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Allen v. Mnuchin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 24, 2019

PATRICIA ALLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
STEVEN T. MNUCHIN, Defendant.

         Re Document No. 13

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

          Rudolph Contreras United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Patricia Allen brings this employment discrimination action against Steven Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury, in his official capacity. Ms. Allen alleges that her employer, the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing (“BEP”), discriminated against her, retaliated against her on the basis of her Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) complaints, unfairly denied her two promotions, and created a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq.

         In a pre-answer motion, BEP moves to dismiss Plaintiff's retaliation claim (Count One), disparate treatment claim (Count Three), harassment claim (Count Four), and race and sex discrimination claim (Count Six) as duplicative of Ms. Allen's hostile work environment claim (Count Two). See Def.'s Mot. Dismiss and Mot. Part. Summ. J., ECF No. 13. BEP also moves for partial summary judgment on Ms. Allen's denial of equal employment opportunity claim (Count Five). See Id. Because Ms. Allen has voluntarily withdrawn her denial of equal employment opportunity claim, including two non-promotion allegations, see Pl. Opp'n, ECF No. 14, the Court will dismiss that claim. And to the extent that Ms. Allen's claim of race and sex discrimination does not present any unique factual allegations or legal theories, the Court will partially dismiss that claim. But because Ms. Allen's Amended Complaint states a plausible claim to relief, see Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), for, respectively, 1) retaliatory hostile work environment; 2) hostile work environment due to race discrimination; and 3) hostile work environment due to gender/sex discrimination, the Court will deny BEP's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's other claims.[1] In so ruling, the Court cautions that, for each of these hostile work environment claims, parties' future submissions must provide more analytically crisp arguments that connect the alleged facts or rebuttals to each element of the hostile work environment legal standard articulated by the D.C. Circuit in Baird v. Gotbaum (“Baird I”), 662 F.3d 1246, 1248 (D.C. Cir. 2011) and Baird v. Gotbaum (“Baird II”), 792 F.3d 166, 168 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[2]

         Patricia Allen is an employee at the United States Department of the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Am. Compl. ¶ 12, ECF No. 12.[3] Ms. Allen self-identifies as an African-American woman with dark complexion, id. at ¶ 10, and asserts ongoing workplace discrimination on the basis of these characteristics. She avers that a series of problematic encounters with a white male co-worker, Andrew Wilson, subjected her to abusive and dangerous workplace conditions and argues that BEP's failure to redress Mr. Wilson's problematic behavior created a hostile work environment. Id. at ¶ 1. Plaintiff further contends that BEP's actions represent disparate treatment of Ms. Allen and other similarly situated employees on the basis of race and sex, see Id. at ¶¶ 1, 10, and that BEP retaliated against her when she reported Mr. Wilson's discriminatory behavior and when she complained about the responses of her supervisors, Julie Evans and Dr. G. Gupta, see Id. at ¶¶ 4, 10-11.

         The first reported incident between Plaintiff and Mr. Wilson occurred on April 30, 2008. Id. at ¶ 12. That day, Ms. Allen was working with another African-American female when Mr. Wilson kicked a trashcan toward Ms. Allen's head while yelling at her. Id. at ¶¶ 12-14; see also Compl. Ex. 4, ECF No. 1-4. Ms. Allen reported the incident to her immediate supervisor, Julie Evans, and the supervising manager, Dr. G. Gupta, as well as to BEP's Police Department and to its Equal Employment Opportunity Department. Am. Compl. at ¶ 16. Ms. Evans did not remove Mr. Wilson from Plaintiff's physical proximity, as Ms. Allen requested, and instead moved Mr. Wilson “around the corner on the same floor where Plaintiff worked, ” leaving the two employees in “close physical contact.” Id. at ¶¶ 18-20.

         Ms. Allen and other BEP employees reportedly experienced additional negative interactions with Mr. Wilson during the summer months. On June 4, 2008, Mr. Wilson told another African-American female, Rachelle Wright, that “there was no fuc… way a Black man will become president.”[4] Id. at ¶ 26. Though Ms. Allen was not present for Mr. Wilson's statement to Ms. Wright, Ms. Allen accompanied Ms. Wright to the BEP Police Department to report the incident. Id. at ¶ 27. And on June 19, 2008, Ms. Allen sent an email to her supervisors reporting that “Andy [Wilson] have [sic] come into our office 201-26 every day during lunch time to wait on Rose, ”[5] which made her “very much afraid.” Id. at ¶ 25. Ms. Allen also filed an EEO complaint against Mr. Wilson alleging that BEP's failure to discipline him for his behavior permitted him to engage in ongoing harassment of black female employees.[6] See Compl. Ex. 1, ECF No. 1-3. Another African-American female employee, Rachelle Wright, provided a declaration in support of this EEO complaint. See Compl. Ex. 3, ECF No. 1-5. Ms. Wright stated that only employees who had filed an EEO complaint in their office were asked to participate in a June 23, 2012, office clean-up. Id. Another employee who self-identifies as a Hispanic female, Jessica Xiomara Escobar, also reported that she was “a victim of Mr. Wilson's inappropriate aggressive behavior” in a 2008 statement in support of Ms. Allen's EEO complaint. Compl. Ex. 2, ECF No. 1-4.

