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Clemmons v. Academy for Educational Development

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

September 30, 2014

LYDIA CLEMMONS, Plaintiff,
v.
ACADEMY FOR EDUCATIONAL DEVELOPMENT, et al., Defendants

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For LYDIA CLEMMONS, Plaintiff: David M. Wachtel, Peter M. Whelan, BERNABEI & WACHTEL, PLLC, Washington, DC.

For ACADEMY FOR EDUCATIONAL DEVELOPMENT, INC., Defendant: Kara M. Maciel, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jordan B. Schwartz, EPSTEIN BECKER & GREEN, P.C., Washington, DC.

For FAMILY HEALTH INTERNATIONAL, doing business as, FHI 360, FHI DEVELOPMENT 360 LLC, FHI SOLUTIONS LLC, Defendants: Deborah J. Israel, LEAD ATTORNEY, WOMBLE CARLYLE SANDRIDGE & RICE, PLLC, Washington, DC; Jesse A. Schaefer, Johnny M Loper, PRO HAC VICE, WOMBLE, CARLYLE, SANDRIDGE & RICE, LLP, Raleigh, NC.

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Re Document Nos.: 53, 56

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.

Granting Aed's Motion For Summary Judgment; And Denying The FHI 360 Defendants' Motion For Summary Judgment As Moot

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Dr. Lydia Clemmons, worked for defendant, the Academy for Educational Development (" AED" ), in carrying out an HIV prevention project before she resigned in March 2009. She since has filed the instant lawsuit against AED alleging constructive discharge, retaliation, and hostile work environment on the basis of race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (" DCHRA" ), D.C. Code § 1-2501 et seq., as well as a claim for defamation under District of Columbia common law. Now before the Court is AED's motion for summary judgment as to each of these claims.[1] Upon consideration of the parties' motions, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto, and the evidentiary record submitted by both parties to supplement their filings, the Court will grant AED's motion for summary judgment.

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II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. AED's Structure and Operations

During the relevant events, AED was a Delaware non-profit company based in Washington, D.C. that operated domestic and international human and social development programs. See Stmt of Undisputed Facts, ¶ 1, Dec. 13, 2013, ECF No. 56 (" SOF" ). In particular, AED oversaw two projects in Ghana that addressed HIV prevention for at-risk populations: the Strengthening HIV and AIDS Response Partnership Project (" SHARP" ), and the Ghana Sustainable Change Project (" GSCP" ). See SOF ¶ 2. The United States Agency for International Development (" USAID" ) was the principal funder and client for both SHARP and GSCP. See 2d Am. Compl. (" SAC" ) ¶ ¶ 8, 15, ECF No. 28. The Global Health Population and Nutrition Center (" GHPN" ) managed and directed GSCP, and AED, through its Center on AIDS & Community Health (" COACH" ), directed and managed SHARP. See id. ¶ ¶ 15-16. Both COACH and GHPN operated out of AED's headquarters in the District of Columbia. See id.

Beth Anne Moskov, USAID's Director for Health, Population and Nutrition, managed the U.S. Government's health-related funded activities in Ghana, including SHARP and GSCP, starting in August 2005. See SOF ¶ 9; Moskov Dep. 7:20-8:4, Aug. 19, 2013, ECF No. 68-19. Chief Technical Officers (" CTOs" ) reported on SHARP's and GSCP's daily activities and progress to Ms. Moskov; specifically, Peter Wondergem was the CTO for SHARP, and Susan Wright was the CTO for GSCP. See Moskov Dep. 18:14-19:3. Further, each Ghana project was led by a chief of party (" COP" ), and in May 2006, Dr. Clemmons, an African-American woman, was hired to serve as the COP for SHARP. See SOF ¶ 4. On May 1, 2007, Jacqui Larsen started as the Deputy COP for GSCP, until she received a promotion to COP in October 2007. See id. ¶ 6. Ms. Larsen's direct supervisor was Nancy Nachbar, the Senior Project Director for GHPN, see id. ¶ 7, and Dawn McCown became GSCP's Deputy COP in January 2009. See id. ¶ 8.

B. Dr. Clemmons's Hiring and Salary Demands

Before agreeing to work for AED, Dr. Clemmons requested a salary of over $122,000, which was 15% more than her prior salary of $106,000, as well as a $40,430 increase over SHARP's previous COP's annual salary. See id. ¶ ¶ 12, 14. Under a cooperative agreement between USAID and AED, USAID was responsible for approving and paying Dr. Clemmons's salary, and USAID offered a maximum salary of $114,480 per year to Dr. Clemmons. See id. ¶ 14. AED, however, agreed to pay the difference from of its pool of unrestricted funds in order to complete Dr. Clemmons's hiring. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. O-131-32; Beadle De Palomo Dep. 42:2-11, Nov. 6, 2013, ECF No. 68-12.

After joining AED, Dr. Clemmons received three annual merit-based salary increases in accordance with AED's " Annual Salary Review Guidelines," which were issued yearly by AED's president and CEO. The AED guidelines established a range of merit-based salary percentage increases that corresponded with an employee's base salary and annual performance rating. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. O-88; O-139. In each of the three years, Dr. Clemmons received a performance rating of " 4" on a scale of " 1 to 4," which signified an " Excellent" rating. See id. at Exs. O-90, O-140, O-213.

