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Coleman v. Johnson

United States District Court, District Circuit

January 14, 2014

JAMES E. COLEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
JEH JOHNSON, in his official capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Homeland Security, Defendant.[1]

OPINION

PAUL L. FRIEDMAN, United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on defendant’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment under Rule 56. Plaintiff, James E. Coleman, has charged his employer, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”). DHS argues that none of Mr. Coleman’s claims has merit. After careful consideration of the parties’ papers, the relevant legal authorities, and the entire record in this case, the Court will grant the government’s motion in part and deny it in part.[2]

I. BACKGROUND

James Coleman is a fifty-two-year-old African-American male who has worked for DHS since March 2008. Compl. ¶ 8.[3] During all times relevant to his allegations, he worked as a member of the DHS Secretary’s “Briefing Staff, ” as a GS-13 Production Specialist. Id. ¶ 9. In the summer of 2010, DHS posted a job vacancy for a GS-14 “Supervisory Production Specialist” position (job announcement number 362712). Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 3. There were two openings for this position. See id. ¶¶ 8, 15. Mr. Coleman applied for the position, “which would have been a promotion . . . with greater pay and enhanced professional stature.” Compl. ¶ 14. A member of the DHS human resources staff prepared a list of qualified applicants, and sent it to another DHS employee, Boyden Rohner. Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 5. Ms. Rohner was a member of the selection board for the position. Id. She also happened to be Mr. Coleman’s supervisor. Id.

Ms. Rohner reviewed the resumes and applications of the qualified candidates, and identified a subset to be selected for interviews. Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 6. Mr. Coleman was one of the candidates she decided to interview. Compl. ¶ 14. After the interviews were completed, the selection board unanimously selected two of the candidates for the promotion: John Destry and Alan Eckersley. Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 8. Destry and Eckersley were notified of their selections on or before October 29, 2010. Id. ¶ 12. Mr. Coleman was not selected. Destry accepted the promotion, id. ¶ 14, but Eckersley declined the position on November 5, 2010, id. ¶ 13.

Mr. Coleman made his first contact with DHS’s Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) office on December 11, 2010. Compl. ¶ 16. He alleged discrimination regarding his non-selection for the promotion, as well as harassment by his co-workers. Id. Around this time, Mr. Coleman’s relationship with his supervisor, Ms. Rohner, was deteriorating. Ms. Rohner had sent an office-wide email clarifying responsibilities around the office, and asked Mr. Coleman to confirm that his team had read and understood the email. Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 17. Mr. Coleman did not respond to this request. Id. ¶ 18. Shortly thereafter, on December 29, 2010, Ms. Rohner issued Mr. Coleman a “Letter of Counseling, ” which criticized his failure to follow her instructions. Id.; see also Ex. 10 to Heiser Decl. This letter was not placed in Mr. Coleman’s official personnel folder. Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 19.

Trouble continued into the new year. On January 19, 2011, Mr. Coleman allegedly failed to complete a checklist at the end of his shift. Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 24. According to Ms. Rohner, this was the second time Mr. Coleman had forgotten this responsibility that month, a misstep that she had already cautioned him to avoid. See id. ¶¶ 20-22. Ms. Rohner issued Mr. Coleman a “Letter of Reprimand, ” for what she characterized as his “continued failure to follow her instructions.” Id. ¶ 25; see also Ex. 12 to Heiser Decl.

While these disputes developed, one of the two open Supervisory Production Specialist positions remained vacant, due to Mr. Eckersley’s having declined the promotion. Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 15. Kara Millhench, a GS-14 employee who was on detail to the DHS Secretary’s briefing staff from another DHS office, expressed interest in the position. Id. Because Ms. Millhench was already a GS-14 employee (unlike Messrs. Coleman, Eckersley, or Destry), the position could be filled by lateral reassignment, without opening it up to competitive selection once again. Def.’s Mot. at 15; Third Rohner Decl. ¶ 9. Ms. Millhench received her reassignment on January 16, 2011. Def.’s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 16.

Mr. Coleman continued to seek relief through the EEO administrative process. He added retaliation claims to his original complaint, which had initially alleged only discrimination. Almost six months after all of the events described above, Mr. Coleman’s EEO complaint was finalized, and the following claims were accepted by the EEOC for investigation:

1. Whether Plaintiff was “discriminated against and subject to harassment and a hostile work environment on the bases of his race (African-American), age (DOB: [19]61), and in reprisal (for filing the instant complaint)” when the following occurred:
a. In June 2010, he was not selected for the first Supervisory Production Specialist position, Job Announcement No. 0S-20100238;
b. In early December 2010, he was informed that he was not selected for the second Supervisory Production Specialist position, Job Announcement No. 362712;
c. On December 13, 2010, his supervisor “interrogated” him regarding a “false statement” made by a female co-worker; and
d. On December 30, 2010, his supervisor issued him a Letter of Counseling.
2. Whether Plaintiff was retaliated against following his December 11, 2010 contact with the EEO office when his supervisor issued him a letter of reprimand on January 28, 2011.

Def.’s Mot. at 7 (citing Ex. 6 to Heiser Decl.). The letter confirming receipt of his claims explained to Mr. Coleman: “If you fail to contact our office, I will conclude that you agree with the claims as stated.” Ex. 6 to Heiser Decl. Mr. Coleman did not ...


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