 24, 2006)) ("MSPB Denial"), ECF No. 18-5.*fn9
On April 5, 2005, while absent from the office, the plaintiff asked the CFA to allow her to work from home since her "physician recommended that she work part-time, obtain a home work station for job simulation and telecommute." Am. Compl. ¶ 44. On August 20, 2005, the plaintiff again asked to work from home or to work in the office on a part-time basis, but her requests were denied. See id. ¶¶ 45, 51.
At some point, the Secretary required the plaintiff to "provide leave requests for all her absences even though she had filed disability certificates from the OWCP with the CFA." Id. ¶46. The Secretary also placed the plaintiff on AWOL status because of her attendance record, and the plaintiff was "denied benefits for several pay periods in 2005." Id. ¶ 47.
Ultimately, on March 6, 2006, the plaintiff was dismissed from her job after she had been on leave for 10 months. See id. ¶ 52; MSPB Denial at *2.
B. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The plaintiff has initiated two sets of administrative proceedings related to her claims before this Court. In the first set of proceedings, initiated before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), the plaintiff alleged that the $1000 discrepancy between what she hoped to receive as a bonus in 2004 and what she actually received was due to discrimination based on race and disability. See Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Partial Dismissal of the [Initial] Complaint ("Pl.'s Opp'n to Part. Dismissal"), ECF No. 7, at 2; Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss ("Pl.'s Opp'n"), ECF No. 30, at 4. This EEOC proceeding gives rise to the action currently before the Court. See id. at 5; Def.'s Mem. at 20-21. In the second set of proceedings, initiated before the Merit Systems Protection Board ("MSPB"), the plaintiff challenged her removal from employment. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 5 n.2. The MSPB proceedings concluded in January 2007 and are not currently at issue. Def.'s Mem. at 6; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 7 (Hester v. Childs, No. 0320070038, 2007 WL 436507 (E.E.O.C. Jan. 31, 2007) ("Appeal of MSPB Final Decision"). The Court will briefly review each set of proceedings.
1. EEOC Proceedings
On February 16, 2005, the plaintiff filed an administrative complaint with the EEOC alleging racial and disability discrimination. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 4; id., Ex. 3 (Hester v. Norton,No. 100-2006-00135X, slip op. (E.E.O.C. Nov. 30, 2006)) ("EEOC SJ"), ECF No. 30-3. Specifically, the plaintiff only brought charges of racial and disability discrimination regarding her 2004 bonus. See id. at 1 ("The issue . . . is whether, on November 12, 2004, Complainant [plaintiff] was discriminated against on the bases of race (African American), color (Black), and physical handicap (Back) as a result of disparate treatment by a Management Official in his decision on Performance Awards.") (emphasis added).
On November 30, 2006, the administrative judge ("AJ") found that the plaintiff had not proffered evidence from which he could conclude that the agency discriminated against her on the basis of race or disability, and noted that "the record does not support an inference" of discrimination on the basis of disability with respect to the 2004 bonus, EEOC SJ at 6, and that the plaintiff had not shown that the bonus was a "pretext for unlawful discrimination" on the basis of race, id. at 8. Accordingly, the AJ entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant. See generally id.
On January 10, 2007, the Department of Interior ("DOI") issued a Final Agency Decision adopting the EEOC's November 30, 2006 decision. See Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 1 (Hester v. Kempthorne, No. 100-2006-00135X (E.E.O.C. Jan. 10, 2007)) ("Final Agency Decision"), ECF No. 30-1. The Final Order advised the plaintiff that "an appeal of the agency's final order to the EEOC must be filed by a Complainant within thirty . . . days of receipt of an agency's or Administrative Judge's decision." Id. at 2.
On February 15, 2007, thirty-six days after the DOI adopted the EEOC decision, the plaintiff filed an administrative appeal with the EEOC Office of Federal Operations ("OFO"). See Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 2 (Hester v. Salazar, No. 0120071664, 2009 WL 591023, at *1 (E.E.O.C. Feb. 27, 2009)) ("OFO Dismissal of Appeal"), ECF No. 30-2. This appeal was denied two years later, on February 27, 2009, because the appeal was not timely filed within the 30-day window for appeals following the Final Agency Decision of January 10, 2007. Id. The OFO found no basis for waiver or equitable tolling of the thirty-day time limit on appeals. Id.
