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Saunders v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 2, 2013

THERESA WESTON SAUNDERS, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Teresa Saunders filed suit against the District of Columbia, Natwar Gandhi, and Earl Cabbell asserting a number of claims arising out of the Plaintiff's termination from employment with the District. The Defendants now seek summary judgment on each of the Plaintiff's three remaining claims: retaliation in violation of the False Claims Act, racial discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and deprivation of liberty without due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Plaintiff does not oppose the Defendants' motion with respect to her claims under sections 1981 and 1983, but contends her claim of retaliation in violation of the False Claims Act should go to a jury. Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the summary judgment record, the Court finds the Plaintiff failed to set forth a prima facie case of retaliation under the False Claims Act. Accordingly, the Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on all remaining claims in this case.

I. BACKGROUND

The Plaintiff was employed in various financial management positions with the District of Columbia from August 1982 through July 2000. Defs. Stmt. ¶ 1.[2] In June 1999, City Administrator Norman Dong and Chief Financial Officer for the District of Columbia Valerie Holt assigned the Plaintiff to serve as the Chief Financial Officer of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer ("OCTO"). Pl.'s Ex. C (Holt Decl.) ¶¶ 8. The Plaintiff was tasked with preparing financial statements for the expenditure of federal funds in connection with the District of Columbia's "Y2K" conversion program. Id. Suzanne Peck served as the Chief Technology Officer while the Plaintiff worked on the Y2K project. E.g., Pl.'s Ex. H (Saunders Decl.) ¶ 7. As the Chief Financial Officer for the OCTO, the Plaintiff worked closely with the OCTO, but continued to report to Valerie Holt. Id. at ¶ 10; Pl.'s Ex. J (Natwar Dep.) at 19:15-10:3; see also Natward Dep. at 20: 4-9 (indicating that CFOs assigned to specific agencies "are supposed to work very closely" with the assigned agency, but "it's only the [District] CFO who is their boss").

While serving as the Chief Financial Officer of OCTO, the Plaintiff alleges that she "discovered and reported numerous deficiencies in procurement and financial management operations, " including that in many cases OCTO contracts did not comply with District and federal regulations. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 3, 4.[3] The Plaintiff produced a "Financial Status Report" for the Y2K project on July 9, 1999, which indicated that "[t]he internal controls for the process of approving and reporting financial transactions may require strengthening, " and that "[t]hese potential internal control deficiencies could adversely affect the District's ability to record, process, summarize, and report financial data consistent with governmental accounting reporting requirements." Pl.'s Ex. H (Saunders Decl.), Attach. 1 (7/9/1999 Report) at 2. The Plaintiff alleges Ms. Peck was "furious" at the Plaintiff for submitting the July 9, 1999, report, stating that: Ms. Peck "stood at the door of my office and threw the report on the floor near my feet and yelled at me; she yelled she would get me out of OCTO." Saunders Decl. ¶ 18. Ulysses Little, who worked for the Plaintiff on the Y2K project, likewise indicated that when the Plaintiff "started pointing out inconsistencies and other problems to Ms. Peck, Ms. Peck's attitude and behavior toward Ms. Saunders and the team changed dramatically. The environment became very tense and intimidating." Pl.'s Ex. E (Little Decl.) ¶ 6. Ms. Peck also expressed dissatisfaction towards the Plaintiff at having to attend regular status meetings regarding the Y2K project as a result of the Plaintiff's report. Saunders Decl. ¶ 22.

In August 1999, Ms. Peck reportedly complained to the District of Columbia Financial Control Board that the Plaintiff refused to reimburse expenses incurred by certain contractors, including "21 Critical Items" totaling over $21, 000, 000. Saunders Decl. ¶ 26. Upon learning of Ms. Peck's complaint from Valerie Holt, the Plaintiff submitted a memorandum to the Control Board, explaining why the Plaintiff declined to authorize payment of various invoices. Saunders Decl., Attach. 2 (8/27/1999 Mem. T. Saunders to W. Parker); see also id. (explaining that "$18, 014, 000 was rejected because no budget or funding existed"). The Plaintiff asserts that the Control Board agreed with her actions but that Ms. Peck was angry with the Plaintiff. Saunders Decl. ¶¶ 27-28.

