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Klotzbach-Piper v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 15, 2019




         Granting in Part and Denying in Part Defendant's Motion to Dismiss


         Plaintiff Karen Klotzbach-Piper brought this suit against Defendant the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (“Amtrak”) on July 20, 2018, claiming that she was discriminated against on the basis of her gender, age, and disability while working at Amtrak between 2014 and 2018. Amtrak now moves to dismiss five of the ten claims Klotzbach-Piper brings in her complaint. Amtrak argues that Klotzbach-Piper's claims of hostile work environment based on gender and age are time-barred, that Klotzbach-Piper failed to exhaust her administrative remedies on any claims for retaliation occurring after August 2016, and that her claim of discrimination on the basis of disability should be dismissed both as time-barred and for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Court grants the motion to dismiss as to retaliation occurring after August 2016 because it finds that Klotzbach-Piper did not properly exhaust her administrative remedies as to any such claim. However, because Defendants have failed to meet their burden on both their timeliness and exhaustion arguments, the Court denies the motion to dismiss the hostile work environment and disability discrimination claims.

         II. BACKGROUND [1]

         A. Klotzbach-Piper's Work at Amtrak

         Karen Klotzbach-Piper is a 56-year-old female employee of Amtrak. Compl. ¶¶ 7, 10, ECF No. 1. Klotzbach-Piper first joined Amtrak in 1986. Id. ¶ 10. Between 1998 and 1999, Klotzbach-Piper was employed as a locomotive engineer for the company. Id. ¶ 11. From 1999 to March 2014, she worked in a management position with Amtrak in Delaware. Id. ¶ 12. In March 2014, Klotzbach-Piper resigned her management position in order to return to her previous work as a locomotive engineer. Id. ¶ 13. Klotzbach-Piper asked for a transfer to Jacksonville, Florida, id. ¶ 14, and was warned prior to the transfer that “she would not be welcome the[re] due to her age and gender.” Id. ¶ 15.

         In order to obtain an up-to-date engineer's license, Klotzbach-Piper completed locomotive engineer training school on May 19, 2014. See Id. ¶¶ 17-18. She then reported to the Jacksonville Amtrak crew base on May 26, 2014 for orientation and to continue the process of obtaining her full engineer certification. Id. ¶ 18. As part of that process, Klotzbach-Piper would “receive[] daily evaluations by a peer engineer that was specially trained to handle student engineers[, ]” and would ultimately complete qualifying trials on specific track segments to obtain the certification. Id. ¶ 21.

         From the very start, Klotzbach-Piper alleges that she was subjected to various and repeated acts of discrimination by other Amtrak employees. See generally Id. Klotzbach-Piper alleges that an employee she worked alongside between June and July 2014 called her a “carpet bagger” and said she should “rent a house instead of buying because she wouldn't be staying that long.” Id. ¶ 26. After changing routes in August 2014, Klotzbach-Piper worked alongside two other employees who, she alleges, proceeded to subject her to “a constant barrage of degrading and mean treatment because she was a woman and older than they were.” Id. ¶ 31. That treatment included creating distractions to break her concentration while she was operating the train, id., repeated sexist and ageist comments, id. ¶¶ 31, 33, 36, unwanted touching, id. ¶ 33, and sometimes kicking, id. ¶ 40. Between June and December 2014, Klotzbach-Piper reported the behavior to both her union representative, id. ¶ 32, a road foreman, Richard Nunziato, id. ¶ 34, and an assistant superintendent, id. ¶ 36, to no avail.

         In January 2015, Klotzbach-Piper lodged a formal complaint with her union representative. Id. ¶ 42. She alleges that the employees she complained about retaliated against her as a result. Id. ¶ 43. The same month, she was placed on a new schedule with a different locomotive engineer, Sharif Ahmed, who “did not allow talking in the locomotive, ” id. ¶ 45, did not answer her questions, id. ¶¶ 45, 47, and did not allow her to operate with any notes, id. ¶ 51. She alleges that Ahmed treated her differently because of her sex, id. ¶ 46, and that she complained about “the ‘silent' treatment” to both her union representative and the assistant superintendent, id. ¶¶ 48-49.

         On May 1, 2015, Klotzbach-Piper rode with and was evaluated by road foreman Matt Reinert. Id. ¶ 52. Reinert told Klotzbach-Piper she was “right on target to qualify, ” but that she “needed to humble herself when operating with Ahmed because he didn't appreciate her attitude.” Id. Around that time, Klotzbach-Piper came to learn that Reinert was a registered sex offender. Id. ¶ 53. She brought the matter to the attention of the general chairman of her union, who confirmed Reinert's status but told her that Reinert was “allowed to be only in the locomotive” and did not have any contact with passengers. Id. ¶ 57. At some point between May and July 2015, Klotzbach-Piper reported to Nunziato that she had seen Reinert on a platform “with a young man about the age of 14-15 years old.” Id. ¶ 59. Nunziato “told her it was best if she just kept her mouth shut because Reinert would be the road forem[a]n to qualify her.” Id.

