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Sierra v. Hayden

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 13, 2019

MARTHA-LUCIA SIERRA, Plaintiff,
v.
CARLA HAYDEN,[1] in her official capacity a Librarian of Congress, Defendant.

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

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On September 9, 2016, Library of Congress (“LOC”) employee Martha-Lucia Sierra brought this employment discrimination action against Carla Hayden in her official capacity as Librarian of Congress. Ms. Sierra alleged discriminatory non-promotions beginning in 2008, Compl. ¶¶ 37-41, ECF No. 1, and from 2014 to 2016, id. ¶¶ 42-45. She additionally contended that her supervisor's “unwelcome harassment . . . because of her race (Hispanic), national origin (Colombian), and/or sex (female)” created a hostile work environment. Id. ¶ 33. Defendant moved to dismiss both Plaintiff's 2008 to 2012 and 2014 to 2016 non-promotion claims. See generally Def.'s Partial Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 4. On June 1, 2017, this Court granted Defendant's motion, finding that Ms. Sierra had failed to timely administratively exhaust both her 2008 to 2012 complaints and her failure-to-promote claims from 2014 to 2016 with the LOC. See Sierra v. Hayden, 254 F.Supp.3d 230, 233 (D.D.C. 2017). Because Defendant had not moved to dismiss the 2013 non-promotion, this Court declined to move sua sponte to dismiss that claim. Id. at 243. The Court noted, however, that Ms. Sierra's 2013 non-promotion claim was “likely dismissible because she did not seek out a promotion” in that year. Id.

         After completing discovery, Defendant brought a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss Ms. Sierra's remaining 2013 non-promotion claim and a motion for summary judgment on her hostile work environment claim. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss and Mot. Summary J. (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 24. Because this Court finds that Plaintiff has not established a plausible 2013 non-promotion claim, that claim is dismissed. In addition, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         II. REGULATORY AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees of the Library of Congress, providing that “[a]ll personnel actions affecting [LOC] employees or applicants for employment . . . shall be made free from any discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a). A party must fulfill several administrative prerequisites before she may file a Title VII lawsuit in a federal district court. See Brown v. GSA, 425 U.S. 820, 832 (1976). As detailed in this Court's June 1, 2017 Memorandum Opinion, the specific regulations that apply to the LOC differ from many other federal agencies. See 29 C.F.R. § 1614.103(d)(3). Under Title VII, the Librarian of Congress is to exercise Equal Opportunity Employment Commission authority over the LOC, see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(b), which the Librarian has done via LOC regulations, see LCR 2010-3.1 § 1, ECF No. 4-3. The LOC regulations require a staff member “who believes that []she has been, or is being discriminated against” to “notify and consult with a Counselor not later than 20 workdays after the date of the alleged discriminatory matter.” Id. at § 6(B). Subject to a limited number of exceptions, this requirement must be satisfied before a plaintiff may file a lawsuit in federal district court. Id. at § 4(B); see also Nichols v. Billington, 402 F.Supp.2d 48, 69 (D.D.C. 2005), aff'd, No. 05-5326, 2006 WL 2018044 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 7, 2006).

         Here, Plaintiff filed several administrative complaints related to her non-promotion claims. The Court has already determined that Plaintiff's employment discrimination complaints for non-promotions before 2012 “did not adhere to the black letter of the library regulations.” Sierra, 254 F.Supp.3d at 239. Because she did not timely file within the LOC regulations' twenty workday requirement and because she also did not make a request for an extension of the deadline upon prior request, see LCR 2000-3.1 § 4(B), Ms. Sierra missed the regulatory deadline. See Id. The Court thus concluded that Ms. Sierra did not timely exhaust her pre-2012 administrative claims, that the LOC did not waive its non-exhaustion defense, and that Ms. Sierra failed to demonstrate that she was entitled to equitable tolling on her claims for the years 2008 through 2012. See Id. at 239-43. The Court also considered Plaintiff's failure-to-promote claims that occurred from 2014 to 2016. See Id. at 243-44. Finding that Ms. Sierra did not timely exhaust her 2014, 2015, and 2016 administrative claims of alleged non-promotion, it granted Defendant's partial motion to dismiss these claims. Id. at 244. Finally, the Court considered Ms. Sierra's claim for discriminatory non-promotion in 2013. Id. at 244-45. Because Defendant did not move to dismiss Plaintiff's 2013 non-promotion claim or brief the issue, the Court declined to dismiss the claim sua sponte under Rule 12(b)(6). Id. at 245. The Court noted, however, that the claim was likely dismissible because Plaintiff did not seek out a promotion in 2013. Id.

