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Jones v. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 18, 2016

DEREK A. JONES, Plaintiff,


JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge

For over a decade, Plaintiff Derek Jones, who is black, worked as a recruiter for the District of Columbia’s water utility - the Water and Sewer Authority. He maintains that WASA terminated him in 2011 in retaliation for speaking up about what he believed to be discriminatory practices. The utility counters that Jones was fired for cause, pure and simple, and that his employment file - replete with three years of middling performance reviews and a string of documented reprimands - demonstrates the legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for his removal. In addition, WASA argues that the practices Jones opposed were not of a kind protected by the civil-rights laws. In now considering Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court agrees that Jones has failed to establish a genuine dispute of material fact sufficient to warrant a trial.

I. Background

The facts here are set forth in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. WASA hired Jones as a recruiter in 1999. See Def. Response to Plaintiff’s Statement of Material Facts (Resp. to PSMF), ECF No. 73-1, ¶ 2; MSJ, Attach. 4 (Deposition of Derek Jones) at 11:19-12:2. From the parties’ silence on the matter, the ensuing nine years were apparently uneventful. But in the second half of 2008, right around the time when a new supervisor stepped in to oversee Jones, circumstances began to change for the worse.

A. Plaintiff’s Disciplinary Record

In August 2008, WASA assigned Denyse Jeter-Williams, who is also black, to supervise Jones in her capacity as Manager of Employment Services. See MSJ, Attach. 2 (Def. Statement of Material Facts) (“DSMF”), ¶ 2; Jones Depo. at 57:15-16. During a staff meeting in October 2008, Jeter-Williams disciplined Jones for using the word “ass, ” which she believed was profane, and instructed him that it should not be used in the workplace. See DSMF, ¶ 4; MSJ, Attach. 11 (Note to File of Oct. 23, 2008) at 1; Jones Depo. at 272:2-7 (“I said -- just casually I said, ‘Man, we need to get off our ass and just, you know, get busy.’ And that’s the content [sic] in what I used it in. And she basically said, ‘Well, there will be no cursing in my staff meetings.’”). He responded by disputing whether “ass” was, in fact, profanity, since “they use the word ass on the TV, on the radio, on everything.” Jones Depo. at 272:9-10.

After that meeting and in short succession, Jeter-Williams placed three different memoranda in Jones’s employment file documenting what she viewed as insubordinate behavior and charging that he did not communicate effectively with his supervisors. She issued the first memo in December 2008 and gave him a formal warning in January 2009. See DSMF, ¶¶ 5-6. The same concerns were then echoed in her May 2009 mid-year performance evaluation of Jones. See id., ¶ 8. He acknowledges that these were his evaluations, but disputes Jeter-Williams’s characterization of his behavior and performance. See Plaintiff’s Resp. to DSMF, ECF No. 67, ¶¶ 5-8.

At the end of 2009, Jeter-Williams gave Jones his end-of-year performance review. See DSMF, ¶ 9. She rated his overall performance as “Level 2 - Meets Expectations” but graded his work in the “Dependability and Responsiveness” category as “Level 1 - Fails to Meet Expectations.” Id.

The following year’s performance review took on a slightly more positive tone. Jeter-Williams again rated Plaintiff’s overall performance as “Level 2 - Meets Expectations, ” though she also noted that “Derek sometimes is not aware that he has information which could affect his supervisors’ work. I encourage him to routinely provide his supervisor with updates on his work to ensure that he keeps his supervisor informed.” ECF No. 70 (Opposition), Attach. 2 (Declaration of Daniel Linden), Exh. 3 (November 2010 Performance Evaluation) at ECF p. 10.

In April 2011, Jeter-Williams again documented, in a mid-year performance review, what she viewed as two key shortcomings in Jones’s performance: (1) failing to convene “Staffing Strategy Session[s]/Phone Conversation[s]” with WASA hiring managers when he is assigned a new vacancy to fill, and (2) routinely failing to “provide [Jeter-Williams] with a copy of [the monthly Budget/Recruitment report for Compensation] on a consistent basis, which is a primary requirement of [his job].” MSJ, Attach. 16 (April 2011 Memorandum from Jeter-Williams to Jones) at 2.

On the first issue, Jones’s deposition testimony corroborates Jeter-Williams’s assessment that such meetings or conversations were part of his job obligations. See Jones Depo. at 323:14-18 (agreeing that he was “required as part of [his] job duties to conduct a strategy meeting with hiring managers when [he] began recruiting on a new posting”). But, in his view, it was unnecessary to perform these tasks consistently. During his deposition, he recounted a discussion he had with Jeter-Williams after reading his April 2011 performance review in which he told her:

[L]ike I explained to you, some positions are repetitious, and they never change. And the hiring managers that I’ve been working with for several years, and we’ve already establish a rapport that they’re looking for. So in every case, a [meeting], . . . depending on the position, is not necessary at the request of the manager.

Id. at 326:2-9.

As to the second issue - the sending of the monthly budget report - a terse email exchange between Jeter-Williams and Plaintiff several months after the April 2011 performance review illustrated the source of her frustrations. On July 8, 2011, she wrote Jones to obtain his portion of the monthly report: “Derek, Please forward me the June GM Report asap.” MSJ, Attach. 6 (July 8, 2011, Email Chain). Ten minutes later, Jones responded. Instead of sending her the report directly as requested, he informed her where she could locate it herself:

Denyse, This report is in the I Drive under Staffing, Report. It is titled as the subject of this email [Staffing Report-Budget Report 06-30-11]. This is what you requested and I’ve continued on a monthly basis to save the report in this drive. Let me know if you have any questions.

Id. After thanking Jones for the report in response, Jeter-Williams then explained:

Please note that I also asked you to send me the report when you complete it. You save it to the “I” drive for future reference, but I need this report each month as soon as you complete it. Currently I am not aware when you’ve completed it which has created problems for me. We’ve discussed this several times.

Id. (emphasis added).

More reprimands followed. In August 2011, Jeter-Williams’s own supervisor, Arthur Green (WASA’s Director of Human Capital Management), admonished Plaintiff by letter, commenting that his “disrespect of [Jeter-Williams] has become . . . standard operating procedure” and directing him to “start showing respect of your chain-of-command.” MSJ, Attach. 17 (Aug. 9, 2011, Letter from Arthur Green to Derek Jones).

The next month, Jeter-Williams delivered yet another memorandum to Plaintiff concerning “work habits” that she considered “unacceptable, ” including “insubordination.” Id., Attach. 18 (Sept. 8, 2011, Memorandum). In it, she described several recent examples of Plaintiffs behavior - none disputed - that she considered problematic. See Pl. Rep. to DSMF, ¶ 15; Jones Depo. at 348:5-20. One was informing her by email at 8:15 a.m. that he would be absent from work to attend a “Defensive Driving training course” that same day. See Sept. 8, 2011, Memo. As she explains in the memo, his late notice was problematic not only because WASA’s written policy requires its employees to obtain advance approval before participating in a training, but also because she had scheduled a training “for all Staffing employees for that same date . . . of which [Plaintiff] had notice.” Id Another was Plaintiffs directly requesting WASA’s facilities team to reconfigure his cubicle without her authorization. Id When she informed him that he should have first obtained her approval, he “responded, ‘The only thing that I need you for is to sign my leave slips.’” Id A third was failing to complete a training course that she had explicitly asked him to take. See id.

B. Plaintiffs Objections to WAS A Employment Practices

Central to Jones’s retaliation claim are several instances in which he claims to have objected to allegedly discriminatory actions taken by ...

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