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Hicklin v. McDonald

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 24, 2017

DANIEL HICKLIN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT A. MCDONALD, SECRETARY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge.

         The Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) terminated Plaintiff Daniel Hicklin from his IT position after an internal investigation found that he had threatened his supervisor and made other aggressive and inappropriate comments in the presence of multiple co-workers. Hicklin, who is African American and Christian, sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that he was fired because of racial and religious bias on the part of his supervisor, and that he had experienced a hostile work environment. Because Hicklin has failed to adduce any credible evidence to rebut the validity of the VA's stated reason for his termination, or to suggest the existence of a hostile work environment, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of the Department.

         I. Background

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise indicated. The Chief Information Officer for the VA's Office of Research & Development, Darryl McGraw, hired Mr. Hicklin as an Information Technology Specialist in May 2013 and supervised him until September 2013. Def.'s Statement of Material Facts (“SMF”) ¶¶ 1, 3-4. Both Hicklin and McGraw are African American and self-professed Christians. Id. at ¶¶ 5-7. Their relationship got off on the wrong foot when McGraw rebuked Hicklin for failing to obtain an identification badge during his first week on the job. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 6-7. Soon after, McGraw began receiving complaints about Hicklin's job performance. See Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 14-17; see also Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Sum. Jud. (“MSJ”), Ex. 6 (email from a VA employee complaining that Hicklin spent hours in non-work-related conversations); Ex. 7 (email from another IT staffer reporting that Hicklin had failed to reimage an employee's computer); Ex. 8 (email from a VA employee recounting that Hicklin had told her a problem could not be fixed even though another specialist then fixed it); Ex. 9 (memo from another VA employee stating that Hicklin failed to respond to her IT request). After the first complaint, an argument ensued during which McGraw scolded Hicklin for not knowing how to locate the workstation of an employee who had requested IT assistance. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 1 at 35:20-36:3 (McGraw Dep.). Although the parties dispute the precise nature of this confrontation, both agree that at the end of the conversation, McGraw asked Hicklin if he was threatening him to which Hicklin responded that he was not. Compare Def.'s SMF ¶ 11 with Pl.'s SMF ¶ 11.

         On September 11, 2013, McGraw issued Hicklin a “Counseling Memorandum” detailing the various employee complaints McGraw had received and suggesting how Hicklin could improve his job performance. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 5. McGraw provided Hicklin with a copy of the memorandum and met with him to review it. After that meeting, McGraw added a postscript to the memo noting that Hicklin had become aggressive during the meeting, challenging the sincerity of McGraw's religious beliefs by exclaiming “you supposed to be a minster[.]” Id. McGraw warned Hicklin that his remarks were inappropriate and that “[McGraw's] religion shouldn't have anything to do with this conversation.” Id. Uncomfortable with Hicklin's behavior, McGraw consulted with the VA's human resources department on potential disciplinary actions, and scheduled a second meeting with Hicklin for September 16, 2013 to formally admonish him for disrespectful conduct. See Def.'s MSJ, Exs. 12, 34.

         At approximately 8:00 a.m. on the day of the scheduled meeting, a gunman opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard, injuring three people and killing twelve. Later that morning, McGraw emailed Hicklin to re-schedule their meeting because Hicklin did not want to meet without a union representative present. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 11. McGraw testified in his deposition that Hicklin then came to his office to ask about the meeting, to which McGraw replied that he had already emailed him about it. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 1 at 43:19-46:2. Hicklin initially walked away, McGraw recalled, but then returned to the threshold of McGraw's office and pronounced-in a voice loud enough to carry-that “pay day is coming.” Id. Roddrick Sanders, an IT staff member who sat near McGraw's office, confirmed in his deposition that Hicklin said “payback is coming, or something to that effect.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 13 at 11:18-12:6 (Sanders Dep.).

