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Huang v. Wheeler

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 19, 2016

QIHUI HUANG, Plaintiff,
v.
TOM WHEELER Chairman, Federal Communications Commission, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge.

         Some people have experienced the daily struggle of toiling under a supervisor who makes their blood boil. Plaintiff Qihui Huang - who worked as an electronics engineer at the Federal Communications Commission - asserts that she suffered a more literal form of this metaphorical malady. According to Huang, her supervisors at the FCC treated her so unfairly that the mere mention of their names caused her high blood pressure to rise to near-fatal heights. She thus brings this pro se action against her supervisors and the FCC, alleging that they created a hostile work environment, and discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of numerous federal and state laws. The FCC now files a Motion to Dismiss, contending that all of the claims in her Amended Complaint suffer from terminal defects. As the Court largely agrees with the agency's assessment, it will grant the Motion for the most part.

         I. Background

         The Court, as it must at this stage, draws the facts from Plaintiff's Complaints and her Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss. See Brown v. Whole Foods Market Gr., Inc., 789 F.3d 146, 152 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (holding district court must consider all pro se litigant's allegations when considering a motion to dismiss, including those found in plaintiff's opposition). It notes that Huang has not made this an easy task, however, because her pleadings contain only vague and cursory factual allegations. Where she does allege facts, for example, they mostly lack dates and critical details. The Court nevertheless attempts, as best it can, to describe the facts she has provided in the light most favorable to her.

         Plaintiff is an Asian-American sexagenarian with two advanced degrees in electrical engineering and physics. See ECF No. 17 (Opposition) at 24. Her work has even contributed to a Nobel Prize in physics. Id. In 1991, she joined the FCC as a computer specialist. Id. at 19. During her long and successful career at the agency, she amassed several performance awards and was repeatedly promoted through competitive job postings. Id. Huang eventually reached the GS-15 level as a senior electronics engineer in the FCC's Office of Engineering Technology in 2004 and, over the next decade, continued to receive praise in that role from two different supervisors as she rose to a GS-15, Step 7 pay grade. Id. at 19-20; ECF No. 1 (Complaint) at 9.

         Her smooth sailing at the agency ran into a squall, however, in 2014. In April of that year, her supervisor, Robert Weller, asked her to write a report on “wireless microphones systems in the U.S. market.” Compl. at 2. Huang strove diligently on the task over the summer. Id. Weller left the agency in July 2014 without having commented on her work. See Opp. at 20-21. His replacement as Branch Chief, Martin Doczkat, requested the report shortly thereafter and gave it back to her several weeks later with 83 comments attached. Id. at 21-22. Huang was shocked by the extensive nature of these comments and an accompanying email indicating that, as a GS-15, she “should know” certain facts that she had not included in the report. Id. She subsequently demanded that Dozckat clarify both whether he believed that she was unqualified for her GS-15 position and whether she should take his comments to mean that she had performed the task poorly. Id. Considering his subsequent silence an admission to both, Huang simmered under what she believed was the unjustified nature of these critiques, given that she had merely been following the instructions provided to her by Weller in crafting the report. Id. at 22-23.

         Huang's health deteriorated under the weight of this criticism from her supervisor. Id. at 27. She became afraid of Dozckat and her Division Chief, Walter Johnson. Id. When either of the men contacted (or suggested they might contact) her at work, her blood pressure would rise to dangerously high levels, putting her in fear for her life. Id. Huang sought relief in two ways. She first asked for help from a nurse at the FCC, who recommended that she request a supervisor swap before her hypertension did her in. Id. Then, on October 20, 2014, Huang pursued counseling at the agency's Equal Employment Opportunity office, claiming that Doczkat's comments on her report were discriminatory and created a hostile working environment. See ECF No. 14 (Motion to Dismiss) at 3.

         A month later, in November 2014, Doczkat gave Huang a failing grade on her midterm performance review. See Opp. at 26. She immediately responded by calling for a meeting with her union representative. Id. At that meeting, Doczkat represented that he had given her the poor rating due to her failure, among other things, to complete required trainings that she now claims she had in fact completed. Id. Frustrated, Huang quickly initiated EEO counseling in regard to this review and also filed a formal EEO discrimination complaint on December 19, 2014, alleging that Dockzat's earlier negative comments on her report were motivated by discriminatory animus and created a hostile working environment. See Mot. at 3.

         Huang's health continued its decline that winter, however, and, in early 2015, she was forced to request medical leave to deal with her hypertension. Id. Before approving her request, Doczkat asked that she provide additional medical verification of her condition. Id. This demand, too, caused Huang's blood pressure to spike to dangerously high levels, and so she warned him that she would file another complaint with the EEO office if he did not grant her request. See Opp. at 27. She nevertheless provided the requested paperwork, and Dozckat retroactively granted the medical leave as promised. Id.; Compl. at 4 (noting she was out on sick leave from early February 2015 through August 2015); Mot. at 22-23. He also periodically approved her requests for sick leave for the next six months. See Mot. at 22-23. In February 2015, however, he did not approve Huang's scheduled increase to a new pay step within the GS-15 band. See Opp. at 27.

