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Stewart v. Federal Communications Commission

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 29, 2017




         Plaintiff Sharon Stewart is a Women's Outreach Specialist in the Office of Communication Business Opportunities (“OCBO”) at the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”). Plaintiff contends that she was subjected to a hostile work environment because a male colleague in an adjacent cubicle viewed pornographic images on his work computer. She also alleges that her supervisors retaliated against her for filing Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) complaints by removing one of her most substantive duties and by denying her bonuses. Plaintiff brings this lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Defendant has moved for summary judgment.

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court shall GRANT-IN-PART and DENY-IN-PART Defendant's [41] Motion for Summary Judgment. First, the Court grants Defendant's motion and enters summary judgment in its favor with respect to Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim. This claim fails because Plaintiff has not adduced evidence that the incidents of pornography viewing she complains of were directed at her, occurred because of her protected status, or were intended to discriminate against women more generally. Second, the Court grants Defendant's motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff's retaliation claims regarding her failure to receive bonuses in 2012 and 2015. Plaintiff has not satisfied her burden of establishing that the non-retaliatory reasons Defendant has proffered for denying Plaintiff bonuses in those years were pretext for retaliation. Finally, the Court will deny Defendant's motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff's retaliation claims with respect to the alleged removal of Plaintiff's duties on so-called “Section 610 Reports.” Genuine disputes of material fact exist regarding whether the removal of these duties constituted an adverse action and whether Defendant's proffered rationale for their removal was pretext for retaliation.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Colleague Views Pornography on a Work Computer

         Beginning in 2009, Plaintiff observed her male co-worker, John Finnie, viewing pornographic images on his office computer. Depo. of Sharon Stewart, ECF No. 41-2 (“Stewart Depo.”) at 69:5-7. Plaintiff and Mr. Finnie worked in adjoining cubicles. Id. at 283:11-15. According to Plaintiff, she on several occasions walked by and “caught” Mr. Finnie viewing the pornographic images. E.g., id. at 82:20-83:1. On some occasions, Mr. Finnie would click out of the images when Plaintiff walked by; on others, he would be in a “deadlock stare, ” and would not click out because he was unaware of Plaintiff's presence. Id. at 70:5-11. Mr. Finnie never asked Plaintiff to look at the images, or otherwise shared or distributed them to her. Id. at 83:20-84:13. Plaintiff and Mr. Finnie had altercations in which Plaintiff accused him of watching pornography, and Mr. Finnie denied doing so. Id. at 66:14-19; 97:2-6.

         In 2012, up to four other men joined Mr. Finnie in his office to view pornographic images. Id. at 87:12-23, 95:7-14. This happened approximately three times. Id. Plaintiff claims that she observed the group viewing when she walked past Mr. Finnie's cubicle, and also that she heard “moans and groans” emanating from his cubicle. Id. at 89:6-18. According to Plaintiff, one of the male viewers would “stand guard” and look for her. Id. at 103:6-14. Plaintiff does not know why he would do so. Id. at 103:15-19. Plaintiff allegedly reported this conduct to her supervisor Mr. Reed for the first time in September 2009.[2] Id. at 104:14-18. Asked why she thought Mr. Reed took no ameliorative actions, Plaintiff testified that it was “because he was having sex in the office himself.” Id. at 111:5-7. It is undisputed that Mr. Reed did have sex in his FCC office. Pl.'s Stmt. of Disputed Facts, ECF No. 42-1 (“Pl.'s Stmt.”), ¶ 28.

         In August 2015, the Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) issued a report finding evidence that Mr. Finnie “used an FCC computer to view and store pornographic material . . . .” Pl.'s Ex. 3, ECF No. 42-5 (OIG Report). Despite Mr. Finnie's conduct, Plaintiff does not have any personal animosity toward Mr. Finnie or the other men who joined him in his office. Stewart Depo. at 93:2-4.

         B. Plaintiff Does Not Receive a Bonus in 2012

         In early 2012, hostilities arose between Plaintiff and some of her colleagues. Def.'s Stmt. of Undisputed Material Facts, ECF No. 41 (“Def.'s Stmt.”) ¶¶ 6-7; Stewart Depo. at 33:14-38:20. These disputes reached a tipping point for Plaintiff when she accused her colleagues of slashing her tires when her car was parked outside of her home. Stewart Depo. at 50:18-22. Plaintiff became extremely frustrated with Mr. Reed when he failed to take action against her colleagues. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 7-9; Stewart Depo. at 50:18-55:22, 137:3-141:7.

         In late February and early March of 2012, Plaintiff scheduled meetings with individuals at the OIG, the FCC's Office of Labor Relations and the FCC's Office of Workplace Diversity. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 40-42. Plaintiff claims that at these meetings she reported Mr. Finnie's viewing of pornography at his cubicle, claimed that she was being subjected to a hostile work environment, and generally faulted Mr. Reed for her workplace problems. Id.

