United States District Court, D. Columbia.
MARY M. GONDA, Plaintiff,
PATRICK R. DONAHOE, Postmaster General, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE, Defendants
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
For MARY M GONDA, Plaintiff: John Joseph Rigby, MCINROY & RIGBY, L.L.P., Arlington, VA.
For PATRICK R. DONAHOE, in his official capacity as Postmaster General, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE, Defendants: Javier M. Guzman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Hubert T. Lee, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Washington, DC.
ROSEMARY M. COLLYER, United States District Judge.
Fired at the end of her probationary period with the United States Postal Service (USPS), Mary Gonda, a white female in her fifties, alleges that USPS discriminated against her on the basis of race, sex and age in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000 et seq, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 633a and retaliated against her in violation of Title VII. In addition, Ms. Gonda alleges that USPS improperly categorized her as an exempt employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq, and owes her wages for unpaid overtime. USPS moves for summary judgment, contending that Ms. Gonda has failed to make out a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation and has not rebutted its legitimate, nondiscriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons for her poor performance evaluation and termination. Further, USPS argues that, as a senior analyst earning an annual salary of $99,000, Ms. Gonda was properly classified as exempt under the FLSA. For the reasons stated below, USPS's motion for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part.
A. Ms. Gonda's Employment at USPS
Mary Gonda, a Caucasian woman, worked in the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) unit for USPS from July 2010 until January 2011. Ms. Gonda was hired by Elizabeth Hepner, a Hispanic woman and OE's manager, after Ms. Gonda interviewed with Ms. Hepner and Jacqueline Manz, a Caucasian woman who became Ms. Gonda's supervisor and team lead. When Ms. Gonda was hired, she was 57 years old, Ms. Hepner was 50 years old, and Ms. Manz was 47 years old. Neither Ms. Manz nor Ms. Hepner asked Ms. Gonda her age at the interview; each states that she never subsequently learned Ms. Gonda's age. Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. 16], Ex. 1, Hepner Decl. ¶ ¶ 10, 18; id., Ex. 1, Manz Decl. ¶ 2.
Ms. Gonda was hired as a grade level 23 senior organization classification and management analyst in the OE and began employment on a 180-day probationary basis. Her position paid an annual salary of
$99,000 and was classified as exempt from the FLSA. The OE is part of the Employee Resource Management division within USPS headquarters and
reviews and evaluates proposed organizational changes and restructurings within USPS functional groups, assesses established structures and staffing to ensure that the allocation of approved positions and assignment of personnel reflect the most effective use of human resources, and evaluates existing and proposed positions to determine the grade level, qualifications standards, and whether it advances organizational objectives.
Hepner Decl. ¶ ¶ 1-2. To carry out this work, OE analysts
assess the continuity in organizational structures throughout USPS, identify the informal organization and compare it to the formal structure, evaluate staff interaction, determine if structural or staffing decisions leave essential work inadequately supported, and assess the effectiveness of approved staffing and structure. In reviewing existing and proposed positions, OE analysts identify position duties and responsibilities necessary to achieve organizational effectiveness, revise or develop new job descriptions and qualification standards as appropriate, and evaluate and assign the appropriate grade level to a position.
Id. ¶ 3. Although she was employed as an OE analyst, Ms. Gonda testified that her day-to-day work consisted of menial tasks such as data entry that did not involve discretion or independent decision-making. See Opp'n [Dkt. 17], Ex. 10 Gonda D.D.C. Dep. at 80-81, 86-87, 105-106, 167-168. She regularly worked more than 40 hours a week.
As a probationary employee, Ms. Gonda received progress evaluations from Ms. Manz, her team lead, at the 30-, 80-, and 150-day marks in the probationary period. USPS probationary employees can be terminated for inadequate performance at any point during the probationary period. Ms. Gonda received her first evaluation from Ms. Manz on August 12, 2010, approximately 30 days into her employment. Of the eight competency areas targeted for evaluation, Ms. Gonda was only evaluated in three because Ms. Manz did not have enough time to observe Ms. Gonda in all aspects of her work. Id.; Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 6 Probationary Period Report. Ms. Manz determined that Ms. Gonda met expectations in the three assessed categories. Id.
During a group meeting in August 2010, Ms. Gonda tried to say something after Abbott Hilelson, a male team lead, spoke. He interrupted her by touching her on the leg and saying, " Let me finish, Bubula."  Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2, Gonda EEOC Testimony at 36. Ms. Gonda was aware that " Bubula" is a Yiddish term of endearment and she did not believe that Mr. Hilelson was behaving in a sexual manner towards her. Gonda D.D.C. Dep. at 110-11. Rather, she believed " it was a gender thing," and that Mr. Hilelson intended to put her in her place " because [she] was an old lady and [she] needed to quit talking." Id.; but see Compl. ¶ 22 (" Ms. Gonda complained about the actions by Mr. Hilelson,
which she considered gender-based harassment, to Jacqueline Manz, a team leader." ). Shortly thereafter, Ms. Gonda made complaints about Gary Oliver, another male OE team lead, to Ms. Manz. She believed that Mr. Oliver assigned inappropriate work to women in the office, treated her like his administrative assistant, and was rude and insulting. Id. at 36. At Ms. Manz's encouragement, Ms. Gonda arranged a meeting with Ms. Hepner to discuss her concerns. Id. at 40. Although Ms. Hepner " doe[s] not recall Ms. Gonda raising any issue of discrimination or disparate treatment by Mr. Oliver," Ms. Hepner did later meet with Mr. Oliver to counsel him about his communication style. Hepner Decl. ¶ 25.
