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Norris v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 19, 2018

TERRI NORRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Terri Norris, an employee of Defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”), brought this action alleging quid pro quo sexual harassment, hostile work environment, gender discrimination, age discrimination, and retaliation in October 2016. After Norris's age discrimination claim was dismissed in February 2017, WMATA now moves for summary judgment on the four remaining claims. Having reviewed the parties' filings, the Court grants in part and denies in part WMATA's motion for summary judgment.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff Terri Norris is a fifty-four-year-old African-American female, see Compl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 1; July 25, 2014 EEOC Intake Questionnaire 1, Pl.'s Ex. 2, ECF No. 19, who was employed by Defendant WMATA at all times relevant to the claims in the complaint, see Compl. ¶ 13; Answer ¶ 13, ECF No. 7. WMATA is a transit authority created by interstate compact among the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland to provide mass transit in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. See Compl. ¶ 11; Answer ¶ 11. In connection with its mission, WMATA operates an extensive bus service system that provides half a million rides every weekday to customers in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. See WMATA Position Statement 2, Def.'s Ex. 8, ECF No. 17. WMATA employs Service Operations Managers (“SOMs”) in different geographic regions in the Washington, D.C. service area to oversee and provide direction to its 2, 500 bus operators. See Id. The service area is divided into four principal regions, including, as relevant to this suit, the Four Mile Region, which covers routes serving Virginia and the Shepherd Parkway area of Southeast D.C. See Id. Norris joined WMATA in 1990 and became a SOM between 2000 and 2001. See Norris Dep. 9:1-9:12, Pl.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 19.

         A. December 2013 Promotion and January 2014 Demotion

         On December 1, 2013, Norris was promoted from SOM to Assistant Superintendent of Street Operations, with a six-month probationary period. See Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 18, ECF No. 19. As Assistant Superintendent, Norris was in charge of ensuring SOMs performed their duties, handling administrative and HR requests or issues concerning SOMs, responding to accidents, and overseeing departments in the Bus Operation Control Center. See Norris Dep. 12:18-13:12. She was assigned to the Four Mile Division and typically oversaw between 20 and 25 SOMs on her daily shift. See Id. at 13:15-14:4.

         As an Assistant Superintendent, Norris's supervisors were Darlene Harrington, the Superintendent of Street Operations, see Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 6; Norris Dep. 38:10-38:15, and Dana Baker, the Director, Operations Control Center of Bus Transportation, Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 3; Walker Dep. 43:9-44:6, Pl.'s Ex. 3, ECF No. 19. Like Norris, both Harrington and Baker are African-American females. See Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶¶ 2, 5. Norris sought approval from Harrington, sometimes copying Baker, for a variety of communications to SOMs during her time as Assistant Superintendent. See Norris SOM Communications, Pl.'s Ex. 6, ECF No. 19. On one occasion, Norris was told by Baker that she was “documenting[, ]” when Baker needed “somebody [she] [could] trust.” Norris Dep. 76:16-77:13. Baker told Norris on another occasion that she did not like working with women, see Norris Decl. ¶ 11, Pl.'s Ex. 19, ECF No. 19, and another WMATA employee who worked with Baker when she was Director also heard her state on multiple occasions that she did not like working with women, see Collins Sr. Decl. ¶ 2, Pl.'s Ex. 18, ECF No. 19.

         Between December 2013 and January 2014, Norris was the subject of a formal harassment complaint by a SOM, Sharron Young. See Norris Dep. 26:21-27:13. Young's complaint was eventually dismissed after WMATA investigated her claims. See Suppl. Norris Dep. 28:16-29:10, Pl.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 21. Norris had a difficult relationship with two other SOMs, see Id. at 36:2-36:14, 38:19-39:3, including Claire Fenelus, a SOM who ultimately took part in a meeting with Norris, Harrington, and Baker on January 11, 2014 to resolve her issues with Norris, see Id. at 37:1-37:17, 84:5-84:9; Fenelus Letter, Pl.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 19. It is unclear whether Fenelus's issues were actually resolved at the meeting. Compare WMATA Demotion Memo. 1, Pl.'s Ex. 10, ECF No. 19, with Fenelus Letter. Norris also made her own complaints of harassment against Baker and Harrington, first to Harrington and another WMATA employee, Romaino Parahoo, on or around January 14, 2014, and then directly to both Baker and Harrington at a January 27, 2014 meeting. See Norris Decl. ¶ 12-13. At the meeting, Norris informed Baker and Harrington that she planned to file a harassment complaint with the EEOC. See Id. at ¶ 13.

