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Johnson v. Perez

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

September 2, 2014

THOMAS E. PEREZ, SECRETARY, U.S. Department of Labor, Defendant

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For PRINCE JOHNSON, Plaintiff: Alan Lescht, Constance Travanty, Rani V. Rolston, LEAD ATTORNEYS, ALAN LESCHT & ASSOCIATES, Washington, DC.

For THOMAS E. PEREZ, Secretary, Department of Labor, Defendant: Mercedeh Momeni, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Civil Division, Washington, DC.

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KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Prince Johnson is an African-American man who was employed for approximately seven months--from April 2, 2006, until November 11, 2006--as a Veterans Employment Specialist in the Veterans Employment and Training Services (" VETS" ) division of the Department of Labor (" DOL" or " Defendant" ) before his

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employment was terminated.[1] Johnson has brought the instant action against DOL, alleging two counts of employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e-2000e-17. In the first count of his complaint, Johnson alleges that his termination was due to his race. In the second count, Johnson alleges that he was subjected to a hostile work environment on account of his race during the course of his employment.

Before this Court at present is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on both counts. (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 14 at 1-2.) In that motion, Defendant maintains that the undisputed record evidence demonstrates that Johnson was terminated for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, and that Johnson has failed to produce sufficient evidence to establish that he was subjected to a hostile work environment. Because this Court concludes that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Johnson experienced race discrimination or was subjected to a hostile work environment, and that Defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, it will GRANT Defendant's motion as to both of Johnson's claims. A separate order consistent with this Opinion will follow.


A. Factual Background

Johnson's tenure at VETS was brief, and the undisputed material facts underlying his lawsuit are equally so. Johnson was initially hired as a Veteran's Employment Specialist within VETS in April of 2006. (Suppl. Decl. of Complainant Prince Johnson (" Pl.'s Suppl. Decl." ), Ex. 1 to Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 16-1 at 2-11, ¶ ¶ 4, 6; see also Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (" D-SOF" ), ECF No. 14 at 3-9, ¶ 6.)[2] Johnson's initial appointment was a temporary Veterans Readjustment Appointment (" VRA" ) scheduled to last for 60 days with the possibility of an extension or conversion to a career conditional appointment. ( See Pl.'s Suppl. Decl. ¶ 6; see also D-SOF ¶ 6.)

Gordon Burke, an African-American man who was VETS's Director of Operations at the time, was the agency official responsible for hiring Johnson. (D-SOF ¶ 2.) Prior to his hiring, Johnson interviewed with both Burke and Pamela Langley, a Caucasian female who served as Johnson's first-line supervisor during his employment with VETS. ( Id. ¶ 4.) At the interview, Langley informed Johnson that his primary responsibility would be to assist Langley's subordinate, Patrick Hecker, with developing and maintaining Excel spreadsheets related to VETS's " Jobs for Veterans" program. ( Id. ¶ 5.) After the interview, Langley told Burke that, based on Johnson's resume, she believed that Johnson had enough experience to be able to perform the tasks required for the position successfully. ( Id. ¶ 4.) Shortly thereafter, Burke hired Johnson. ( Id. ¶ 6.)

Johnson's relationship with his new supervisors got off to a rocky start. A few weeks into Johnson's tenure, Hecker, who is a Caucasian man, reported to Langley

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that Johnson was having difficulty completing his assignments on time and without errors, and that Johnson had reacted defensively when Hecker tried to discuss these performance issues with him. ( Id. ¶ 7.) Langley then raised concerns about Johnson's work in a meeting with Burke, and recommended that Johnson receive Excel and other general training. ( Id. ¶ 9.) In May of 2006, Johnson also met with Burke and told Burke that Johnson was not getting appropriate support from Hecker and Langley and, consequently, felt like he was being " set up to fail." ( Id. ¶ 10; see Pl.'s Suppl. Decl. ¶ 65.) Burke then convened a meeting with Johnson, Hecker, and Langley to discuss reported issues with Johnson's performance. (D-SOF ¶ 11; Pl.'s Suppl. Decl. ¶ 31.) At the meeting, Burke directed Johnson to undertake the training activities Langley recommended, including a basic-level course in Excel, and Johnson eventually did so. (D-SOF ¶ ¶ 11, 15; Pl.'s Suppl. Decl. ¶ ¶ 31-32.)