2. MSPB Proceedings
Concurrently with the EEOC proceedings, the plaintiff initiated a second set of proceedings before the MSPB in March 2006, shortly after her removal from her job. Specifically, she filed a petition alleging retaliation and improper removal from federal service as well as discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 792 (2006). See Pl.'s Opp'n to Part. Dismissal at 3; see also MSPB Denial. Her petition in that matter was denied on July 24, 2006. See id. The MSPB AJ concluded that "the record . . . shows that the agency was within its rights in [removing the plaintiff from her job], even though she was receiving OWCP benefits during her absence. It is well settled that prolonged absence with no foreseeable end constitutes just cause for removal." Id. at *7 (citations omitted). Although she filed a petition for review, the full MSPB affirmed the decision below. See Def.'s Mem., Ex. 6 (Hester v. Dep't of the Interior, 104 M.S.P.R. 265 (M.S.P.B. 2006)), ECF No. 18-6. The plaintiff then appealed to the EEOC, which affirmed the ruling on January 31, 2007. See Appeal of MSPB Final Decision at *1. The EEOC informed the plaintiff at the time that "there is no further right of administrative appeal from the Commission's decision" but that she could file a civil action "within 30 days from the date of receiving the decision." Id. at *2. The plaintiff did not file a civil action and the plaintiff's removal from employment is not at issue in this case.
3. District Court Proceedings
Following the OFO denial in the first set of proceedings, the plaintiff filed a pro se lawsuit, "based on the denial of her appeal before the EEOC" in the first set of administrative proceedings discussed supra. Pl.'s Opp'n to Part. Dismissal at 4. The plaintiff alleged in a three-count Complaint (1) disparate treatment with respect to compensation (manifested in the defendant's awarding the plaintiff, in 2004, a bonus of $1000 less than she anticipated) on account of race (Count I), (2) denial of a request for reasonable accommodation (Count II), and
(3) retaliation with respect to termination (Count III). See Complaint ("Compl."), ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 46-51. The defendant then moved to dismiss Counts II and III of the Complaint, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted. See ECF No. 5.
After obtaining counsel, the plaintiff filed an opposition to the defendant's motion for partial dismissal of the complaint and sought leave to amend her Complaint. ECF Nos. 7, 8. On September 30, 2010, the Court*fn10 denied the defendant's motion for partial dismissal and granted the plaintiff's motion to file an amended complaint, which was docketed the same day. See Memorandum Opinion ("Mem. Op."), ECF No. 11, and Order (Walton, J.), ECF No. 12; Am. Compl., ECF No. 14.
As noted, the plaintiff alleges in her Amended Complaint that, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq., the CFA discriminated against the plaintiff, inter alia, based on her race and disability, by awarding her a performance-based bonus of $4000 in 2004, as well as by placing her on AWOL status and denying her request to work from home on a part-time basis. See generally Am. Compl.*fn11
The defendant subsequently filed a new motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), arguing that the plaintiff (1) failed to name the appropriate defendant, because she should have named the Secretary of the CFA as the defendant, and (2) failed to exhaust her administrative remedies in a timely manner with respect to each of her claims. See Def.'s Mem. at 1.
Pursuant to the Court's December 8, 2010 Minute Order, the plaintiff's memorandum in opposition to the Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint was due by January 14, 2011, on which date the Court granted a consent motion, filed by the plaintiff through her counsel, to extend the time for her response until February 14, 2011. See Pl.'s Consent Mot. for Extension of Time, ECF No. 19. No response to the defendant's Motion to Dismiss was filed on the plaintiff's behalf by February 14, 2011, and no request for an additional extension of time was made to the Court.
On April 13, 2011, two months after the plaintiff's opposition was due, this Court granted the defendant's Motion to Dismiss as conceded, pursuant to Local Civil Rule 7(b), which states, in pertinent part, that when an opposing party does not "file a memorandum of points and authorities in opposition to the motion . . . within the prescribed time, the Court may treat the motion as conceded." ECF No. 20.
Three months later, the plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration of the April 13, 2011 Order. See ECF No. 21.*fn12 On October 18, 2011, the Court granted the plaintiff's motion. ECF No. 25. Pending before the Court is the defendant's Motion to Dismiss the Plaintiff's Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (b)(6). ECF No. 18.