         On January 30, 2014, three days after the January 27 meeting and two months after her promotion, Norris was demoted back to SOM. See Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 19. Norris attended a meeting with Harrington, Baker, and another WMATA employee, Ray Alfred, where Harrington read to Norris a demotion memorandum stating the reasons for her demotion. See Def.'s Resps. To Pl.'s Interrogs. ¶ 13, Pl.'s Ex. 11, ECF No. 19. The memorandum, addressed from Harrington to Norris and copying Baker, listed multiple issues with Norris's behavior that had allegedly led to her demotion: first, Norris had been repeatedly communicating with staff without first clearing the communications with Harrington, despite Harrington giving Norris a verbal warning on the issue following a December 2, 2013 communication; second, two complaints of harassment had been filed by two separate SOMs against Norris in the past few weeks; third, Norris had provided verbal approval to cover expenses for overnight hotel accommodations for six SOMs on January 21, 2014 without first obtaining authorization; and finally fourth, Norris had been involved in a “hostile, overly argumentative, and inappropriate conversation with Linda Pinkard, Assistant Superintendent of Street Operations[, ] . . .” on January 22, 2014. See Demotion Memo., Pl.'s Ex. 10, ECF No. 19. Following her demotion, Norris went on leave around March 2014 and resumed working as a SOM around April 2014. See Norris Decl. ¶ 19-20.

         B. July 2014 Assignment Selection

         Prior to 2013, SOMs had been selecting their work assignments and shifts at WMATA based on seniority, in a process known as “the pick[.]” Baker Aff. ¶ 10, Def.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 17. Baker eliminated the pick in June 2013, and between June 2013 and July 2014 SOMs were assigned to shifts and assignments based on their skills, experience, and on WMATA's operational needs.[2] See Pl's Statement of Facts ¶ 8-9. During that time, Assistant Superintendents worked together with the Superintendent of Bus Services to identify and recommend work assignments for each SOM. See Id. ¶ 10. Baker had final say as to the assignments. See Id. Starting in July 2014, SOMs were allowed to submit their preferred work assignment choices for consideration by WMATA as part of the work assignment process. See Id. ¶ 11.

         Because she had been demoted back to a SOM in January 2014, Norris participated in the July 2014 work assignment process and submitted her work assignment preferences for consideration. See Id. ¶ 12. Norris submitted six choices for consideration. See Id. She indicated on her work selection form that “if possible, [she] would like to remain at FMTR Region[, ]” and only selected assignments located in the Four Mile Region, Work Selection Choices, Pl.'s Ex. 13, ECF No. 19, in order to avoid working in another region under the supervision of one of Baker's friends at WMATA, see Norris Decl. ¶ 22. Of the six work assignment preferences, at least four involved “early straight” schedules, starting in the early morning and ending in the early afternoon every day. See Work Selection Choices; Pl.'s Work Assignment Sheet, Pl.'s Ex. 15, ECF No. 19.[3] Norris prefers an early straight schedule and the majority of her shifts in the latter part of her career have been early straights. See Norris Dep. 14:5-14:22.

         Norris received her sixth preferred choice in the July 2014 work assignment, a “swing shift” from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM and 03:00 PM to 07:00 PM daily. See Work Selection Choices; Pl.'s Work Assignment Sheet. The work assignment was located in the Four Mile Region. See Pl.'s Work Assignment Sheet.