Notwithstanding Johnson's additional training, his professional relationship with Hecker and Langley continued to deteriorate. At one point, Langley returned from leave to find that on June 30, 2006, in Langley's absence, Burke had authorized the conversion of Johnson's temporary appointment to a career conditional appointment when Burke signed paperwork that he believed was urgently necessary for Johnson to receive his next paycheck. (D-SOF ¶ ¶ 16-18; see also Pl.'s Suppl. Decl. ¶ 7.) Langley subsequently spoke to Burke and recommended that Johnson's appointment remain temporary because of ongoing performance issues. (D-SOF ¶ 18.) Burke then contacted the human resource office and requested that the office cancel Johnson's conversion to career conditional status. ( Id. ¶ 19.)

Although Hecker, Langley, and Johnson met several times between July and October of 2006 to discuss Johnson's performance and his " argumentative demeanor[,]" ( Id. ¶ 22; see Pl.'s Suppl. Decl. ¶ 61), these sessions apparently did not mitigate the problems, and on October 6, 2006, Langley informed Johnson that she would be recommending to Burke that Johnson be terminated. (D-SOF ¶ 23; Pl.'s Suppl. Decl. ¶ 33.) On October 10, 2006, Johnson received a letter from Burke notifying him of Burke's decision to terminate Johnson's employment, effective November 11, 2006. (D-SOF ¶ 25.)

B. Procedural History

After exhausting his administrative remedies, Johnson filed the instant complaint in this Court on October 17, 2011, alleging that Defendant violated Title VII with respect to both Johnson's termination and to the conditions of Johnson's employment. (Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ ¶ 74-75, 77.)[3] The complaint alleges that Johnson's termination was the result of discrimination based on his race (Count I), and also that Johnson was subjected to a hostile work environment because of his race while employed at VETS (Count II). ( Id.)

In the instant motion for summary judgment, which was filed on December 11, 2012, Defendant contends that judgment should be granted in its favor on both counts. Defendant argues that Count I cannot withstand summary judgment because DOL has articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory

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explanations for Johnson's termination--namely Johnson's poor work performance and argumentative demeanor--and Johnson has failed to show that this explanation was merely pretext for race discrimination. Count II must also fall, Defendant claims, because the record evidence is insufficient to support Johnson's claim that he faced a hostile work environment while employed at VETS. In response, Johnson asserts that he has identified evidence sufficient to create a triable issue of fact regarding whether Defendant's legitimate, nondiscriminatory explanations were a pretext for race discrimination, and that the record evidence shows that Johnson experienced working conditions that were sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment.

This Court has reviewed the entirety of the record, and has concluded that Johnson has failed to raise a question of material fact as to whether DOL's proffered reasons for Johnson's termination were a pretext for race discrimination. Johnson offers no evidence that racial animus was at the root of the allegedly discriminatory treatment, and especially in light of the fact that Johnson was hired and fired by the same persons--one of whom was African American--Johnson has failed to produce facts from which a reasonable jury could infer that his superiors' actions were because of race. The Court further concludes that Johnson has failed to support his hostile work environment claim because the acts on which Johnson bases his claim are not sufficiently severe and pervasive to meet the high standard for such claims. Thus, as explained further below, this Court will enter summary judgment in favor of Defendant on both counts.


The Court must grant summary judgment if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). " A fact is material if it 'might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law,' and a dispute about a material fact is genuine 'if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Steele v. Schafer, 535 F.3d 689, 692, 383 U.S.App.D.C. 74 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)).

Under Rule 56, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the non-moving party must designate " specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). Although the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inference in that party's favor, see, e.g., Grosdidier v. Broad. Bd. of Governors, Chairman, 709 F.3d 19, 23, 404 U.S.App.D.C. 189 (D.C. Cir. 2013), the non-moving party must show more than " [t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of" his or her position. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. Rather, " there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find" for the non-moving party. Id. Moreover, the non-moving party " may not rest upon mere allegation or denials of his ...

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