United States District Court, District of Columbia
TIMOTHY J. KELLY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Apprill Walden alleges that her former employer, Defendant
Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute
(“PCORI”), violated the District of Columbia
Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”), D.C. Code §
2-1401.01 et seq., by discriminating against her on
the basis of her disability and retaliating against her after
she requested accommodations for that disability, a protected
activity under the statute. ECF No. 1 (“Compl.”);
ECF No. 26 (“Opp.”). PCORI denies these
allegations and moves for summary judgment. ECF No. 23
(“Mot.”). For the reasons set forth below,
PCORI's motion will be granted.
is an independent, non-profit organization established by the
Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pub. L. No.
111-148, 124 Stat. 119 (2010). Mot., Statement of Undisputed
Material Facts (“Def's SOF”) ¶ 1. The
organization's mission is to help patients, clinicians,
and others make informed health care decisions by, among
other things, funding “patient-centered comparative
clinical effectiveness research” and disseminating the
results of that research to the public. Id. ¶
2. PCORI's in-house communications department is
responsible for publishing research results, interfacing with
the media, and keeping the organization's staff members
apprised of any relevant news. Id. ¶ 4; ECF No.
23-1 (“Stencel Decl.”) ¶ 7.
2014, PCORI hired Walden to serve as the communications
department's “Senior Media Relations Specialist,
” a position it created to reduce the amount of work it
typically outsourced to an external communications firm.
Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 7-8. The position's
responsibilities included assisting in the day-to-day
management of media relations activities, responding to press
inquiries, preparing staff for interviews, and monitoring
news coverage. Id. ¶ 14; ECF No. 26-1
(“Walden Dep.”) at 24-25. The position paid an
annual salary of $75, 000. Def.'s SOF ¶ 9. Walden
was expected to “complete assignments with sufficient
levels of accuracy on or before deadlines.” Stencel
Decl. ¶ 125. As a full-time employee, she was entitled
to 240 hours of paid time off (“PTO”) per year,
accruing semi-monthly, to use on vacation, sick leave,
medical appointments, or for other reasons. Def.'s SOF
2014, prior to starting her job at PCORI, Walden was involved
in a car accident, resulting in injuries to her neck, back,
and spine. Opp., Statement of Disputed Facts
(“Pl.'s SOF”) ¶ 2. These injuries
limited her ability to “work, walk, stand, drive and
sit for long periods.” Id. After starting work
on June 16, 2014, Walden informed her direct supervisor,
Christine Stencel, that she needed to attend regular medical
appointments and physical therapy sessions as part of her
rehabilitation. Walden Dep. at 43-44; Def.'s SOF
¶¶ 10, 12. During Walden's first two weeks,
Stencel allowed her time off to attend medical appointments
and to move into a new apartment, despite the fact that she
had not yet accrued any PTO. Def.'s SOF ¶¶
June through November 2014, Walden took time off to go to
medical appointments and physical therapy sessions.
Id. ¶¶ 29, 31. During this time period,
according to her medical records, she attended at least
twenty-four such sessions. Id.; ECF No. 28
(“Pl.'s Med. Rec.”) at 29-30, 33-34, 36-39,
41, 43-44. But Walden asserts that Stencel occasionally
denied her requests to use PTO to attend to these matters.
Pl.'s SOF ¶ 10. Stencel claims that Walden was often
given permission to leave for medical reasons during normal
working hours without having to use her PTO. Def.'s SOF
¶¶ 29-30. Stencel also claims that she made
“every effort” to grant Walden's requests for
PTO, whether her reasons were medical or non-medical. Stencel
Decl. ¶ 110. In any event, Walden also asserts that
Stencel was “uncomfortable” with her disability,
Pl.'s SOF ¶ 8, and sent her a “barrage of
emails to distract her” while she attended these
appointments, id. ¶ 13.
also claims that Stencel told her to “skip”
medical appointments “multiple times, ” and that
this happened on “at least ten” occasions. Walden
Dep. at 76-77. In particular, Walden cites one incident where
Stencel allegedly stated that she should “probably
skip” her physical therapy session because a project
was due the next day. Id. at 78-79. Walden states
that “most of the time” she was not able to make
up the physical therapy appointments she skipped and was
sometimes “charged a fee for not showing up” or
“a late fee for arriving there late.”
Id. at 77-78. For her part, Stencel denies ever
asking Walden to skip medical appointments and, in fact,
claims to have discouraged her from doing so. Stencel Decl.