A.Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction under 12(b)(1)
On a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1); Mostofi v. Napolitano, 841 F. Supp. 2d 208, 210 (D.D.C. 2012) (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561, 112 S. Ct. 2130, 119 L. Ed. 2d 351 (1992)); Kim v. United States, 840 F. Supp. 2d 180, 184 (D.D.C. 2012); Shekoyan v. Sibley Int'l Corp., 217 F. Supp. 2d 59, 63 (D.D.C. 2002). As the Supreme Court has explained "many times," the "district courts of the United States . . . are 'courts of limited jurisdiction. They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute.'" Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., 545 U.S. 546, 552, 125 S. Ct. 2611, 162 L. Ed. 2d 502 (2005) (quoting Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377, 114 S. Ct. 1673, 128 L. Ed. 2d 391 (1994)); see also Micei Int'l v. DOC, 613 F.3d 1147, 1151 (D.C. Cir. 2010) ("[T]wo things are necessary to create jurisdiction in an Article III tribunal other than the Supreme Court . . . The Constitution must have given to the court the capacity to take it, and an act of Congress must have supplied it.") (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). For this reason, a "federal district court's initial obligation is to ascertain its subject matter jurisdiction." Malyutin v. Rice, 677 F. Supp. 2d 43, 45 (D.D.C. 2009), aff'd, No. 10-cv-5015, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 13869 (D.C. Cir. July 6, 2010). When a court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, it must dismiss the case. See Ravulapalli v. Napolitano, 773 F. Supp. 2d 41, 48 (D.D.C. 2011); McManus v. District of Columbia, 530 F. Supp. 2d 46, 62 (D.D.C. 2007).
The Court must be assured that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority and therefore must give the plaintiff's factual allegations closer scrutiny when resolving a Rule 12(b)(1) motion than would be required for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim. See Macharia v. United States, 334 F.3d 61, 64, 67-68 (D.C. Cir. 2003); Westberg v. FDIC, 759 F. Supp. 2d 38, 41 n.1 (D.D.C. 2011); Dubois v. Wash. Mut. Bank, No. 09-cv-2176, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91855, at *5 (D.D.C. Sept. 3, 2010); Hoffman v. District of Columbia, 643 F. Supp. 2d 132, 135 (D.D.C. 2009); Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F. Supp. 2d 9, 13-14 (D.D.C. 2001). In evaluating subject-matter jurisdiction, the Court, when necessary, may look beyond the complaint to "undisputed facts evidenced in the record, or the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts." Herbert v. Nat'l Acad. of Sciences, 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992); see also Alliance for Democracy v. FEC, 362 F. Supp. 2d 138, 142 (D.D.C. 2005).
B. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim under 12(b)(6)
To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a plaintiff need only plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face" and to "nudge[ ] [his or her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). "[A] complaint [does not] suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). Instead, the complaint must plead facts that are more than "'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability," id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557); "the plaintiff [must] plead factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged," id. (internal citation omitted); accord Rudder v. Williams, 666 F.3d 790, 794 (D.C. Cir. 2012). The Court "must assume all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact) . . . [and] must give the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences derived from the facts alleged." Aktieselskabet AF 21. November 2001 v. Fame Jeans Inc., 525 F.3d 8, 17 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
As noted, the plaintiff raises three claims. She contends that her former employer, the CFA, discriminated against her on account of race (Count I) as well as on account of disability (Count II) under Title VII by denying her $1000 that she was anticipating would be part of her 2004 performance award. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 35-36, 53-56. The plaintiff also contends that the CFA discriminated against her on account of disability (Count III) under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by, inter alia, placing her on AWOL status and denying her request to work from home on a part-time basis following the re-aggravation of her back injury. See id. ¶¶ 57-58.
The defendant argues that the plaintiff's claims should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). The Court agrees. As a threshold issue, the Court lacks jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claims because the plaintiff failed to name the proper defendant, and, therefore, her Amended Complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1). Furthermore, allowing the plaintiff leave to amend the complaint to name the correct defendant would be futile in this case: even if the plaintiff were to name the correct defendant, her case would have to be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) because she did not comply with the thirty-day administrative appeal deadline in the EEOC process, and thus failed to exhaust her administrative remedies with respect to all three claims. Therefore, all of the plaintiff's claims asserted in the Amended Complaint are untimely. Moreover, the Court concludes that even if it were to reach the merits of the plaintiff's claims, the plaintiff has not stated a claim for which relief can be granted. The Court will address each of these issues seriatim below.
