United States District Court, D. Columbia.
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ORMA BUIE, Plaintiff, Pro se, Charlotte, NC.
AMY BERMAN JACKSON, United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Orma Buie has brought an action against her employer, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ), alleging that the agency discriminated
against her in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. (" Rehabilitation Act" ) by failing to offer her a reasonable accommodation for her disability, retaliating against her for requesting reasonable accommodations, and subjecting her to a hostile work environment. Defendant has moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss or for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 15] (" Def.'s Mot." ); Def.'s Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 15] (" Def.'s Mem." ). Because the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to state a plausible claim that defendant retaliated against her or that defendant subjected her to a hostile work environment, the Court will grant defendant's motion in part and dismiss those claims. The Court also finds that defendant is entitled to partial summary judgment on plaintiff's failure to accommodate claim, except to the extent that the claim is based on the denial of plaintiff's request that she be permitted to telework, because a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to whether that accommodation was reasonable or would impose an undue hardship on defendant. So that portion of plaintiff's claim survives defendant's motion and will move forward.
I. Factual Background
The following facts are taken from the amended complaint, except where noted. Plaintiff suffers from lung disease and chronic asthma. Am. Compl. [Dkt. # 7] at 2. Her condition makes her highly sensitive to air quality issues. See generally id. Plaintiff was employed as a GS-12 level Senior Investigator in the EEOC's Charlotte, North Carolina District Office. Id. at 2, 5. In December 2010, plaintiff was promoted to a GS-13 level Program Analyst position in the Washington, D.C. Field Office, and she relocated to Washington with her disabled mother. Id. at 2. However, shortly thereafter, plaintiff had to return her mother to Charlotte because the care center in Washington was unable to accommodate her mother's medical needs. Id. at 3. Plaintiff visited her mother on most weekends and worked
four ten-hour days at the Washington office. Id.
A. Plaintiff's Accommodation Requests
When plaintiff began work at the Washington office in January 2011, she contacted her direct supervisor, Mary Burks, to request that defendant accommodate her disability by either providing her with a private office equipped with an air purifier or offering her the option to work remotely from her home (telework). Id. at 2. Michael Dougherty, the office's Director of Field Operations, informed Burks that plaintiff would not be permitted to telework and that there were no private offices immediately available for her use. Id. at 2-3. Plaintiff was assigned to sit in an open-floor cubicle, and she found the uncovered space to be too large to permit her air purifier to be effective in alleviating her symptoms. Id. at 3.
In February 2011, plaintiff contacted Kendra Duckworth, the office's Disability Coordinator, and presented her accommodation needs. Id. Plaintiff underwent surgery related to her condition in April, and afterwards, she contacted Duckworth via email, phone, and in person to inquire about the status of the accommodation requests. Id. at 3. Upon her return to work in May, plaintiff provided medical information to Duckworth regarding her condition. Id. at 4. According to plaintiff, Duckworth continued to tell her that " Mr. Dougherty was still looking for an office." Id. Nevertheless, by June, plaintiff had concluded that she would not receive an accommodation in Washington. Id.
B. Plaintiff's Harassment and Retaliation Allegations
Plaintiff claims that, upon her arrival in Washington, her supervisor Mary Burks " began to retaliate" against her because plaintiff went home on weekends to see her mother and because she needed accommodations. Id. at 3. Plaintiff states that by March 2011:
Mary Burks had stop [sic] communicating with me. She would yell at me when I asked her questions or needed job related assistance. She told employees that she was not my supervisor and did want to train me. She said she was not a supervisor and did not want the job. She had become rude. She informed others that it was a shame that my family would not help with my mother. Ms[.] Burks was upset because I chose to go see my mother instead of tour Washington with her on the weekends.
Plaintiff alleges that when she returned from her surgery in May, " [t]he harassment escalated." Id. at 4. She states that Burks would walk away if plaintiff tried to approach her, and that Burks slammed her office door in plaintiff's face. Id. Plaintiff also alleges that after she became aware that she would react to the moth balls that Burks used to store her clothing, Burks " purposely came into [plaintiff's] cubical [sic] to force [her] lungs to shut down." Id. Plaintiff maintains that she informed Dougherty and Duckworth of Burks's behavior, but that no effective action was taken. Id.
C. Plaintiff's Transfer Back to Charlotte
In June 2011, six months after her arrival in Washington, plaintiff requested a transfer back to the Charlotte office. Id. She states that she told her supervisors that she felt " forced" to do so in order to obtain a private office with an air purifier and so that she could telework as needed. Id. She also informed them that her mother had been placed in hospice care. Id.
Although plaintiff is a certified mediator and there was a GS-13 Mediator position open in the Charlotte office, plaintiff was not transferred to that position. Id. at 5. Plaintiff claims that Duckworth and the Director of the Charlotte office, Reuben Daniels, decided not to place her in that position because of her disability. Id. In August 2011, plaintiff was transferred instead to a GS-12 Investigator position in the Charlotte office. Id. Plaintiff claims that she was assigned more duties than her predecessor, that she was held to higher production standards, and that the appointment was in fact a demotion. Id. Plaintiff continued to work as an Investigator until March 2012, when her disability retirement was approved, and she retired. Id.
Plaintiff filed a formal EEOC complaint in September 2011, claiming that defendant subjected her to discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment based on her disability. EEOC Decision at 1. An administrative judge denied her claim on January 7, 2013. Id. at 14.
II. Procedural History
Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed a complaint in August 2013 alleging that defendant had discriminated against her and failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (" ADA" ). Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. In December 2013, plaintiff filed an amended complaint asserting claims under the Rehabilitation Act for failure to accommodate, retaliation, and hostile work environment. Am. Compl. at 2. She seeks $312,000 in back pay for the three years plaintiff claims that she would have worked beyond her retirement date, and she asks that her retirement annuity be adjusted to reflect that change. Id. at 5. She also seeks $20,000 in damages for her suffering caused by defendant's alleged discrimination. Id.
On July 2, 2014, defendant filed the present motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. Def.'s Mot.; Def.'s Mem. As plaintiff was still proceeding pro se at that time, the Court entered a Fox/Neal Order advising plaintiff that her failure to respond to the motion could result in the dismissal of her case. Fox/Neal Order [Dkt. # 18]. On September 1, 2014, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel by that time, filed her opposition to defendant's motion. Pl.'s Opp. to Def.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 23], reformatted at [Dkt. # 29] at 15 (" Pl.'s Opp." ).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
I. Motion to Dismiss
In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court must " treat the complaint's
factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff 'the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'" Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113, 342 U.S.App.D.C. 268 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted), quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608, 199 U.S.App.D.C. 23 (D.C. Cir. 1979); see also Am. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139, 395 U.S.App.D.C. 316 (D.C. Cir. 2011). This is especially true for a pro se complaint, which " is to be liberally construed in favor of the plaintiff." Jackson v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 657 F.Supp.2d 176, 178 (D.D.C. 2009), citing Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520, 92 S.Ct. 594, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972). But the Court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff if those inferences are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint, nor must the Court accept plaintiff's legal conclusions. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242, 352 U.S.App.D.C. 4 (D.C. Cir. 2002).
" To survive a [Rule 12(b)(6)] motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009), quoting Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content " allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 678. " The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id., quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 566. A pleading must offer more than " 'labels and conclusions'" or a " 'formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action,'" id., quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, and " [t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id.
II. Summary Judgment
Summary judgment is appropriate " 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). The movant " bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). To defeat summary judgment, the non-moving party must " designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). But the mere existence of a factual dispute is insufficient to preclude summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247--48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d ...