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Ellis v. Mattis

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 28, 2018

GREGORY ELLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
JAMES N. MATTIS, in his official capacity as U.S. Secretary of Defense, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Gregory Ellis claims that while working for the United States Navy, he was subjected to discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment because of his disability. He thus brought this suit against Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, asserting violations of the Rehabilitation Act, Title VII, and the Family Medical Leave Act. The Secretary now moves to dismiss all but the FMLA claim, principally arguing that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies or state a plausible hostile-work-environment claim. Agreeing that none of the challenged claims as currently pled may proceed, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. Background

         Assuming the facts in the Complaint are true, as it must at this stage, the Court begins with Plaintiff's active duty in the Navy from 1995 to 2001. He suffered a stroke or transient ischemic attack during that time, resulting in “persistent migraine headaches” that continue to this day. See Compl., ¶¶ 10-12. These migraines “substantially limit[]” Ellis's “visual acuity, sleeping, reading, concentrating, and working.” Id., ¶ 26. In 2002, the Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that he had a 30% service-related disability from his migraines, a determination it recertified in 2006. Id., ¶ 12. “His disability has worsened since 2014, ” when Ellis was “separate[ly] diagnose[d]” with depression and anxiety attacks. Id., ¶ 27.

         As relevant here, Ellis worked as an Archives Specialist and Archivist for the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., from around 2010 until January 2018. Id., ¶¶ 3, 19. His responsibilities included accessioning and deaccessioning records - i.e., transferring Navy records to and from the custody of the National Archives. See ECF No. 8 (Def. MTD), Exh. A (Investigative File) at ECF p. 26; see also National Archives and Records Administration, Accessioning Guidance and Policy (Mar. 10, 2017), https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/accessioning. He was also charged with performing “[v]arious data entry procedures for documents” and “physical labor” such as “moving boxes, file cabinets, [and] packaging records.” Investigative File at ECF p. 26.

         Plaintiff claims that his supervisors initially accommodated his migraines by allowing him to telework upon request. See Compl., ¶¶ 3, 18, 52. At some point during 2015, however, this accommodation allegedly ceased when Ellis began working with new supervisors. Id., ¶¶ 28-34. Although Defendant continued to “permit[] liberal teleworking” by other employees in the History and Heritage Command, Ellis claims that his new supervisors denied him that accommodation on “numerous” occasions in 2015 and 2016. Id., ¶¶ 30, 35-36. Instead, they “belittled and marginalized” him, with one supervisor remarking that the medical documentation of his disability was “irrelevant.” Id., ¶¶ 32-33.

         As a result of this treatment, Plaintiff alleges that he felt pressure to resign. Id., ¶ 39. In February 2016, he met with the Command's Director - Samuel Cox - to explain that he was leaving because of a “lack of accommodation” and “persistent, continuous harassment in the workplace.” Id., ¶¶ 38-39. Plaintiff also met with Assistant Deputy Director Sharon Baker around the same time, who encouraged him not to resign by saying that the Command could “work out an accommodation with a variable schedule.” Investigative File at ECF p. 28. After receiving similar assurances from Director Cox “that the discrimination and harassment towards him would cease, ” Ellis “rescinded his resignation.” Compl., ¶ 40. According to Plaintiff, the Navy never followed through with these promises. Id., ¶¶ 42-43, 53.

         Rather, Ellis claims that the discrimination and harassment against him “accelerated” when supervisors learned of his decision to rescind his resignation. Id., ¶ 44. He focuses on a March 7, 2016, Letter of Requirement issued by one of his supervisors that “outline[d] the procedures for taking unscheduled leave.” Id. This letter faulted Ellis for his “leave use during the previous calendar year.” Investigative File at ECF p. 35. Ellis asserts that the Letter of Requirement was imposed because of his disability. Id. at ECF p. 34.

         After the Letter of Requirement was issued, Plaintiff submitted - and one of his supervisors approved - an application for leave pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act. Id. at 10. His application mentioned treatment for “anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.” Id. at 11. The Letter of Requirement's procedures remained in effect, however, for any leave “not directly related to” these conditions. Id. When Ellis failed to follow the Letter of Requirement's procedures on August 16, 2016, one of his supervisors proposed a two-week suspension for being away without leave and failing to follow established leave procedures. Id. at 10, 19. The supervisor reasoned that Ellis was AWOL because “the FMLA certification was for the treatment of anxiety, depression, and panic attacks and does not cover migraines.” Id. at 10. Ellis protested that “these symptoms accompany each other almost always, ” and that, given his migraines, he “could hardly travel [to his primary-care provider] without endangering [himself] or others.” Id. at 9-10. The two-week suspension was ultimately imposed. Id. at 19-22.

         Ellis filed a formal complaint with the Navy's Equal Employment Opportunity Office in 2016, asserting disability discrimination, retaliation/reprisal, and a hostile work environment. See Investigative File at ECF pp. 4-7. In support of his 2016 claims, Ellis cited, inter alia, “a continued pattern” of “derisive statements, ridicule[, ] and mockery” by his supervisors; “harassment in [an] effort[] to pressure resignation”; “[c]ontinued harassment . . . regarding [his] decision to rescind [his] resignation after exit interviews with NHHC Director Cox and Sharon Baker”; the March 7, 2016, Letter of Requirement; and “repeated . . . refusals to consider past medical documentation & present disability status.” Id. at ECF p.6. Plaintiff subsequently amended his complaint with the assistance of EEO counselors, including a challenge to his suspension for being AWOL. Id. at ECF pp 16-18.

         Waiting for a decision in 2017, Ellis requested the appointment of an administrative-law judge and a right-to-sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. See ECF No. 10 (Pl. Opp.) at 6; Def. MTD at 7. He ultimately “resigned involuntarily” on January 19, 2018, citing “a hostile work environment and retaliation for his assertion of protected rights.” Compl., ¶ 45. The EEOC subsequently dismissed Ellis's claims on March 1, 2018, and this suit followed. See Pl. Opp. at 6; Def. MTD at 7.

         Count I claims that the Navy discriminated against Plaintiff because of his disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. See Compl., ¶¶ 48-58. More specifically, Ellis alleges that Defendant failed to provide a reasonable telework accommodation, “vindictively assigned” him to a “physically demanding project” that had to be halted because of safety concerns, “regularly made discriminatory comments, ” and failed to segregate his protected medical information. Id., ¶¶ 51-57. Count II alleges that the Navy violated Title VII by retaliating against Plaintiff for engaging in the protected activity of reporting on his supervisors' alleged treatment. Id., ¶¶ 59- 70. According to Ellis, the Letter of Requirement, the suspension for failing to comply with it, and the alleged constructive discharge all constituted retaliatory acts. Id., ¶¶ 41, 68-70. Based on the same acts, Count III asserts that the Secretary retaliated against Plaintiff for using FMLA leave. Id., ¶¶ 71-82. Finally, Count IV alleges that the treatment by Plaintiff's supervisors described above created a hostile work environment. Id., ¶¶ 83-85.

         Defendant now moves to dismiss Counts I, II, and IV. He argues both that Ellis did not administratively exhaust these three claims and that he fails to sufficiently allege a hostile environment.

         II. ...


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