On September 30, 2010, Ms. Gonda received her 80-day progress evaluation from Ms. Manz. Manz Decl. ¶ 5; Probationary Period Report. At that time, Ms. Manz found that Ms. Gonda met expectations in four categories and needed improvement in two others. Id. According to Ms. Manz,
Ms. Gonda was struggling to become proficient with the Human Capital Enterprise System (HCES), which was the electronic database used by OE for its reorganization and job classification work. As a result, Ms. Gonda was having trouble delivering timely and accurate work product. . . . I noted to [Ms. Gonda] that she needed to improve her performance with respect to decision-making and producing timely and accurate work. I also noted that she was meeting expectations of an OE analyst in other competencies, and that I expected her performance to improve as she continued in her probationary period.
Manz Decl. ¶ ¶ 5-7. During work on a post office restructuring project, Ms. Gonda made an error that " can be quite disruptive" to a particular post office location and its employees. Id. ¶ 6. Because she did not consult with the OE analyst coordinating the project or check appropriate data systems, Ms. Gonda incorrectly believed that there was a discrepancy in the number of positions authorized for a particular post office. Id. If an employee's position is no longer authorized and is removed from the Human Capital Enterprise System, " it could take as long as six weeks to get the employee re-established in the system and paid again." Id.
On November 9, 2010, Ms. Gonda and other OE staff attended a meeting with Ms. Hepner to discuss the results of a workplace survey conducted by USPS. The team leads were not present at the meeting. Ms. Gonda and several other employees raised concerns, such as not having adequate supplies to do their jobs, being micromanaged by their team leads, and being assigned data entry work. Ms. Gonda mentioned that Mr. Hilelson had patted her on the leg and called her " Bubula." Ms. Gonda and other women complained that Mr. Oliver assigned menial tasks to female employees but not to male employees. OE analysts other than Ms. Gonda were highly critical of Mr. Hilelson and Mr. Oliver at the meeting. Within a few days, Ms. Hepner met with Ms. Manz, Mr. Oliver and another team lead to discuss the employee feedback, but she did not attribute the comments to any particular employee. Hepner Decl. ¶ 27; Manz Decl. ¶ 14. Ms. Gonda believes that the team leads learned the origin of the criticisms
because " the whole tone of the way people interacted with me, the team leaders changed drastically after that meeting." Opp'n, Ex. 8 Gonda EEOC Dep. at 157-58.
On or around December 9, 2010, Ms. Manz met with Ms. Hepner to discuss Ms. Gonda's performance and whether she should be retained beyond her probationary period. Ms. Manz believed that Ms. Gonda's performance had not improved since her September performance review, " but instead declined relative to what would be expected of a senior analyst." Manz Decl. ¶ 8. Ms. Gonda " would fail to provide work product in the appropriate format" and " turned in incomplete work product." Id. ¶ ¶ 8, 9. Moreover, Ms. Manz " did not see any overt effort by Ms. Gonda to improve." Id. ¶ 12. For these reasons, Ms. Manz recommended that USPS terminate Ms. Gonda's employment. Id. ¶ 12. Ms. Hepner had developed similar impressions of Ms. Gonda's work based on her own observations and feedback from colleagues. Hepner Decl. ¶ ¶ 14, 16, 18. She agreed that Ms. Gonda should not be retained beyond her probationary period. Id. ¶ 18.
Until the Employee & Labor Relations Division of USPS had processed the termination paperwork, OE's practice was not to inform an employee that she would be terminated and to continue with any scheduled progress evaluations. Id.; Manz Decl. ¶ 12. Therefore, Ms. Gonda's 150-day evaluation took place on December 13, 2010. Ms. Manz evaluated Ms. Gonda as needing improvement in six categories and meeting expectations in the remaining two. Probationary Period Report. Ms. Gonda's employment with USPS was terminated on January 3, 2011.
B. Procedural History
Ms. Gonda exhausted her administrative remedies within USPS and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Following a hearing requested by Ms. Gonda, an EEOC Administrative Judge found in favor of USPS. USPS adopted the administrative judge's decision and issued a Notice of Final Action on August 30, 2012. Ms. Gonda timely filed suit in this Court on November 1, 2012. Count 1 of the Complaint alleges retaliation for protected activities in violation of Title VII; Count 2 alleges discrimination on the basis of race and sex in violation of Title VII; Count 3 alleges discrimination on the basis of age in violation of the ADEA; and Count 4 alleges violations of FLSA for the failure to pay overtime compensation. See Compl. Dkt. 1, § V. Claims for Relief. After discovery, USPS filed a motion for summary judgment, which is now fully briefed.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment shall be granted " 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); accord Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). Moreover, summary judgment is properly granted against a party who " after adequate time for discovery and upon motion . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).
In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. A nonmoving party, however, must establish more than " the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. In addition, the nonmoving party may not rely solely on allegations or conclusory statements. Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675, 334 U.S.App.D.C. 92 (D.C. Cir. 1999). If the evidence " is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted).
District courts use " special caution" when considering summary judgment in employment discrimination or retaliation actions due to " the potential difficulty for a plaintiff . . . to uncover clear proof of discriminatory or retaliatory intent." Nurriddin v. Bolden,
No. 04-2052, 40 F.Supp.3d 104, 2014 WL 1648517, at *5 (D.D.C. Apr. 25, 2014) (citation omitted). " Nevertheless, the plaintiff is not relieved of ...