         On March 15, 2012, Mr. Reed called Plaintiff into his office for a meeting. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 10. Exactly what was said at that meeting is disputed, but there is no genuine dispute that Plaintiff was upset, used profanity, and told Mr. Reed that she no longer wanted to perform certain work for him. Id. ¶ 11. Plaintiff herself testified that she “expressed frustration, ” used the word “shit” and told Mr. Reed during this meeting that she did not want to work on his travel authorizations anymore. Stewart Depo. at 57:9-58:16; 154:15-155:23.

         On April 4, 2012, Mr. Reed issued Plaintiff an oral admonishment confirmed in writing for her conduct in the March 15 meeting. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 13; Def.'s Ex. G, ECF No. 41-8 (April 4, 2012 Memorandum from Thomas Reed to Sharon Stewart re Oral Admonishment Confirmed in Writing). The admonishment stated that Plaintiff became “very angry, hostile, and belligerent towards” Mr. Reed in the meeting, “used inappropriate language, ” was “insulting and critical of [Mr. Reed] and questioned [his] character and [his] ability as an FCC manager, ” and stated “you are not my boss; I will not work for you.” Id.

         Plaintiff administratively appealed the admonishment, but it was upheld. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 14. The appellate authority found that, among other things, Plaintiff had admitted that during the March 15 meeting she said “I'm sick of this going thru this shit” and that Mr. Reed had, in response, “advised her to watch her language.” Def.'s Ex. H, ECF No. 41-9 (April 3, 2012 Memorandum from Suzanne M. Tetreault to Sharon Stewart re Decision on Appeal from Grievance Denial at First Step).

         Plaintiff did not receive an OCBO “performance award” in 2012. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 15. All other OCBO employees received a bonus that year, and Plaintiff received bonuses in all prior years. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 52. Under FCC rules, employees have no entitlement to such awards, which are made at the discretion of the employer. Def.'s Ex. T, ECF No. 41-21.

         C. Plaintiff's Duties with Respect to Section 610 Reports

         One of Plaintiff's duties at the OCBO beginning in 2004 was to assist an attorney with “Section 610 Reports.” Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 17. Section 610 Reports are lists of certain agency rules that are ten years old and significantly affect small entities. Id. ¶ 18. They are issued annually. Id.; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 54-57. The parties dispute the importance of these reports. Defendant characterizes the reports as a mere “list of rules” with “boilerplate language, ” and describes Plaintiff's contribution as simply soliciting and compiling submissions from other offices, formatting the list and inputting basic edits. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 19-20.

         Plaintiff, on the other hand, argues that her work on these reports was a “major part” of her duties and that she “led the coordination” of, or “took over the responsibility” for, the reports. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 58, 59, 62. Plaintiff notes that before she took over her responsibilities with respect to the Section 610 Reports, these duties were handled by a more senior FCC employee. Id. ¶ 62. She also claims that she had conversations with her supervisors about getting a promotion on the basis of her work on the reports. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 69-76.

         On October 15, 2012, Plaintiff filed an EEO complaint alleging various acts of discrimination and retaliation. On October 18, 2012, one of Plaintiff's supervisors, Ms. Carolyn Fleming-Williams, held a meeting with Plaintiff. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 63. Plaintiff claims that at that meeting Ms. Fleming-Williams asked Plaintiff why she had filed her complaints and sought to dissuade her from pursuing them. Id. She then told Plaintiff that there were “problems” with Plaintiff's work on the 2011 Section 610 Report. Id. ¶ 64. After this meeting, although Plaintiff corrected the problems Ms. Fleming-Williams raised, the 2011 report nonetheless remained unpublished until mid-2016, depriving Plaintiff of any work on Section 610 Reports for a number of years. Id. ¶ 65.

         D. Plaintiff Does Not Receive a Bonus in 2015

         In early 2015, Mr. Reed proposed a seven day suspension without pay for Plaintiff for “failure to complete a work assignment” and “lack of candor” on the grounds that she failed to provide him with a “master contact list” she maintained when requested. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 38-40; Def.'s Ex. L, ECF No. 41-13 (January 16, 2015 Letter from Thomas Reed to Sharon Stewart re Notice of Proposed 7-Day Suspension). Mr. Reed sent Plaintiff an email requesting that document on August 6, 2014. Def.'s Ex. V, ECF No. 41-23 (August 6-7, 2014 email chain between Thomas Reed and Sharon Stewart). Plaintiff responded that she did not have the document. Id. M r. Reed followed up multiple times asking for the document, suggesting that Plaintiff did have the document, that he recalled her having it, and that others confirmed that she had it. Id. Plaintiff repeatedly refused to provide the document. Id. The list was later found on Plaintiff's computer by the Office of Information Technology (“OIT”). Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 39. ...

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