A. The Plaintiff's Amended Complaint Must Be Dismissed for Failure to Name the Proper Defendant.
Although the plaintiff's claims "aris[e] exclusively" from her employment at the CFA, Def.'s Mem. at 10-11, she filed this action against the Secretary of the DOI, Kenneth Lee Salazar, instead of against the Secretary of the CFA, Thomas Luebke. See Am. Compl. ¶ 5; see also Def.'s Mem. at 10-12. The defendant argues that the plaintiff's Amended Complaint thereby fails to name the proper defendant and therefore should be dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1). See id. at 10. The Court agrees for two related reasons:
(1) under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c), the plaintiff may only sue the head of the agency whose actions gave rise to her claims (the CFA); and because (2) the CFA is an independent agency and not part of the DOI.
1. The Secretary of the CFA is the Proper Defendant.
The Secretary of the CFA, Thomas Luebke, is the proper defendant in this case because only the head of the agency from which the plaintiff's claims arise is subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c).
The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and granted federal employees the right to file a "'civil action' after final agency action." See Hackley v. Roudebush, 520 F.2d 108, 111-12 (D.C. Cir. 1975). This is not a general grant to sue, but, rather, is a right to file suit only against the "head of the department, agency, or unit" that caused the alleged injury. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c); Hackley, 520 F.2dat 115 n.17 (noting that "[t]he only proper defendant in a Title VII suit . . . is the head of the department, agency, or unit in which the allegedly discriminatory acts transpired") (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); Jordan v. Quander, No. 11-1486, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111474, at *9-10 (D.D.C. Aug. 9, 2012) (granting motions to dismiss where plaintiff did not name "proper defendant" in Title VII claim); see also Marshall v. Potter, 634 F. Supp. 2d 66, 68 (D.D.C. 2009) (noting that the "proper defendant" for claims under the Rehabilitation Act, like those under Title VII, must be the "head of the department, agency, or unit") (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c); Paegle v. Dep't of Interior, 813 F. Supp. 61, 64 n.2 (D.D.C. 1993)).
In this case, all of the plaintiff's claims arise exclusively from her employment at the CFA. See Am. Compl. ¶ 4. The Secretary and the Chairman of the CFA determined the plaintiff's performance award in 2004, which gave rise to Counts I and II. See id. ¶¶ 20-21. As to Count III, the CFA denied her requests to work from home on a part-time basis, see id. ¶¶ 44, 51; and it was the Secretary of the CFA who allegedly placed her on AWOL status, refused to approve her OWCP forms, and provided inaccurate forms to OWCP, see id. ¶¶ 47-49. Given these allegations, the plaintiff has a right to file suit only against the head of the CFA, whose actions gave rise to her discrimination claims.
2. The CFA is an Independent Agency, Not a Component of DOI.
The CFA is an independent agency, not a component of DOI. See Free Enter. Fund v. Pub. Co. Accounting Oversight Bd., 130 S. Ct. 3138, 3215 (2010) (designating the CFA as an independent agency). Thus, the Secretary of the CFA is the only party amenable to suit under Title VII and the Rehabilitation Act. See id.; accord Pl.'s Opp'n at 7 ("Norris is an employee of the federal government through one of its many agencies.") (emphasis added).
The CFA maintains its own operations, independent management, centralized control of its staff, and separate ownership. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 8, 9, 20, 21. For these reasons, the plaintiff's attempt to characterize the CFA and the DOI as a single "unit" defendant under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c) is without merit.
The plaintiff also argues, unavailingly, that the "difficulty in this case is that throughout the entire administrative process the Department of Interior, not the [CFA], was the named respondent." See Pl.'s Opp'n at 6. Moreover, the plaintiff argues that "the DOI, not the [CFA], issued the Final Agency Decision which is the subject of this action." Id. Furthermore, the plaintiff points out that there is a Memorandum of Understanding between the CFA and the DOI that the DOI "would provide, inter alia, employee relations advice to and legal services for the [CFA]." Id. These points are not persuasive. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act grants federal employees the right to file suit in federal court, but only against the proper defendant. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Therefore, the plaintiff must name the Secretary of the CFA as the defendant for jurisdiction in this Court. See, e.g., Jarrell v. U.S. Postal Serv., 753 F.2d 1088, 1091 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (noting that "the head of the agency is the only proper defendant in a Title VII action"); Nichols v. Truscott, 424 F. Supp. 2d 124, 132 n.8 (D.D.C. 2006) (same); Mason v. African Dev. Found., 355 F. Supp. 2d 85, 89 (D.D.C. 2004) (same); Nurriddin v. Bolden, 674 F. Supp. 2d 64, 81 (D.D.C. 2009) ("Since the Rehabilitation Act draws from the procedures of Title VII, the only proper defendant is the head of the department, agency, or unit.").
