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Coats v. DeVos

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 8, 2017

RONALD COATS, Plaintiff,
v.
ELISABETH DeVOS, [1]Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          RANDOLPH D. MOSS United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Ronald Coats brings this action against his former employer, the United States Department of Education, for alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 633a et seq. (“ADEA”). Coats claims that he was unlawfully terminated from his position as a systems accountant in the Department's Office of the Chief Financial Officer (“OCFO”) on the basis of his race and age and in retaliation for his prior EEO activity. See Dkt. 1 at 1 (Compl. ¶ 1). The Department answered the complaint, Dkt. 11, and, following the close of discovery, moved for summary judgment on each of Coats's three claims, Dkt. 20. The Department contends that Coats was terminated from his position for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason-poor work performance-and that there is no evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could find that this reason was pretextual. Coats disagrees, arguing that the record contains both direct and circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the Department's asserted rationale is pretextual and that the Department, in fact, acted for discriminatory and retaliatory reasons.

         As explained below, the Court concludes that the merits of Coats's Title VII claims for racial discrimination and retaliation turn on disputed issues of material fact and will, accordingly, deny summary judgment on those claims. With respect to Coats's ADEA claims for age discrimination and retaliation, however, the Court concludes that Coats has failed to identify evidence from which a reasonable jury could find in his favor and will, accordingly, grant summary judgment in favor of the Department on those claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         For the purpose of evaluating the Department's motion for summary judgment, the following facts are construed in the light most favorable to Coats, who is the nonmoving party. See Arrington v. United States, 473 F.3d 329, 333 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

         Coats, who is African-American, worked at the Department of Education as a systems accountant from 1991 until he was terminated in early 2013. Dkt. 22-1 at 7 (Coats Dep. 13); Dkt. 22 at 28. At the time of his termination, Coats was fifty-nine years old. Dkt. 1 at 3 (Compl. ¶ 6). The Department's action was based on the proposal of Coats's direct supervisor, Phillip Juengst, and the final determination of Ernest Canellos, an administrative law judge who was designated to serve as the deciding official. Dkt. 22 at 17, 24-25.

         Juengst became Coats's direct supervisor in March 2011. Dkt. 20-4 at 2 (Juengst Dep. 9); Dkt. 20-5 at 12. Shortly thereafter, in May of 2011, Juengst met with Coats for a “mid-year review” during which Juengst highlighted several “opportunities for growth” in Coats's work performance. Dkt. 20-1 at 12-14 (Coats Dep. 60-62). At the meeting, Juengst also provided Coats with a proposed version of his “REACH plan, ” a document used to track employees' progress toward performance goals, and, after incorporating Coats's feedback, Juengst issued a final REACH plan on June 9, 2011. See Dkt. 20-5 at 15; Dkt. 20 at 12. Two months later, Juengst met with Coats again to inform him “that his performance, if not improved, would result in an unsuccessful [REACH] rating.” Dkt. 20-5 at 16. Juengst offered Coats an informal assistance plan to help address the concerns he had identified with Coats's performance, but Coats refused to sign the plan. Id. 16-17; Dkt. 20-1 at 15-16 (Coats Dep. 63-64); see also Dkt. 20-7 at 17-18.

         On September 22, 2011, Juengst issued a REACH rating that assessed Coats's performance as “unsatisfactory.” Dkt. 20-7 at 23-28. Juengst expressed “concern with [Coats's] overall performance and productivity, ” id. at 23, placed him on a “Performance Improvement Plan” (“PIP”), id. at 30-34, denied him a “[w]ithin [g]rade [i]ncrease” in salary, Dkt. 20-5 at 19, and informed him that, if he “fail[ed] to achieve acceptable performance on critical elements” identified in his PIP, he could be terminated from service at the Department, Dkt. 20-7 at 34. Again, Coats refused to sign the REACH rating or the PIP, see Dkt. 20-7 at 28, 34, and on February 29, 2012, Juengst issued a proposal to remove Coats from federal service, Dkt. 24-9 at 2-14.

