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Walden v. Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 30, 2018




         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         PCORI 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.

         In May 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 ¶¶ 16-17.

         In June 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 ¶¶ 21-22.

         From 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.

         Walden 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.

         Walden 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.

         PCORI 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.

         In 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.

         On 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.

         Once 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, 51.

         PCORI 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.

         On or 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.

         On 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.

         On 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 3.42/5.00. Id.

         About a 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.

         Soon 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. ¶ 70.

         During 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.

         After 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.

         B. Procedural Background

         Walden 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.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary 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 ...

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