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Ransom v. McDonald

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 30, 2016

REBA B. RANSOM, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT A. MCDONALD, Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [Dkt. #44]

          RICHARD J. LEON, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Reba B. Ransom ("Ransom" or "plaintiff) brings this action against Robert A. McDonald in his official capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs ("the VA" or "defendant"). Plaintiff was employed with the VA from 1995 until July 2011, when she was terminated. Plaintiff alleges in her Complaint filed in June 2013 that her termination was retaliation for her prior Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") activity, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq. See Compl. ¶ 11 [Dkt. #1]. In April 2014, plaintiff moved to expand the scope of her lawsuit to include claims for other adverse employment actions, see Mot. for Leave to File Am. Compl. [Dkt. #23], but for the reasons explained in the VA's opposition to that motion [Dkt. #26], the Court denied plaintiffs request to amend her Complaint. See Min. Order of May 27, 2014. Currently before the Court is defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. See Def.'s MTD [Dkt. #44]. Despite plaintiffs continued discussion of other adverse employment actions in her memorandum opposing defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, Pl's Opp'n [Dkt #46], the Court must limit its disposition here to the only claim before it-the claim that Ransom's July 2011 termination was the product of illegal retaliation. Upon consideration of the parties' pleadings, the entire record in this case, and relevant law, the Court GRANTS summary judgment in favor of defendant.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Prior to the events giving rise to this case, Ransom was an employee at the Kansas City, Missouri branch of the VA, in the Office of Healthcare Inspections ("OHI"). See Def.'s Statement of Undisp. Material Facts ¶ 1 ("Def.'s SOF") [Dkt. #44]; Pl's Response to Def.'s Statement of Material Facts & Pl's Statement of Genuine Issues ¶ 30 ("Pl's SOF, Part I" and "Pl's SOF, Part II") [Dkt. #46-49]. Ransom applied for a promotion to a GS-14 position in early 2010. Compl. ¶ 8. In May 2010, after she was informed she had not received the position, she filed a formal EEO complaint alleging that the non-selection was a product of race discrimination. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 32-34; Pl's SOF, Part I ¶¶ 33-35. She named Dr. John [David] Daigh ("Dr. Daigh") as one of the discriminating officials. Id. Dr. Daigh was the Director of OHI and the selecting official for the position. Id.; Compl. ¶ 8. Several months later, in October 2010, she received a promotion to the GS-14 level. Def.'s SOF ¶ 1; Pl's SOF, Part I ¶ 1. Dr. Daigh, once again the selecting official, approved that selection. Def.'s SOF ¶ 2; Pl's SOF, Part I ¶ 2. In her new position, Dorothy Duncan ("Duncan") was the immediate supervisor of Ransom. Pl's SOF, Part II ¶ 12. Ransom was also a supervisor herself-she supervised her former co-workers James Seitz ("Seitz") and Jennifer Kubiak. Def.'s SOF ¶ 3; Pl's SOF, Part I ¶3.

         Several months after Ransom's promotion, on March 8, 2011, Seitz complained to Ransom's supervisor, Duncan, that Ransom had struck him on the forehead a week earlier. Def.'s SOF ¶ 4; Pl's SOF, Part I ¶ 4. Ransom's explanation of the events is that the physical contact was a friendly "tap" or "pop" that was routine in her interactions with Seitz. Pl's SOF, Part I ¶ 4; Ransom Decl. ¶ 19 [Dkt. #46-28]. Duncan referred the matter to her supervisors, including Dr. Daigh, who referred the matter to the Office of the Inspector General ("OIG") to do a formal investigation of the incident. Pl's SOF, Part II ¶¶ 64, 67. OIG conducted an independent investigation of the incident, including an interview of Ransom in which she explained that Seitz was a "touchy, feely, lovey kind of person" and that she had no way of knowing that her physical contact was unwelcome. Pl's SOF, Part I ¶¶ 8"10- Ransom also told the OIG investigators that she believed the dispute could be explained by the fact that Seitz was angry that she had been promoted instead of him. Pl's SOF, Part I ¶¶ 12-16. She claimed that Seitz's behavior toward her had changed ever since her promotion in October 2010. Id. She claimed he was mentally unstable, causing her to fear for her safety. Id.

         OIG issued a report of its findings a couple of weeks after its interviews, in April 2011. Def.'s SOF ¶ 19; Pl's SOF, Part I ¶ 19. Citing interview testimony, it found that Ransom had struck Seitz on the head with an inappropriate amount of force, concluding it rose to the level of "assault." Pl's SOF, Part I ¶¶ 2°-21- It also concluded that her attempts to pass the conduct off as "routine" were incredible, that she had falsified Seitz's mental instability, and that there was no basis for her to fear for her safety. Id. ¶¶ 22-24.

