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Uzoukwu v. Metropolitan Washington Cog

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 18, 2015

CHINYERE UZOUKWU, Plaintiff,
v.
METROPOLITAN WASHINGTON COG, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, District Judge.

Chinyere Uzoukwu's two-year tenure of employment with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments ("COG") was marked by a series of conflicts and bizarre interactions with her supervisors and coworkers. After she was terminated-purportedly due to an overall reduction in force-Uzoukwu sued, alleging that she had been discriminated against because of her Nigerian ethnicity. After rulings on multiple motions to dismiss and motions for reconsideration, the parties proceeded to discovery on Uzoukwu's remaining claims of discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Discovery having concluded, the Defendants-COG, its head of human resources, and Uzoukwu's supervisors-now move for summary judgment, contending that Uzoukwu's claims are barred by the applicable statute of limitations and that she has failed to make out claims under Section 1981. As explained more fully below, the Court finds that Uzoukwu's claims are timely and that she has put forth sufficient evidence to entitle her to present her claims of discrimination and retaliation to a jury. The Court will therefore deny the Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to those claims. The Court will grant the Defendants' motion as to Uzoukwu's hostile work environment claim, however, because most of her complaints stem from incidents that cannot form the basis of that claim.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

COG is a nonprofit regional association of government officials from Washington, D.C. and its surrounding Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs. COG hired Chinyere Uzoukwu, who is an American citizen of Nigerian descent, to fill the newly created position of Policy Analyst within its Department of Human Services Planning and Public Safety ("HSPPS"). Def. Statement of Material Facts ("DSOF") ¶ 3. Calvin Smith, who was HSPPS's Director and is himself African-American, recommended creating the position and approached Uzoukwu after having interviewed her for a different role. Id . ¶¶ 2-4. Smith and Paul DesJardin, who was chief of housing and planning at HSPPS and is white, interviewed Uzoukwu and offered her the position at slightly above the advertised salary. Id . ¶ 7. Uzoukwu began work in March 2006, reporting directly to DesJardin. Id . ¶¶ 8-9. Unfortunately, Uzoukwu's experience working in HSPPS proceeded much less smoothly than her hiring. The following incidents illustrate the difficulties that both she and COG experienced during her tenure.

1. Gary Givens Argument

According to Uzoukwu, in May 2006 she overheard loud voices coming from the office of Greg Goodwin, who was HSPPS's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") representative and is white. Pl.'s Ex. 4, Dep. of Chinyere Uzoukwu ("Uzoukwu Dep.") 58-60. She claims that she found DesJardin and Goodwin "red-faced" and standing over Gary Givens, an African-American coworker. Id . Uzoukwu testified in her deposition that she believed the managers were "abusing and treating Gary Givens in a very hostile[, ] degrading, demeaning manner, " and she asked Givens if he would like to come to her office. Id . Uzoukwu later raised the incident with Smith, who said he would look into the matter. Id. at 64-65. Uzoukwu maintains that after she complained to Smith, she asked to participate in other groups within HSPPS, but was denied the opportunity and worked exclusively under DesJardin in the housing and planning division. Id. at 68-70.

2. Initial Evaluation

As a new employee, Uzoukwu was subject to a six-month probationary period, and DesJardin evaluated her at the end of that period in August 2006. DSOF ¶ 10-11. According to COG, Uzoukwu received a favorable score of 90 out of 100 on the evaluation, which entitled her to a 4.5 percent pay increase. Id . ¶ 11; Def.'s Ex. F, Deposition of Imelda Roberts, COG's Director of Human Resources ("Roberts Dep.") at 25:10-18. Uzoukwu disputes that her initial evaluation was positive. According to her, DesJardin first gave her a negative review with a score of 83. That review explained that

[a]s the position of Policy Analyst is to be proactive and forward thinking, during this introductory period, I have found Chinyere to be reactive and passive.... During the review period, Chinyere has not adequately engaged the Managers or the Director with thoughts, ideas or creativity that this position demands. Instead she has created an email relationship and avoids contact with her colleagues in the department. This is not acceptable.... Because the "Policy Analyst" position was a new role at COG and that Chinyere has not stepped up to her abilities for the task that is satisfactory to overall development of policy decisions, I recommend that Chinyere's probationary status be extended an additional 3 months[.]