         Problematic interactions between Mr. Wilson and other employees then appear to have paused from 2008 to mid-2011.[7] But the situation heated up once more on July 27, 2011, when Mr. Wilson coughed on Ms. Allen and referred to her as an “idiot stupid person.” Am. Compl. at ¶ 10. The next day, BEP convened a Violence Intervention Team (“VIT”)[8] that determined that Ms. Allen and Mr. Wilson should refrain from any verbal communication.[9] Id. at ¶ 28.

         Ms. Allen filed additional complaints with management after the July 27, 2011 event. Though the precise chronology is not clear from the pleadings, Ms. Allen appears to have contacted other BEP personnel about the July 27th incident, including Associate Director Judith Diaz-Myers. Id. at ¶ 44. Ms. Diaz-Myers informed Ms. Allen that, because Ms. Allen had already called Chief of Security Will Levy, BEP protocol did not permit Ms. Diaz-Myers to take any action until Mr. Levy met with supervisors “to formulate an approach to intervene into the situation” so that Ms. Allen “d[id] not feel threatened.” Id. On August 1, 2011, Ms. Allen wrote to BEP Director Larry R. Felix to report that she had not received any update regarding such a meeting. Id.

         Several further interactions between Plaintiff and Mr. Wilson occurred in late summer and early fall of 2011. On August 24, 2011, Mr. Wilson began pacing in front of Ms. Allen's work area, “staring angrily and menacingly, as if he were looking for an opportunity to physically attack [her].” Id. at ¶ 29. On September 26, 2011, Mr. Wilson entered Ms. Allen's work space and again stared “angrily and menacingly.” Id. at ¶ 30. And on October 26, 2011, Mr. Wilson entered the area where Ms. Allen was eating lunch and stared at her “in an angry menacing manner.” Id. at ¶ 31.

         After these interactions, the conflicts again appeared to briefly cease until early 2012, when several episodes involving Mr. Wilson and other employees occurred. On February 23, 2012, Mr. Wilson approached Ms. Allen, raised his cane at her, and “struck twice at Plaintiff's head.” Id. at ¶ 34. That same day, BEP convened a VIT once more. Id. at ¶ 35. This VIT classified the February 23rd episode as an “internal personal conflict, ”[10] id. at ¶¶ 35-36, and recommended once more that Ms. Allen and Mr. Wilson refrain from all verbal communications, id. at ¶ 37. BEP also responded to the February 23rd episode by issuing a memorandum on March 1, 2012 that directed the two individuals to stay ten feet apart in the workforce (“10-Foot Separation Order”). Id. at ¶ 38. Ms. Allen followed up on this incident by contacting a BEP attorney, Nicole Washington, to report Mr. Wilson's anger and to complain that he was “carrying a weapon [his cane] in the BFP [sic]” when he did not require the cane for walking. Id. at ¶ 43. Ms. Washington's documentation of the incident suggests that Mr. Wilson saw the interaction differently, contending that he was “a bit upset about a delay in getting to a men's room.” Id. In their investigation of this incident, supervisors and the VIT accused Ms. Allen of lying by asserting that Mr. Wilson “struck her with his cane, ” when in fact the accusation was that Mr. Wilson “struck at her with his cane.” Id. at ¶ 64 (emphasis added).

         As Ms. Allen pursued administrative interventions, there were soon further negative interactions between Mr. Wilson and BEP employees, including but not limited to Ms. Allen. On March 21, 2012, employee Diane Crips wrote a letter to the office of security to report that she witnessed Mr. Wilson viewing Ku Klux Klan material on his computer during work hours. Id. at ¶ 128 & n.4. In response, Dr. G. Gupta asked Ms. Evans to speak with Mr. Wilson and “counsel [him] not to view racial [sic] inappropriate material on a BEP computer if such behavior . . . with malicious intent is substantiated.”[11] Id. at n.4.