         On December 10, 2018, Defendant filed a second motion to dismiss addressing the 2013 non-promotion claim. See generally Def.'s Mot. In this same filing, Defendants moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim. See Id. These motions are now ripe for the Court's consideration.

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[2]

         Because this Court has already dismissed all of Plaintiff's claims other than Ms. Sierra's 2013 discriminatory non-promotion claim and hostile work environment claim, see Sierra, 254 F.Supp.3d at 235 (discussing discriminatory and retaliatory refusal to promote as well as “other discriminatory actions”), the instant description of the facts will focus on, first, the employee-supervisor relationship in the year 2013, and second, details from the record that are relevant for Plaintiff's discriminatory hostile work environment claim.

         Ms. Sierra worked as a contractor at LOC from 1993 to 1996, Pl.'s Opp'n Def.'s Mot. (“Pl's Opp'n”) 2-3, ECF No. 27, and was then hired as a Paper Conservator for the LOC's Conservation Office in April 1996, Def.'s Mot. 2; Pl.'s Opp'n 3.[3] In 2007, Plaintiff applied for a career ladder GS-13/14 management analyst position in the LOC's Strategic Planning Office (“SPO”). Compl. ¶ 11. She was selected for the management analyst position after an interview by Karen Lloyd, who became Ms. Sierra's immediate supervisor from May 2007 to July 2015. See Pl.'s Opp'n 3; Def.'s Statement Material Facts (“Def.'s SMF”), ECF No. 24-1 ¶¶ 4, 6. Ms. Sierra was hired into this position at the GS-13 level. Def.'s SMF ¶ 4. As a “career ladder position” employee, Ms. Sierra was eligible for non-competitive promotion to the GS-14 if she demonstrated an ability to perform at that level. Id. ¶ 12; see also Pl.'s Opp'n 4-5 (“[I]n order to move up in a career ladder position, ‘an individual must demonstrate that they are performing satisfactorily at the next higher grade level for a period of three (3) months.'” (quoting Def.'s Resps. Pl.'s Interrogs. 5, ECF No. 27-7)). Ms. Sierra has not been promoted to the GS-14 level since she was hired into the management analyst position in 2007. Pl.'s Opp'n 3 (citing Compl. ¶ 11).

         Ms. Sierra's complaint alleges discrimination based on race (Hispanic), sex (female), and national origin (Colombian). Compl. ¶ 1. Because Plaintiff alleges discriminatory conduct over a period of time, as opposed to making a claim derived from one or more discrete acts, the Court will summarize several categories of issues that Ms. Sierra describes: shifting work performance standards; presentations and meetings; interactions within the office and at external events; and one-on-one conversations with Ms. Lloyd.

         A. Shifting Work Performance Standards

         According to Ms. Sierra, her performance was continually found inadequate, even when she “rose to the challenge[s]” that Ms. Lloyd laid out for her. Pl.'s Opp'n 5. First, in Plaintiff's 2008-2009 performance evaluation, Ms. Sierra was told that she needed to “take the Internal Control Program (“ICP”) out of the Library” to be ready for her GS-14 promotion. Id. at 4 (citing Sierra Aff. 4, ECF No. 27-8). But even when Ms. Sierra performed this task and was invited to participate at the 2016 Association of Government Accountants (“AGA”) Fraud and Internal Controls National Meeting, Plaintiff asserts that Ms. Lloyd did not recognize her accomplishment. Id. at 5-6. Instead, according to Plaintiff, Ms. Lloyd “took the project leadership role away” and told Ms. Sierra not to contact the AGA. Id. at 6 (citing Sierra Aff. 4). Ms. Lloyd contests this allegation, averring that she did not strip Ms. Sierra of any leadership role. Id. at 6 (citing Lloyd Dep. 125:22-126:9, ECF No. 27-4).

