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Pitts v. Howard University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 1, 2015

TYRONE PITTS, Plaintiff,
v.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES E. BOASBERG, District Judge.

Plaintiff Tyrone Pitts worked at Howard University for fifteen years in a variety of finance-related roles. In suing Howard, he alleges that it discriminated against him based on his race (black) and created a hostile work environment. He also contends that, after he raised concerns about tax issues and a possible fraud on the University in 2011, it transferred him to a position with diminished responsibilities and refused to provide him with an evaluation required for a raise. These facts, he claims, support causes of action for retaliation under the False Claims Act and Title VII, as well as discrimination under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the D.C. Human Rights Act. Howard now moves for summary judgment on all counts, and Pitts cross-moves solely on those related to retaliation. Because disputes of material fact remain on all except Pitts's hostile-work-environment claims, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion in part and deny Plaintiff's in full.

I. Background

In considering the parties' Motions, the Court recites the relevant facts as presented by both sides, highlighting disputes where material. Defendant, unfortunately, has complicated this task somewhat. Ordinarily, a Statement of Undisputed Material Facts consists of just that - facts, which are in turn supported by reference to testimony and documentation in the record. Howard, in contrast, has presented several key paragraphs of its Statement as Plaintiff's contentions. See, e.g., DSOF, ¶¶ 5, 16. For instance, one paragraph reads: "Plaintiff... contends that... [a supervisor] referred to African Americans on her staff as you people.'" Id., ¶ 5 (emphases added). Yet Howard does not make clear its position with respect to the truth of such a statement. Given the demanding summary-judgment standard set forth below, the Court will assume for the purpose of these Motions that Defendant has conceded its truth. With that caveat lodged, the Court moves on to the relevant factual background.

Pitts worked for the University from 1998 until his resignation in 2013. See PSOF, ¶ 1. After starting as a Section Chief in the Office of the Controller, he was promoted to Director of Cash Management in 1999, and then to Senior Treasurer Director in 2007. See id., ¶ 2. In January 2010, he was again elevated, this time to Assistant Treasurer - the top position in the Office of the Assistant Treasurer. See id., ¶ 3; DSOF, ¶ 1. Pursuant to this promotion, Plaintiff assumed responsibility over treasury, the cashier's office, and accounts payable, and he received an attendant salary increase. See DSOF, ¶ 2. He reported directly to Chief Financial Officer Robert Tarola and Deputy CFO Bridget Sarikas and was himself put in charge of 26 employees. See PSOF, ¶¶ 3-4.

Pitts's troubles began in March 2010. See DSOF, ¶ 10. Upon the departure of a colleague who had handled Howard's taxes, the University put Plaintiff in charge of them. See id. While researching his new duties, he discovered unpaid tax levies. See id., ¶ 11. After bringing these to the attention of Tarola and Sarikas, he was instructed to develop a task force to further evaluate the issue. See id. This task force, in turn, prepared a memo of recommendations to address the unpaid tax levies and other tax matters it uncovered. See id., ¶ 12. Upon the suggestion of Chief Operating Officer Troy Stovall, the group recommended that a company called ADP be brought in to address Howard's tax problems. See id., ¶ 13. Tarola did not take the recommendation, selecting instead another consulting firm, Urish Popeck. See id., ¶ 15.

Plaintiff found this surprising because - in his opinion - Urish Popeck did not have the requisite expertise for the task at hand. See Mot., Exh. 1 (Deposition of Tyrone Pitts) at 141:1-142:4. What it did have was a preexisting business relationship with Tarola. See PSOF, ¶ 14. Once Urish Popeck was brought on board, moreover, Tarola and Sarikas directed Plaintiff to abandon his work on tax matters. See id. In response, Plaintiff voiced several related concerns to management. See DSOF, ¶ 16. It appeared to him, for instance, that although Urish Popeck had been hired by Tarola, "no one knew they were [there]." Pitts Dep. at 79:15-17. According to Pitts, when he told Stovall that the firm was being paid $300, 000 a month, Stovall was surprised because he was not aware of its engagement, yet any company charging that much money would have needed to go through the procurement process. See id. at 79:20-80:10. Pitts also spoke with Stovall about the fact that, based on his research, Howard was paying Tarola a disproportionately high salary. See id. at 83:3-10.

Pitts's concerns did not end there. He also warned management that Tarola was overstating the revenue collected from the Department for Research by "commingling Pell Grant numbers and research numbers." DSOF, ¶ 20. On this topic, he spoke with Dr. Florence Bonner, the Vice President of Research. After staying at work one weekend, Plaintiff "got all the numbers together for her and presented it for her. Because [Pitts] didn't know what [Tarola] was presenting for her area, ... [he] gave her what the actual facts were from the bank statements, exactly what happened. And [they] looked at the numbers for whatever [Tarola] was presenting, and they were totally off." Pitts Dep. at 85:21-86:17.