         In November 2011, Coats filed a formal EEO complaint alleging that Juengst's September actions were taken based on his race and age and in retaliation for prior EEO actions he had pursued in 2008 and 2010. Dkt. 20-7 at 36-37. In April 2012, the Office of Management, the unit within the Department tasked with handling EEO matters, issued a written decision rejecting all of Coats's claims. Id. at 36-54. In particular, the Office of Management concluded that each of Coats's discrimination claims either failed to establish a prima facie case, id. at 40, 47, 50, 51, or failed to show that the Department's asserted, nondiscriminatory reason for acting was pretextual, id. at 46, 49, 50, 51. The Office of Management also rejected Coats's claim that Juengst's September 2011 actions were taken in retaliation for Coats's 2008 and 2010 EEO activity, finding that Juengst's assertion “that he was not aware of th[at] activity” more “credible” than Coats's contrary assertion. Id. at 39-40. Although it rejected each of Coats's Title VII and ADEA claims, the Office of Management did find that Juengst had violated the Department's policies by issuing Coats a REACH rating fewer than 120 days after finalizing a REACH plan. Id. at 43, 45 (REACH rating issued only 105 days after REACH plan was finalized).

         Overall, the Office of Management found that, “[a]t worst, [Juengst's] actions amounted to an administrative error, ” and it highlighted the “pervasive and basic errors in [Coats's] work products.” Dkt. 20-7 at 45-46. Nonetheless, on June 7, 2012, Juengst withdrew Coats's “unsatisfactory” REACH rating, rescinded his PIP, and granted Coats a within grade salary increase, explaining that he did so “out of fairness . . . because of the question raised about the appropriateness of the timing of [the REACH] rating.” Id. at 56. Although Juengst “continue[d] to believe” his rating decision was “justified by [Coats's] unacceptable performance, ” he also withdrew his proposal to remove Coats from federal service, noting that his decision to terminate Coats's employment was “based in part or in whole on the September 22, 2011 REACH rating.” Id.

         In May 2012, Juengst initiated another round of evaluations assessing Coats's performance. Just as he had the previous year, Juengst advised Coats during their midpoint conference that he was in danger of receiving an “unsatisfactory” REACH rating, id. at 61; offered Coats an informal assistance plan to address the concerns (which Coats, again, refused to accept), id. at 61 n.4; issued Coats a PIP, id. at 61; and, ultimately, issued a second proposal in September 2012 to remove Coats from federal service, id. at 59-79. Coats alleges that about a month later, when Juengst delivered a package of materials to his office, Coats asked Juengst “why was he continuing this . . . removal process.” Dkt. 22-1 at 38 (Coats Dep. 203). According to Coats, Juengst responded: “Frankly, Ron, it's because of your race and salary.” Id. at 37-39 (Coats Dep. 202-04). Coats contends that he memorialized this startling assertion with a notation on his calendar on October 19, 2012. Id. at 39-40 (Coats Dep. 204-05).

         In November, Ernest Canellos, the chief administrative judge at the Department, was designated as the deciding official regarding Juengst's proposal to terminate Coats's employment. See Dkt. 20-3 at 2-6 (Canellos Dep. 10, 50-52, 55). With the assistance of an attorney, Coats submitted a response to the removal proposal. See Dkt. 20-8 at 6; Dkt. 20 at 7. On February 6, 2013, Canellos determined that Coats's “performance ha[d] been deficient for more than a year, ” and, on that basis, he “remove[d] [Coats] from [f]ederal service.” Id. at 12. After exhausting his administrative remedies, see Dkt. 1 at 9-10 (Compl. ¶ 26); Dkt. 11 at 6 (Answer ¶ 26), Coats filed this action, Dkt. 1.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The moving party is entitled to summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 if it can “show[] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [that it] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). When, as here, the plaintiff bears the ultimate burden of proof, but the defendant has moved for summary judgment, the defendant “bears the initial responsibility” of “identifying those portions” of the record that “demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A fact is “material” if it could affect the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). And a dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). The Court, moreover, must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Talavera v. Shah, 638 F.3d 303, 308 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

         If the moving party carries this initial burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to show that sufficient evidence exists for a reasonable jury to find in the nonmoving party's favor with respect to the “element[s] essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). The nonmoving party's opposition, accordingly, must consist of more than unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits, declarations, or other competent evidence, setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. That is, once the moving party carries its initial burden on summary judgment, the nonmoving party must provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find in its favor. See Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1241 (D.C. Cir. 1987). If the nonmoving party's evidence is “merely colorable” or “not significantly probative, ” the Court should grant summary judgment. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Title VII Race ...


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