         In 2010, when Plaintiff again asked about a possible promotion based on her work with the ICP, Ms. Lloyd allegedly characterized Ms. Sierra's work as “fine” but told her that she was not ready for a promotion because she lacked supervisory skills. Id. at 11 (citing Sierra Dep. 89, ECF No. 27-3). Again, Ms. Lloyd disputes this account and states that she “could not have said this because” of her knowledge that the position is non-supervisory. Lloyd Aff. 7, ECF No. 27-6. Ms. Sierra offers that she worked to redress this issue in two ways. First, she enrolled in “Management Concepts, ” a professional training resource for the ICP, to gain supervisory training. Pl.'s Opp'n 12. Second, she began managing a LOC intern and met weekly with Ms. Lloyd “to discuss her task as a supervisor.” Id. (citing Sierra Aff. 6). According to Ms. Sierra, Ms. Lloyd abruptly fired the intern before the end of the intern's assignment term and told Plaintiff that she lacked supervisory skills. Id. (citing Sierra Dep. 92; Sierra Aff. 7). According to Ms. Lloyd, it was Ms. Sierra who suggested that she fire the intern. Lloyd Aff. 8. There is no evidence of further discussion of supervisory skills development or of the importance of such skills for promotion.

         The next year (2011), at her annual performance evaluation, Ms. Sierra states that she was informed for the first time that her writing skills were deficient. Pl.'s Opp'n 12 (citing Sierra Dep. 100; Lloyd Dep. 119:5-6); see also Def.'s SMF ¶ 17 (citing Compl. ¶¶ 16, 25(b)). According to Ms. Sierra, Ms. Lloyd's critique of her writing “perplexed” her because coworkers generally complimented her work. Pl.'s Opp'n 12-14 (citing Morse Dep. 57:3-9, 57:10-15, ECF No. 9). Ms. Walfall, a coworker, affirms that Ms. Sierra's work was “usually well-written” and did not require any more editing than that of her coworkers. Walfall Aff. 3, ECF No. 27-14. Ms. Morse, a coworker who reviewed Plaintiff's work under the office's peer review system, found Ms. Sierra's writing to be grammatically sound and “fine, though perhaps a bit verbose.” Pl.'s Opp'n 13 n.12; see also Morse Dep. 55:19-57:9. Mr. Lambert, a third coworker, suggests that there were more issues with Ms. Sierra's writing, stating that she has “some messaging challenges with what message is being communicated to who[m].” Lambert Dep. 22:15-17, ECF 31-4.[4]

         Ms. Sierra ultimately enrolled in writing courses after Ms. Lloyd requested that she “take ‘writing courses' or ‘English courses'” through the LOC online training portal, Def.'s Mot. 13 (quoting Compl. ¶ 16, 25(b); Sierra Dep. 105:20-106:8), because her writing was “not clear and concise” and required multiple rounds of edits, id. (quoting Lloyd Dep. 61:8-10, 80:7-10). Ms. Sierra characterizes many of these edits as “stylistic, ” citing examples such as replacing the phrase “Good day” with “Dear Internal Control Program Accountable Officials.” Pl.'s Opp'n 13 & n.11. Nonetheless, Ms. Sierra completed five or six online classes concerning English, in the sense of effective writing skills and not in the sense of learning to speak the language. Sierra Dep. 107:7-25, 109:14-17, ECF No. 24-3. She completed these courses in addition to her regular workload, although Ms. Sierra was permitted to take these courses at her desk during work hours and does not appear to have been expected to complete them on her own time. See Id. at 109-11.