         On July 12 and July 14, 2015, Reinert rode with Klotzbach-Piper again to evaluate her for certification on her assigned route. Id. ¶¶ 61-62. On July 12, Reinert was “agitated . . . for no apparent reason.” Id. ¶ 61. And after the July 14 ride, Reinert told Klotzbach-Piper that she would need another few trips before receiving her certification. Id. ¶ 62. Klotzbach-Piper discussed the two rides with her union representative, who told her he would talk to Reinert. Id. ¶ 63. On July 23, 2015, Klotzbach-Piper attended a meeting with Reinert and Nunziato, where she received a letter letting her know that she had failed her qualification trip on July 12, 2015, that she had exceeded the number of qualifying attempts to be certified on her route, and that she would be given 30 days to qualify, without pay. Id. ¶¶ 67-68. Nunziato told her at the meeting that he and Reinert would be willing and able to assist her in getting qualified, as well as to “rein[] in some of the ‘nonsense' that the crews had been inflicting upon her.” Id. ¶ 71. However, Klotzbach-Piper was also told that “these types of incidents were to be expected and in no way should have ‘affected' her the way she felt they had.'” Id. Klotzbach-Piper was told to report back on July 25, 2015 to set up a schedule for her qualification. Id. After the meeting ended, Reinert walked past Klotzbach-Piper and told her “[y]ou should have just kept your mouth shut.” Id. ¶ 72. Klotzbach-Piper talked again with the general chairman of her union, who told her the issue “would be straightened out.” Id. ¶ 73.

         Over the next month and a half, Klotzbach-Piper was unable to find a manager able to assist her in setting a schedule. Id. ¶ 74. She was told Reinert and Nunziato were unavailable to ride with her. Id. As a result, she worked without pay or reimbursement for hotels for several weeks while the union and Amtrak worked on resolving the issue. Id. ¶ 75. On August 26, 2015, Klotzbach-Piper rode with Nunziato for an evaluation. Id. ¶ 78. Nunziato told her that “the union did not run the base, he did, ” id., and to “enjoy departing Jacksonville On-time because it would be her last, ” id. ¶ 79. During the ride, Klotzbach-Piper alleges that Nunziato used a pretext to “take her out of the seat and to allow Ahmed to operate the rest of the trip” after she allegedly made a mistake in a speed-restricted zone. Id. ¶ 80. After the ride, Nunziato told Klotzbach-Piper he would “contact her when he figured out what he wanted to do with her.” Id. ¶ 81.

         On August 28, 2015, Klotzbach-Piper was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety and took a medical leave of absence from Amtrak pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. Id. ¶ 83-84. In September 2015, she received a letter stating that she had not worked for pay enough in August and thus that her medical insurance benefits would be terminated. Id. ¶ 84. After Klotzbach-Piper talked to the superintendent for her region, he told her that her medical insurance would be reinstated and that she was not removed from service. Id. ¶ 85. In November 2015, Klotzbach-Piper sent Nunziato paperwork to forward to Amtrak, seeking to extend her medical leave. Id. ¶ 86. The paperwork was never received. Id.

         On December 3, 2015, Klotzbach-Piper was given clearance to return to work and was advised to report back on December 10, 2015. Id. ¶ 87. On December 10, 2015, Nunziato emailed her that “he was evaluating her situation and would notify her when it was complete.” Id. ¶ 88. Klotzbach-Piper filed a complaint regarding her treatment with the Amtrak president on December 17, 2015, id. ¶ 89, following which she received a letter from Amtrak's Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance Office on January 11, 2016 indicating that the office was investigating the complaint, id. ¶ 90. Just two days later on January 13, 2016, Klotzbach-Piper received a letter from Amtrak letting her know that she “had not demonstrated the necessary skills to retain certification as an engineer with Amtrak.” Id. ¶ 91. Klotzbach-Piper was not terminated, id., but between receiving the letter and filing suit in July 2018 she “applied for dozens of other jobs with Amtrak, including positions that she previously held, ” and was rejected from all of them, id. ¶ 96.

         B. Procedural History

         On June 8, 2016, Klotzbach-Piper filled out an intake questionnaire with the EEOC. EEOC Intake Questionnaire 5, ECF No. 10-1. On the questionnaire, she alleged that she had been the victim of gender discrimination, age discrimination, and retaliation. Id. at 2. Klotzbach-Piper indicated that she did not have a disability and that she was not claiming discrimination on the basis of disability. Id. at 2, 3. However, she filled out the portion of the questionnaire specifically directed at claims for discrimination on the basis of disability. Id. at 4. Klotzbach-Piper indicated that she had “[n]o disability but [Amtrak] treats me as if I am disabled.” Id. She noted that she had taken time off work after developing an anxiety disorder, for which she was still taking the medication Fluoxitine, and that she was discriminated against as a result when she returned. Id. And she specifically indicated that she had asked Nunziato for an accommodation because of her disability, which he had refused.[2] Id. On the last page of the intake questionnaire, Klotzbach-Piper indicated that she wanted to file a charge of discrimination. Id. at 5.

         On September 12, 2016, Klotzbach-Piper filed a formal charge of discrimination. EEOC Charge 1, Defs' Reply Ex. A, ECF No. 8-1. Klotzbach-Piper checked the boxes for discrimination on the basis of sex, age, and retaliation on the EEOC charge form. Id. She also checked the box indicating that the discrimination was a continuing action. Id. In support for the charge, Klotzbach-Piper stated that she was subjected to both verbal and physical harassment, and that she was ...

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