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Routier v. Ross

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 22, 2018

WILBUR L. ROSS, JR., Secretary, United States Department of Commerce, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Ramses Routier worked as a GS-13 Electronics Engineer in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce. A 62-year-old man of Haitian descent with 27 years of federal-service experience, Routier's government career ended when he was removed from his position in fall 2016 by his supervisors, Binyam Tadesse and Dr. Darlene Drazenovich, for poor workplace performance. Believing his supervisors had discriminated and retaliated against him - and had subjected him to a hostile work environment - Plaintiff brought suit here. The Government has now moved to dismiss one count and narrow another, arguing that Routier has insufficiently alleged adverse action and a hostile work environment. The Court agrees with Defendant's contentions and will grant the Motion.

         I. Background

         The Court, as it must at this stage, sets forth the facts as pleaded in the Complaint. Routier, a 62-year-old immigrant from Haiti with two graduate degrees in electronics engineering, worked as a GS-13 Electronics Engineer in the Systems Review Branch of the Spectrum Services Division of the Office of Spectrum Management (OSM) at the NTIA, which is housed within the Department of Commerce. See ECF No. 15 (Am. Compl.), ¶¶ 1, 6-10. His responsibilities included performing preliminary assessments of major federal radio-communications systems, developing procedures for efficient spectrum utilization, giving advice and guidance on how to resolve technical and policy problems, and providing electronics-engineering expertise to the Spectrum Services Division. Id., ¶¶ 13-15. In his position, Routier reported to two others: Binyam Tadesse, his first-level supervisor, and Dr. Darlene Drazenovich, his second-level supervisor. Id., ¶¶ 11-12. During the time relevant to this case, Routier worked with Hien Q. Ly, a 40-year-old Vietnamese-American electronics engineer who had similar duties. Id., ¶¶ 22-23.

         Plaintiff alleges that his problems with his supervisors began as early as 2012. At that time, he visited with Drazenovich to inquire about his chances for obtaining a promotion to the GS-14 level. After hearing his question, Drazenovich slammed the door in Plaintiff's face. Id., ¶¶ 16-17. On a separate occasion, Tadesse derisively asked Routier whether he, a born-again Christian, engaged in the practice of voodoo. Id., ¶ 16-2. According to Plaintiff, “Voodoo is a syncretic religion practiced chiefly in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, ” where Tad esse knew that Routier had been born and raised. Id., ¶¶ 17-2-18. At other times, Drazenovich and Tadesse referred to Plaintiff and other employees as “old” and indicated that they needed “fresh blood” in the office. Id., ¶ 19.

         In July 2013, Tadesse told Plaintiff he was frustrated with reviewing his work because of the amount of time it took. Id., ¶ 24. Later that year, Tadesse met with Routier to discuss his yearly performance and ended up telling Plaintiff that he was not ready to be promoted to the GS-14 level because his work was inadequate. Id., ¶ 26. On July 23, 2014, Tadesse met with Routier to advise him that he was “tired of seeing [Routier] making errors in his preliminary assessment[s].” Id., ¶ 31. Following that meeting, Tad esse issued him a “Performance Counseling” memorandum that gave notice to Routier that his performance was “of concern.” Id., ¶ 34. The memorandum noted the importance of Plaintiff's work being accurate and thorough, and it pointed to specific examples of Plaintiff's frequent mistakes and their consequences to the whole branch. Id., ¶¶ 37-38. Along with the memorandum, Tadesse promised Routier that he would meet with him weekly to provide guidance on his work, as well as allow him additional time to study relevant manuals and conduct extra training. Id., ¶ 40.

         Routier received his FY 2014 performance evaluation on October 4, 2014, less than two months after receiving this memorandum. Plaintiff was assigned an overall rating of 2 out of 5, marking his performance as “marginal.” Id., ¶ 42. The evaluation explained Routier's performance deficiencies in a similar fashion to the memorandum. Id., ¶ 44. Around the same time, Routier's colleague Ly was given a performance rating of “5” for FY 2014, despite making some of the same errors. Id., ¶¶ 28, 45-46, 59. Routier first initiated contact with an EEO counselor about his concerns on November 12, 2014. Id., ¶ 47. He followed up by filing a formal complaint of discrimination on November 25, 2014. Id., ¶ 49.

         On April 25, 2015, Routier met with Tadesse for his mid-year review. During this meeting, Tadesse explained to Plaintiff that his performance was still inadequate and unacceptable, and, as such, Tadesse was considering placing him on a performance-improvement plan (PIP). Id., ¶¶ 53, 58, 60-62, 64-65-2, 69. In summer 2015, Tadesse “made it impossible” for Plaintiff to meet a deadline and also requested that Routier inform him when he was away from his desk for more than 30 minutes. Id., ¶¶ 55-56.

         In September 2015, Tadesse followed through and placed Routier on a PIP. Id., ¶ 57. The PIP specifically identified the errors Plaintiff had made and gave him detailed, concrete tasks that he would need to complete within 90 days. Despite this directive, Plaintiff's performance did not improve, and he failed to complete the PIP's specified criteria. Id., ¶¶ 58- 71. In early August, Tadesse issued a Notice of Proposed Removal for Plaintiff and sent it to the deciding official, Drazenovich. Id., ¶ 81. The sending of this notice led to a series of communications between Plaintiff and Drazenovich before she ultimately issued a decision on September 27, 2016, to remove Routier from federal service effective immediately. Id., ¶¶ 82- 86.

         Achieving no success administratively, he then brought this action, which asserts three counts. Count I alleges discrimination and retaliation under both Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Count II alleges a hostile work environment under both statutes. Finally, Count III challenges a decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board upholding Routier's removal under civil-service rules. Id., ¶¶ 110, 111-176. Defendant now moves to dismiss the majority of Count I and all of Count II under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” In evaluating Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, the Court must “treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (citation omitted); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1250 (D.C. Cir. 2005).

         Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Plaintiff must put forth “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The Court need not accept as true “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau v. Fed. Trade Comm'n, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)). For a plaintiff to survive a 12(b)(6) motion, the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56 (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)).

         III. ...

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