         B. Presentations and Meetings

         Several incidents occurred at LOC presentations and meetings. The earliest reported incident occurred on September 15, 2009, when Plaintiff was practicing for a presentation the next day at the Association of Government Accountants' Internal Control Program/Fraud Conference. Def.'s Mot. 10 (citing Sierra Dep. 38:4-44:7, ECF No. 24-4); see also Pl.'s Opp'n 7. According to Plaintiff, Ms. Sierra had invited several colleagues to help her polish her presentation. Pl.'s Opp'n 6-7 (citing Sierra Dep. 43-44; Sierra Aff. 4-5). Plaintiff avers that Ms. Lloyd was late to the rehearsal, “which was ‘disruptive, '” and then, upon her arrival, frequently interrupted Ms. Sierra's presentation and critiqued it as “incoherent.” Def.'s Mot. 10 (quoting Sierra Dep. 44:8-17); see also Pl.'s Opp'n 6-8. At this same rehearsal, Ms. Lloyd is alleged to have mocked Ms. Sierra's accent with the comment, “you're talking like wa wa wa.” Def.'s Mot. 10 (quoting Sierra Dep. 44:21); see also Pl.'s Opp'n 7. Plaintiff additionally proffers that these comments were made “with disgust in her [Ms. Lloyd's] face.” Pl.'s Opp'n 7 (citing Sierra Dep. 44). An employee at the LOC Office of Opportunity, Inclusiveness, and Compliance, Ida Hernandez, corroborates Ms. Sierra's account. Ms. Hernandez attended Ms. Sierra's rehearsal at Plaintiff's personal invitation and states that Ms. Lloyd was “harshly criticizing Plaintiff's presentation” and “aggressively harass[ing] Plaintiff by interrupting and bombarding Plaintiff with criticism while she was practicing.” Id. at 8 (quoting Hernandez Aff. 3, ECF No. 27-12). In addition, Ms. Sierra avers that, during multiple other presentations and meetings, Ms. Lloyd asked others in the room if they understood what Plaintiff was saying. Def.'s Mot. 11; Pl.'s Opp'n 18. Ms. Sierra specifically points to her October 2012 presentation during a LOC class as a time when Ms. Lloyd frequently interrupted Ms. Sierra and questioned whether the class understood her. Pl.'s Opp'n 17 (citing Lloyd Aff. 8), 38.

         Two coworkers in the LOC's Office of Strategic Initiatives (“OSI”) sustain Ms. Sierra's account. According to Carolyn Claypoole, who is not supervised by Ms. Lloyd and who serves as an internal control program coordinator for OSI, Claypoole Aff. Addendum 4, ECF No. 27-15, Ms. Lloyd “continually” interrupted Ms. Sierra at Internal Control Program (“ICP”) meetings in 2010 and 2012, id. at 3. Ms. Claypoole labels Ms. Lloyd's interruptions of Ms. Sierra's presentations as “blatantly racist.” Pl.'s Opp'n 37 (quoting Claypoole Aff. 4). Ms. Sierra also specifically underscores December 2, 2010, March 7, 2012, June 6, 2012, and August 8, 2012, as “a few dates where Ms. Lloyd interrupted Ms. Sierra in the ICP meetings.” Id. at 37 n.22. Beyond these dates, the record does not indicate what proportion of the monthly ICP meetings involved such interruptions. Ms. Morse separately concurs with Plaintiff's account that, on multiple occasions, Ms. Lloyd asked Ms. Sierra to repeat herself during staff meetings in ways that Ms. Morse did not find necessary. Morse Dep. 53:14-55:4. Furthermore, Ms. Claypoole and Plaintiff each contend that Ms. Lloyd never similarly interrupted white, male employees whom she supervised. See Pl.'s Opp'n 37; see also Id. at 9 (citing Hernandez Aff. 7; Page Aff. 3, ECF 27-13). However, Tom Lambert, a third supervisee of Ms. Lloyd, avers that Ms. Lloyd critiqued the presentations of all her staff. See Lambert Aff., ECF No. 24-13 (“Karen Lloyd . . . regularly attended presentations given by her staff members, including me, took notes on those presentations, and provided the presenters with critiques and criticisms.”).

