United States District Court, District of Columbia
SEDERIS FIELDS, Plaintiff, represented by Nathaniel D.
Johnson, THE JOHNSON LAW GROUP, LLC.
J. VILSACK, Defendant, represented by Marina Utgoff Braswell,
U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
RANDOLPH D. MOSS, District Judge.
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.
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).
Fields's History with the U.S. Department of Agriculture
is an African American woman who had worked at the Department
of Agriculture for close to thirty years. See Compl.
Â¶ 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. Â¶ 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. Â¶Â¶ 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. Â¶ 19.
Fields's Conflicts With Her Supervisor Over Performance
Ratings and Performance Plans
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. Â¶ 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. Â¶ 23.
Fields allegedly learned on March 31, 2010, however, that
Chott had "downgraded" that rating to
"Superior" for fiscal year 2009. Id. Â¶ 24.
According to the complaint, Chott lacked the authority to
lower her performance rating. Id. Â¶Â¶ 26-28.
and Chott met in Chott's office on March 31, 2010, to
discuss the lower performance rating. Id. Â¶ 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. Â¶Â¶ 41-42. Fields refused to sign
Chott's proposed plan. Id. Â¶Â¶ 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. Â¶Â¶ 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. Â¶ 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. Â¶ 8.
Fields Does Not Receive a Promotion Upon Her Return
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. Â¶ 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. Â¶ 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. Â¶
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. Â¶Â¶ 51-52. After
Nagel retired, Boyd assumed "sole possession of"
his office, and, more importantly, took over his job.
Id. Â¶Â¶ 52-55.
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. Â¶ 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. Â¶Â¶ 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. Â¶Â¶ 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. Â¶ 9.
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. Â§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII").
See Compl. Â¶Â¶ 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.
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.
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).
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 ...