         McGraw immediately reported the incident to the agency's HR department and alerted his staff to the perceived threat. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 1 at 45:21-46:2, 65:18-66:5. When HR requested statements from other VA employees, McGraw emailed blank incident reports to employees who had spoken to him in the past about Hicklin so that they could document their experiences with him. Id. at 67:14-69:11. In the completed incident reports, employees described numerous inappropriate and aggressive statements by Hicklin, including direct threats of violence he made against McGraw. See Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 13 (report noting that “Mr. Hicklin has also stated repetedly [sic] that he's ‘trained' towards violence while in the military . . . [and] has the potential to snap and do irrational things . . . I sit in the cubicle in front of him and on any given day Mr. Hicklin will recount perceived incidents with Mr. McGraw to former co-workers, relatives, friends and clients within the building.”); Ex. 17 (report stating that “[Hicklin] has mentioned becoming or wanting to become violent in several situations.”); Ex. 19 (report describing Hicklin's comment that “he had been convicted of killing someone years and was given the choice of prison or joining the Army.”); Ex. 20 (report recounting “on numerous occasions Daniel Hicklin has approached me after meeting with Darryl McGraw and has voiced physical threats against Darryl . . . [Hicklin] has also made statements that he is going to show [McGraw] that he can't talk to him any way and that he is not somebody to mess with.”).

         Upon learning of the reported “pay day” threat, the VA flew in two out-of-state employees to conduct a formal investigation. Def.'s SMF ¶ 48. The investigators began by confirming the statements that McGraw and other VA employees had made in their incident reports. Id. at ¶ 49. Additional interviews with coworkers who had not submitted incident reports revealed new allegations of misconduct by Hicklin. See Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 24 (statement by VA employee that “one of [her] staff reported that Mr. Hicklin had told her that he had a gun.”); Ex. 25 (statement by another employee that Hicklin often bragged to her about his special ops training and that she feared Hicklin would retaliate against her if she provided a written statement to the investigators). While the investigation was pending, Horace Blackman, the IT Director for VA's Central Office and McGraw's second-line supervisor, placed Hicklin on administrative leave. Def.'s SMF ¶ 53; see also Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 26.

         After speaking with Hicklin's supervisors and coworkers, the investigators compiled a summary of findings for the agency's review. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 25. Based on those findings, the VA charged Hicklin with making threats of violence and recommended his removal, concluding that Hicklin's actions had “create[d] a very high level of anxiety and disruption in the workplace.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 31. The VA informed Hicklin that it was considering dismissing him and advised him of his rights, including the right to respond to the proposed removal. Id. The VA further notified Hicklin that the deciding official, the VA's Acting Executive Director for Field Operations, would make the ultimate decision after independently considering the evidence against Hicklin as well as his reply. See id. The Acting Executive Director-with no apparent involvement from McGraw-ultimately decided to terminate Hicklin, and he was dismissed in April 2014. See Def.'s MSJ, Exs. 32-33. Hicklin lodged a timely complaint with the VA's Equal Employment Office alleging discrimination, and, after his administrative complaint was dismissed, filed suit in this Court. Pl.'s Opp'n to Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment shall be granted “if 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). The movant bears the burden to demonstrate an “absence of a genuine issue of material fact” in dispute. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The court accepts as true the nonmovant's evidence and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, “the court may not make credibility determinations or otherwise weigh the evidence.” Johnson v. Perez, 823 F.3d 701, 705 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (citing Calhoun v. Johnson, 632 F.3d 1259, 1261 (D.C. Cir. 2011)). The nonmovant, however, cannot rely on allegations or conclusory statements alone to create a material factual dispute. Veitch v. England, 471 F.3d 124, 134 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

         III. Analysis

         A. Intentional Discrimination

         When, as here, a plaintiff has alleged that his termination was the result of unlawful discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to provide a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for the termination. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04 (1973). Once such a reason is offered, the question becomes “whether the employee has ‘produced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the employer's asserted non-discriminatory reason was not the actual reason and that the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee on the basis of race [or] religion[.]'” Vatel v. All. of Auto. Mfrs., 627 F.3d 1245, 1246 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Brady v. Office of the Sergeant at Arms,520 F.3d 490, 494 (D.C. Cir. 2008)). Proof of intentional discrimination includes “(1) the plaintiff's prima facie case; (2) any evidence the plaintiff presents to attack the employer's proffered explanations for its actions; and (3) any ...


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