Accordingly, the Court must dismiss the plaintiff's Amended Complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) because she failed to name the proper defendant in this action.
B. Leave to Amend Would Be Futile in this Case Because of the Plaintiff's Failure to Timely Exhaust Administrative Remedies.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), "[t]he court should freely give leave [to amend a pleading] when justice so requires." FED. R. CIV. P. 15(a). "Whether to grant a motion to amend is within the sound discretion of the district court." Gerlich v. United States DOJ, 828 F. Supp. 2d 284, 290-91 (D.D.C. 2011). Here, the plaintiff requests that, "[i]f the Court agrees with the Defendant, . . . she be permitted to substitute the Secretary of the [CFA] . . . as the Defendant in this case." Pl.'s Opp'n at 6. The defendant argues, however, that this relief would be futile in this case because the Amended Complaint must nevertheless be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. See Def.'s Mem. at 14; see also Nat'l Wrestling Coaches Ass'n v. Dep't of Educ., 366 F.3d 930, 945 (D.C. Cir. 2004) ("[A] district court has discretion to deny a motion to amend on grounds of futility where the proposed pleading would not survive a motion to dismiss.") (citation omitted); see also Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962) ("In the absence of any apparent or declared reason -- such as . . . futility of amendment . . . -- the leave [to amend under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)] sought should, as the rules require, be 'freely given.'") (emphasis added). The Court agrees. Even if the plaintiff were to name the proper defendant, all of the plaintiff's claims must nevertheless be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to exhaust administrative remedies because (i) the plaintiff did not timely file her appeal to the EEOC OFO and because (ii) she cannot establish the extraordinary circumstances necessary to warrant equitable tolling.*fn13 The Court will address each of these issues below.*fn14
1. Claims at Issue
As a threshold matter, the Court must determine which of the plaintiff's claims are currently at issue. "A Title VII lawsuit following the EEOC charge is limited in scope to claims that are like or reasonably related to the allegations of the charge and growing out of such allegations." See Park v. Howard Univ., 71 F.3d 904, 907 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). While both parties agree that only claims raised in the EEOC proceedings, and not the MSPB proceedings, are relevant, *fn15 see Pl.'s Opp'n at 10; Def.'s Mem. at 20-21, they dispute which of the plaintiff's claims in the Amended Complaint arise from her charges before the EEOC. Both parties are in general agreement as to Counts I and II, namely that the plaintiff's claims of racial and disability discrimination regarding her 2004 performance bonus arise from the EEOC proceedings. See Def.'s Mem. at 16; Pl.'s Opp'n to Part. Dismissal at 2, 4. The plaintiff contends that her disability discrimination claims in Count III (regarding her placement on AWOL status and the denial of her request to work from home on a part-time basis) arise from her disability discrimination claim raised in the EEOC proceedings (which focused on her claim regarding her 2004 bonus). See Pl.'s Opp'n at 10. The defendant, however, contends that these disability discrimination claims in Count III are not sufficiently related, and thus were not raised in, nor administratively exhausted through, the EEOC proceedings. See Def.'s Mem. at 21-22. The Court agrees with the plaintiff here that all three counts arise from claims made previously in the EEOC proceedings.
First, the Court construes the plaintiff's discrimination claims in Counts I and II of the Amended Complaint regarding loss of "compensation" as related only to her 2004 bonus, which was the subject of the EEOC proceedings. See EEOC SJ at 1 ("The issue . . . is whether, on November 12, 2004, Complainant [plaintiff] was discriminated against on the bases of race (African American), color (Black), and physical handicap (Back) as a result of disparate treatment by a Management Official in his decision on Performance Awards.") (emphasis added); Def.'s Mem. at 16; Pl.'s Opp'n to Part. Dismissal at 2 ("In February 2005 Ms. Hester filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the reduction in her bonus award alleging race and disability discrimination.").*fn16
Regarding Count III, the defendant argues that the plaintiff's claims of disability discrimination regarding her placement on AWOL status and denial of her request to work from home on a part-time basis were not raised before the EEOC. See Def.'s Mem. at 22. The plaintiff did cite her alleged disability in the EEOC proceedings, however, although the EEOC proceedings focused only on the alleged disability discrimination in connection with the CFA's decisions on the 2004 performance award. When courts construe complaints to the EEOC, they do so liberally "since very commonly [the complaints] are framed by persons unschooled in technical pleading." Shehadeh v. Chesapeake & Potomac Tel. Co., 595 F.2d 711, 727 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (citations omitted); Martinez v. P.R. Fed. Affairs Admin., 813 F. Supp. 2d 84, 93 (D.D.C. 2011). For purposes of this opinion, the Court assumes that the plaintiff's disability discrimination claims made in the EEOC proceedings encompass her disability-related claims in Count III. The Court therefore finds that the three counts raised in the plaintiff's Amended Complaint (racial and disability discrimination as to her 2004 bonus, and disability discrimination as to AWOL status and denial of part-time work from home) were all encompassed in the claims made in the EEOC proceedings below, and the Court will thus address the timeliness of these claims together.