         Huang finally returned to work in August 2015. Id. At that time, she submitted a formal request to the FCC's Office of Workplace Diversity for a transfer to another management team as a reasonable accommodation for her high blood pressure. See Opp. at 12. She asserted that she would die from her condition if the agency forced her to continue to interact with Johnson and Dozckat. See ECF No. 14, Exh. D (Letter from the Office of Workplace Diversity) at 1. According to Huang, by this time, even the mention of their names caused her blood pressure to spike to near-fatal levels. Id. She also attached two letters from her long-term doctor discussing her history of severe hypertension, as well as similar statements from two nurses and an acupuncturist. Id. at 2-3. The OWD denied the request, though, because she “refused to participate in identifying modifications or adjustments that would be effective” at accommodating her disability, such as allowing an intermediary to pass assigned work to her. Id. at 4-5; Am. Compl., ¶¶ 5, 8.

         Around this time, the agency also placed Huang on a Performance Improvement Plan. See Am. Compl., ¶ 9. A PIP “precedes the proposal of a reduction in grade or removal for unacceptable performance, and an employee has not less than thirty calendar days to demonstrate acceptable performance pursuant to her supervisor's identification of the core competency for which performance is unacceptable.” Mot. at 23 n.13 (quotation marks omitted). In Huang's case, she was given 90 days to improve her performance or face termination. See Am. Compl., ¶ 9. Huang decided instead to retire in January 2016 at the age of 64. Id. at 9-10; Mot. at 2. Before doing so, however, she sought to complain to the OWD about several of the latter actions taken against her - e.g., the PIP and the initial denial of sick leave - but she received no response from that office and never filed a formal EEO complaint in regard to these grievances. See Opp. at 10-11 n.9.

         Huang did, however, file, this federal lawsuit on February 29, 2016, against the FCC, Doczkat, and Johnson, alleging that they had discriminated against her on the basis of her age, sex, national origin, and disability. See ECF No. 1 (Complaint). After seeking leave for an extension of time to file a response, the FCC moved to dismiss that Complaint on June 6, 2016. See ECF No. 8. The Court denied that motion without prejudice when it granted Huang's subsequent motion for leave to “amend or correct her complaint by adding counts (claims).” See Am. Compl.; 6/30/2016 Minute Order. Now read together with her original Complaint, Huang's Amended Complaint asserts numerous counts of discrimination and/or retaliation against the FCC based on various federal and state laws, specifically: I) the FCC discriminated against her and created a hostile work environment when Doczkat intimated that she was unqualified for a GS-15 position and performed poorly on drafting her microphone report; II) Dozckat discriminated and retaliated against her when he gave her a “fail” on her November 2014 midterm performance evaluation; III) Dozckat discriminated and retaliated against her when he did not approve her sick leave; IV) Dozckat and Johnson discriminated and retaliated against her when they denied her scheduled step increase; V) the FCC discriminated and retaliated against her when it placed her on the PIP; VI) the FCC discriminated against her when it did not approve her requests for a transfer as a reasonable accommodation for her hypertension; VII) the FCC committed various criminal acts through its discriminatory employment actions; VIII) the FCC forced her to resign as a result of its discrimination; and IX) the FCC, through all of the above actions, created a hostile working environment. The FCC's Motion to Dismiss this Amended Complaint is now ripe.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” In evaluating Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, the Court must “treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (citation omitted); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1250 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The pleading rules are “not meant to impose a great burden upon a plaintiff, ” Dura Pharm., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005), and she must thus be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 584 (2007).

         Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, id. at 555, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). The Court need not accept as true, then, “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau v. Fed. Trade Comm'n, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)). For a plaintiff to survive a 12(b)(6) motion even if “recovery is very remote and unlikely, ” the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56 (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). While pro se pleadings are held to “less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, [they] must nonetheless plead factual matter that permits [the Court] to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Brown, 789 F.3d at 150 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         The standard to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), though, is less forgiving. Under this Rule, Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the Court has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear her claims. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992); U.S. Ecology, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Interior, 231 F.3d 20, 24 (D.C. Cir. 2000). A court also has an “affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority.” Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2001). For this reason, “‘the [p]laintiff's factual allegations in the complaint . . . will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion' than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim.” Id. at 13-14 (quoting 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1350 (2d ed. 1987) (alteration in original)). Additionally, unlike with a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court “may consider materials outside the pleadings in deciding whether to grant a motion to dismiss for lack of ...


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