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Tucker v. Johnson

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 30, 2016

Harriet Paige Tucker, Plaintiff,
v.
Jeh Johnson, in his official capacity as Secretary, United States Department of Homeland Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Paige Tucker brought this action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against her former employer the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA" or "Defendant"), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Defendant terminated Plaintiffs employment in March 2010 for "unacceptable performance." Plaintiff contests Defendant's explanation, alleging that Defendant (1) discriminated against her because of her gender; (2) retaliated against her for reporting the sexually harassing behavior of a colleague; and (3) subjected her to a hostile work environment.

         Defendant has moved for summary judgment on all claims.[1] Having reviewed the evidence, the court finds that a reasonable jury could conclude that Defendant (1) discriminated against Plaintiff because of her gender, and (2) retaliated against Plaintiff for reporting her colleague's sexually harassing behavior. On the other hand, the court finds that no reasonable jury could conclude that Plaintiff faced a hostile work environment at FEMA. The court therefore grants in part and denies in part Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that a court should grant summary judgment if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [the moving party] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 56(a). A material fact is one that is capable of affecting the outcome of litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         Rule 56 "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, [ ] on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party moving for summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion" and identifying those portions of the record that it believes "demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 323.

         Once the moving party has made an adequate showing that a fact cannot be disputed, the burden shifts to the party opposing summary judgment to "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted) (footnote omitted). The nonmoving party may oppose the motion using "any of the kinds of evidentiary materials listed in Rule 56(c), except the mere pleadings themselves, and it is from this list that one would normally expect the nonmoving party to make the showing to which [the Court has] referred." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324. "The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (citation omitted). However, "[t]o defeat a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must offer more than mere unsupported allegations or denials." Dormu v. District of Columbia, 795 F.Supp.2d 7, 17 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). In other words, if the non-movant's evidence is "merely colorable" or "not significantly probative, " summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. Summary judgment, then, is appropriate when the nonmoving party fails to offer "evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant]" Id. at252.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In a nutshell, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the factual predicate for Plaintiffs claims is as follows. In the spring of 2009, Plaintiff was a probationary employee within FEMA's Disaster Reserve Workforce Division. During the summer and early fall of 2009, one of her co-workers, David Thompson, repeatedly engaged in acts of sexual harassment directed at her and other women in the office. Plaintiff first took her concerns about Thompson's improper behavior to her supervisor, Richard Rosene, who failed to take any corrective action. As Thompson's harassing behavior continued, Plaintiff took her complaints about Thompson to FEMA's security office in September 2009. Thereafter, Rosene became overtly and increasingly hostile towards Plaintiff. Most significantly, in November 2009, Rosene gave Plaintiff a negative performance review, only weeks after she had received a commendation for her work. Plaintiff received a second negative review from Rosene in January 2010, and Defendant terminated Plaintiff approximately two months later.

         Having summarily set forth the factual background, the court turns to Plaintiffs claims and the specific evidence offered by the parties concerning those claims.

         A. Hostile Work Environment Claim

         The court begins with Plaintiffs hostile work environment claim. To make out such a claim, Plaintiff must show that she was subjected "to discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment." Baloch v. Kempthorne, 550 F.3d 1191, 1201 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In deciding whether the evidence meets that standard, "the court looks to the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, its offensiveness, and whether it interferes with an employee's work performance." Id.; see also Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993) (whether an environment is "hostile" or "abusive" can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances). "In order to be actionable under the statute, a sexually objectionable environment must be both objectively and subjectively offensive, one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive." Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 787 (1998); see also Baird v. Gotbaum, 792 F.3d 166, 172 (D.C. Cir. 2015) ("[T]he standard for severity and pervasiveness is ... an objective one.") (citing Harris, 510 U.S. at 21).

         Plaintiff contends that the actions and comments of her colleague, David Thompson, created a hostile work environment. Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 51-60. Specifically, Plaintiff testified that, beginning in approximately June 2009, Thompson engaged in numerous incidents of inappropriate behavior, including making comments to Plaintiff about her clothes, perfume, and remarking that Plaintiffs necklace "would hit right along [her] breast line." Pl's Opp'n to Def's Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 18 [hereinafter Pl's Opp'n.], Ex. 4, Dep. of Paige Tucker on March 28, 2012, ECF No. 18-5 [hereinafter Tucker Dep. I.], at 23-25. According to Plaintiff, Thompson also made comments about the physical characteristics of other colleagues, directing them "[m]ostly toward female staff." Id. at 24. Plaintiff heard through another colleague of an incident in early September 2009, during which Thompson, while with other FEMA employees waiting to get their blood pressure checked, "was saying things of a very sexual nature to everyone" and "really upsetting everybody on site." Def's Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 17 [hereinafter Def's Mot.], Ex. C, Dep. of Paige Tucker, April 24, 2015, ECF No. 17-3 [hereinafter Tucker Dep. II], at 62. During that the same incident, Thompson supposedly grabbed the arm of the female nurse taking his blood pressure and held it without her consent. Pl's Opp'n, Ex. 2, Dep. of Richard Rosene, ECF No. 18-3 [hereinafter Rosene Dep.], at 44-46. Plaintiff also ...


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