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Wright v. Lynch

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 11, 2016

BARBARA WRIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
LORETTA E. LYNCH, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN, United States District Judge

         In this civil action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), Plaintiff Barbara Wright brings claims against the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF") for race- and sex-based hostile work environment.[1] Defendant has moved for judgment on the pleadings and summary judgment (the "Motion").

         Upon consideration of the Motion, the parties' briefs and supplemental filings in support thereof and in opposition thereto, and the parties' arguments at the November 23, 2015 motion hearing, and for the reasons set forth below, the Motion is hereby GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Barbara Wright, an African-American woman, has worked as an IT manager for over 20 years. (Opp'n at 1). Over the course of her career, she has successfully managed the updating of and transition to new technologies for IT systems in both the federal government and the private sector. (Id.). Plaintiff began working at ATF in August 2001, when she was hired as a Computer Specialist in the Office of Science and Technology. (Mot. Ex. G at 000637-639). In 2008, she became Chief of the Financial Systems Branch (the "Branch") of ATF's Office of Management, replacing Mark Danter, a white male. (Opp'n at 6-7). During the time period relevant to this case, Plaintiffs first-line supervisor was David Horn, and her second-level supervisor was Vivian Michalic, both of whom are white. (Mot. Ex. E at 000046).

         Danter had left his position as Branch Chief to oversee the ATF "Implementation Team" responsible for moving ATF's internal financial operations system, which was called Financial Resources Desktop ("FReD"), over to DOJ's new Unified Financial Management System (the "System"), which was to be used across about twenty different DOJ sub-agencies. (Opp'n at 6-8). Plaintiff was not a member of the Implementation Team. (Id.).

         When the System went "live" in November 2010, it was a "disaster" - "[t]he financial systems that [Plaintiff] operated would not work, " employees and vendors did not get paid, ATF Special Agents could not use their credit cards, and there were hundreds of errors, failures and glitches that needed to be fixed. (Id. at 2). At around the same time, and despite the fact that the System was still riddled with problems, the Implementation Team headed by Danter was disbanded. (Id. at 7). Danter began working elsewhere in the organization, including on certain "special projects, " though he also continued to work on the System for "[a]bout a year, . . . tying up loose ends [and] mak[ing] sure it was operational." (Opp'n Ex. 6 at 14:1-16).

         Plaintiff, who was already fully occupied with her responsibilities as Branch Chief, was assigned to fix all of the many errors with the System in addition to her normal responsibilities, and with less than half of the staff that Danter had on the Implementation Team. (Opp'n at 7-8). As Branch Chief, Plaintiff was also responsible for the Branch's Helpdesk, the workload of which increased eight-fold after the System went live, from about 200 requests per month to about 1, 600. (Id. at 8). Fixing problems with the System was also much more difficult than fixing problems with the ATF-specific FReD system, since doing so required Plaintiff to consult with the 19 other DOJ sub-agencies that used the System. (Id. at 8-9).

         Plaintiff describes the responsibilities that were "heaped on her" as "completely unrealistic, " and states that "there were so many major system issues . . . that [she] needed to work extraordinarily long hours, weekends, vacations and holidays" for about a year and a half, sometimes up to 18 hours a day. (Id. at 9, 18). The record includes a number of emails supporting Plaintiffs averments as to the extraordinarily long hours she worked on the System. (See, e.g., Opp'n Exs. 7-22). Plaintiff claims that she asked management for help and suggested solutions to problems, but that Horn, "the loudest and most vocal" member of management, rejected every suggestion she made. (Opp'n at 9).

         The main thrust of Plaintiff s Title VII claims concern the blame, yelling, humiliation, abuse and ridicule that she received after she took over the reins of the System from Danter in November 2010, when the System went live and the Implementation Team was disbanded. Plaintiff asserts that "the totality of the actions and hostile treatment taken by Defendant" from then onward "amounted to a hostile work environment." (Id. at 19 n.6).

         Plaintiff claims that she was subjected to constant yelling, humiliation and abuse by her two supervisors, Horn and Michalic, who singled her out in numerous meetings, loudly ridiculed and humiliated her, and blamed her for everything that went wrong with the System and the failure to correct its many problems. (See, e.g., Id. at 12-14). For example, in one January 2011 meeting, Plaintiff states that Michalic yelled at her, "blam[ed] her for the problems that Mr. Danter had left behind" and "abruptly peppered [her] with demeaning questions, interrupting] her as she attempted to respond, " causing her to leave "the meeting in tears, with a headache, stressed and wondering what she could have done to cause [Michalic] to be so mean." (Id. at 12-13).

