United States District Court, D. Columbia.
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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
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For TAHARA RAMSEY, Plaintiff: Gary T. Brown , GARY T. BROWN & ASSOCIATES, Washington, DC.
For STEVEN CHU, Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, Defendant: Benton Gregory Peterson, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Civil Division, Washington, DC; John Peter Tavana, LEAD ATTORNEY, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Civil Division, Washington, DC.
BERYL A. HOWELL, United States District Judge.
The plaintiff, Tahara Ramsey, filed this employment discrimination action against Steven Chu, in his official capacity as the Secretary of the Department of Energy (" DOE" ), after an extended period of conflict between the plaintiff and at least four of her supervisors. The plaintiff alleges both discrete and retaliatory discrimination and a hostile work environment, all in violation the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 1. The defendant has moved to dismiss the Complaint or, alternatively, for summary judgment on grounds that the plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies prior to bringing suit, does not qualify for protection under the Rehabilitation Act, and that no reasonable jury could find discrimination in light of the extra-pleading material submitted. See Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summ. J. (" Def.'s Mot." ), ECF No. 8; Mem. Supp. of Mot. Summ. J. (" Def.'s Mem." ), ECF No. 8. For the reasons stated below, the defendant's motion is granted.
A. Factual History
The plaintiff suffers from depression and anxiety. Compl. ¶ 4; Def.'s Statement of Mat. Facts (" Def.'s SMF" ) at ¶ 7, ECF No. 8-1. Since 2005, she has worked as a budget analyst for the DOE. Compl. ¶ 4. Throughout her employment, the plaintiff clashed with numerous supervisors, although, based upon affidavits submitted by the plaintiff from two of her colleagues, she was not the only unhappy employee in her office. See Aff. of Tahara Ramsey (" Pl.'s Aff." ), DOE Report of Investigation (" ROI" ), Ex. 6 at 5, ECF No. 9-1 (" The whole office was in an uproar by April 2009 with grievances being filed by nearly three [quarters] of the staff." ); Aff. of Sonya Rush (" Rush Aff." ), ROI Ex. 12 at 2 (" Ms. Kupferer knew that none of us was happy with her, and multiple people were filing grievances." ); Aff. of Harry Jacobs (" Jacobs Aff." ), ROI Ex. 11 at 1-2, (" I know we had previous management issues
. . . and they had some very unpractical [ sic ] management practices. . . . I had to file a grievance toward both of them in response to a harassing email from Ms. Smith's husband. . . . Ms. Kupferer and Ms. Smith . . . were nasty, hostile and unprofessional people." ). Given the myriad complaints made by the plaintiff about her treatment at DOE over the course of almost five years, the incidents she describes are summarized below by the year of their alleged occurrence.
1. 2007-2008 Alleged Incidents
In late 2007, the plaintiff's depression worsened and she " experienced a significant increase in the intensity of her disability," causing her to miss time at work. Compl. ¶ 7. On January 2, 2008, she " requested three hours of advanced sick leave" from her supervisor, Toni Smith; this request was denied. Compl. ¶ 9; see also Formal Compl. of Discrimination (" First EEO Compl." ), ROI Ex. 3 at 5. Nevertheless, on January 3, 2008, the plaintiff informed her supervisor that she would be " out of the office and under a doctor's care for the next two weeks." First EEO Compl. at 9. As a result of " DOE Order 322.1 A (8)," Ms. Smith requested that the plaintiff provide specific medical documentation from her treating physician in order to approve her leave, which documentation was required to include:
1) a clear and understandable diagnosis of [the plaintiff's] condition[; ] 2) the prognosis for [her] return to work, including a statement indicating the nature and duration of any long-term impairment that may affect the performance of [her] duties; and 3) an explanation of the impact of [her] condition on overall health and activities, including the bases for the conclusion stated that restrictions are or are not warranted.
Id. Ms. Smith also provided the plaintiff with a " medical release form" that would " allow a confidential exchange/discussion between the agency's physician or practioner and [her] physician" and informed the plaintiff that she would be placed on Absent Without Leave (AWOL) status until she submitted the requisite medical documentation. Id. The plaintiff claims that she was " unaware of the unreasonableness of the request" and was intimidated by Ms. Smith's " coercion" and " threats to continue her in AWOL status." Compl. ¶ 10-12. Nevertheless, in compliance with the request, on January 15, 2008, the plaintiff provided email documentation from her doctor to Ms. Smith containing the specific answers to this supervisor's questions. See Pl.'s Aff. at 19. Two days after receiving the requested medical information, Ms. Smith approved the plaintiff's request for advanced sick leave for the entire two-week period. See id. at 19.