In two of the three years, however, Dr. Clemmons received the minimum allowable

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percentage salary increase under AED's guidelines. See id. First, in 2006 she was entitled under the guidelines to a salary increase between 5.1% and 6.5%, and she received a 5.1% increase. See id. at Ex. O-139-40. Likewise, in 2008 Dr. Clemmons was entitled to a salary increase between 4.5% and 6.0%, and she received the minimum salary increase of 4.5%. See id. at Ex. O-88. During the interim year of 2007, however, she was entitled to a salary increase between 4.1% and 5.5%, and she received a 5.0% increase. See id. at Ex. O-213. Two other high-performing COPs also received the minimum allowable salary increases in 2008. First, Stanley Terrell, a Caucasian COP for a project in the Dominican Republic, was eligible to receive a merit-based increase between 2.5% and 4.0%, and he received an increase of 2.5%. See id. at Ex. O-88; O-211. Second, Licida Bautista, a Latina COP for a project in Honduras, received a rating of " Excellent" and was eligible for a salary increase between 5.5% and 7.0%, and she received the minimum salary increase of 5.5%. See id. at Ex. O-88; O-212.

C. The Relationship between SHARP and GSCP

Before and after Dr. Clemmons's arrival, SHARP and GSCP had a strained and challenging relationship. See McClintock Dep. 152:20-153:9, April 30, 2013, ECF No. 68-17; Nachbar Dep. 170:17-172:3, May 24, 2013, ECF No. 68-20; Beadle De Palomo Dep. 214:4-216:15. This was at least in part because the projects competed against each other for USAID's attention and resources, and the projects suffered from inadequate communication and strategic misalignment, which USAID recognized. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-180; Beadle De Palomo Dep. 214:4-216:15.

Following Ms. Larsen's promotion to COP in October 2007, the relationship between SHARP and GSCP, and particularly between Dr. Clemmons and Ms. Larsen, quickly worsened. As a result, USAID directed AED to adopt a Joint Implementation Plan (" JIP" ) to facilitate collaboration between the projects and to implement more efficient communication strategies for HIV prevention in Ghana. See Clemmons Dep. 170:11-171:10, Aug. 2, 2013, ECF No. 13; Moskov Dep. 66:17-67:15. The JIP, however, increased GSCP's involvement in the HIV work that SHARP had been performing independently, which further strained the relationship between the projects. See Moskov Dep. 67:16-68:17. In particular, Dr. Clemmons has identified three examples to showcase the strained relationship between the projects during this time period.

First, in September 2007 Dr. Clemmons participated in a JIP meeting led by her immediate supervisor, Michael Kaplan. During a break in the meeting, Dr. Clemmons expressed concerns to Mr. Kaplan and Ms. Larsen about how the meeting was being conducted, as well as what she perceived to be technical gaps in GSCP's work product. See Clemmons Dep. 183:3-189:5. When Dr. Clemmons tried to follow up about implementing technical changes, Ms. Larsen refused to modify the activities identified during the JIP design meeting. See id.

Second, after that meeting, Dr. Clemmons and Ms. Larsen held additional meetings about implementing the JIP; these meetings, however, were often contentious, which only increased the hostility between the projects. Dr. Clemmons testified that during these meetings, Ms. Larsen was hostile, impatient, and verbally abusive. See id. at 108:17-111:1. In addition, Ms. Larsen repeatedly interrupted Dr. Clemmons, spoke over her, and dismissed or ignored all of Dr. Clemmons's

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comments and suggestions. See id. at 119:17-120:13.

Third, during a February 2008 meeting, Dr. Nachbar warned Dr. Clemmons to avoid discussing GSCP with anyone from USAID unless someone from GSCP was present. Dr. Clemmons testified that GSCP staff were not given the same instruction regarding SHARP. See id. at 238:2-239:4.

AED, on the other hand, provides evidence that Dr. Clemmons's attitude and persistent criticism of Ms. Larsen and GSCP contributed to the deteriorating relationship between the projects. For example, AED notes that Dr. Clemmons repeatedly criticized GSCP's technical expertise, such as by saying that GSCP had " performance problems," Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-119; O-120, and by accusing GSCP of doing " slap-dash work" that required correcting, see SOF ¶ 32. GSCP members also complained about Dr. Clemmons verbally attacking them when providing technical feedback. See Clemmons Dep. 106:18-108:3. Due to the worsening relationship between the projects, Frank Beadle De Palomo, the Director of COACH, met with Dr. Clemmons and Ms. Larsen during his April 2008 site visit, but his efforts did not alleviate the tensions. See SOF ¶ 46.

