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Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 7, 2018




         From 2008 to 2016, Plaintiff Tiffany Washington was a sergeant in the Metro Transit Police Department (the “MTPD”), a component of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”), which operates the public transit system commonly known as the Metro. She worked at the MTPD's Revenue Collection Facility in Alexandria, Virginia, which processes fares gathered from Metro stations. During Washington's shift on September 18, 2015, the train transporting the fares-known informally as the “money train”-broke down and was repaired. Washington then left early for a medical appointment, without ensuring that another supervisor took her place. The money train then broke down again. Washington failed to notify any on-duty official with supervisory authority about the breakdown, and the two officers accompanying the train were left without any supervisor in charge for several hours. Following an investigation, the MTPD determined that Washington had violated its policies and demoted her in 2016.

         Washington has sued WMATA under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., claiming that her demotion amounted to unlawful discrimination based on her race, color and gender, as well as unlawful retaliation for a complaint of harassment she filed in January 2015. WMATA has moved for summary judgment on all claims, arguing that no reasonable jury could find for Washington on the evidence in this case. ECF No. 17. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant WMATA's motion and enter judgment in its favor.

I Factual and Procedural Background

         Washington is an African-American woman. Am. Compl. ¶ 1.[1] WMATA hired her as an MTPD officer in 2001. Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶ 1. In 2008, she was promoted to sergeant. Id. ¶ 2. As a sergeant, she acquired new supervisory responsibilities. That is because MTPD “officers” (that is, those with a rank lower than sergeant) do not have supervisory authority, while MTPD “officials” (that is, MTPD personnel ranked sergeant and above) supervise the officers under their command. Id. ¶¶ 9, 12-15. As of September 2015, Washington was assigned to work at WMATA's Revenue Collection Facility (the “Facility”) in Alexandria. See Id. ¶ 36. Her shift ran from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Id. ¶ 38.

         In January 2016, Washington was demoted from sergeant back to “officer.” Am. Compl. ¶ 25; Pl.'s Ex. 18 (Letter of Demotion). The asserted basis for Washington's demotion lay in events that occurred on September 18, 2015. See Pl.'s Ex. 18 (Letter of Demotion). That morning, two MTPD officers (Officers Perkins and Gilani) reported for duty at the Facility to accompany the “money train” transporting Metro fares. See Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶ 46. That morning and early afternoon, the money train experienced mechanical problems and broke down at least once. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 10-11 (citing Pl.'s Ex. 4 (Gaddis Dep.) at 144:14-146:6, 152:16- 154:1). No. later than 1:15 p.m., Washington's supervisor, Lieutenant Biggs, left work as per his daily schedule, leaving Washington as the only “official” in charge of the Facility. Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶¶ 39-40, 68.

         At around 4:15 p.m., Washington left the Facility for a medical appointment. Id. ¶ 47. She claims that Biggs had approved her taking medical leave earlier that day, although the parties dispute this fact. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 52, 54. Washington does not dispute that the only other persons she notified of her departure were two officers stationed at the Facility (Officers Patterson and Dean). See Id. Thus, she did not notify any official with supervisory authority (other than, in her telling, Biggs) that she would be leaving early. Id. ¶ 53. She instructed the senior officer at the Facility to “check-off and secure the building” in her absence. Id. ¶ 56.

         At some point either shortly before or after Washington left, the money train broke down again. Id. ¶ 51. Washington claims that she found out about the breakdown by way of a text message from the senior officer at the Facility (Officer Patterson). Pl.'s Opp'n at 12 (citing Pl.'s Ex. 3 (Washington Dep.) at 128:4-9). At around 4:45 p.m., Washington called one of the officers on the money train (Officer Perkins) to discuss the situation. Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶ 66; see also Pl.'s Opp'n at 12 (citing Pl.'s Ex. 2 (Washington Aff.)). According to Officer Perkins, he did not speak again to an MTPD official for over three hours-until around 8:00 p.m., when a different off-duty sergeant returned his call. See Pl.'s Ex. 12 (Sepulveda Report) at 4; id. Attach. 7 (Perkins' statement). At around 6:00 p.m., Washington sent Biggs, who was off duty at that time, text messages informing him about the problem with the train. Pl.'s Opp'n at 13 (citing Pl.'s Ex. 13 (text messages)). Washington also claims to have spoken with a Captain Ware, who was on duty that evening, although it is unclear when that happened and whether Ware called her or she him. See Pl.'s Ex. 3 (Washington Dep.) at 157:10-16, cited in Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶ 67.