         C. Non-Selection to Metro Way

         One of the assignments Norris expressed an interest in as part of the July 2014 work assignment process was Metro Way. See Norris Decl. ¶ 20; Work Selection Choices; Pl.'s Work Assignment Sheet. Metro Way was a new type of bus service operating exclusive routes between Alexandria and Arlington, VA, developed by Assistant Superintendent William Proctor in conjunction with WMATA's Planning Department and Virginia transportation officials. See WMATA Position Statement at 7. Metro Way offered early straight shifts. See Pl.'s Work Assignment Sheet.

         Norris was not given a Metro Way assignment, despite selecting a Metro Way route as her second choice on her work selection form. See Work Selection Choices; Pl.'s Work Assignment Sheet. She reached out to Harrington after assignments were given out to ask “[w]hy . . . Metro Way [was] not offered to [her][.]” July 29, 2018 Harrington E-mail, Pl.'s Ex. 16, ECF No. 19. Harrington replied on July 29, 2014 that she was not selected for the position because “[o]ther candidate(s) were found to be better suited[.]” See Id. The Metro Way assignment went to two men and two women, all of whom had significantly less experience as SOMs than Norris. See Pl.'s Work Assignment Sheet; October 20, 2014 Pick Spreadsheet, Pl.'s Ex. 12, ECF No. 19.

         D. Non-Selection to the Accident Investigation Team

         Another assignment Norris sought to obtain in July 2014 was a slot on WMATA's Accident Investigation Team (“AIT”), a newly created unit where SOMs would exclusively focus on investigating accidents across all regions in which WMATA operated. See Walker Dep. 124:13-125:1; Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 14. The AIT assignment process operated similarly to others in that Assistant Superintendents and the Superintendent made recommendations to Baker, who had ultimate say over the assignments. See Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 14-15. However, SOMs did not have the opportunity to elect a preference for the assignment on their work selection form. See Norris Dep. 135:1-135:13. Rather, Norris was first told that she was qualified to join the AIT in June 2014. See August 14, 2014 WMATA Formal Discrimination Complaint, Def.'s Ex. 5, ECF No. 17; June 26, 2014 Pinkard E-mail, Pl.'s Ex. 14, Ex. 19. On June 26, Norris was included in an e-mail to 17 SOMs informing them that they had “been identified by [their] Asst. Supt. has [sic] a candidate for the New Accident Investigation Team[.]” See June 26, 2014 Pinkard E-mail.

         Shortly after she learned about the AIT opportunity, Norris had a conversation about the assignment with Assistant Superintendent Alphonso Walton. See Norris Decl. ¶ 26. Walton was Norris's supervisor, prepared her 2014 evaluation plan, and conducted her mid-year evaluation. See id.; Norris 2014 Performance Management Form 3, Pl.'s Ex. 17, ECF No. 19. It is alleged that Walton was also a known sexual harasser in the office, see Walker Dep. 166:4-166:19; Sept. 16, 2014 EEOC Charge, Def.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 17, who regularly made inappropriate and sexually explicit comments when talking to Norris, see Sept. 16, 2014 EEOC Charge, and who was at some point disciplined for sexually harassing another WMATA employee, see Walker Dep. 108:15-109:4. During the conversation between Norris and Walton, Norris alleges that Walton told her to “trust him” and asked if she could “keep a secret from [her] husband[.]” Norris Decl. ¶ 27; see also Sept. 16, 2014 EEOC Charge. Norris further alleges that Walton pointed to her vagina and asked her to “give [him] some of that[, ]” stating that he would “make sure you get that assignment[.]” Norris Decl. ¶ 27; see also Sept. 16, 2014 EEOC Charge. Norris refused his advances. See Norris Decl. ¶ 27.

         Norris was ultimately not selected for the AIT. When she reached out to Harrington in July to ask about the Metro Way assignment, she also asked “why . . . the accident investigation team [was] offered to me by Mr. Walton and Ms. Pinkard then retrieved by Mr. Walton[.]” July 29, 2014 Harrington E-mail. Harrington replied: “[b]ased on your comment given to Mr. Walton your preference was to remain in Virginia, therefore you were granted your pervious [sic] assignment.” Id.

