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Ladson v. George Washington University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 1, 2016

Todd M. Ladson, Plaintiff,
v.
The George Washington University, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMIT P. MEHTA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Todd M. Ladson filed this lawsuit against his former employer, Defendant The George Washington University (“GW” or “the University”), alleging that he was terminated from his position as a campus police officer due to: (1) race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the D.C. Human Rights Act; and (2) age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act. This lawsuit stems from a complaint made in March 2013, when Plaintiff, a 24-veteran of the GW campus police, was accused by a fellow officer of making inappropriate comments about her sexual preference and activities. The University initiated a months-long investigation into the complaint, which uncovered more evidence of inappropriate comments by Plaintiff. Defendant ultimately determined that Plaintiff's behavior violated the University's policy against sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment for his colleagues. In September 2013, Plaintiff was terminated from his position.

         Plaintiff views these events differently. He denies making the comments in question and argues that, even if he did, they were not harassing and discriminatory, but rather were innocent and misinterpreted. He further argues that the University's investigation was unfair and one-sided. Finally, Plaintiff contends that the University terminated him due to his race and age while it failed to punish other instances of similar, or more egregious, conduct by white officers and younger officers.

         The court now considers Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Having reviewed the parties' briefing and the evidence, the court finds that no reasonable jury could conclude that George Washington University discriminated against Plaintiff based on his race or his age when it terminated him. The court therefore grants Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         1. The Complaint Against Officer Ladson

         Plaintiff Todd Ladson began working at The George Washington University (“GW” or “the University”) in 1989. Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 15 [hereinafter Pl.'s Opp'n], at 8. By 2013, Plaintiff was serving a supervisory role as a Master Patrol Officer in GW's police force. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 14 [hereinafter Def.'s Mot.], Def.'s Stmt. of Material Facts, ECF No. 14-2 [hereinafter Def.'s Stmt.], ¶ 1; Pl.'s Opp'n, Stmt. of Material Facts in Dispute, ECF No. 15-1 [hereinafter Pl.'s Stmt.], ¶ 1. In March 2013, one of Plaintiff's colleagues, GW police officer Tiffany Justice, complained to the University that Plaintiff had made inappropriate comments about her sexual preference and activities. Def.'s Mot, Ex. 1, March 27, 2013, Email from Tiffany Justice to Tara Pereira, ECF No. 14-3 [hereinafter Justice Email]. Specifically, Officer Justice alleged that Plaintiff had made three inappropriate remarks, namely: (1) he made comments to Officer Linda Queen regarding her (Queen's) sexuality and suggesting that she was sexually involved with Officer Justice; (2) he suggested to another officer that Officer Justice was “one of you, ” thereby implying that Officer Justice was a lesbian; and (3) he warned a new officer that she will “have men and women after her.” Justice Email at 1; Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 2; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 2.

         GW prohibits sexual harassment by its employees. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 3-4; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 3-4; see also Def.'s Mot., Ex. 2, Interim Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policy and Procedures, ECF No. 14-4.[1] Pursuant to its policy, upon receiving Officer Justice's complaint against Plaintiff, GW began an investigation into Plaintiff's comments. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 9; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 9. Plaintiff was suspended with pay on April 2, 2013, “pending an investigation regarding recent allegations that you have been improperly making unwanted comments of a sexual nature about a co-worker and her private life.” Def.'s Mot., Ex. 7, Letter to Officer Ladson from Chief Kevin Hay, April 2, 2013, ECF No. 14-9.

