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Tyes-Williams v. Whitaker

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 15, 2019




         Mary Tyes-Williams, an African-American woman, has worked in various chaplaincy positions for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) since 2004. She describes the first decade of her career as a steady climb marked by superior performance reviews and robust skills development. After 11 years with BOP, however, she ran into trouble with two coworkers who at various times held supervisory positions over her and received promotions that Tyes-Williams sought for herself. From Tyes-Williams's perspective, these coworkers unlawfully discriminated against her by treating her condescendingly, interfering with her career advancement, and depriving her of advantages routinely offered to white, male employees. Tyes-Williams sought support from an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor and later filed an EEO complaint, but she claims her coworkers' bad behavior did not abate. After BOP took no action on her formal EEO complaint, Tyes-Williams filed this lawsuit.

         Tyes-Williams brings four claims, alleging discrimination, retaliation, a hostile work environment, and a retaliatory hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Defendant has moved to dismiss the latter three, arguing that Tyes-Williams failed to administratively exhaust some of her claims and that, in any case, none of them allege misconduct serious enough to state a discrimination claim. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant Defendant's motion and dismiss Tyes-Williams's claims of retaliation, hostile work environment, and retaliatory hostile work environment.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Tyes-Williams has worked for the BOP since December 2004. ECF No. 1, Complaint (“Compl.”), ¶¶ 1, 6, 7. In June 2014, she was promoted to a GS-13 position as a Chaplaincy Services Coordinator with BOP's Central Office Reentry Division. Id. ¶ 9. Although this position was based in Washington, D.C., Tyes-Williams worked remotely, first from the Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta, Georgia, and most recently from the Federal Correctional Complex in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Id. ¶¶ 1, 9.

         According to Tyes-Williams, in her new position she was subjected to a pattern of discrimination and retaliation on the basis of her race and gender beginning in “approximately November 2015.” Id. ¶ 14. She identifies two allegedly discriminating officials: Heidi Kugler and Kevin Kelley. Id. In August 2015, Tyes-Williams reported directly to Kugler, a white female. Id. ¶¶ 14, 15. Tyes-Williams and Kelley, a white male, held positions of the same grade, GS-13. Id. ¶ 15. In November 2015, the BOP advertised an opening for a GS-15 position. Id. ¶ 19. Although Tyes-Williams alleges that she was well-qualified and recommended for the position, she did not receive an interview. Id. ¶ 20. Instead, Kugler was selected for the position. Id.

         Tyes-Williams alleges that Kugler and Kelley proceeded to treat her in a cold, unpleasant, and hostile manner. See Id. ¶¶ 17-18, 21, 38, 40-41. She contacted an EEO counselor about filing an EEO complaint of discrimination on November 16, 2015. Id. ¶ 22. Thereafter, she alleges, Kugler circumscribed her responsibilities-although not those of any white employees-and limited her advancement potential. Id. ¶¶ 23-26. Further, Kugler limited Tyes-Williams's access to training opportunities. Id. ¶¶ 27-31.

         In February 2016, Kelley was promoted to Kugler's old position, although Tyes-Williams alleges that she had applied and was qualified for it. Id. ¶¶ 33-34. This made Kelley Tyes-Williams's supervisor. Id. ¶ 33. In March 2016, Tyes-Williams requested to be transferred to Yazoo City, Mississippi. Id. ¶ 42. Her request was not approved for more than three months. Id. ¶ 43. In response to this alleged “ongoing discriminat[ion], ” Tyes-Williams followed up on her original EEO contact by filing an informal complaint on March 18, 2016. Id. ¶ 44.

         Thereafter, Tyes-Williams experienced trouble with her assigned performance standards and the performance ratings she received. Among other things, she received a less-than-perfect “Excellent” rating-her first such rating in eight years-and was frustrated by the vagueness of the standards she was expected to meet. Id. ¶¶ 48, 51, 54-55. Eventually, however, the rating that Tyes-Williams received in April 2017 was adjusted upward. Id. ¶¶ 58-60. Finally, in April 2017, Tyes-Williams requested two days per week of telework and was granted only one, despite some white employees being allowed two. Id. ¶¶ 60-62.

         On June 16, 2017, Tyes-Williams filed the instant action. Her complaint includes four counts: discrimination (Count I), hostile work environment (Count II), retaliation (Count III), and retaliatory hostile work environment (Count IV). See Compl. ¶¶ 64-89. Defendant has moved to dismiss Counts II and IV for failure to allege misconduct that rises to the level of a hostile work environment claim. ECF No. 6-1, Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Counts II, III, and IV, at 7. As to Count III, Defendant moves to dismiss on the grounds that Tyes-Williams (1) has not exhausted “most subparts” of her claim, (2) has failed to allege a materially adverse action, and (3) has failed to allege a causal connection between her protected activity and some of the alleged retaliation. See Id. at 15-23.