On July 7, 2008, Cheryl Mayo took over as the Senior Project Director at COACH, making her Dr. Clemmons's direct supervisor. See SOF ¶ 51. In this position, Ms. Mayo supervised four international HIV programs within COACH, see Mayo Dep. 54:6-20, June 18, 2013, ECF No. 68-16, and she reported to Mr. Beadle De Palomo, who oversaw personnel, management, donor relations, and organizational policy for all HIV program, see id. at 55:7-61:19; Beadle De Palomo Dep. 10:21-11:6. At one point, Mr. Beadle De Palomo informed Ms. Mayo about the issues between GSCP and SHARP, and in doing so, he stated that Dr. Clemmons was " very intelligent, [had] a lot of experience, [had] a commanding presence, and look[ed] like Vanessa Williams." Beadle De Palomo Dep. 189:7-18, 208:13-209:2. According to Ms. Mayo, Mr. Beadle De Palomo also said that Dr. Clemmons " intimidates the dowdy, white women of the Ghana Sustainable Change Project." Mayo Dep. 89:13-17.

D. The July 13, 2008, Email and Subsequent Investigation

On July 13, 2008, Ms. Nachbar emailed Peggy Parlato and Mark Rasmuson, her supervisors at GHPN, about Dr. Clemmons's conduct during a meeting with USAID. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-5. Because Ms. Nachbar did not attend the meeting, the information provided in her email was derived from a telephone conversation with Ms. Larsen. See id.; Nachbar Dep. 153:07-155:9. In the email, Ms. Nachbar wrote that Dr. Clemmons was " out of control and attempts to manage her have failed." Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-5. Ms. Nachbar concluded the email with the following recommendation:

There need[s] to be consequences for Lydia's behavior. In the past, AED was reluctant to act because of fear of how the client would react. Susan's reaction to the meeting is clear evidence that she, at least, has little regard for Lydia. I believe Lydia should be removed. But, if that's not going to happen, there need[s] to be consequences.

Id. Separately, Ms. Nachbar emailed Mr. Beadle De Palomo with the same information. See Beadle De Palomo Dep. 225:9-11.

After receiving the email, Mr. Beadle De Palomo contacted Dr. Clemmons to inform her about what Ms. Nachbar had written, and he also initiated an investigation into whether Ms. Nachbar was accurately portraying

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the joint meeting. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-76. During the investigation, Mr. Beadle De Palomo spoke with meeting attendees from SHARP, GSCP, and USAID, reviewed relevant documents, see id. at Ex. 57, and spoke with Ms. Larsen, see Beadle De Palomo Dep. 227:7-19. At the end of his investigation, Mr. Beadle De Palomo concluded that there was no merit to the allegations in Ms. Nachbar's email. Accordingly, on July 16, 2008, he sent an email to Ms. Nachbar criticizing her judgment and stating that she should have listened to both sides before sending the email. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-58. AED then disciplined Ms. Nachbar by limiting her visibility with senior management and denying her desirable roles within the organization. See Beadle De Palomo Dep. 153:13-157:18.

Mr. Beadle De Palomo communicated the results of the investigation to Dr. Clemmons, and he told her that Ms. Nachbar's opinion would not adversely affect her employment at AED. See Beadle De Palomo Dep. 231:5-232:17. He also informed Dr. Clemmons that he possessed a favorable opinion of her and her work for SHARP. See id. Dr. Clemmons thanked Mr. Beadle De Palomo for the investigation and his support, but she still felt compelled to raise the issue with AED's Human Resources Department. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-78.

Mr. Beadle De Palomo responded by warning Dr. Clemmons that she would be making the complaint " alone and without [his] support." Id. He also explained that the complaint " will only create worse feeling[s] between you and GSCP, and will most definitely make the situation worse. It will swallow your time and make you less productive ... which will have a direct impact on your performance and my view and review of your work." Id. Nonetheless, Mr. Beadle De Palomo reassured Dr. Clemmons that " Jacqui, Nancy, GHPN, have nothing to do with your professional reputation. If you do a good job, the project accomplishes its deliverables, then everything will be fine." Id. Ms. Mayo emailed Dr. Clemmons with the same advice, though she also encouraged Dr. Clemmons to " take a step back" from the situation. Id.

E. The Formal Grievance and Investigation

Dr. Clemmons filed a formal grievance on October 7, 2008, with AED's Chief Management Officer, Ricardo Villeta, claiming that she experienced workplace mobbing, bullying, and malicious gossip. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-1. Upon receipt of the grievance, Marti McClintock, the AED's Senior Employee Relations Officer, informed Dr. Clemmons that an investigation would be commenced. See Clemmons Dep. 345:13-18. Ms. McClintock interviewed Dr. Clemmons by phone on October 14, 2008, after which Dr. Clemmons sent her a set of emails and documents that she believed addressed the key points of the grievance. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-8. Separately, Ms. McClintock interviewed Ms. Mayo, Mr. Beadle De Palomo, and Ms. Nachbar. See McClintock Dep. 20:20-21:10. Ms. McClintock did not interview Ms. Larsen, though she did confirm with Ms. Nachbar that Ms. Larsen had been counselled about remaining professional when working with Dr. Clemmons. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. O-28.

On December 23, 2008, Dr. Clemmons informed Ms. McClintock that she was seeking legal advice due to concerns about having her professional reputation and employment opportunities harmed because of her conflict at AED, as well as the potential fall-out with USAID in Ghana. See ...


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