2. Failure to Timely Exhaust
All of the plaintiff's claims arising from the EEOC proceedings must be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies in a timely manner. See Def.'s Mem. at 14-18. Under Title VII, a plaintiff must exhaust all administrative remedies. See, e.g., Peters, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52606, at *40 (citing United Air Lines, Inc. v. Evans, 431 U.S. 553, 555 n.4 (1977); McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 798 (1973); Washington v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 160 F.3d 750, 752 (D.C. Cir. 1998) ("Before suing under . . . Title VII, an aggrieved party must exhaust his administrative remedies."); McKeithan v. Boarman, 803 F. Supp. 2d 63, n.3 (D.D.C. 2011) (same)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1). Exhaustion requires strict adherence to filing deadlines: a plaintiff who "fails to comply, to the letter, with administrative deadlines ordinarily will be denied a judicial audience." Brown v. Marsh, 777 F.2d 8, 13 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Miller v. Rosenker, 578 F. Supp. 2d 67, 70-71 (D.D.C. 2008) (noting that the complaint of a plaintiff who fails to comply with deadlines under 29 C.F.R. § 1614.407 is time-barred and subject to dismissal).
Here, the plaintiff failed to appeal the agency's final order to the EEOC OFO within the thirty-day appeals window and thus failed to exhaust all of her administrative remedies. See OFO Dismissal of Appeal at *1. As noted, after receipt of the initial EEOC "November 30, 2006 summary judgment decision upon which this appeal is based," the plaintiff decided to appeal to the EEOC OFO. Pl.'s Opp'n at 10. The plaintiff, however, failed to appeal within the thirty-day appeals window allowed by EEOC regulation 29 C.F.R. § 1614.402 and instead filed four days late. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 7; see also McAlister v. Potter, 733 F. Supp. 2d 134, 142 (D.D.C. 2010) (noting that "[c]courts apply the ninety-day time limit strictly and will dismiss a suit for missing the deadline by even one day.") (collecting cases). Thus, by filing her appeal four days late, the plaintiff failed to exhaust all of the relevant claims in Counts I, II, and III of the Amended Complaint.
The plaintiff's argument to the contrary is unavailing. The plaintiff contends that she timely filed this lawsuit according to the notice accompanying the OFO denial of her untimely appeal. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 7-9. Timely filing of a civil action after OFO dismissal, however, does not excuse the prior untimely filing of her appeal within the administrative process. See Miller, 578 F. Supp. 2d at 70 (noting that "for the Plaintiff to have timely filed his claim in federal court, his administrative appeal with the EEOC must have been timely filed"); Gantt v. Mabus, No. 11-cv-1392, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59678, at *8 (D.D.C. Apr. 30, 2012) (same).*fn17
Accordingly, the plaintiff's failure to timely appeal constitutes a failure to exhaust all administrative remedies and thus is a sufficient ground for dismissal.
3. No Basis for Equitable Tolling, nor for a Period of Discovery on Equitable Tolling.
If claims are untimely filed, a plaintiff may plead sufficient justifications for equitable tolling in the district court to avoid dismissal. See Saltz v. Lehman, 672 F.2d 207, 209 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (noting that the plaintiff bears the "burden of pleading and proving in the district court any equitable reasons for [her] failure to meet the thirty-day requirement" in a Title VII case). "Federal courts have typically extended equitable relief only sparingly." Irwin v. Dep't of Veteran Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 96 (1990). Indeed, courts only toll late filings "in extraordinary and carefully circumscribed instances." Mondy v. Sec'y of the Army, 845 F.2d 1051, 1057 (D.C. Cir. 1988). A plaintiff seeking equitable tolling must have exercised due diligence and presented more than a "garden variety claim of excusable neglect." Battle v. Rubin, 121 F. Supp. 2d 4, 8 (D.D.C. 2000) (quoting Irwin, 498 U.S. at 96).