         C. Interactions Within the Office and at External Events

         Ms. Sierra also describes a number of more specific interactions with Ms. Lloyd that took place both in the office and at external events. She contends that Ms. Lloyd tended to at times “unnecessarily separate[] Plaintiff from some groups, and other times unnecessarily lumped her in with other groups, ” Pl.'s Opp'n 15 (citing Sierra Dep. 117), and “took many actions to subtly and overtly humiliate Ms. Sierra, ” id. at 43.

         First, Plaintiff states that Ms. Lloyd disfavored Ms. Sierra and did not appoint Ms. Sierra to be her subordinate in charge when Ms. Lloyd was away from the office unless Plaintiff “was the only one available.” Id. at 16 (citing Lloyd Dep. 84); see also Walfall Aff. 5, ECF No. 27- 14 (stating that Ms. Walfall could not recall Ms. Sierra ever acting on Ms. Lloyd's behalf and noting that Ms. Walfall was only asked to act on Ms. Lloyd's behalf “if the following conditions were met: (1) [Ms. Sierra] was the only one in the office other than me [and] (2) I was the only person in the office”). Ms. Lloyd contends, however, that she did not select Plaintiff to supervise in her absence because Ms. Sierra's position in the ICP tended to receive fewer questions than other areas of the office, and so Ms. Sierra's area of expertise was less germane. Def.'s Mot. 16- 17; see also Letter Re Decision of the Office of Opportunity, Inclusiveness and Compliance 7-8, ECF No. 24-10 (citing Ms. Lloyd's explanation that she “put the individual in charge who has the most experience with regard to the areas in which issues or questions are expected to come up and will need to be resolved”).

         Second, Ms. Sierra argues that Ms. Lloyd treated her differently from other employees because Ms. Lloyd did not approve a detail opportunity for Ms. Sierra to work at an office outside of the LOC. During Ms. Lloyd's tenure as Ms. Sierra's supervisor, other employees whom Ms. Lloyd supervised went on details. See Def.'s SMF ¶ 17 (citing Compl. ¶ 25(a)). According to Ms. Sierra, she first requested a detail during her 2013 performance review, but Ms. Lloyd was unsupportive of her detail request during her remaining two years supervising Ms. Sierra. Def.'s Mot. 16. Although Ms. Lloyd “never explicitly told Plaintiff [that] she refused to allow [Ms. Sierra] to be detailed for an assignment, she continuously ‘pushed back' the prospective detail under the guise of Plaintiff having ‘a lot of work.'” Pl.'s Opp'n 20 (quoting Sierra Dep. 148). In addition, Ms. Sierra avers that Ms. Lloyd actively provided detail opportunities for a white, male coworker, Mr. Lambert, id. at 21 (citing Lambert Dep. 25:18- 26:1), whereas Ms. Lloyd advised Plaintiff that she needed to locate her own “developmental assignment, ” id. at 20 (quoting Def.'s Resp. Pl.'s Interrogs. 8). Although Ms. Lloyd disputes this account and states that Mr. Lambert located his own detail, see Lloyd Dep. 88:7-90:8, Mr. Lambert's own testimony supports Ms. Sierra's account, see Lambert Dep. 25:20-26:8, ECF No. 27-25 (stating that he never sought a detail opportunity and that Ms. Lloyd approached him about a “developmental” detail).

