United States District Court, District of Columbia
E. BOASBERG United States District Judge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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).
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 ...