         E. July 2014 EEOC Intake Questionnaire

         On July 25, 2014, Norris complained about discrimination she allegedly suffered at WMATA. As part of that process, Norris filled out an intake questionnaire with the EEOC. See July 25, 2014 Intake Questionnaire at 1. On the portion of the questionnaire asking the basis for her claim of employment discrimination, Norris checked the boxes for race, age, and discrimination, but circled the box for sex. See Id. at 2. She checked a box on the last page indicating that she wanted to file a charge of discrimination. See Id. at 4.

         In an attachment filed a few days later on July 29, 2014, Norris indicated, inter alia, that she was “demoted without training, corrective action, disciplinary action, written notification or a thorough investigation.” Id. at 5. She pointed out that “through out [sic] [her] career [she] ha[d] been informed that [she was] different in reference to [her] afrocentric style” and that “Dana Baker never wanted [her] to be hired, therefore used false information for [sic] demotion.” Id. She also suggested that “[w]orking a shift at another division could possibility [sic] result in retaliation since I was demoted on January 27, 2014, after working as an Assistant Superintendent for 7 weeks.” Id. at 6.

         After discussing potential age discrimination in the failure to assign her to Metro Way, Norris noted in the penultimate paragraph of the attachment: “in addition to this age discrimination, I also experienced sexual harassment but I refused to support the claim at this time because victims of sexual harassment are victimized[.]” Id. at 7. Norris did not otherwise mention sexual harassment in the attachment. See id.

         F. Procedural History

         On September 16, 2014, Norris filed an official charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging discrimination on the basis of age and sex as well as retaliation. See September 16, 2014 EEOC Charge. She filed her complaint with this Court on October 24, 2016, alleging quid pro quo sexual harassment, hostile work environment, gender discrimination, age discrimination, and retaliation. See Compl. ¶¶ 102-71. After WMATA moved to dismiss the age discrimination claim for lack of jurisdiction and Norris consented, the Court dismissed the age discrimination claim on February 6, 2017. See February 6, 2017 Minute Order; Def.'s Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 3; Pl. Notice to Court, ECF No. 5. WMATA filed its answer on February 22, 2017, see Answer, and the parties began discovery.

         On December 8, 2017, WMATA moved for summary judgment on all remaining claims. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 17. On January 23, 2018, Norris filed her opposition to the motion, contesting summary judgment on all claims. See Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n Summ. J., ECF No. 19. WMATA submitted its reply on February 6, 2018. See Def.'s Reply to Opp'n, ECF No. 20.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Motion for Summary Judgment

         A court may grant summary judgment when “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 “material” fact is one capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” if there is enough evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-movant. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

         The principal purpose of summary judgment is to streamline litigation by disposing of factually unsupported claims or defenses and determining whether there is a genuine need for trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). The movant bears the initial burden of identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. In response, the non-movant must point to specific facts in the record that reveal a genuine issue that is suitable for trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must “eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence[, ]” Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363 (D.C. Cir. 2007), and all underlying facts and inferences must be analyzed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, see Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Nevertheless, conclusory assertions offered without any evidentiary support do not establish a genuine issue for trial. See Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

         B. Title VII Employment Discrimination

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against its employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), and prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee who has “opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by[, ]” or otherwise “made a charge” under, Title VII, id. § 2000e-3(a). To prevail on an employment discrimination claim, a plaintiff must show that she suffered an adverse employment action because of her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. See Baloch v. Kempthorne, 550 F.3d 1191, 1196 (D.C. Cir. 2008). To prevail on an unlawful retaliation claim, a plaintiff must establish that she made a charge or opposed a practice made unlawful by Title VII, that the employer took a materially adverse action against her, and that the employer took the action because of the protected conduct. See Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 901-02 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

         Direct evidence of discrimination usually entitles the plaintiff to a jury trial. Vatel v. All. of Auto Mfrs., 627 F.3d 1245, 1247 (D.C. Cir. 2011). If there is no direct evidence of discrimination, Title VII claims are assessed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04 (1973). Under that framework, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. See Id. The burden then shifts to the employer to provide a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for the adverse employment action. Wiley v. Glassman, 511 F.3d 151, 155 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). If the employer can make such a showing, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that “the legitimate reasons offered by the ...


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