Upon returning to work, the plaintiff noticed security guards regularly patrolling the office corridors. See id. at 3. The plaintiff alleges that these security guards were present because Ms. Smith, among others, had " submitted a complaint to security stating that they were afraid of [the plaintiff] . . . and [that she] was a mental patient who suffered from depression and could be volatile." Id. Later in May 2008, the plaintiff became so concerned about her work environment that she called a nurse at Kaiser Permanente to discuss her situation. Decl. of Tahara Ramsey (" Pl.'s Decl." ), at ¶ 25, ECF No. 14-3; Compl. ¶ 13. According to the plaintiff, the nurse asked her whether she " was going to hurt [her] supervisor" to which the plaintiff responded " No . . . I just do not want to encounter them . . . because they [are] causing me a lot of hurt." Pl.'s Aff. at 4. The plaintiff provided the nurse with Ms. Smith's, and others, phone numbers " in
the hopes that [the nurse] could get them to understand [her] fragile state, and hopefully allow [her] to go home for the day." Id. Neither parties dispute that the nurse subsequently contacted the plaintiff's superiors. The plaintiff did not participate in the telephone conversation but avers that " the medical call for help was twisted" and that her supervisor " lied about the nurse's message." Compl. ¶ 15. According to the defendant, the nurse's message was clear: The plaintiff threatened Ms. Smith with bodily harm. See Aff. of Florence Kupferer (" Kupferer Aff." ), ROI Ex. 9 at 2; see also Compl. ¶ 15.
Following the nurse's call, security guards escorted the plaintiff from the building. She was placed on paid administrative leave for months to allow for an investigation. See Def.'s SMF ¶ ¶ 5-6; Compl. ¶ 16. At the conclusion of the investigation, the plaintiff was suspended for thirty days without pay and a record of the incident was placed in her administrative file. See Compl. ¶ 17; Pl.'s Aff. at 5. The plaintiff returned to work in December 2008. During this period, at least one of the plaintiff's co-workers felt that Ms. Smith and Ms. Kupfererer " would deliberately do things that caused [the plaintiff] difficulties" and that they would " taunt [the plaintiff] because of her emotional responses," but that the supervisors in general " intentionally did things to their employees to make it difficult . . . ." Rush Aff. at 1-2.
2. 2010 Alleged Incidents
In 2010, the plaintiff began working for a new supervisor, Lametia Browne, the new Deputy Director. Compl. ¶ 21. The plaintiff believes that Ms. Browne was hired as part of a " vendetta" against the office staff. Pl.'s Aff. at 6. She further alleges that Ms. Browne previously " directed Ms. Smith" in requesting [the plaintiff's] medical information and that Ms. Browne " is the culprit and has been behind all of the occurrences that have happened to [her]." Id. at 8.
On March 16, 2010, the plaintiff slipped and fell at work. The plaintiff requested from Ms. Browne " the information that [she] needed to fill out workers compensation." Id. at 7. A few weeks later, the plaintiff emailed Ms. Browne noting that she " was not [supposed] to be charged any leave for the incident" and asking " when the issue with [her] leave will be resolved." Id. at 14. The next day, Ms. Browne responded that the plaintiff " need[ed] to submit [her] CA-1 form . . . for completion" and that, once the appropriate documentation was submitted, Ms. Browne would instruct the timekeeper to replace the plaintiff's sick leave with continuation of pay leave. Id. at 13. The Office of Worker's Compensation Procedures guide states that CA-1 (Traumatic Injury) claims are " [i]nitiated by the employee," who is responsible for completing the CA-1 and filing it with a supervisor. Id. at 15. The supervisor's responsibility is to " [r]eview the CA-1 for completeness and accuracy" and to " [a]ssist the employee in correcting any deficiencies found." Id. Although the plaintiff originally took " sick leave" following her fall, Ms. Browne noted that once the plaintiff's " Workers' Compensation claim [was] approved," Ms. Brown would coordinate with the plaintiff's " timekeeper [to] minus sick and add continuation of pay . . . for March 17, 18, and 19." Id. at 13. Despite these instructions,
the plaintiff states that Ms. Browne " refused to provide any guidance for [her] to follow" and that Ms. Browne " did not tell [her] how to get [her] leave back." Id. at 7.
In early May 2010, the plaintiff was summoned and selected for jury duty for a period of five days. Id. at 6, 11. Following the conclusion of her jury duty, the plaintiff informed Ms. Browne that she needed to repair her air conditioner and would therefore be absent from work for an additional day. Id. Ms. Browne responded that " ideally [the plaintiff] should have reported [to ORM] for duty once [her] commitment to jury duty was over," and that " [the plaintiff] must identify the type of leave [requested]." Id. at 11. Ms. Browne added that she would approve the leave requests " [u]pon receipt of [the plaintiff's] leave requests." Id. Ms. Browne also noted that the plaintiff should " submit . . . the original court documentation [she] would have received following [her] jury service." Id. The record does not indicate whether the plaintiff filed the appropriate paperwork as her supervisor requested, or whether the plaintiff's request for an additional day of leave following her jury duty was granted.