         On May 10, 2011, Duncan issued a notice of proposed removal, naming the three grounds contained in the OIG report: (1) assault on an employee, (2) intentional falsification, misstatement, or concealment of a material fact (i.e., misrepresenting a "touchy" relationship with Seitz that would have made her physical contact "routine"), and (3) making false or unfounded statement which are slanderous or defamatory about VA personnel or officials (i.e., alleging Seitz was mentally unstable and dangerous). Id. ¶ 26. Seven days after Duncan issued the notice, on May 17, 2011, Ransom filed an EEO complaint against Duncan. Regan Decl., Ex. 18 [Dkt. #44-2]. She also filed a reply to the notice, contending that Duncan had initiated the removal action as retaliation for her protected EEO activity and alleging that Duncan was skeptical of Ransom's promotion and "made negative references about Ransom for having filed her original EEO complaint." Pl's SOF, Part II ¶ 124; Reply to Proposed Removal 1-2 [Dkt. #46-21].

         The notice and reply were referred to Patricia Christ, the Deputy Assistant Inspector General for OHI ("Deputy Assistant Christ"), who served under Dr. Daigh. Def.'s SOF ¶ 28; Hr'g Tr. 86-105 (Christ Testimony) [Dkt. #46-44]; Christ Decl. [Dkt. #44.3]. After an independent review of the OIG report, and a determination that the Seitz-Ransom incident was sufficiently serious, especially because it involved a supervisor's treatment of a direct report, Deputy Assistant Christ decided to terminate Ransom in July 2011. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 29-31; Hr'g Tr. 86-105 (Christ Testimony) [Dkt. #46-44]; Christ Decl. [Dkt. #44-3].

         Ransom appealed the termination decision under the Civil Service Reform Act. In February 2012, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") of the Merit Systems Protection Board held a hearing as to the removal decision wherein she questioned Deputy Assistant Christ about the reasons for her decision. See Pl's Opp'n 22; Ransom v. Dep 't of Veterans Affairs, 2012 M.S.P.B. LEXIS 1235 (M.S.P.B. Feb. 28, 2012). Deputy Assistant Christ opined that the "assault" finding was perhaps the most important to her decision. Pl's Opp'n 22. The ALJ ultimately vacated the removal action and remanded the matter back to the VA with specific findings, including that the physical contact at issue did not rise to the level of "assault." See Id. Upon remand, Deputy Assistant Christ once again terminated Ransom, this time on the sole ground that she made false or unfounded statements. See Id. at 23. That decision was upheld by the Merit Systems Protection Board on appeal. See id.; Ransom v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 2013 M.S.P.B. LEXIS 2780, at * 10-13 (M.S.P.B. May 24, 2013).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is proper when 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); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Although the burden is on the movant to show that there is no dispute of fact or that the evidence is so one-sided that it must prevail as a matter of law, when the movant files a properly supported summary judgment motion, the burden switches to the non-moving party to produce evidence that would support a jury verdict. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52, 256 (1986). The non-moving party "may not rest upon mere allegation or denials of his pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 256.

         The court must accept as true the evidence of, and draw "all justifiable inferences" in favor of, the party opposing summary judgment. Id. at 255. To the extent that the non-moving party will bear the burden of proving facts at trial, however, those facts must be supported by competent evidence, and the absence of such evidence can form the basis for summary judgment. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-24. A genuine issue exists only where "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         ANALYSIS

         Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer "to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of the individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e)-2(a)(1). Title VII similarly prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee because that employee "has opposed any practice made an unlawful practice by [Title VII], or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [Title VII]." 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e)-3(a). Our Circuit has instructed that, at the summary judgment stage, it is "an unnecessary and improper 'sideshow'" to decide whether a plaintiff in a retaliation suit has made out aprima facie case. Jones v. Bernanke, 557 F.3d 670, 678 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (quoting Brady v. Office of the Sergeant at Arms, U.S. House of Representatives,520 F.3d 490, 493 (D.C. Cir. 2008)). Where, as here, the employer asserts a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the removal action challenged, the only relevant inquiry is whether the employee has put forth sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that the employer's proffered explanation is a mere pretext and the employer intentionally retaliated against the employee. Id. Summary judgment must be granted for the defendant if the plaintiff fails to "produce sufficient evidence that would discredit [the employer's proffered explanation] and show that the actions were retaliatory." Baloch v. Kempthorne,550 ...


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