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Ye v. Office of the Senate

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 25, 2019

QIAN YE, Plaintiff,
v.
OFFICE OF THE SENATE, SERGEANT AT ARMS Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Qian Ye brings this suit for discrimination based on national origin, race, and sex pursuant to the Congressional Accountability Act, 2 U.S.C. §§ 1302(a), 1311(a), which applies Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., to offices in the legislative branch. Defendant Office of the Senate Sergeant at Arms (SAA), has moved for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the court will GRANT SAA's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ye, a former SAA employee and woman of Chinese origin, alleges that SAA suspended her for one week without pay and ultimately terminated her employment because of her national origin, race, and sex.[1] Am. Compl. ¶¶ 71-80, ECF No. 16. Ye claims that her co-worker and team lead, Cris Benge, “begged management to get rid of [her] because he was uncomfortable working with someone who was not white.” Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. at 17, ECF No. 35. Ye admits that no SAA supervisor made a disparaging comment in her presence about her national origin, race, or sex, Pl.'s Resp. to SOF ¶ 13, ECF No. 35-1, but points to several instances that she claims show Benge's discriminatory animus towards her, Opp'n to Mot. for Summ J. at 15- 19. SAA, however, claims that it suspended and terminated Ye because of her continuous acts of insubordination.

         A. Employment Background and Reporting Structure

         Ye began working for SAA on July 21, 2014 as a Senior Systems Engineer, responsible for maintaining and supporting SAA's SQL databases.[2] Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 1, 3-4. Benge began working at SAA in August 2015 as a Principal Systems Engineer, and was also appointed as the team lead, responsible for project planning and giving direction to Ye. Id. ¶¶ 18, 23-24. Ye and Benge comprised the SQL team, which was a part of the Enterprise Database Support group (“EDS”). Id. ¶¶ 6, 14-18. At all relevant times, Bryan Steward was Ye's second-line supervisor and Jay Moore was her third-line supervisor. Id. ¶¶ 8, 12. Chris Molander was Ye's first-line supervisor until late July 2016, when he took indefinite medical leave. Id. ¶¶ 7, 9. According to SAA, Steward became Ye's first-line supervisor at that time. Id. ¶ 11. Ye claims that Anthony Golding was her acting supervisor for several weeks before Steward became her interim first-line supervisor. Ye Dep. 22:12-23:19, Ex. 1, ECF No. 36-1.

         B. Alleged Discriminatory Animus

         Ye alleges that Benge harbored discriminatory animus towards her, based on his complaints to management and human resources department (HR) about her, criticism of her written communications, and comments he made in an e-mail exchange between himself and another SAA employee. See generally Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J.

         1. Benge's Complaints to Management and HR

         Ye claims that in complaints to management and HR, Benge “falsely accused her of misconduct and unprofessional behavior.”[3] Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. at 15.

         Sometime in or around June 2016, Benge filed an HR complaint against Ye, in which he claimed that Ye (1) challenged team decisions and implemented changes contrary to those decisions; (2) temporarily removed Benge's access to certain systems and failed to properly communicate with the team within the last year; and (3) called Benge insulting names such as “SQL Master, ” “flim flam man, ” “liar, ” and “lawyer.” Ex. 23, ECF No. 36-23. HR conducted an investigation and concluded that Ye's conduct was “unprofessional . . . [but did] not constitute harassment or a hostile work environment.” Id.

         2. Criticisms of Ye's Written Communication

Ye claims that Benge “repeatedly made fun of [her] grammar and written communication.” Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. at 17-19. For example, in July 2016 Benge and a colleague, Sharif Akand, had an instant message conversation about Benge's intended resignation. Ex. 25, ECF No. 36-25. Akand told Benge that Ye informed him by e-mail that “he resigned” without specifying who she was talking about, to which Benge responded “oh, she didn't specify any context? World class communicator, that one.” Id. Benge testified at his deposition that he had also criticized Ye's written communication skills when her understanding of comma usage led to an incorrect understanding of an error message. Benge Dep. 104:10- 105:3, Ex. 5, ECF No. 36-5.