On May 14, 2010, the plaintiff requested advanced sick under the Family Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ) in order to care for her son following a scheduled surgery. Browne Aff. at 2; Pl.'s Aff. at 7. According to Ms. Browne, the plaintiff stated that she did not want to provide the requisite medical documentation directly to her supervisors, because it contained her son's personal medical information. Browne Aff. at 2. Consequently, Ms. Browne gave the plaintiff the option of submitting the required documentation to the Office of Employee and Labor Relations. See ROI Ex. 15; Def.'s SMF ¶ 26. By May 20, 2010, the plaintiff's request was approved. Def.'s SMF ¶ 28; Browne Aff. at 3.
While pursuing FMLA leave to care for her son, the plaintiff sought to enroll in the DOE " Flexiplace" program, which would allow her to work from home in certain circumstances. See ROI Ex. 18 at 1. Flexiplace " covers employees who work at sites other than their official workplace." Handbook on DOE-Flex, (" Flexiplace Handbook" ), ROI Ex. 19 at 1. One Flexiplace arrangement is designed " to accommodate employees for their medical issues," id. at 4, which includes " car[ing] for a family member . . . who requires care or assistance," Flexiplace Handbook at 6. To qualify, an employee must " provide a plan whereby he/she will ensure that there is no disruption to the performance of work task, and that there is medical documentation to justify the medical flexiplace." Id. at 7. On May 21, 2010, the plaintiff " placed the completed copy [of her Flexiplace application] in [Ms. Browne's] inbox." Pl.'s Aff. at 7. Two weeks later, the plaintiff followed-up with Ms. Browne regarding the status of her medical Flexiplace application. Id. at 9. A month later, the plaintiff requested an update on her Flexiplace application. Ms. Browne informed her that her application was incomplete and required more supporting medical documentation. Id. at 25; Browne Aff. at 3. The application also lacked " a plan . . . that would address any dependent care issues as outlined by the Office of Policy and International Affairs' Handbook for Flexiplace." Browne Aff. at 3. Ms. Browne has not approved medical Flexiplace arrangements for any of her supervised employees. Browne Aff. at 3.
In August 2010, the plaintiff returned to work on crutches after breaking her ankle. Nevertheless, according to the plaintiff, Ms. Browne " failed to remove multiple
carts from in front of [her] office door." Pl.'s Aff. at 7.
Later in August 2010, Todd Dixon, the Director of ORM and the supervisor of both the plaintiff and Ms. Browne, instructed the plaintiff not to use the phones. March 25, 2011 EEO Compl. (" Second EEO Compl." ) at 10, ECF No. 21-2.
In October 2010, Mr. Dixon called the plaintiff unprofessional during a closed door meeting and cautioned the plaintiff regarding her use of the telephone. Second EEO Compl. at 10.
In November 2010, the plaintiff received a work evaluation of " meets expectations," which was the " lowest performance appraisal" within her division. Id.; see also Non-Supervisory Performance Plan and Appraisal Form, ROI Ex. 16.
On December 3, 2010, Mr. Dixon " interrogat[ed]" the plaintiff during a " closed door meeting" regarding the amount of work being done by the plaintiff and whether it was commensurate with her GS-13 grade level. Second EEO Complaint at 9.
Less than a week later, on December 8, 2010, Ms. Browne refused to provide the plaintiff " with important information" about her work assignment and Mr. Dixon was " disrespectful and rude" to the plaintiff. Id. at 8.
On December 9, 2010, Ms. Browne " targeted and counseled" the plaintiff on her leave usage. Id. at 8.
On December 15, 2010, Mr. Dixon sent the plaintiff " hostile and intimidating work related emails . . . [regarding] the FY 2012 budget analysis." Id. at 6-7.
3. 2011 Alleged Incidents
On January 20, 2011, Ms. Browne denied the plaintiff's request for administrative leave and also denied the plaintiff's request for a union representative during a meeting that the plaintiff considered to be disciplinary in nature. Id. at 5-6.
On January 25, 2011, Mr. Dixon ordered the plaintiff to " hand walk hard copies of the Congressional Report" to the four Deputy Assistance Secretaries and be more " subservient to the higher up managers." Id. at 6.
On January 26, 2011, Ms. Browne denied the plaintiff's request for annual leave and again, on February 1, 2011, denied the plaintiff's request for thirty minutes of Leave Without Pay. Id. at 5.
On February 11, 2011, the plaintiff met with DOE's alternative dispute resolution counselor, who encouraged her to drop her EEO case and to mediate with her managers instead. Id. at 4. The plaintiff refused to drop her EEO case and two hours later received an invitation to a February 15, 2011 meeting, at which she " was placed on ...