         Shortly after 8:00 p.m., the MTPD Watch Commander on duty that evening, Captain Sepulveda, became aware that the money train had broken down. Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶ 60. Subsequently, the money train was repaired, and the two officers aboard ultimately went off duty at 1:00 a.m. the following morning. See Pl.'s Ex. 12 (Sepulveda Report) at 4; id. Attachs. 7-8 (officers' statements). Captain Sepulveda then investigated the events of September 18. Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶¶ 61-62. Sepulveda interviewed Washington, Biggs, and the two officers who accompanied the money train, and also had Washington and Biggs complete a written questionnaire. Id. ¶¶ 63-64; see Pl.'s Ex. 3 (Washington Dep.) at 247:18-20. Washington claims that another WMATA official, Captain Brown, also participated in the investigation by asking her questions during her interview. Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶¶ 61-64. Brown's participation was improper, she suggests, because she had previously filed a claim of harassment against Brown with WMATA's Office of Employee Relations in January 2015. See Id. ¶¶ 24-27, 64.

         Based on this investigation, Sepulveda concluded that Washington had violated two MTPD policies. See Pl.'s Ex. 12 (Sepulveda Report) at 5-6. First, he found that Washington improperly failed to contact any on-duty MTPD “official” regarding the breakdown of the money train, leaving the two officers accompanying the train unsupervised for several hours. Id. She thereby “abandoned her supervisory duties, ” violating an MTPD policy requiring supervisors to be accountable for their direct reports. See Id. He also found that Washington, by failing to ensure that the officers were relieved during their ordeal, had exercised poor judgment inconsistent with her position and “failed to adequately staff and maintain proper coverage.” Id. at 6. He declined to find, however, that Washington had improperly failed to request leave. See Id. at 6-7. He noted that Biggs and Washington disputed whether she had timely requested leave, and concluded that this reflected a “communication breakdown” between them. Id. at 7.

         Based on Sepulveda's report, the MTPD's Chief ordered Washington demoted in January 2016. See Pl.'s Resp. SoMF ¶¶ 73, 76. Washington sought and obtained several internal levels of review of the Chiefs decision. Id. ¶¶ 78-79. The final review was conducted by WMATA's Assistant General Manager for Bus Services, who upheld the decision based on the following “key points”:

1) [Washington] admitted she left work early based on an informal agreement with Lt. Biggs; conversely, Lt. Biggs stated he did not grant [Washington] leave; 2) [Washington] failed to notify an on-duty official that she was leaving her shift early and failed to arrange for supervisory coverage; and 3) [Washington] was negligent in her responsibilities to her Officers, who were left unsupervised without an effective means of communicating with [Washington].

Id. ¶ 80.

         On June 29 or June 30, 2016, Washington filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), bringing claims of discrimination and retaliation. Id. ¶¶ 28, 30. On July 6, 2016, EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter. Id. ¶ 32. On October 10, 2016, Washington filed this lawsuit. Id. ¶ 34. Her operative complaint brings four counts against WMATA. The first three allege that her demotion in January 2016 was motivated by unlawful discrimination based on her race, color and gender. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 41-76. The fourth count alleges that the demotion was in retaliation for having previously engaged in protected activity. Id. ¶¶ 77-92. After discovery closed, WMATA filed the instant motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 17.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, a court must grant summary judgment “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). “Summary judgment is appropriately granted when, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movants and drawing all reasonable inferences accordingly, no reasonable jury could reach a verdict in their favor.” Lopez v. Council on Am.-Islamic Relations Action Network, Inc., 826 F.3d 492, 496 (D.C. Cir. 2016). Courts “are not to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Id. (quoting Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006)). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986)). “The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue of material fact.” Montgomery v. Risen, 875 F.3d 709, 713 (D.C. Cir. 2017). “In response, the non-movant must identify specific facts in the record to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue.” Id.

         III. Analysis

         WMATA argues, first, that Washington failed to properly exhaust administrative remedies, see Def's Br. at 10-11, and second, that the evidence is insufficient to demonstrate either a discrimination or retaliation claim, see Id. at 11-25. “[T]he Court is not required to decide the exhaustion issue first; failure to exhaust administrative remedies under Title VII . . . does not raise a jurisdictional hurdle, but rather constitutes an affirmative defense.” Nichols v. Young, 248 F.Supp.3d 1, 5-6 (D.D.C. 2017). Here, the Court will proceed past WMATA's exhaustion argument to the merits, because it is clear that there is no genuine issue of material fact supporting Washington's claims of discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.

         A. Race, Color and Gender Discrimination

         Title VII discrimination cases are adjudicated under a burden-shifting framework. First, the plaintiff must make out a “prima facie case of racial discrimination.” Wheeler v. Georgetown Univ. Hosp.,812 F.3d 1109, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2016). If she does, the employer must “articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action.” Id. at 1114. The plaintiff then “must be afforded a fair opportunity ...

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