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Deppner v. Spectrum Health Care Resources, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 11, 2018

ESTRELLA DEPPNER, Plaintiff,
v.
SPECTRUM HEALTH CARE RESOURCES, INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DABNEY L. FRIEDRICH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Estrella Deppner brings these Title VII and District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA) actions against her former employer, Spectrum Healthcare Resources, asserting that it discriminated against her based on national origin, subjected her to a hostile work environment, and retaliated against her for engaging in protected activity. She also brings a DCHRA action against her former supervisor, Jerl Huling, in his individual capacity, asserting that he did the same. Before the Court is defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment. Dkt. 11. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Spectrum Healthcare Services-a government contractor tasked with providing healthcare services to various federal agencies-employed Deppner as a nurse coordinator. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4-5, Dkt. 6. From February 4, 2015 to March 30, 2016, Deppner was placed at the Health Center for the Department of Veteran's Affairs. Id. ¶ 4. During that time, Deppner was directed to prepare a report on “bed bugs” discovered in the health center. Id. ¶ 19. Her supervisor, Jerl Huling, was “made aware” of the bed bugs and instructed Deppner not to discuss them with other nurses. Id. ¶ 24.[2]

         On the afternoon of April 27, 2016, Deppner reported to the Potomac Education Center, where she was asked to measure the blood pressure of two female patients-“Client 1” and “Client 2.”[3] Id. ¶¶ 9-13. During Client 1's visit, Deppner called her “honey bunny” and told her she “looked good and was sexy.” Id. ¶ 11. Deppner also asked her to “uncross her legs and arms” to avoid inaccuracies in the blood pressure reading. Id. When Client 1 failed to do so, Deppner “touched Client 1's knee” and repeated the request. Id. After the treatment, Client 1 filed a complaint against Deppner alleging that Deppner's use of the terms “‘Honey Bunny' and ‘Sexy' made her feel uncomfortable” and “amounted to ‘sexual [sic] harassment.” Id. ¶ 12.

         Later that afternoon, Deppner told Client 2 she was “pretty” and “had a nice smile.” Id. ¶ 13. Deppner began testing Client 2's blood pressure using a standard-sized cuff, which proved too small. Id. She then switched to the largest cuff available and administered the test. Id. The result was lower than usual, which Deppner explained could have been due to “diet, exercise, lack of sleep, dehydration” or “stress.” Id. Client 2 responded “angrily” that if she needed advice, she would consult her doctor. Id. She filed a complaint against Deppner, in which she described Deppner's explanation for the low blood pressure result as a “lecture” that was both “demeaning and harassing.” Id.

         Spectrum reviewed the incidents and concluded that Deppner's conduct was “inappropriate, unprofessional and harassing.” Id. ¶ 14. Huling called Deppner on April 29 and informed her she would be “suspended without pay until [Spectrum's] investigation is done.” Id. Later that day, Deppner provided Spectrum with a statement in which she denied that her actions constituted harassment but admitted to calling Client 1 “Honey Bunny” and “sexy” and to “touching her on the knee” while asking the patient to “uncross her legs.” Defs.' Mot. at Ex. 5, Dkt. 11-7 at 2-3.[4] Spectrum concluded that those actions violated Spectrum's policy on workplace harassment, and it suspended Deppner for five days. Am. Compl. ¶ 16. Deppner also alleges that Spectrum “planned” to terminate her effective June 6, 2016. Id. But she does not clarify whether (or when) this plan was revealed to her, or whether (or when) it was actually carried out. Id. Rather, Deppner suggests both that Spectrum “terminated her from the job” and that she “did not want to return to work” or “communicate with Spectrum, ” id. ¶ 18 (emphasis added), making it difficult to discern from the pleadings alone when-and why-Deppner's employment with Spectrum eventually ended.

         Deppner filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on October 25, 2016. Dkt. 11-13 at 2. When asked the basis for the alleged discrimination, she checked the boxes for “Race, ” “National Origin, ” and “Other” (specifying “Discriminatory Discipline”). Id. She did not check the box for “Retaliation.” Id. In the sworn Statement of Particulars accompanying the charge, Deppner described her interactions with Client 1 and Client 2, and Spectrum's investigation of their complaints. Id. at 3-5. Deppner alleged that Spectrum suspended her without pay and “threatened to terminate [her] if similar conduct occurred again.” Id. at 5. Deppner further explained she “fell out of communication with Spectrum” and was told by Huling that her position had changed to “PRN duty, ” meaning “Spectrum could assign her to work wherever there [wa]s a need and a vacancy appeared, if she was prepared to work.” Id. at 6. From this, Deppner “concluded that she was terminated from her employment as reprisal to her complaint of Bed Bugs.” Id. And she “believe[d] that Spectrum took this action because of her national origin, Filipino.” Id.

         Deppner filed this case in June 2017, asserting the following counts against Spectrum:

• Count I: National origin discrimination and hostile environment harassment under Title VII
• Count II: National origin discrimination and hostile environment harassment under the DCHRA
• Count III: Retaliation under Title VII
• Count IV: Retaliation under the DCHRA

         In addition, Deppner brought the following count against Huling in his individual capacity:

• Count V: National origin discrimination, reprisal, and hostile environment harassment under the DCHRA

         The defendants filed a joint Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. They argue that Deppner failed to exhaust administrative remedies as to her hostile work environment and retaliation claims, that Deppner failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted as to all claims, and that Deppner failed to satisfy the pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) as to all claims. They also argue that Spectrum “had a very strong and non-discriminatory reason for suspending Deppner and issuing her a Final Written Warning.” Defs.' Reply at 13, Dkt. 20.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a defendant to move to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint must contain factual matter sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 570. Well-pleaded factual allegations are “entitled to [an] assumption of truth, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, and the court construes the complaint “in favor of the plaintiff, who must be granted the benefit of all ...


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