¶ 113. According to Walden's medical records, during
her tenure at PCORI, she missed seven physical therapy
sessions (in August and September 2014), at least four of
which she appears to have cancelled to complete work
assignments. Pl.'s Med. Rec. at 36, 38-39, 41, 43;
Def.'s SOF ¶ 32. But Stencel asserts that, at the
time, she was not aware that Walden missed these sessions for
that reason. Stencel Decl. ¶¶ 114-115.
asserts that when she began working at PCORI, the amount of
work she was assigned was manageable. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 5.
But according to PCORI, at that time Walden was assigned
discrete tasks that comprised only a subset of her
position's full responsibilities. Def.'s SOF
¶¶ 42-44, 51. Stencel asserts that she intended
to-and did-assign Walden additional responsibilities over
time as Walden became more familiar with PCORI. Id.
¶ 44. One of Walden's job responsibilities was
tracking news coverage about PCORI, which the parties call
“media monitoring.” Id. ¶¶ 14,
48; Walden Dep. at 144. Around “the July timeframe,
” Walden received additional media-monitoring tasks
that she characterizes as duplicative. Walden Dep. at
141-142. For example, Walden asserts that she was asked to
track media mentions of PCORI using two different electronic
formats. Id. at 142-43. According to Walden, after
she had already completed the assignment in one of the two
formats, Stencel said that “it was no longer
needed.” Id. at 142.
asserts that Walden did not demonstrate proficiency in the
tasks that were assigned to her in her first few months, and
that Stencel was dissatisfied with Walden's performance.
Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 45-50. Stencel often rewrote
documents Walden drafted, identified mistakes Walden made,
and sent Walden detailed feedback about how to improve.
Id.; see Stencel Decl., Exs. 2-18, at
17-123. Nonetheless, Walden asserts that, during this time
period, Stencel “on occasion” told her that she
“was doing a good job.” Walden Dep. at 189;
Pl.'s SOF ¶ 11. PCORI admits that, throughout the
course of her employment, Walden received “some
positive comments about her work, ” but asserts that
much of the feedback she received was negative. Def.'s
SOF ¶ 66.
early October 2014, Walden met with PCORI's Director of
Communications, William Silberg, and Director of Human
Resources, Mitch Eisman, to voice several concerns, including
that Stencel had unduly increased her workload and required
her to skip medical commitments. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 13.
Later that month, on October 28, Walden met with Eisman and
Stencel to request accommodations for her disability: an
arrangement where she could work at home part-time, and an
ergonomic chair and standing workstation for her use when she
was in the office. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 33-34; Walden
Dep. at 45. Walden's doctor had recommended that she work
at home three days per week for at least eight weeks. ECF No.
26-4; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 16; Walden Dep. at 45. Eisman and
Stencel agreed to Walden's requests, but authorized her
to work at home only two, not three, days per week.
Def.'s SOF ¶ 36.
November 13, Stencel and Walden discussed the work-at-home
arrangement in greater detail. Id. ¶ 35. Walden
claims that Stencel used this discussion to
“interrogate” her and demand that the arrangement
include “periodic check-ins.” Opp. at 19-20. But
in any event, the next day, Stencel formally approved the
arrangement, and it went into effect three days later.
Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 35-36. The arrangement was
originally scheduled to end in January 2015, but PCORI
allowed it to continue indefinitely, and it remained in
effect until Walden's last day working there in April
2015. Id. ¶ 37; Walden Dep. at 118.
the work-at-home arrangement began, Walden was generally able
to attend her physical therapy sessions, which were usually
twice per week. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 38-39; Pl.'s
SOF ¶ 18. However, Walden alleges that after the meeting
to discuss her accommodation, she began receiving an
increased workload, including assignments that were
duplicative. Walden Dep. at 139-141. But, during her
deposition, the only example of such duplicative work that
she could recall-additional media-monitoring tasks-occurred
in the July timeframe. See Id. at 141-42. At other
times, Walden described an increased workload interfering
with her medical appointments before her work-at-home
arrangement was implemented. Id. at 75-77. In
addition, she claimed to have discussed her increased
workload at the very meeting in which she requested her
work-at-home arrangement in October. Id. at 105.
Again, at least according to PCORI, Walden's increased
workload over time was a result of the fact that she was
being eased into her job. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 42-44,
asserts that, after the work-at-home arrangement began,
Walden continued to struggle to complete her work in a timely
fashion, and her written work product frequently contained
errors. Id. ¶¶ 52-55. Walden claims that
this criticism was new-a marked contrast to the earlier,
positive feedback she had received from Stencel. See
Pl.'s SOF ¶ 19.
about November 25, 2014, one week after the arrangement
began, Walden and Stencel met to discuss Stencel's
concerns about Walden's performance and Walden's
concerns about her workload. Def.'s SOF ¶ 52.
