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Fields v. Vilsack

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 16, 2016

THOMAS J. VILSACK, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Defendant.

          SEDERIS FIELDS, Plaintiff, represented by Nathaniel D. Johnson, THE JOHNSON LAW GROUP, LLC.

          THOMAS J. VILSACK, Defendant, represented by Marina Utgoff Braswell, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE.


          RANDOLPH D. MOSS, District Judge.

         Plaintiff Sederis Fields is a longtime employee of the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"). Her relationship with her supervisor, John Chott, has been fraught with disagreement for more than a decade. She has unsuccessfully sued the USDA before, and Chott was a key witness in that case. While that case was still pending, Fields suffered a series of alleged workplace indignities, all of which involve Chott in one form or another. She has now brought suit alleging that these incidents were the product of illegal discrimination based on her sex and race, and the product of illegal retaliation based on her previous complaints. The USDA has moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. See Dkt. 26. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant that motion in part and will deny it in part. Fields has also filed a separate motion asserting that she requires discovery before the Court considers whether to grant summary judgment to the USDA on any issues. For the reasons explained below, that motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         For purposes of the USDA's motion to dismiss, the following allegations from Fields's complaint are taken as true. See, e.g., Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984).

         A. Fields's History with the U.S. Department of Agriculture

         Fields is an African American woman who had worked at the Department of Agriculture for close to thirty years. See Compl. ¶ 2. Since 1997, she has worked at the GS-13 grade level, serving for the majority of that time as a "Program Coordination Specialist" under the Deputy Administrator for Field Operations ("DAFO office") within the Farm Service Agency. Id. ¶ 10. In 2003, Fields filed an administrative Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint against the USDA and then, in 2006, filed a lawsuit on those same charges in federal district court. Id. ¶¶ 13-14. That lawsuit dragged on for years. After a five-day trial, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, and Judge Kennedy declared a mistrial in 2009. Mem. Op., Fields v. Johanns, No. 06-cv-0538 (D.D.C. July 19, 2011), ECF No. 80 at 3. In 2011, Judge Kennedy granted judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, in favor of the USDA. Id. at 15. Subsequently, then-Chief Judge Lamberth, to whom the case was transferred upon Judge Kennedy's retirement, denied Fields's pro se motion for reconsideration. Mem. Op., Fields v. Johanns, No. 06-cv-0538 (D.D.C. Jan. 30, 2012), ECF No. 87. That lawsuit is not directly at issue here, but it sets the stage for Fields's present allegations of retaliation because, among other things, Fields's longtime supervisor, John Chott, was "accused of discrimination, " was "a trial witness, " and was "an active participant in USDA's defense" in the earlier case. Compl. ¶ 19.

         B. Fields's Conflicts With Her Supervisor Over Performance Ratings and Performance Plans

         The facts that led to the present case began in June 2009, when Fields left the DAFO office for a twenty-month detail at the USDA's Civil Rights Task Force ("Task Force"). Compl. ¶ 22. In October 2009, after Fields had been on the detail for roughly four months, her supervisor on the Task Force, Melvin Womack, gave her an "Outstanding" performance rating for fiscal year 2009. Id. ¶ 23. Fields allegedly learned on March 31, 2010, however, that Chott had "downgraded" that rating to "Superior" for fiscal year 2009. Id. ¶ 24. According to the complaint, Chott lacked the authority to lower her performance rating. Id. ¶¶ 26-28.

         Fields and Chott met in Chott's office on March 31, 2010, to discuss the lower performance rating. Id. ¶ 36. During this meeting, Chott allegedly "tried to coerce Ms. Fields into signing his 2010 performance plan" for her, even though Fields remained on detail in a different office and had signed a performance plan for her detail assignment. Id. ¶¶ 41-42. Fields refused to sign Chott's proposed plan. Id. ¶¶ 43-46. After the meeting, Chott allegedly "slammed his door so hard that it shook the walls of the office, " caused a colleague to ask whether she should call security, and prompted Chott's supervisor to emerge from his own office and ask what happened. Id. ¶¶ 36-38. The complaint does not assert that anyone actually called for outside intervention, but it does allege that Fields was "intimidated, frightened, and upset." Id. ¶ 39. Fields contacted the USDA's EEO office about her lowered performance rating that same day-March 31, 2010-and she filed a formal EEO complaint a month later on April 30, 2010. Id. ¶ 8.