         One contractor who worked on the System testified that he "attended numerous meetings where [Plaintiff] was loudly ridiculed and humiliated by either Ms. Michalic, Mr. Horn or both because of some failure in the . . . [S]ystem, " and that he was "personally embarrassed to be present when [Plaintiff] was being treated in such a loud and abusive manner." (Opp'n Ex. 2 ¶6). The contractor also avers that Plaintiff "was personally demoralized by this treatment, " that "she was often tearful and discouraged, " and that "[h]er job was made a lot more difficult by the abusive treatment she received from Mr. Horn and Ms. Michalic." (Id. ¶ 7).

         Plaintiff points to another example, when, after a series of meetings in one particular conference room, a facilities employee told Plaintiff and her managers that they could no longer use the conference room because the yelling and screaming - all of which had been directed at Plaintiff- was disruptive to other employees sitting nearby. (Opp'n Ex. 1 ¶ 18). Plaintiff claims that she was "abused almost every day" in this manner. (Id. ¶ 34).

         As noted above, Danter continued to work on the System for about a year after it went live and the Implementation Team was disbanded. (Opp'n Ex. 6 at 14:1-16). But despite the fact that he was present at many of the meetings at which Plaintiff was berated, ridiculed and humiliated, and the fact that he had been in charge of the Implementation Team, Danter was not subjected to such harsh treatment. For example, Plaintiff testified at her deposition that, while Danter was present in the meeting where she was yelled at so loudly that there were complaints about the level of noise in the conference room, Horn and Michalic's ire was directed only at her, not Danter. (Supp. Notice Ex. 2 at 289:17-24). Plaintiff also testified that while Horn was not "warm and fuzzy" with her, he was "warm and fuzzy" with other managers, including Danter. (Id. at 293:13-25).

         Plaintiff provides more specifics in a supplemental declaration, in which she alleges that Danter attended approximately ten meetings during which Horn and Michalic "berated" her about problems with the System. (Supp. Notice Ex. 3 ¶ 3). For example, less than an hour after she was first informed that she would be taking over the reins of the System from Danter "effective immediately, " Plaintiff attended a meeting where the personnel change was announced. (Id. ¶ 2). "Almost instantly, Mr. Horn and other managers started yelling at [her] regarding the ongoing issues" with the System, yet "[n]o one raised their voice" at Danter, who was also present at the meeting, "despite the fact that he had been responsible for the transition up to that very day." (Id.). Indeed, Plaintiff states that Horn yelled at her "constantly" in all manner of meetings where Danter was present "during the first six or seven months following the transition, " sometimes swearing at her, and that Danter "was never talked to like this." (Id. ¶ 7). Plaintiff also recalls one specific meeting at DOJ where Michalic "berated" her in front of Danter and others, getting in her face, yelling at her and insulting her intelligence. (Id. ¶ 6). Plaintiff states that Danter was not treated the same way at that meeting, or at any other meetings. (Id.).

         Plaintiff also alleges that she started sending Michalic to Danter for answers after she had been yelled at three or four times "for things that Danter had done." (Id. ¶ 4). When Danter did not have an answer, however, "no one got angry with him." (Id.). Plaintiff recalls one specific meeting where Michalic yelled at her about something that Danter had done during the implementation phase, after which time she directed Michalic to take the issue up with Danter. (Id. ¶ 5). Michalic then turned to Danter, who "gave some vague answer that didn't really address the problem, " and yet Michalic "was fine with [the] answer, " despite the fact that, whenever Plaintiff responded to her questions, Michalic "was never satisfied and reacted by yelling [at] and berating" her. (Id.).

         There is also at least some evidence in the record indicating that, in addition to regularly yelling at and humiliating Plaintiff:

• Horn and two other managers "constantly walked past [Plaintiffs] office, followed her and questioned her whereabouts, " with Horn "typically stopping] by her office multiple times each day" (Opp'n at 15);
• Horn improperly rej ected one of her timecards without confirming that she was actually absent, causing her pay to be delayed for three days, which caused her stress ...

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