Aside from these financial concerns, Pitts also found the workplace racially inhospitable. In March 2010, for instance, Sarikas, who is white, referred to blacks on her staff as "you people." DSOF, ¶ 5. Then, in May, she used the phrase again, stating, "I don't understand you people, " when an email was sent to the public without her review. See id. Although it is not entirely clear based on the state of the record, there may have been a third time she used the phrase. See id., ¶ 6; but see Pitts Dep. at 39:11-12 ("Those are the only two times I can remember [her using the phrase]....") (emphasis added). Pitts's issues with Sarikas did not end there; he also concluded that she did not understand "treasury management issues, " DSOF, ¶ 8 (quoting Pitts Dep. at 24:5), questioned her training, and was concerned with the fact that she and Tarola were in a romantic relationship. See Pl.'s Resp. to DSOF, ¶ 9.

In response to all of this, on October 7, 2010, Plaintiff filed an official internal complaint with Antwan Lofton, Director of Howard's EEO office, alleging a hostile work environment and a pattern of discrimination against black employees. See PSOF, ¶ 8. He followed this up less than three weeks later with a formal charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the D.C. Office of Human Rights, alleging discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. See id., ¶ 9.

Five months later, in March 2011, Pitts was transferred to the position of Payroll and Budget Officer, also known as Director of Payroll. Id., ¶ 16 (transfer occurred on March 22); Def.'s Resp. to PSOF, ¶ 16 (transfer occurred on March 21). The parties, unsurprisingly, view the reassignment through different lenses. Defendant claims that Pitts was "offered" the position; according to Plaintiff, he was told that if he did not accept it, Tarola would fire him. Compare DSOF, ¶ 26 with Pl.'s Resp. to DSOF, ¶ 26. The new role was in the Human Resources department, and Plaintiff was put under the supervision of Jimmy Jones. See DSOF, ¶ 27. Although his salary and benefits remained the same, he nonetheless considered the transfer a demotion because he could not use his acquired skill set in the new position. See id., ¶ 32. Plaintiff also claims that the position of Payroll and Budget Officer involved "fewer direct reports" than he had as Assistant Treasurer. See PSOF, ¶ 19. As will be further detailed below, Defendant disputes the accuracy of this assessment.

Plaintiff then received a letter dated October 31, 2011, from Howard Deputy Counsel Leroy Jenkins. See id., ¶ 17. In the letter, Jenkins indicated that Tarola and Sarikas "had received counseling" concerning "the manner, tone and language used to communicate with employees on their staffs." Def. Opp., Exh. 4 (October 31, 2011, letter from Leroy Jenkins to Tyrone Pitts). The letter also noted that it represented "the disposition" of Plaintiff's EEO complaint. See id. Pitts nonetheless received a second letter from Jenkins on November 7, 2011. See PSOF, ¶ 18. In this letter, Plaintiff was informed that "Howard University acted on a recommendation to re-assign [him] to the Office of Human Resources to function as its Director of Payroll, " although Pitts had been in that position since March. See id.

Then on July 1, 2012, Plaintiff was again transferred. See id., ¶ 20. This time he was returned to the Department of the CFO, back under the supervision of Tarola and Sarikas, but without the restoration of his former title and responsibilities. See id. Pitts had earlier emailed Lofton in anticipation of the move, expressing concerns that this re-transfer was retaliatory in nature. See id., ¶ 21. He followed up on this email twice, requesting an update and expressing concerns about the move. Id . Lofton eventually responded to Pitts, but informed him that he could not provide documentation explaining Howard's decision to transfer him back to the Department of the CFO. See id., ¶ 22. Plaintiff ultimately resigned in October 2013, citing ongoing harassment and retaliation as the reasons for his leaving. See id., ¶ 24.

After exhausting his EEOC administrative remedies, on September 13, 2013, Pitts filed this Complaint, which includes five counts: (1) retaliation pursuant to the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h); (2)-(4) race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act; and (5) retaliation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3. As will be discussed below, Plaintiff's race-discrimination counts - when read liberally - include both hostile-work-environment and direct-discrimination claims. Defendant now moves for summary judgment on all counts, and Pitts cross-moves on his retaliation claims (Counts I and V) alone.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment may 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); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986); Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006). A fact is "material" if it is capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895. A dispute is "genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007); Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895. "A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion" by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record" or "showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

When a motion for summary judgment is under consideration, "[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255; see also Mastro v. PEPCO, 447 F.3d 843, 850 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Aka v. Wash. Hosp. Ctr., 156 F.3d 1284, 1288 (D.C. Cir. 1998) ( en banc ). On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must "eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence." Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

The non-moving party's opposition, however, must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits, declarations, or other competent evidence, setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). The non-movant, in other words, is required to provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find in her favor. See Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1242 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

III. Analysis

Because the parties have cross-moved on Pitts's counts of FCA and Title VII retaliation, the Court will begin with these. It will then analyze Defendant's Motion as it relates ...


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