Pl.'s Ex. 5. Uzoukwu contends that DesJardin told her she would likely be terminated as a result of the poor review, which prompted her to complain in an email to COG's Director of Human Resources, Imelda Roberts, that her supervisors had "manufactured reasons to not only give me a negative appraisal but seriously attempt to extend my probation." Def.'s Ex. B, Uzoukwu Dep. Ex. 3 (emphasis in original). She added that because "this experience/process has been so horrendously prejudiced... [she was] contemplating a formal complaint" but was having difficulty reaching her EEOC representative. Id . Only then, Uzoukwu alleges, did she receive the final, positive evaluation noted by COG. Uzoukwu Dep. 81-82, 85-87. COG disputes that her evaluation was changed after she emailed Roberts, and it appears that at least one of her emails complaining about her evaluation discusses the later, higher rating she received. See Pl.'s Ex. 6.

DesJardin testified in his deposition that he was surprised by Uzoukwu's email given the positive review. Def.'s Ex. E, Deposition of Paul DesJardin ("DesJardin Dep.") at 42:11-12, 48:18-21. In an email, DesJardin and Smith told Uzoukwu that they were confused and disturbed by her allegations of racism and prejudice. Pl.'s Exs. 11-13. They advised her that she could file a complaint with COG's EEO Committee and recommended that she seek counseling through its Employee Assistance Program ("EAP"). Id . Uzoukwu did not file a formal complaint with the internal EEO Committee. DSOF ¶¶ 14-15.

3. Conversation with Smith

In late 2006 or early 2007, internal COG documents were inadvertently placed in a media packet that was distributed at a conference. David Robertson, COG's Executive Director, later interviewed Uzoukwu and two other individuals working on the event about what had happened. Uzoukwu Dep. 95-97. Uzoukwu testified she was concerned that she might be fired and spoke with DesJardin about the incident. Id. at 97-98. Several weeks later, Uzoukwu raised the matter with Smith over lunch, complaining that she had been treated worse than her two coworkers, who were white. Id. at 98-99. According to Uzoukwu, Smith responded that she should understand that she does not "have white privilege." Id.

4. Coworker Disputes

Uzoukwu complains about two other incidents involving coworkers. In August 2007, she emailed a COG human resources representative, claiming that a coworker, Abdul Mohammed, had "intimidat[ed]" her by "act[ing] like he[was] going to literally run [her] over" when they would pass each other in the office hallway by asking her "where [she] was from[.]" Pl.'s Ex. 24. Uzoukwu testified that Roberts scheduled a meeting with the two, during which Roberts stood by while Mohammed yelled at her. Uzoukwu Dep. 182-83. The next month, according to Uzoukwu, she overheard a joke between her coworkers that she "ha[d] the right name but the wrong color." Id. at 136-38. She says she alerted DesJardin and Smith about the joke but received no response. Id. at 138-40.

5. Department-Wide Emails

In October and November 2007, two company-wide emails were sent from Uzoukwu's email account. The first was sent in response to an internal meeting announcement:

Just an FYI and update-Being that I am a homeless and undocumented immigrant... it may be difficult for me to be here by 9:30 am, as I have to leave from one shelter (where I sleep) to go to another (to eat-my oatmeal nonetheless) so to prepare to get to my third shelter COG (where I get to spend the day). You know how monitoring and surveillance goes.

Uzoukwu Dep. Ex. 7. Uzoukwu disputes that she sent the email. Uzoukwu Dep. 151. She acknowledges, however, that she sent the following email two weeks later:

Over the past several months, someone has intentionally and maliciously attempted to turn my rather quiet, reserved life into hell. As you can guess, this is rather upsetting, as perhaps it would be to you. In as much as the events could be regressed, all indications point to someone here at COG- an extremely "fearless" but cowardly individual no less- which is why I'm sending this e-mail.
In one instance my home was entered through my dining room window. In another instance my house keys were compromised from my office here at COG ( breaching both the privacy of my office and the security of my locked desk drawers ) and my home entered on several occasions. One morning, I woke up at 6:00 am to find both my newly installed security door and front entry door open. My keys absolutely could not have been compromised anywhere else, short of the companies that provided them.
In addition to the issue of my home being burglarized, my car has been vandalized. Despite these many happenings, in each instance, they don't measure up to direct involvement by law enforcement ( local police action-who explain it as "an act of intention by some disturbed individual whom I may have upset somehow" ). While it's unimaginable ( at least to me, until now ) to think someone at your place of employment can totally violate your personal privacy beyond your work environment-following you home and everywhere else you may go, essentially stalking you. That is/was what I am dealing with. Individuals who behave in such ...

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