         2. The Investigation by GW Into Officer Ladson's Comments

         Tara Pereira, GW's then-Assistant Title IX Coordinator and Director of Campus Inclusion Initiatives, received the initial complaint from Officer Justice and conducted the investigation into Plaintiff's alleged comments. Def.'s Mot., Ex. 10, Email from Tara Pereira to Officer Ladson, April 3, 2013, ECF No. 14-12. As part of her investigation, Ms. Pereira interviewed approximately 13 people and met with Plaintiff multiple times. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 13-14; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 13-14. Through her efforts, Ms. Pereira learned-among other things-that Plaintiff had made “lots of racist and sexually graphic” comments; that he had new officer trainees “bark like a dog” as they crawled through a small tunnel; and that he had taught an officer how to smoke marijuana without being caught. Officer Justice, in particular, told Ms. Pereira that Plaintiff's comments “impacted her safety, her environment, her work performance, and the culture of [Plaintiff's] shifts.” Def.'s Mot., Ex. 9, Dep. of Tara Pereira, ECF No. 14-11 [hereinafter Pereira Dep.], at 61-75. Officer Justice further reported that Plaintiff's comments “mak[e] it hard to come to work, ” and that Plaintiff had once asked her “[w]hy are you staring at me? Do I owe you child support?” Def.'s Mot., Ex 12, Pereira Investigation Notes, ECF No. 14-14.

         When Plaintiff and his union representative met with Ms. Pereira as part of the investigation, he denied making these comments and suggested that the witnesses who had come forward were lying because they were jealous of him for “making the most overtime” and being “very popular” and a “happy-go-lucky person.” Def.'s Mot., Ex. 3, Dep. of Todd Ladson, ECF No. 14-5 [hereinafter Ladson Dep.], at 85-86. However, Plaintiff was unable to point to any evidence to corroborate his claim that the officers who had testified against him were jealous of him, id. at 86, or that his accusers had lied during the investigation, id. at 95.

         At the conclusion of her investigation, Ms. Pereira found that Plaintiff's conduct was “longstanding” and “pervasive” and had impacted numerous officers. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 33; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 22; Pereira Dep. at 100. After the investigation, Plaintiff and his union representative met with Ms. Pereira and Kevin Hay, Chief of the GW Police Department. Def.'s Stmt ¶ 34; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 22. The parties were unable to reach a resolution and so, pursuant to University policy, Chief Hay requested that a formal hearing be held. Def.'s Mot., Ex. 15, Memorandum Requesting Formal Hearing Regarding Allegations Against Officer Ladson, ECF No. 14-17, at 1-2.

         On August 1, 2013, the University convened a Special Panel[2] to hear the complaint filed against Plaintiff alleging sexual harassment and conduct that created a hostile work environment. Def.'s Mot., Ex. 11, Special Panel Report Regarding Complaint Against Officer Todd Ladson, August 14, 2013, ECF No. 14-13 [hereinafter Special Panel Report], at 1. At the hearing, Chief Hay and Plaintiff made opening statements. Id. at 3. Chief Hay then presented five witnesses, including Officer Justice and Ms. Pereira. Id. Those witnesses “testified as to remarks and comments made by Officer Ladson regarding their sexuality or the sexuality of others.” Id. at 6.

         The Special Panel heard numerous examples of inappropriate comments made by Plaintiff and their effect on his coworkers, including:

• Officer Justice testified that Plaintiff had told the parents of another officer that their daughter was in a relationship with Officer Justice;
• Security Officer Octavia Livingston testified that Plaintiff had told her that he did not approve of homosexuals and tried “to convince her that she should be with men”;
• Former Police Officer Suzanne Combs testified that she had heard Plaintiff make negative comments following her marriage to her female partner in 2011;
• Security Officer Livingston testified that Plaintiff had made graphic comments while interrogating her about her sexual behavior. She further testified that she had “submitted] herself to Plaintiffs treatment and did not file a formal complaint because Plaintiffs recommendation was critical to her own status as an officer in the GW Police Department;
• Officer Queen testified that Plaintiff had inquired whether she and Officer Justice “were fucking” and recalled being told that Plaintiff described her as “crazy as shit” and that she “fucks with girls when she wants to”;
• Three witnesses testified that Plaintiffs conduct made it more difficult for lesbian officers to work among and be accepted by their fellow officers, and mentioned specific ways in which that “chilling effect” changed their feelings or behavior; and . Witnesses testified that they “dreaded their training period” with Plaintiff and at least two ...

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