         3. Garrison's E-Mail to Benge

         Finally, Ye points to a September 12, 2016 e-mail exchange between Benge and Richard Garrison in which they discussed Benge's difficulties with Ye and Garrison's difficulties with another female Asian employee named Dung.[4] Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. at 16; Ex. 17, ECF No. 36-17. Benge wrote “I really don't see [management] terminating her, and if she were going to choose to leave she likely would have already given everything that's transpired against her position.” Ex. 17, ECF No. 36-17. Ye contends this comment indicates that Benge tried to force her to quit. Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. at 11, ¶ 60. In his response to Benge, Garrison wrote “[s]ome things are inherently cultural, but I believe a lot that you and I are dealing with are more character basic things that were never addressed throughout [Ye and Dung's] life.” Ex. 17, ECF No. 36-17.

         C. Ye's Alleged Insubordination

         SAA counters Ye's claims of discriminatory animus by pointing to four instances of her alleged insubordination that it says were part of a pattern that led to her suspension and ultimate termination. See Mot. for Summ. J, ECF No. 28.

         1. EDS Group Meeting and Counseling Memorandum

         On June 14, 2016, Ye, Benge, and Molander attended an EDS group meeting. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 25-26. Ye began to speak about a technical disagreement between her and Benge and tried to get Molander to vote on the resolution to a technical issue that had previously been debated at length. Id. ¶¶ 28-30. Though Ye claims that management had not yet made a decision, Pl.'s Resp. to SOF ¶ 29, Benge had already made a technical decision on the issue, and SAA contends that Ye tried to get those present at the meeting to overrule Benge's decision, Def.'s SOF ¶ 30. Molander told Ye that discussing the issue was inappropriate at the EDS meeting, and that “she should defer the discussion until the SQL-team only meeting scheduled for later that day.” Id. ¶ 31. SAA claims that Molander asked Ye to defer the conversation three times, and she refused to do so until his third request. Id. ¶¶ 31-36. According to Ye, Molander “interrupted her, banged his hands on the table, and yelled, “‘Stop, stop, stop!'” Pl's Resp. to SOF ¶ 31. Ye also claims that she did not know about the SQL-team only meeting scheduled for later and that Molander later admitted that he had not yet invited her to the meeting. Id. ¶¶ 31, 37.

         Later that day, Molander verbally counseled Ye about her behavior during the meeting, and on June 20, 2016, Steward delivered a written Counseling Memorandum to Ye that was partly based on her insubordinate behavior during the June 14 meeting and warned her that further failure to follow orders could result in disciplinary action. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 37-38, 45. Ye denied any wrongdoing or insubordination. Pl.'s Resp. to SOF ¶ 44. The Counseling Memorandum instructed Ye to “[s]upport and abide by the technical decisions made by [her] team lead, ” and to “not continue to debate or express [her] disagreement once [she] has provided [her] input and technical decisions are made.” Ex. 6, ECF 30-6.

         2. Unauthorized Changes to Folder Paths During Data Migration

         That summer, as part of SAA's migration of data from one storage solution to another, Benge decided to clean up an inconsistency he believed existed in some folder paths and informed Ye of his plan for doing so. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 46-51. Although Ye thought Benge's plan was inefficient, according to SAA, the SQL team ultimately selected Benge's solution after discussion among Ye, Benge, and management. Id. ¶¶ 52-55. Ye denies that the SQL team selected Benge's plan. Pl.'s Resp. to SOF ¶ 55.

         During Ye's employment at SAA, these types of changes were typically coded and tested in SAA's “development environments”-a set of SQL databases that does not support publicly accessible websites-before being implemented in the “production environment” -a set of SQL databases that supports publicly accessible Senate websites. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 58-61. Benge implemented the changes in the development environment in May 2016, and Ye claims that these changes resulted in errors in the development environment. Id. ¶ 62; Pl.'s Resp. to SOF ¶¶ 62, 64. While Benge was out of the office, Ye was asked to migrate the data in the production environment. Def.'s SOF ¶ 65. According to SAA, Benge provided Ye with detailed ...


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