In this case, as explained supra, the plaintiff has not established, nor is there anything in the record to suggest, that there are any "extraordinary circumstances" that would warrant equitable tolling of the thirty-day window for appealing the Final Agency Decision to the EEOC OFO. The plaintiff merely argues that she is entitled to equitable tolling because of her "counsel's failure to follow the rules, regulations, and statutes," namely to file a timely appeal to the EEOC OFO within 30 days of the agency's final decision on January 12, 2007. Pl.'s Opp'n at 10. (Instead, as noted, her counsel filed the appeal on February 15, 2007, four days late.).
The plaintiff also contends that even if the Court were to decide that the case "is not timely for purposes of addressing the merits of this case at this time, it surely is timely with respect to the issue of equitable tolling." Id. at 9. Accordingly, the plaintiff requests that she "be permitted to engage in a brief period of discovery on the equitable tolling issue." Id. at 10.
The Court, however, finds no reason to grant the plaintiff time for discovery in order to present the Court reasons to excuse her untimely appeal to the EEOC OFO. The EEOC OFO, in dismissing the plaintiff's appeal as untimely, found that "the [plaintiff's] attorney's . . . contentions fail to invoke waiver or equitable tolling for filing the appeal." OFO Dismissal of Appeal at *1. Instead, the plaintiff's attorney acknowledged to the EEOC OFO that the Final Agency Decision reached his office on January 12, 2007, but due to an afternoon delivery and a holiday he did not personally receive the decision until the following week. Id. At best, the plaintiff's prior counsel's reason presented to the EEOC for his untimely filing of the appeal is a "garden variety claim of excusable neglect" that does not justify equitable tolling. See Rao v. Baker, 898 F.2d 191, 192, 198 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (finding that plaintiff had not pled sufficient facts to "justify overturning EEOC's refusal to invoke its equitable discretion" where the plaintiff's counsel filed an untimely appeal while the plaintiff was out of the country). Although the plaintiff seems to suggest that "she is unable to obtain vital information bearing on the existence of her claim," Pl.'s Opp'n at 9, she has not suggested any reason for why she has been unable to obtain this unspecified information, nor suggested any explanation of how discovery on the issue of equitable tolling could possibly be fruitful. Her request is therefore denied.
Accordingly, because of the plaintiff's failure to administratively exhaust all three claims, and her inability to provide adequate justification for equitable tolling, her claims must be dismissed.
C. Plaintiff's Claims Also Fail on the Merits.
The Court now turns to the merits of the plaintiff's claims. Even if the plaintiff had not failed to administratively exhaust her claims, the Court finds that all three counts must be dismissed on the merits. Neither the plaintiff's claims regarding her 2004 performance bonus (Counts I and II) nor her claims regarding CFA actions prior to her removal (Count III) establish a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII. Thus, all three counts must be dismissed for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).
"[T]o establish a prima facie case for disparate treatment discrimination . . . the plaintiff must establish that (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) the unfavorable action gives rise to an inference of discrimination." Russell v. Principi, 257 F.3d 815, 818 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Furthermore, the "adverse employment action" must be "tangible," and must amount to "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); see also Stewart v. Ashcroft, 352 F.3d 422, 426 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (same); Hutchinson v. Holder, 668 F. Supp. 2d201, 214 (D.D.C. 2009) (same).
None of the plaintiff's claims in her Amended Complaint sufficiently allege discriminatory action under Title VII or the Rehabilitation Act. First, her racial and disability discrimination claims in Counts I and II fail to demonstrate an adverse action. The plaintiff receiving $1000 less than she hoped for as a performance bonus in no way constitutes an "adverse employment action," especially when she also, around the same time, received a promotion and a salary increase (of more than $18,500). Furthermore, even if any adverse action had occurred, her claims regarding the 2004 bonus fail to raise an inference of discrimination. Second, the plaintiff's claims of disability discrimination in Count III (namely, her placement on AWOL status and the denial of her request to work from home on a part-time basis) are entirely conclusory, and thus fail to allege an adverse action or support an inference of discrimination. The Court will first address Counts I and II together, and then turn to Count III.