         On June 25, 2012, Mr. Wilson “angrily lifted his cane” at Ms. Allen in the hallway, “as if he was trying to gain a striking distance” to her. Id. at ¶ 39. That same day, Mr. Wilson also lifted his cane to strike another employee, Gary Cloth, id. at ¶¶ 46, 84, and remarked that he “was not joking, ” id. at ¶ 86. This interaction led Mr. Cloth to complain to his supervisors and to refuse to work alongside Mr. Wilson. Compl. Ex. 6, ECF No. 1-8 (“I had my own incident with Andy, in late June [2012]. . . . I informed my boss, Julie Evans, and the acting Office Chief at the time . . . that I considered working with Andy to be Working [sic] in an unsafe and hostile working environment and I was no longer willing to do so.”); see also Am. Compl. at ¶ 85. A VIT convened to address the interaction between Mr. Cloth and Mr. Wilson. Id. at ¶ 89. This VIT classified Mr. Wilson's “use of his cane to strike Gary Cloth” as “use of a deadly weapon and an attempted assault.” Id.

         The next interaction between Plaintiff and Mr. Wilson occurred on July 18, 2012, when Mr. Wilson verbally threatened Ms. Allen in the “hearing presence” of Ms. Evans with the warning, “if you tell one more thing on me.” Id. at ¶ 41; cf. Compl. Ex. 6, ECF No. 1-8 (Mr. Cloth reports Mr. Wilson's “intimidating remark, ” as related to him by Ms. Allen). Ms. Allen also reported this incident to BEP, to Ms. Evans, to BEP police, and to BEP's Equal Employment Office. Am. Compl. at ¶ 42.

         The Amended Complaint does not allege any further incidents until 2013, when Mr. Wilson had a similar interaction with another co-worker, Kenneth Kippeman. On January 17, 2013, Mr. Wilson “violently threaten[ed]” Mr. Kippeman. Id. at ¶ 106. Mr. Kippeman contacted Ms. Evans and requested an explanation for Mr. Wilson's “attack[]” at the vending machine, along with an apology. Id. at ¶ 107. Neither the specific result of this request nor the details of any administrative action are reported in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint or in the exhibits attached to the original complaint.[12] Ms. Allen asserts that, in contrast to BEP's classification of her interactions with Mr. Wilson as a “personal conflict” that was insufficiently investigated, id. at ¶ 101, “Mr. Wilson's violence against Cloth and Kippeman was classified as behavior that created a hostile work environment, ” id. at ¶ 109, and their “claims were actually investigated at the Agency level, ” id. at ¶ 111.

         After these interactions, Ms. Allen ceased her complaints to BEP in “fear of retaliation by Mr. Wilson with his cane and the Agency's failure to protect” her. Id. at ¶ 48. Between 2008 and 2012, and at “times thereafter, ” she “lived in morbid fear that Mr. Wilson would attack her with his cane and seriously injure her or kill her.” Id. at ¶ 55. She “pared [sic] with other employees when she entered the common areas of the Agency, ” id. at ¶ 56. A final interaction with Mr. Wilson occurred on one such occasion on October 16, 2014. That morning, Ms. Allen was walking to the cafeteria to get breakfast with another employee, Tracey Newell. Ms. Allen spotted Mr. Wilson at the end of the hallway, made eye contact with Mr. Wilson and discerned an “angry look on his face, ” and told Ms. Newell, “let's go back” as Ms. Allen became nervous and began shaking. Id. at ¶ 49. Ms. Allen and Ms. Newell turned toward Ms. Allen's office, intending to allow Mr. Wilson to pass; Mr. Wilson instead halted at the end of the hallway with a “glaring stare” while lifting his cane, hitting the floor with it repeatedly, and “going off and making all types of noise.” Id. Mr. Wilson eventually left, “mumbling, ” after which both Ms. Allen and Ms. Newell reported the incident to the Manager of Material Technology, Jessica Gonzalez.[13] Id. No further incidents or administrative proceedings are alleged in the Amended Complaint, though Mr. Wilson appears to have been terminated in 2018. Id. at ¶ 131.

         On March 5, 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a “Right to Sue Letter, ” id. at ¶ 8, giving Ms. Allen 90 days to bring a civil action under Title VII in federal court, see 29 C.F.R. § 1601.28.[14] Plaintiff filed her Complaint within this deadline on May 25, 2018, and subsequently filed an Amended Complaint on October 11, 2018. See Am. Compl. Defendant responded with a motion to dismiss in part and a motion for partial summary judgment on October 25, 2018. See Def. Mot. Dismiss and Mot. Part. Summary Judgment. That motion is ripe for the Court's consideration.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The motion for partial summary judgment presents the simpler issue in this suit, and so the Court will assess it first.

         A. Motion for ...


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