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Frett v. Howard University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 8, 2016

JEANNETTE FRETT, Plaintiff,
v.
v.

MEMORANDUM OPINION (FEBRUARY 5TH, 2016) [DKTS. ## 44]

RICHARD J. LEON Judge

Jeannette Frett ("plaintiff) brings this suit against Howard University ("defendant" or "Howard"), alleging employment discrimination, unlawful retaliation, and hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e ("Title VII") and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1402.11 ("DCHRA").[1] See Compl. [Dkt. #1]. Currently before the Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment [Dkt. #44] ("Def.'s Mot."). Upon consideration of the pleadings, relevant law, and the entire record herein, defendant's motion is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, an African-American woman, was employed by Howard University from September 2010 until she was terminated on April 2, 2012. Def.'s Statement of Material Undisputed Facts ¶¶ 9, 164 [Dkt. #44-2] ("Def.'s SOMF"). Plaintiff has more than twenty years of experience in human resources and, although initially hired as a consultant, she transitioned into a newly created permanent position-Senior Director, Chief Talent Officer in the Office of Talent Management-in January 2011. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 6, 9, 18, 20. At that time, Howard also moved two other consultants, Valeria Stokes and Michael McFadden, into newly created Senior Director positions in the Office of Human Resources. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 16-18. All three Senior Directors reported directly to Howard's Chief Human Resources Officer and Executive Vice President, James Jones ("Jones"). Def.'s SOMF ¶ 17-18. Under the terms of her contract, plaintiff was paid approximately $150, 000 annually and had the "opportunity" to receive a performance bonus of up to ten percent of her annual salary in her first year upon successful completion of certain objectives and a one-time performance bonus of up to twenty percent of her annual salary. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 25, 26, 28. Nevertheless, plaintiff contends that she was entitled to these bonuses per an agreement with Jones. Pl's Statement of Genuine Issues of Material Fact ¶ 25 [Dkt. #50-1] ("Pl's SOMF").

On June 20, 2011, plaintiff submitted her first internal Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint to Jones and Antwan Lofton ("Lofton"), Howard's Director of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity. Def.'s SOMF ¶ 48. She described what she believed to be a "hostile and harassing work environment" due to Jones's conduct, which included criticizing her in a public email, responding in a forceful tone when plaintiff asked that she be informed about decisions that affect her area of responsibility, refusing to assign additional resources to plaintiff until she provided metrics to support the request, and micro-managing her decisions. Def.'s Mot. Ex. 12 [Dkt #44-14]. Plaintiff also alleged gender discrimination based on her belief that Jones was dismissive and condescending towards her and that she should be compensated at a rate higher than her contracted salary. Id. After a June 28, 2011 meeting between plaintiff, Jones, and Lofton, plaintiff requested that her complaint be handled as an Employee Relations matter instead of an EEO matter and retracted her complaint. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 68-70; Pl's SOMF ¶¶ 67-68. Plaintiff maintains that she decided to retract her EEO complaint under duress because both the General Counsel's office and Jones told her that pursuing her complaint would be detrimental to her career. Pl's SOMF ¶ 69. Jones denies these allegations. Def.'s SOMF ¶ 71.

By email to Lofton dated November 14, 2011, plaintiff reinstated her EEO complaint because in her view "the situation had worsened." Def.'s SOMF ¶ 102. Lofton acknowledged receipt of her complaint and requested that plaintiff submit by December 8, 2011 an updated complaint that would reflect the expansion of her claims. Def.'s SOMF ¶ 106. On December 8, plaintiff sent an email to Lofton requesting administrative leave with pay, effective immediately, because the "trauma" she was faced at work was having an "an adverse impact on [her] physical and mental health." Def.'s Mot. Ex. 29 [Dkt. #44-31]. This request was not approved, but plaintiff used her accrued sick leave to take off the following week. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 108-09. During that week, Jones re-assigned plaintiffs responsibilities to Eric Malloy. Def.'s SOMF ¶ 113.

On December 14, 2011, plaintiff submitted her revised complaint which alleged discrimination based on gender, race, and color, hostile work environment, and retaliation. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 119-20. Plaintiffs discrimination claims were based on her perception that Jones preferred light-skinned people and men, and that this favoritism affected his treatment of and interactions with plaintiff, a dark-skinned black female; including that he inadequately compensated her, disagreed with her assessment of Kym Wilson ("Wilson"), a light-skinned black woman, and denied her requests for resources to do her job. Def.'s Mot. Ex. 21 [Dkt. #44-23]. To support her claim of a hostile work environment, plaintiff described, inter alia, Jones's micro-management of her work, his use of the term "HNIC"-which is an abbreviation for "head nigger in charge"-, other interactions that plaintiff interpreted as threatening, and Jones's participation in a sexual joke. Id. Plaintiffs claims of retaliation rested on her conclusion that Jones directed Wilson to "coach" plaintiff on her interactions with Jones, her relocation to a dirty office, the refusal to increase her salary, the assignment of her duties to someone else during her sick leave, and Jones's refusal to speak favorably about plaintiff at the same time he highlighted the work of a male employee. Id.

On December 15, 2011, Lofton confirmed receipt of plaintiff s revised complaint and advised plaintiff that she was being placed on administrative leave with pay pending the investigation and resolution of her complaint. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 129-30. Although plaintiff objected to this decision, Lofton explained that in light of plaintiff s earlier request for administrative leave, Howard believed this to be the best recourse. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 131-32. Lofton testified that he was aware of other situations in which a claimant was put on administrative leave and not the accused. Def.'s Mot. Ex. 13 at 130:16-131:6 [Dkt. #45-11]. After conducting an investigation into plaintiffs complaint, Howard concluded that there were insufficient facts to support plaintiffs allegations. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 136-37; Pl's SOMF ¶¶ 136-37.

On April 2, 2012, plaintiff returned to work. Pl's Mem. of P. & A. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. 7 [Dkt. #50] ("Pl's Opp'n"). She was terminated that same day. Def.'s SOMF ¶ 164. Defendant maintains that plaintiff was laid off as a part of a Reduction in Force ("RIF") announced in July 2011, which was designed "to assure the continued financial security, quality and efficiency of the University's offices and programs." Def.'s Mot. Ex. 43 at 1 [Dkt. #45-19]. Indeed, since July 2011, more than 450 Howard employees have been terminated as a part of this RIF. Def.'s SOMF ¶ 167. With respect to plaintiffs position, defendant explains that in December 2011 Jones determined that he must lay off additional employees in light of budget concerns. Def.'s SOMF ¶ 150. Based upon a review of his staff and their capabilities, Jones determined that McFadden should be retained and that plaintiff and Stokes should be terminated. Def.'s SOMF ¶¶ 156, 161. Plaintiff asserts that she was placed on administrative leave and ultimately terminated in direct response to her engaging in the EEO grievance process. Pl's Opp'n 9-10.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the record demonstrate 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 moving party has the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact to be decided with respect to any essential element of the nonmovant's claim. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmovant must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Id. at 323-24. In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, giving it the benefit of all justifiable inferences derived from the evidence in the record. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The nonmovant's opposition, however, may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the pleadings, but must be supported by affidavits or other competent evidence. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. Thus, by pointing to the absence of evidence sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to the nonmovant's case, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Id. at 325.

ANALYSIS

Defendant moves for summary judgment arguing that plaintiff has failed to establish facts that support her claims for unlawful retaliation, hostile work environment, or discrimination. See generally Def.'s Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. ...


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