Turning to Counts I and II of the Amended Complaint, the plaintiff's discrimination claims regarding her 2004 performance bonus fail to allege an adverse action. In fact, while the plaintiff describes a "reduction in her performance award," Am. Compl. ¶ 19 (emphasis added) in 2004, her 2004 bonus was actually four times greater than the bonus she received merely four years earlier, see id. ¶ 18. Furthermore, in the same period in which the plaintiff was allegedly discriminated against with a lower bonus than she was hoping for, she received a promotion in title and a salary increase of over $18,500. See id. ¶¶ 6, 26. Although a "bonus is a tangible, quantifiable award, more analogous to one's salary or to a benefit of one's employment than to a performance evaluation . . . [and] the loss of a bonus that is worth hundreds of dollars is not a petty detriment," Russell, 257 F.3d at 819, "not everything that makes an employee unhappy is an actionable adverse action," id. at 818. The plaintiff's disappointment in her 2004 bonus, which was in fact $4000 more than she would have earned based on her salary alone, may be real but this simply does not constitute an adverse action. "Minor and even trivial employment actions that [an] employee did not like would otherwise form the basis of a discrimination suit," and the courts would be overrun with unhappy employees. Id. The Court declines to expand the definition of "adverse action" so broadly to encompass bonus pay-outs that are not as large as hoped for by the employee, particularly when, as here, the circumstances do not make plausible a claim of discrimination.
Furthermore, even if the 2004 bonus could possibly be construed as an adverse action, the plaintiff's claims regarding her performance bonus, even viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, in no way support an inference of discrimination. The plaintiff expected a higher performance bonus based only upon a single assurance made by the Secretary, see Am. Compl. ¶ 35, while it was actually the Chairman who decided the amounts of the performance bonuses for CFA staff, see id. ¶¶ 21, 30. There is no suggestion in the Amended Complaint that there was any reason for the Chairman's decision other than his perception of the plaintiff's performance. See id. ¶ 39 (noting that the Chairman had stated that "Cenny is not performing at the same level as everyone else on staff" and that he thought the plaintiff was "dropping the ball").
Furthermore, the fact that other employees were awarded larger bonuses
than the plaintiff in 2004 does not give rise to an inference of
discrimination. No other employee occupied the same job position as
the plaintiff, see id. ¶ 8, and the employees all received bonuses of
different amounts, see id. ¶ 41; see also note 7, supra.*fn18
The plaintiff notes that her "award had been decreased,"
while the Chairman "increased the award" of an architect, and that
this was "shock[ing]" to the plaintiff. Id. ¶ 36. The Court does not
find this as "shocking" given that the employees were in different
roles (Administrative Officer and Architect) and that a substantive
reason was offered for the Architect's higher bonus. See id. ¶ 37
(noting that the Architect had assisted the Chairman in his search for
a new Secretary for the CFA). The plaintiff has not shown that
similarly-situated colleagues received more of an increase in their
bonuses, nor that she was in any way singled out relative to her
co-workers. Accordingly, the plaintiff has in no way established that
she suffered an adverse employment action with respect to the 2004
bonus, nor that the employment action gives rise to an inference of
The Court now turns to Count III, in which the plaintiff alleges that she experienced disparate treatment because the "[d]efendant altered and disrupted the terms and conditions of [her] employment at the [CFA] when it falsified documents, denied her leave, denied her the right to perform duties from her home and the right to contact OWCP and other federal compensation and benefit personnel." Id. ¶ 58.
Count III must be dismissed because the facts alleged are insufficient to state a Title VII discrimination claim under Rule 12(b)(6). The Amended Complaint contains no plausible factual allegations to establish an adverse action or support an inference of discrimination with respect to the plaintiff's placement on AWOL status and the denial of her request to work from home on a part-time basis. See id. ¶¶ 44-51. At most, the plaintiff's claims are merely conclusory. Furthermore, the plaintiff's other factual allegations -- namely her multiple claims to OWCP that were approved with notice to her CFA supervisors, see id. ¶¶ 12, 16; her promotion following the initial approval for OWCP, see id. ¶ 14; see also note 8, supra; and the fact that she was absent from her job for nearly a year before she was dismsised, see MSPB Denial at *2 -- do not plausibly support a claim of discrimination against the CFA. Accordingly, the plaintiff's disability discrimination claim in Count III fails to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).
Therefore, all three claims, if not barred because of an improperly named defendant or failure to exhaust administrative remedies, would still have to be dismissed.
For the reasons stated above, the defendant's motion to dismiss is GRANTED. An appropriate Order shall accompany this Memorandum Opinion.
BERYL A. HOWELL United States District Judge