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Robinson v. Ergo Solutions, LLC

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 5, 2017

LORI ROBINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ERGO SOLUTIONS, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN D. BATES United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Lori Robinson alleges that her former employer, Ergo Solutions, LLC (“Ergo”), retaliated against her for reporting sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) by removing her authorization to telework. Ergo responds that Robinson has not presented any evidence that ending her telework arrangement was a cognizable “materially adverse employment action” that can support a retaliation claim, and argues in the alternative that Robinson cannot demonstrate a causal link between her EEOC complaint and Ergo's decision to end her telework arrangement. Therefore Ergo seeks summary judgment. But the Court concludes that there are genuine issues of material facts, which must be decided by a jury. The Court will accordingly deny Ergo's motion for summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         Lori Robinson has been employed at Ergo since 1996. Am. Compl. [ECF No. 2] ¶ 7. She was permitted to work from home for her entire 15-year tenure with the company-until 2011. Id. ¶¶ 7-9. In January 2011, Robinson filed a discrimination claim with the EEOC alleging that Jason Henderson, an owner of Ergo, “made inappropriate and unwelcome” sexual advances toward her, had “inappropriate sexual contact with her, ” and made “humiliating and offensive comments about the anatomy and dress of other women” in Robinson's presence. Id. ¶ 8. Later that year-in either June, July, or September, depending on which account is believed-Ergo informed Robinson that she could no longer telework, and instead was required to report to the office every day. According to Robinson, this decision was communicated to her on July 8, 2011, and was not accompanied by any explanation-leading her to surmise that it was in retaliation for her EEOC complaint. See July 8, 2011 Email from Tanya Lynch to Lori Robinson, Ex. A to Pl.'s Opp'n [ECF No. 33-2] at 1; Am. Compl. ¶ 9. According to Ergo, this decision was communicated to Robinson on September 14, 2011, and was a legitimate business decision made in response to Robinson's repeated absences in July. See Sept. 14, 2011 Letter from Tanya Lynch to Lori Robinson, Ex. 11 to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [ECF No. 31-12] at 1-2.[1]

         Robinson filed her complaint in this Court in March 2014, raising several claims related to the alleged sexual harassment. On March 30, 2015, this Court granted in part and denied in part Ergo's motion to dismiss. See Mar. 30, 2015 Mem. Op. [ECF No. 22]. As a result, Robinson's only remaining claim is for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Id. at 1. After several months of discovery, Ergo has filed the instant motion for summary judgment. Ergo argues that Robinson has not identified any evidence that she suffered an adverse employment action as required for a retaliation claim. Ergo also argues that, even if ending her telework agreement is an adverse employment action, it had a legitimate business reason to do so, and Robinson cannot demonstrate a causal link between Ergo's action and her EEOC complaint.

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the evidence demonstrate 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 party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may successfully support its motion by identifying those portions of “the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

         In determining whether there exists a genuine dispute of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment, the Court must regard the non-movant's statements as true and accept all evidence and make all inferences in the non-movant's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A non-moving party, however, must establish more than the “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence” in support of its position. Id. at 252. Moreover, “[i]f the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Id. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted). Summary judgment, then, is appropriate if the non-movant fails to offer “evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant].” Id. at 252.

         ANALYSIS

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits not only certain “unlawful employment practice[s], ” but also forbids employers from retaliating against employees who “oppose[e] any practice made an unlawful employment practice.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). “To prove unlawful retaliation, a plaintiff must show: (1) that [the employee] opposed a practice made unlawful by Title VII; (2) that the employer took a material adverse action against [the employee]; and (3) that the employer took the action ‘because' the employee opposed the practice.” McGrath v. Clinton, 666 F.3d 1377, 1380 (D.C. Cir. 2012). Both parties agree that Robinson meets the first requirement: her EEOC complaint against Henderson is protected by Title VII. Ergo contends, however, that Robinson has not presented any evidence that could support the latter two requirements.

         I. Whether Robinson Suffered a “Materially Adverse Action”

          Title VII's anti-retaliation provision “covers those (and only those) employer actions that would have been materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant, ” that is, those actions that are “harmful to the point that they could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 57 (2006). This is an objective test, and “cannot immunize th[e] employee from those petty slights or minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience.” Id. at 68. The question is whether the “retaliation caused a significant, tangible harm.” Walker v. Johnson, 798 F.3d 1085, 1095 (D.C. Cir. 2015). However, “[c]ontext matters, ” and “[t]he real social impact of workplace behavior often depends on a constellation of surrounding circumstances.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 548 U.S. at 69. Thus, while a “schedule change in an employee's work schedule may make little difference to many workers, ” courts must be sensitive to whether it would make a great deal of difference to a reasonable employee in the plaintiff's situation. See id. Therefore, rather than only look at “specific prohibited acts, ” a court must assess the ultimate question: whether the employer's alleged action “might well deter a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination.” See id.

         Ergo argues that requiring Robinson to appear in person at her office is not a “materially adverse action, ” unless Robinson can present some specific reason-such as caregiving obligations outside of work-that she must work from home. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [ECF No. 31] at 4-5. Because Robinson has not presented any specific reasons why telework is particularly necessary for her (such as an obligation to care for a small child), Ergo argues, its decision to terminate her telework arrangement cannot be an adverse employment action. See Id. (citing Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 548 U.S. at 57).

         It is true that Robinson has not demonstrated specific circumstances outside of work that make going into the office every day a particular hardship. See Robinson Aff. ¶ 6 (appearing in person at her office did not interfere with picking her son up from school). However, a care-taking obligation outside of work is merely one way of assessing whether a change in her schedule is sufficiently adverse. It is not the only way to show that terminating her telework arrangement- after allowing her to telecommute for 15 years-was a sufficiently adverse action that it “could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 548 U.S. at 57. As this Court explained in its March 30, 2015 Memorandum Opinion, while “[i]n general, it is reasonable to expect that an employee will report to office for duty … taking away the benefit of telecommunicating after it has been enjoyed for fifteen years is another matter-and one that might well dissuade a reasonable worker from engaging in protected activity.” Mar. 30, 2015 Mem. Op. at 7. The ...


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