Four days after submitting her memorandum to the Control Board, the Plaintiff submitted a memorandum to Ms. Peck, copying Norman Dong and Valerie Holt among others, concerning the "[v]alidation of IBM [i]nvoices." Saunders Decl., Attach. 3 (8/31/1999 Report).[4] The report indicated, among other things, that supporting documentation was not available for four invoices totaling $7, 194, 855.60, and a total of $13, 812, 508 was disallowed because the expenditures were "incurred without the appropriate budget authority." Id. at 2. The report also recommended "based on the discrepancies identified in the labor hours charged, that a thorough review be conducted by the Y2K Program office for other related costs (such as travel claims) that have been included in the invoices to provide assurances that all costs are accurate and appropriate." Id. at 6. Ms. Peck was angered by the report, and purportedly told the Plaintiff that "she would make sure [the Plaintiff] would not be a CFO in the D.C. Government anywhere." Saunders Decl. ¶ 32.

At some unspecified point Ms. Peck asked Ms. Holt to replace the Plaintiff as the Chief Financial Officer for the OCTO, but Ms. Holt declined to do so. Holt Decl. ¶ 20. Ms. Holt indicates that "Ms. Peck kept trying however, and at one point the Mayor's Chief of Staff told [Holt] that Peck wasn't happy about [Holt's] unwillingness to change CFOs and wasn't there something [Holt] could do." Id. On October 10, 1999, Valerie Holt transferred Plaintiff to the position of Chief Financial Officer for the District of Columbia Lottery. Saunders Decl. ¶ 40. The Plaintiff did not request the transfer, but was "pleased to assume" the position at the D.C. Lottery. Id. at ¶ 41. Ms. Holt explained that she "knew that Ms. Saunders' situation at OCTO was very stressful so the move to [sic] Lottery seemed to make sense." Holt Decl. ¶ 21.

Valerie Holt's appointment as Chief Financial Officer for the District expired in May 2000. Holt Decl. ¶ 22. Mayor Anthony Williams appointed Dr. Natwar Gandhi to replace Ms. Holt in late May. Pl.'s Ex. J (Natwar Dep.) at 15:3-13. Prior to his appointment as Chief Financial Officer, Dr. Gandhi served for approximately two years as a tax commissioner, reporting to Anthony Williams before Mr. Williams' successful run for Mayor. Id. at 13:1-5; 14:12-18. Dr. Gandhi appointed Stanley Jackson to serve as his chief of staff. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 11. The Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Jackson contacted the Plaintiff in late May 2000 to inquire whether the Plaintiff would be interested in joining a "Special Projects Team" led by Earl Cabbell. Saunders Decl. ¶ 44. The Plaintiff informed Mr. Jackson that she was not interested in the position, but on June 19, 2000, the Plaintiff was transferred to the Special Projects Team. Id. at ¶ 45.

The Plaintiff attended a "[k]ick-off" meeting for the Special Projects Team on June 22, 2000, and was "introduced as part of the team." Saunders Decl. ¶ 48. The parties disagree significantly as to what transpired next. The Plaintiff claims that Mr. Cabbell agreed to provide the Plaintiff with a "transition period, " and that she began working fulltime on the team on June 29, 2000. Id. at ¶¶ 46, 48. With advanced notice, the Plaintiff took off one morning, but otherwise asserts she was not absent from work after June 29. Id. at ¶ 55. By contrast, Mr. Cabbell testified that the Plaintiff informed him that "[s]he had to work through a transition phase with whoever the new CFO was" for the Lottery, while Mr. Cabbell was under the impression she would be available to the Special Projects Team immediately. Pl.'s Ex. I (Cabbell Dep.) at 81:6-82:5; 83:14-84:8. Mr. Cabbell reported his confusion to Stanley Jackson, who indicated he would "take care of it." Id. at 84:10-85:5. The Plaintiff subsequently appeared at the offices for the Special Projects Team, but not on a full-time basis. Id. at 86:18-25. Mr. Cabbell testified at his deposition that the Plaintiff "participated in a few things, but then she would leave, would only be there a half day or whatever saying she had to go back" to the Lottery. Id. at 88:14-17. Mr. Cabbell once again asked Mr. Jackson when the Plaintiff would be available to the Special Projects Team full-time. Id. at 88:17-89:3; but see Pl.'s Ex. D (Jackson Decl.) ¶ 8-9 (indicating that he "do[es] not remember hearing these statements from Cabbell"). Regardless of what transpired after June 19, 2000, the parties agree that on July 21, 2000, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer terminated the Plaintiff. Pl.'s Ex. M (7/21/2000 Termination Ltr.). This suit followed.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

"The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by:
(A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), ...

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