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Copeland v. Arklay LLC

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 19, 2017

ANNETTE COPELAND, Plaintiff,
v.
ARKLAY LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

         Annette Copeland claims that her former employer, Arklay LLC, discriminated against her because of her race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Specifically, she alleges that Arklay terminated her because she is African American, that it maintained a racially hostile work environment, and that it engaged in unlawful retaliation.

         No reasonable factfinder could side with Copeland on any of these claims. There is no evidence suggesting that Copeland's termination was racially motivated. Assuming that her coworkers' alleged harassment was sufficiently severe to be actionable, there is no indication that Copeland's supervisor responded to it unreasonably. And because the undisputed facts show that Copeland did not engage in protected conduct, she has no viable retaliation claim. The Court will therefore grant summary judgment in favor of Arklay.

         I. Background

         Arklay provides network-security support for defense agencies and specializes in assisting those agencies in classified operations. The firm is managed solely by its CEO and owner, Marc Pecot. Pecot hired Copeland in February 2013 to work as a full-time network administrator, paid hourly. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. B (“Pl.'s Dep.”), at 22:15-17, 32:9-33:4. During her tenure, Copeland was the company's sole African American employee. Id. 223:7-9.

         During Copeland's tenure, Arklay was working on a subcontract with BAE Systems, which in turn was a contractor for the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”). The contract required Arklay's employees to work at the “Threat Mitigation Center, ” a DIA facility within Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. Copeland worked in a cubicle in a shared workspace with the four other Arklay employees who were assigned to the BAE subcontract. Her primary responsibility was administering a DIA network called ITACT.

         Copeland alleges several instances of workplace harassment while working on the BAE contract. Most of the purported incidents involved two Arklay data engineers, David Chesher and Dean Gull. Copeland's recounts that Chesher “frowned at [her] the whole time” during her job interview, Pl.'s Dep. 215:1, and that Chesher, Gull, and the other employees were generally unwelcoming and excluded her from conversations, id. at 215:2-4, 8-20. She claims to have reported their behavior to Pecot during her first week in a closed-door meeting. Id. at 215:4-11.

         Copeland further alleges that, a few months after she was hired, Chesher-who sat in a nearby cubicle-temporarily locked her out of the ITACT network. Copeland reported this incident to Pecot in an email dated June 6, 2013. Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 19. In that message, Copeland implicated Gull in the lockout scheme. Id. at 1. She also mentioned that the pair would often look at her computer screen-apparently Gull was “constantly peering over the cubicle or standing and staring over at [her] screen.” Id. At the end of the message, Copeland proffered a motive for her coworkers' actions:

Dean [Gull] and Dave [Chesher] have made it known in the office that I don't know what I am doing. Which is quite insulting. Whenever they talk about me, they do it openly in front of [other employees.] So, I take it they want me out of there, especially Dean. And what he wants, he gets. That's how I've seen it.

Id. Ex. 21. As Copeland explained in her deposition, she did not indicate to Pecot that Gull or Chesher were motivated by her race. Pl.'s Dep. 155:9-21.

         Pecot responded to Copeland's message a few hours later, explaining that he suspected the lockout was merely a system error, but indicating that he would investigate further if the same problem happened again. Id. Ex. 21. Pecot later explained in his deposition that users, including him, were regularly locked out of the system. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. F, at 98:7-21. As to Copeland's accusation that Gull and Chesher sought to undermine her, Pecot explained that he had found the team “reasonable and considerate” and that no one had approached him with “issues regarding [her] performance.” Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 21. Pecot was willing to approach the team about an “uncomfortable working environment, ” but, noting that Arklay had only six days left working on the BAE contract, he expressed hesitation to use those final days “focusing our efforts to resolve a team dynamic that will shortly become irrelevant.” Id.

         The BAE contract ended in June 2013, and Arklay furloughed its employees for about three weeks while Pecot sought more work for the company. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. A (“Pecot Decl.”), at ¶ 17; Pl.'s Resp. to Stmt. Material Facts ¶ 51. In early July, Arklay obtained a subcontract with another DIA contractor. Pecot assigned Copeland to be the network administrator for this contract. For the first few weeks of the contract, Copeland, Chesher, Gull, and two other employees worked at Bolling, in the same location as they had for the BAE contract. The DIA then decided to relocate the operation to a new facility in Landover Maryland. On August 28, Copeland told Pecot by email that she “will not be moving with you all to the [new facility]” because the Maryland facility was “much too far, [and] even if I took trains it would take me too long to get to my daughter in an emergency.” Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 5. She formalized her resignation the next day. Id. Ex. 4. In response, Pecot said that he understood her decision and offered that, if she did not have another job lined up, she could work part-time work until her replacement began. Id. Ex. 9. Copeland accepted, and Pecot told her that, while part-time employees typically were ineligible for health insurance, he would maintain hers so that she did not “have to worry.” Id. Ex. 10.

         Copeland worked for Arklay part-time beginning August 29, 2013. Pl.'s Dep. 57:17- 58:13. During some of this period, Pecot allowed Copeland to work remotely at a facility in Reston, Virginia, which was nearer to her home. Pecot Decl. ¶ 25. Pecot also gave her a substantial raise-from $62.50 to $70.30 per hour-because her part-time status reduced Arklay's overhead costs. Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 14.

         Copeland alleges further incidents of harassment during this period of part-time work. Her primary accusation is that Gull and Chesher regularly peered at her monitor and continued to interfere with her access to the computer systems. Pl.'s Dep. 38:18-39:20. She did not report these incidents to Pecot. Id. 101:15-102:20. Rather, she claims that in October she informed Pamela Prewitt, a government employee who worked at the DIA facility, and enlisted Prewitt's help to try to catch the pair hacking into her system on subsequent occasions. Id.; see also Pl.'s Opp. Ex. 1, at 6 (EEOC letter). Copeland believes that Pecot was aware ...


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