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Elmore v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 2, 2016

Linda Elmore, Plaintiff,
v.
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Amit P. Mehta, United States District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Linda Elmore filed this lawsuit against her former employer, Defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”), alleging gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Plaintiff, who worked as an officer in WMATA’s Police Department’s canine (“K-9”) unit, asserts that members of that unit discriminated against her during a “long-bite” training exercise. Such training seeks to teach police dogs to pursue and apprehend suspects from long distances. Plaintiff served as a “decoy” during the exercise. Although given a protective suit to wear, Plaintiff suffered significant injuries to her neck and back after multiple dog attacks knocked her to the ground. Plaintiff claims that her maltreatment and injuries were inflicted because she is a woman and because she previously had filed a gender discrimination complaint against her fellow officers, which led to harsh criticism of the K-9 unit’s culture and professionalism.

Defendant WMATA sees things differently. It argues that Plaintiff’s participation in the long-bite training exercise and her resulting injuries were not caused by intentional discrimination. Rather, Plaintiff participated in the training for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason-all K-9 officers, both male and female, serve as decoys to train the unit’s police dogs. Plaintiff’s injuries were an unfortunate byproduct of the training, so says WMATA, not the result of invidious discrimination.

This matter is before the court on WMATA’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Having reviewed the evidence, the court finds that a reasonable jury could conclude that WMATA employees retaliated against Plaintiff during the training exercise at issue because she had engaged in protected activity. The court also finds, however, that no reasonable jury could conclude that those same WMATA employees discriminated against Plaintiff based on her gender. The court therefore grants in part and denies in part Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

Plaintiff’s Opposition brief narrows the facts that the court must consider to resolve Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Although in her Complaint and in the discovery produced, Plaintiff asserted a number of adverse actions that formed the basis of her discrimination claims, she relies on one event only-the long-bite training-to get past summary judgment.[1]See Plaintiff’s Opp’n to Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 15 [hereinafter Pl.’s Opp’n], at 5-6. Therefore, the court considers, in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, only those facts relevant to her discrimination claims arising from the long-bite training exercise.

1. Events Preceding the Long-Bite Training Exercise

Plaintiff Linda Elmore began working for Defendant WMATA’s Metropolitan Transit Police Department (“MTPD”) as a police officer in 2002. Def’s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 14 [hereinafter Def.’s Mot.], Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute, ECF No. 14 [hereinafter Def.’s Stmt.], ¶ 1; Pl.’s Opp’n, Statement of Disputed Material Facts, ECF No. 15 [hereinafter Pl.’s Stmt.], ¶ 1. Six years later, in February 2008, Plaintiff became a MTPD K-9 handler. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 2; Pl.’s Stmt. ¶ 2.

One of Plaintiff’s colleagues in the K-9 unit was Officer Paul Ludwig, who was among the officers responsible for organizing and executing the training of police canines. Def.’s Mot., Ex. 5, Dep. of Officer Paul Ludwig, ECF No. 15-5 [hereinafter Ludwig Dep.], at 127. At a meeting in July 2011, Officer Ludwig allegedly “yell[ed]” at Plaintiff, “[got] in [her] face, ” and “slam[med] his fists down, ” which “[came] close to [Plaintiff’s] face in a threatening manner.” Pl.’s Opp’n, Ex. 9, Formal Complaint of Age and Sex Discrimination and Retaliation to EEOC, November 2, 2012 [hereinafter Formal EEOC Charge], at 2. Plaintiff tried to leave the meeting, but another officer forced her to stay. Id. As a result of that episode, Plaintiff filed a formal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in August 2011. Id. ¶¶ 45-46; Def.’s Mot., Ex. 10, Office of Civil Rights Formal Discrimination Complaint, August 10, 2011, ECF No. 14-10. The complaint alleged that Officer Ludwig and other officers had discriminated against Plaintiff “based on her gender (female)” and “age (over 40), ” with the most recent instance occurring at the July 2011 meeting. Def.’s Mot., Ex. 10

