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Walden v. Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 31, 2016



TANYA S. CHUTKAN United States District Judge

Plaintiff Apprill Walden alleges that her former employer, Defendant Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (“PCORI”), violated the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”), D.C Code § 2-1401.0, et seq., by discriminating and retaliating against her, creating a hostile work environment, and deliberately making working conditions so intolerable that she was forced to resign. Defendant denies these allegations and moves to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the reasons stated herein, Defendant’s motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


PCORI hired Plaintiff on May 19, 2014 for the position of Senior Media Relations Specialist. (Compl. ¶ 8). In this role, Plaintiff reported directly to Christine Stencel, the Associate Director for Media Relations. (Id.). During Plaintiff’s first few months in this position, Stencel praised her “performance and work ethic.” (Id. ¶ 11).

On June 10, 2014, Plaintiff suffered a serious spinal injury in a car accident. (Id. ¶ 12). Her injury caused her “severe neck, shoulder and back pain, headaches, dizziness and difficulty sleeping, ” and affected her ability to walk, bend, sit, lift, and stand. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14). On June 13, 2014, she began to see an orthopedic specialist, Dr. Richard Meyer, who ordered her to undergo physical therapy. (Id. ¶ 15). After the accident, Plaintiff informed Stencel that she would need reasonable accommodations for her disability; however, starting in August 2014, Plaintiff’s work schedule forced her to miss physical therapy appointments. (Id. ¶¶ 16-17).

In October 2014, Dr. Meyer filled out a “PCORI Request for Medical Information Related to Request for Workplace Accommodation, ” which was given to Mitch Eisman, PCORI’s Director for Human Resources and Administration. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19; Def. Reply Ex. B). In the form, Dr. Meyer noted that Plaintiff could not perform all of the essential functions and duties of her position without reasonable accommodations, and recommended that Plaintiff work from home for three days per week for at least eight weeks and be provided with an ergonomic work chair with lumbar and cervical support as a corrective device. (Id. ¶ 19). Meyer checked “No” next to the question “Do any of the impairment(s) identified in Question 3 substantially limit the employee’s ability to perform any major life activities other than working (e.g. caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing . . . etc.).” (Def. Reply, Ex. B at 3).

In or around October 2014, Plaintiff met with Eisman and Stencel to work out a reasonable accommodation arrangement, and, despite her doctor’s recommendation, Plaintiff agreed to work from home only twice per week. (Id. ¶ 20). At the meeting, Plaintiff voiced concerns about her workload and Stencel’s negative treatment; specifically, that Stencel was unsupportive and ignored her calls or emails asking for time off to attend medical appointments. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22). Neither Eisman nor anyone else in the human resources department addressed Plaintiff’s concerns. (Id. ¶ 23).

After the parties reached a work-from-home agreement in November 2014, Stencel refused to complete the supervisory portion of the agreement unless Plaintiff attended a one-on-one meeting with her, without any HR personnel present. (Id. ¶ 24). At the meeting, Plaintiff asked Stencel about her performance, and Stencel told her that it was “fine and reliable thus far.” (Id. ¶¶ 25-26). But after the meeting, Stencel began assigning Plaintiff an overwhelming amount of work, with unclear instructions on priorities and deadlines, while demanding perfection. (Id. ¶ 28). Plaintiff “initiated conversations about her workload” with Stencel on multiple occasions, but nothing was done to address her concerns, and Plaintiff was forced to miss additional physical therapy appointments, thereby slowing her recovery. (Id. ¶¶ 29-30). Indeed, Stencel encouraged Plaintiff to skip physical therapy, had her stay late on days when Stencel knew Plaintiff had physical therapy, and on multiple occasions, ignored or refused to approve Plaintiff’s requests for paid time off. (Id. ¶¶ 31-32).

On January 16, 2015, Stencel had Plaintiff conduct a six month review of her own performance, despite the fact that only annual reviews were required of employees, and no other employees had done or heard of such a review. (Id. ¶ 33). Then, on February 25, 2015, Plaintiff received an appraisal report in which Stencel, in a departure from her prior positive comments, criticized Plaintiff for absenteeism and required her to conform to a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”). (Id. ¶¶ 34-36). The PIP, along with her regularly assigned duties, created an unreasonable amount of work for Plaintiff that was greater than her initial workload, and which she could not handle. (Id. ¶ 37). Knowing she could not meet its terms and conditions, in March 2015 Plaintiff refused to sign the PIP and was subsequently “forced to resign involuntarily” because her situation had become “unbearable.” (Id. ¶¶ 38-39). Following Plaintiff’s resignation, Stencel posted two advertisements for positions on the PCORI website-Media Relations Specialist and Senior Media Relations Specialist-whose combined duties equaled the responsibilities set forth in Plaintiff’s PIP. (Id. ¶ 40). Plaintiff then brought this suit, alleging four violations of the DCHRA.


A motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). “To survive a 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 (2009) (quotation marks and citation omitted). A claim is plausible when the factual content allows the Court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Thus, although a plaintiff may survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion even where “recovery is very remote and unlikely, ” the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. The reviewing court may “consider only the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint and matters of which [the court] may take judicial notice.” E.E.O.C. v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997).


A. Disparate Treatment Based on Disability (Count I)

Under the framework established by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), in order to make out a prima facie case of discrimination in violation of the ADA or the DCHRA, a plaintiff must show that she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, she was qualified for the position at issue with or without a reasonable accommodation, and she suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability.[2]Giles v. Transit Emp. Fed. Credit Union, 794 F.3d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 2015) cert. denied, No. 15-7174, 2016 WL 763407 (U.S. Feb. 29, 2016). However, at the motion to dismiss stage a “Plaintiff need only allege that he ‘suffered an adverse employment ...

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