Shortly after the meeting, Stencel suggested that they
revisit these issues again, once Walden had spent about six
months working at PCORI. Id. ¶ 54. Although
this sort of “six-month review” is not mandatory,
PCORI states that its managers are encouraged to conduct them
where appropriate. Stencel Decl. ¶ 86.
January 16, 2015, Stencel conducted Walden's six-month
review. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 25. During this discussion,
Stencel again stated specific reasons why Walden's
performance was lacking, and Walden again expressed concerns
about her increased workload. Id.; Def.'s SOF
¶ 58. After the discussion, and at Walden's request,
Stencel sent Walden a list of specific errors that she had
made that month. Def.'s SOF ¶ 60.
February 26, 2015, Stencel conducted Walden's annual
performance review. Id. ¶¶ 61-62;
Pl.'s SOF ¶ 26. Walden had been working at PCORI for
less than a year at that point, but annual performance
reviews for all employees were conducted at around the same
time, regardless of the employee's start date. Def.'s
SOF ¶ 62. In her evaluation, Stencel rated Walden's
performance at 2.19/5.00 (a rating between
“Inconsistent” and “Proficient”), and
expressed concerns about Walden's time management, the
quality of her work product, and the fact that she often left
tasks incomplete before taking time off. Id. ¶
63. In contrast, Walden rated her own performance at
month after receiving her annual evaluation, in mid-March
2015, Walden was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan
(“PIP”). Id. ¶ 64. The PIP called
for Walden to: (1) assume the full responsibilities of her
position as Senior Media Relations Specialist; (2) improve
her accuracy and eliminate errors in her work product; and
(3) improve her time management. Id. ¶ 65. In a
meeting with Eisman, Stencel, and Silberg to discuss the PIP,
Walden claims that Silberg “indicated to Walden . . .
that they had ‘done enough in providing accommodations
for [her] disability.'” Pl.'s SOF ¶ 27.
Moreover, Walden claims that Eisman, Stencel, and Silberg all
“threatened [her with] termination” if she did
not comply with the PIP within four weeks. Id.
afterward, on March 25, 2015, Walden resigned. Def.'s SOF
¶ 67. In her resignation letter, Walden accused Stencel
of giving her low performance reviews and placing her on a
PIP because Stencel “dislike[d] that [she had] a
serious medical condition and required accommodations for
it.” Id. ¶¶ 67-68. Upon receiving
Walden's email, Stencel immediately forwarded it to
Eisman, who tried to speak with Walden about her allegations.
Id. ¶ 68; Mot. at 27. Walden, however, declined
to speak with him. Def.'s SOF ¶ 69. Walden's
last day of work at PCORI was April 7, 2015. Id.
her time at PCORI, Walden took a substantial amount of time
off, both for medical and non-medical reasons. Id.
¶¶ 26, 28. By her last day at PCORI, she had fully
utilized her accrued PTO and, in fact, had overdrawn her PTO
by thirty-four hours. Id. ¶ 25. Moreover, aside
from Walden's regularly scheduled work-at-home days, she
was absent from the office for some or all of the workday for
approximately half of the total days she worked at PCORI.
Id. ¶¶ 26, 31, 40, 41.
Walden resigned, PCORI posted advertisements for two open
positions in the communications department: “Senior
Media Relations Specialist” (Walden's former
position) and “Media Relations Specialist” (a
newly created position). Pl.'s SOF ¶ 28; ECF No.
26-11 at 4-7. Some of Walden's responsibilities as Senior
Media Relations Specialist were reassigned to this new
position. Compare ECF No. 26-11 at 4-7,
with ECF No. 26-2 (“PCORI Offer Ltr.”)
at 7-8. PCORI asserts that it created the new position to
fully “reduce and eliminate” its reliance on its
external communications firm. ECF No. 29
(“Reply”) at 18; see also Stencel Decl.
¶¶ 12-13, 127.
filed her complaint on July 1, 2015. Compl. PCORI filed a
motion to dismiss on August 18, 2015. ECF No. 8. On March 31,
2016, the Court granted the motion in part and denied it in
part, dismissing Walden's hostile-work-environment and
constructive-discharge claims but allowing her
disparate-treatment and retaliation claims under the DCHRA to
move forward. ECF No. 11; Walden v. PCORI, 177
F.Supp.3d 336 (D.D.C. 2016). PCORI answered Walden's
complaint on April 18, 2016. ECF No. 15. After the close of
discovery, on September 16, 2016, PCORI moved for summary
judgment. Mot. On October 14, 2016, Walden filed her
opposition to PCORI's motion. Opp. On November 4, 2016,
PCORI filed a reply in support of its motion. Reply.
judgment must 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). A fact is “material” if it is
capable of affecting the outcome of the litigation under the
relevant substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is
“genuine” if the evidence is such ...