An investigation ensued. After multiple interviews of Plaintiff, Ludwig, and others, a WMATA Senior EEO Dispute Resolution Officer, Beverly Pollard, prepared a report dated March 29, 2012. Pollard found that what was once a “strong professional relationship” between Plaintiff and Ludwig had deteriorated quickly, culminating in the July 2011 meeting where “extenuating circumstances” led to their disagreement. Pl.’s Opp’n, Ex. 6, ECF No. 15-7, at 9. She concluded that no discrimination based on gender or age took place, but there was “inappropriate” behavior within the K-9 unit that made ‘it difficult for [Plaintiff] and others to perform their duties at their highest levels.” Id. According to the report, “[t]hese behaviors undermine[d] the goals and objectives of MTPD and should not be ignored.” Id. Pollard recommended that the officers of the K-9 unit, “no later than June 2012, ” “participate in training including, but not limited to Diversity, Interpersonal Communication Skills, Conflict Resolution and Team-Building.” Id.

In parallel with her investigation, Pollard attempted to resolve the acrimony between Plaintiff and Ludwig. Pl.’s Opp’n, Ex. 5, ECF No. 15-6, at 1-4. Plaintiff and Ludwig attended mediation sessions, after which Pollard drafted a “memorandum of understanding, ” under which Plaintiff and Ludwig would have agreed to respect and treat one another fairly. Id. at 8-10. Pollard made repeated attempts between late February and early April 2012 to secure Plaintiff’s and Ludwig’s signatures to the memorandum. Id. at 5-14. Ludwig apparently never signed the document. See Pl.’s Opp’n, at 6. It is unclear whether Plaintiff ever signed it.

According to Plaintiff, the investigation and its aftermath only heightened tensions between Plaintiff and Ludwig. On or about June 1, 2012, Plaintiff claims that she reached out to an EEO counselor “asking for help” because she believed that Ludwig and another WMATA officer, Sargent Douglas Haymans, “were planning to injure” her. Pl.’s Resps. to Def.’s First Set of Interrogs. and Disc. Doc. Produc. Demands, ECF No. 15-5 [hereinafter Pl.’s Interrog.], at 3-4. Plaintiff, however, has provided no context or explanation for what prompted her alarm. A few days later, on June 5, 2012, Plaintiff, along with Pollard, met with WMATA Chief Michael Taborn to express Plaintiff’s concerns about the “danger involved in training.” Id. at 4. According to Plaintiff, Taborn was “distant and uncaring” about her fears. Id.

Then, in mid-June 2012, according to Plaintiff, Ludwig and Haymans scheduled mandatory training on days when they knew Plaintiff was on approved leave. Id. Someone-Plaintiff does not specify whom-informed her that, if she did not attend the training, “changes would be made.” Id.

2. The Long-Bite Training Exercise

Shortly thereafter, on June 27, 2012, Plaintiff participated in a long-bite training with other officers from the K-9 unit. What took place during the long-bite training forms the crux of Plaintiff’s claims.

Police dogs used by the K-9 unit are trained to be aggressive. They must be able to subdue suspects and yet remain responsive to their handlers’ commands. Pl.’s Stmt. ¶¶ 20-23; Def.’s Stmt. ¶¶ 20-23; Def’s Mot., Ex. 1, Dep. of Linda Elmore, ECF No. 14-1 [hereinafter Elmore Dep.], at 10. One method of training the dogs is known as the “long-bite” exercise. Its purpose is to teach the dogs to apprehend suspects from long distances and then release them upon command. Pl.’s Stmt. ¶ 39; Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 39. During long-bite training, one officer-wearing either a protective sleeve or a full-body suit-serves as a decoy for the dogs by imitating a suspect running from law enforcement. Ludwig Dep., at 72. Another officer then orders his or her canine to chase after and subdue the decoy and then release the decoy upon command. Id. at 76; Elmore Dep., at 105. Police canines can weigh anywhere from 70 to 105 pounds. See Def.’s Mot., Ex. 8, Email from Paul Ludwig to Earl P. Brown, Dewayne G. McGowan, and Andrew Keahon, April 20, 2010, ECF No. 14-8. It is, therefore, not unusual for the officer serving as a decoy to be knocked to the ground by a charging canine running full-speed. Elmore Dep., at 105-6; Pl.’s Stmt. ¶¶ 50-51; Def.’s Stmt. ¶¶ 50-51. All ...


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