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Swann v. Office of Architect of Capitol

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 10, 2016

AUDREY SWANN, Plaintiff,


CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

After receiving an anonymous tip, the Inspector General of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol (“AOC”) conducted an investigation into whether Audrey Swann, an AOC electrician, had misrepresented her education and experience levels when she initially applied for her position. The investigation concluded that Ms. Swann had in fact overstated her qualifications in her employment application. Upon receiving the Inspector General’s report and Swann’s response, the Architect of the Capitol terminated her on the basis of the report’s findings. In this lawsuit, the fourth in a series of employment-discrimination actions Swann has filed against her former employer, Swann claims that AOC actually terminated her in retaliation for having pursued the prior claims. Finding that Swann has presented no evidence to suggest that the Architect of the Capitol’s termination decision was based on a retaliatory motive, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of AOC.

I. Background

AOC terminated Audrey Swann from her position as an electrician effective April 30, 2012. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 7. The termination had its roots in an anonymous letter, sent a few months earlier to AOC’s Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”), claiming that Swann had falsified her resume when she applied for employment with AOC by claiming electrical experience and education she did not have. Following receipt of the letter on January 12, 2012, OIG launched an investigation: It dispatched an investigator, conducted interviews with Swann’s co-workers and previous employers, and issued subpoenas to the community college where Swann claimed to have earned a certification and a local union with whom Swann claimed an affiliation. See Def.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 1, at AOC000059. OIG also interviewed Swann herself in February 2012, with her lawyer present, where it provided her the opportunity to substantiate the claims of experience and education made in her original application.

Following the investigation, on March 21, 2012, OIG produced an interim report summarizing its findings. See generally id. The report found that Swann was not able to provide proof of some of her claimed past employment. Id. at AOC000072-73. She also “failed to provide any documentation or witnesses to support her alleged employment with” a local electrical company. Id. at AOC000063. “The investigation substantiated that [she had] falsified her experience and [previous] position title.” Id. at AOC000059. It also found, through contacting the community college’s registrar, that although Swann claimed to have completed an Electrical Helper “Certificate, ” she had merely taken two electrical classes and had not achieved certification. See id. at AOC000065.

After receiving the interim report, the Architect of the Capitol, Stephen Ayers, sent Swann a letter stating that she was being terminating for falsifying aspects of her application. See Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 2. The letter informed Swann that she would nonetheless first be afforded the opportunity to show there was insufficient cause to terminate her employment. In a separate letter sent on the same date, Swann was informed that she was being placed on temporary administrative leave. See Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 3. AOC made a copy of OIG’s report available to Swann on April 2, see Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4, and her attorney responded eight days later with a letter attempting to rebut the allegations, see Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 6.

Despite the rebuttal, Ayers decided to leave his decision to terminate Swann in place. See Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 6; Decl. of Stephen Ayers ¶¶ 4-5. Swann then initiated this suit alleging that the decision to terminate her was motivated by her employer’s intent to retaliate against her for filing claims of discrimination against AOC in the past.[1] See Compl. ¶¶ 1-2.

Swann’s current theory of retaliation boils down to this: AOC terminated her because of OIG’s report; OIG issued its report after conducting an investigation instigated by an anonymous letter; and the author or authors of the anonymous letter harbored retaliatory animus against her. Therefore, Swann now contends, the intent of the letter-writers can be attributed to AOC, which should be held liable for her termination under what is commonly referred to as the cat’s-paw theory of liability in employment-discrimination cases. This theory or allegations supporting it, however, appear nowhere in Swann’s complaint or in her opposition to AOC’s motion to dismiss.

In ruling on AOC’s motion to dismiss, the Court relied on Brady v. Office of the Sergeant at Arms, 520 F.3d 490 (D.C. Cir. 2008), to hold that the primary issue in this case was not whether Swann had in fact falsified her application for employment-an accusation she denies- but whether the AOC decision-maker honestly and reasonably believed as much based on the independent OIG report. In Brady, an employee of the Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. House of Representatives was demoted following a purported incident of sexual harassment. Although the employee protested that the incident never occurred and that the corresponding investigation was tainted by racism, he conceded that his employer honestly believed the incident occurred, and he produced no evidence that his employer’s belief was unreasonable. Id. at 496. The D.C. Circuit therefore upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer. Id.

The Court found this case to be analogous to Brady in the sense that Swann claimed that OIG’s investigation was flawed and that AOC’s response to OIG’s investigation was inappropriate under the circumstances. The Court also acknowledged Swann’s claim that she was denied certain procedural rights in the lead-up to her termination, including a hearing and access to the evidence against her. Consequently, the Court denied AOC’s motion to dismiss- except with respect to a single hostile-work-environmental claim-and allowed limited discovery to proceed in three areas, consistent with Brady: (1) AOC’s understanding of and response to the OIG report, including its handling of other similar personnel decisions; (2) the basis for AOC’s decision to terminate Swann, including any information it may have relied on outside the OIG report; and (3) and the process afforded Swann by AOC in connection with her termination. Following the close of discovery, AOC moved for summary judgment on all counts.

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden to demonstrate the “absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). To overcome a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’” Id. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). A dispute is genuine only if a reasonable fact-finder could find for the non-moving party; a fact is material only if it is capable of affecting the outcome of the litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Laningham v. U.S. Dep’t of Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1241 (D.C. Cir. 1987). In assessing a party’s motion, a court must “view the facts and draw reasonable inferences ‘in the light most favorable to the party opposing the [summary judgment] motion.’” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007) (alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962) (per curiam)).

III. Analysis

Swann claims that AOC took a number of actions against her, and ultimately terminated her, in retaliation for engaging in a variety of protected equal-employment-opportunity activity. All employees in AOC, including Swann, are protected from retaliation by the Congressional Accountability Act (“CAA”), 2 U.S.C. § 1317. “[T]hough the Act’s anti-retaliation provision . . . contains no express tie to other statutes, courts routinely refer to Title VII case law in evaluating claims of retaliation under the CAA.” Joyce v. Office of Architect of Capitol, 106 F.Supp. 3d 163, 168 (D.D.C. 2015). Under Title VII, “retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation.” Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2533 (2013); see also Rattigan v. Holder, 982 F.Supp.2d 69, 82 (D.D.C. 2013) (“[U]nder the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Nassar, it is now clear that a Title VII retaliation claim cannot ...

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