         II. Legal Standard

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, 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)). “A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of a plaintiffs complaint; it does not require a court to ‘assess the truth of what is asserted or determine whether a plaintiff has any evidence to back up what is in the complaint.'” Herron v. Fannie Mae, 861 F.3d 160, 173 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (quoting Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002)). The Court construes all factual inferences in favor of the plaintiff when considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Hettinga v. United States, 677 F.3d 471, 476 (D.C. Cir. 2012). When defendants allege that plaintiffs have failed to administratively exhaust their Title VII claims, courts typically resolve the exhaustion question in the context of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Augustus v. Locke, 699 F.Supp.2d 65, 69 n.3 (D.D.C. 2010).

         III. Analysis

         A. Hostile Work Environment and Retaliatory Hostile Work Environment Claims (Counts II and IV)

         Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, federal employers may not discriminate “based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a). “[A] plaintiff may establish a violation of Title VII by proving that discrimination . . . has created a hostile or abusive work environment.” Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 66 (1986). To state a hostile work environment claim, an employee must allege misconduct so serious that it has changed “a ‘term, condition, or privilege' of employment within the meaning of Title VII.” Id. at 67. In determining whether a work environment is hostile, courts consider “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993). The Supreme Court has held that “the ordinary tribulations of the workplace, such as the sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing” are not sufficiently serious to create a hostile work environment. Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 788 (1998) (quoting B. Lindemann & D. Kadue, Sexual Harassment in Employment Law 175 (1992)). Nor are “offhand comments [or] isolated incidents (unless extremely serious).” Id.

         Here, many of the slights Tyes-Williams experienced are of a kind that courts in this district have expressly held are, on their own, insufficient to form a hostile work environment claim. About half of the affronts Tyes-Williams identifies are interactions with Kugler or Kelley that she found offensive or inappropriate. For example, she alleges that Kugler was “cold” to her and was “unfairly critical” of her work. Compl. ¶ 16. Kugler also referred to herself as Tyes-Williams's “boss, ” but referred to subordinate white employees as “co-worker[s]” or “teammate[s].” Id. ¶ 17. After Kugler was promoted over Tyes-Williams, she said she would “support” Tyes-Williams transferring to another department. Id. ¶ 21. And Kugler asked Tyes-Williams how her husband would feel about her traveling or changing duty stations, which Tyes-Williams found inappropriate. Id. ¶ 18. As for Kelley, Tyes-Williams alleges that he yelled at her in front of her colleagues on two occasions. Id. ¶¶ 38, 40. But “disparaging remarks, criticisms of [the plaintiff's] work, and other negative comments” do not make a hostile work environment. Nurriddin v. Bolden, 674 F.Supp.2d 64, 94 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing Stewart v. Evans, 275 F.3d 1126, 1134-35 (D.C. Cir. 2002)).[1] Similarly, neither do these allegations.

         Tyes-Williams makes other allegations regarding her assignments and performance evaluations, but these allegations are also insufficient to state a hostile work environment claim. Tyes-Williams alleges that when Kugler became her supervisor, she instructed Tyes-Williams to stop performing work for the South Central and Southeast Regional branches despite consistent positive feedback from those branches on her performance. Compl. ¶¶ 23-24. Tyes-Williams characterizes this work as “front-facing” and providing a “terrific opportunity for advancement.” Id. ¶ 25. Tyes-Williams also alleges that Kugler required her-and no other employee-to obtain explicit permission before working on any new tasks, even if they fell within her existing job responsibilities. Id. ¶ 26. When Kugler issued performance ratings, Tyes-Williams received “Excellent” rather than “Outstanding” for the first time in eight years. Id. ¶¶ 46, 48. When Kelley became Tyes-Williams's supervisor, she alleges, he imposed vague performance standards that he refused to clarify to her. Id. ¶¶ 54, 55. And again, Tyes-Williams received a rating of “Excellent” rather than “Outstanding, ” which a grievance committee later corrected to “Outstanding.” Id. ¶¶ 57-59. However, allegations of “the removal of important assignments, lowered performance evaluations, and close scrutiny of assignments by management” are also not enough to state a hostile work environment claim. Nurriddin, 674 F.Supp.2d at 94 (citing Bell v. Gonzales, 398 F.Supp.2d 78, 92 (D.D.C. 2005)).

         Tyes-Williams's additional allegations also fail to plead a hostile work environment. She alleges that at one point, Kugler forbade her-and no other employee-from attending trainings at the BOP's training center unless she was presenting the training. Compl. ¶¶ 27, 30-31. Although Kugler said this decision was made for budgetary reasons, Tyes-Williams alleges that the branch's budget had recently increased by $30, 000. Id. ¶ 32. When Tyes-Williams requested to change her duty station to Yazoo City, Mississippi, she alleges that the BOP did not approve her request for more than three months. Id. ¶¶ 42-43. And finally, when Tyes-Williams submitted a request to Kelley to telework two days of the week, he authorized only one day, even though a number of other employees in the office were permitted two days. Id. ¶¶ 60-62. But in Beckwith v. Ware, 174 F.Supp.3d 1, 5-6 (D.D.C. 2014), ...

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