United States District Court, District of Columbia
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.”).
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.
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.
Standard of Review
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).
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 ...