         C. Fields Does Not Receive a Promotion Upon Her Return

         Fields completed her detail and returned to her previous position with the Deputy Administrator for Field Operations, under Chott's supervision, on February 14, 2011. Compl. ¶ 49. Just a few weeks later, on March 2, 2011, Fields and her colleagues received an email from Chott announcing that Barbara Boyd, a white woman, would be reassigned to his staff on March 14, 2011. Id. ¶ 50. Chott then sent a follow-up email on March 10, 2011, announcing that Ken Nagel, a GS-14, would retire at the end of the month. Id. ¶ 51. During the few weeks between the time Boyd rejoined Chott's staff on March 14, 2011 and Nagel's retirement on March 31, 2011, Boyd worked at a conference table in Nagel's office. Id. ¶¶ 51-52. After Nagel retired, Boyd assumed "sole possession of" his office, and, more importantly, took over his job. Id. ¶¶ 52-55.

         This development touched an old wound for Fields. Nagel's position was a GS-14 and thus would have represented a promotion from Fields's GS-13 position. It was also the very same position that Fields had unsuccessfully applied for in 2003, which precipitated the earlier litigation. Id. ¶ 54. Making matters worse, according to Fields, was the fact that Chott filled the position through a non-competitive assignment. The position was never advertised, and Fields was never provided an opportunity to compete for the job that she had sought since at least 2003. Id. ¶¶ 53-55. In her view, Chott took the unusual step of filing the position laterally-without a competitive process-in order to favor a white employee and to retaliate against Fields for her prior EEO activity and lawsuit. Id. ¶¶ 55-56. Fields contacted the USDA's EEO office on March 28, 2011, to complain that Chott's failure to promote her to Nagel's position was both discriminatory and retaliatory, and she subsequently filed a formal EEO complaint. Id. ¶ 9.

         D. Procedural History

         Fields filed the present suit on December 20, 2013, alleging that the USDA retaliated against her for engaging in protected EEO activity (Count 1), and discriminated against her on the basis of her sex (Count 2) and race (Count 3), all in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"). See Compl. ¶¶ 57-59. In support of Count 1, Fields alleges that Chott lowered her performance rating from "Outstanding" to "Superior, " subjected her to a hostile work environment and unequal terms and conditions of employment, and denied her the opportunity to compete for a GS-14 position in retaliation for EEO activity. For the most part, Fields relies on the same allegedly wrongful conduct in support of Count 2; the one exception is that she does not rely on Chott's alleged denial of her right to compete for the GS-14 position, presumably because Boyd, who was given the job, is also a woman. And, finally, in support of Count 3, Fields relies on all of the same purportedly discriminatory acts identified in Count 1.

         In response, the USDA has moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. See Dkt. 26. Fields, in addition to opposing that motion, has moved for leave to take discovery pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d). See Dkt. 31.


         "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must have facial plausibility, ' meaning it must plead[] factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'" Hettinga v. United States, 677 F.3d 471, 476 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). "In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must construe the complaint in favor of the plaintiff, who must be granted the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'" Id. (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)). "The [C]ourt, however, need not accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, or inferences... unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint." Ames v. Johnson, 121 F.Supp. 3d 126, 129 (D.D.C. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (second alteration in original).

         Summary judgment is appropriate when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); seeAnderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). "A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ' and a dispute about a material fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Steele v. Schafer,535 F.3d 689, 692 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248). "Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.... The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. To prevail at summary judgment, the ...

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