         Plaintiff also proffers that Ms. Lloyd's communications and protocols within SPO represent Defendant's differential treatment of Ms. Sierra as compared to Ms. Lloyd's other supervisees. Ms. Sierra notes Ms. Lloyd's failure to include her on two SPO internal emails, one a notice that Ms. Lloyd was ill on November 25, 2013, and the other an email regarding the death of a coworker's mother on December 5, 2013. Def.'s Mot. 18. Plaintiff avers that these omissions represent an attempt to exclude Ms. Sierra from office communications. Pl.'s Opp'n 42-43. Defendant proffers a non-discriminatory explanation for both omissions. Ms. Lloyd contends that she did not include Plaintiff on the November 25, 2013, email because it “had nothing to do with the content of the internal control program that Sierra was responsible for, ” Def.'s Mot. 18 (citing Lloyd Dep. 86:15-17; Def.'s Suppl. Interrog Resp. 7-9-18, ECF 24-17), and that her failure to include Ms. Sierra on the December 5, 2013, email was inadvertent, id. (citing Def.'s Suppl. Interrog. Resp. 7-9-18).

         Ms. Sierra additionally suggests that Ms. Lloyd treated her differently by restricting her communications with Chief Financial Officer Jeff Page. In approximately March 2010, Ms. Lloyd began “pre-screening” all communications between Ms. Sierra and Mr. Page. Def.'s Mot. 12; see also Pl.'s Opp'n 39. According to Plaintiff's deposition, this restriction did not affect Ms. Sierra's ability to complete her work duties. See Def.'s Mot. 12 (citing Sierra Dep. 76:2-8). However, it did not apply to any of Ms. Lloyd's other supervisees, male or female. Pl.'s Opp'n 39; see also Def.'s Mot. 12 (citing Sierra Dep. 75:21-23). Ms. Lloyd states that she expects all her supervisees to brief her or her representative before going to the CFO and that she expects all staff to inform her should the CFO contact them directly. Lloyd Aff. 14. Nothing in the record specifically explains why Ms. Lloyd restricted Ms. Sierra's communications in this manner.

         Finally, Ms. Sierra points to Ms. Lloyd's comments and conduct towards her in group settings. Plaintiff highlights two incidents. First, at an unidentified time, Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Lloyd compared a sweater that Ms. Sierra was wearing to the LOC's carpet. See Def.'s Mot. 20 (quoting Sierra Dep. 78:15-16). Plaintiff argues that this comment was “meant to embarrass her (Sierra) because ‘everybody knew that nobody liked the carpet.'” Id. (quoting Sierra Dep. 78:11). She contends, moreover, that Ms. Lloyd was judgmental about her clothing on multiple occasions and would look at “Plaintiff's attire from top to bottom in a judgmental fashion” when Ms. Sierra arrived at the office each morning. Pl.'s Opp'n 14 (quoting Sierra Dep. 79). Second, in 2011, Ms. Lloyd and Ms. Sierra were attending an internal control conference together and conversing with other attendees during a break in proceedings. Pl.'s Opp'n 43. In the presence of this group, Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Lloyd did not permit Ms. Sierra to excuse herself to use the restroom, saying in front of the other attendees, “[n]o, you go to the ladies' room after the session is over, and you go to the second floor” restroom, which was not the facility used by others at the conference. Id. (quoting Sierra Dep. 83).

         D. One-on-One Communications

         In addition, Ms. Sierra describes a series of one-on-one interactions with Ms. Lloyd as further support for her discriminatory hostile work environment claim.

         1. Private Communications

         Ms. Sierra contends that Ms. Lloyd subjected her to offensive comments in private conversations between them. In 2010, after Ms. Sierra was asked to assist with a teleconference involving the American Embassy in Mexico, Ms. Lloyd allegedly became angry that Ms. Sierra's help had been requested and called her a “traitor, ” Pl.'s Opp'n 9 (citing Sierra Dep. 63-66; Sierra Aff. 12; Walfall Aff. 3), warning her that she should “tell [her] friends not to give [Plaintiff's] name for any other projects, ” id. at 10 (citing Sierra Dep. 70; Sierra Aff. 12). Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Lloyd's lack of support forced her to turn down the opportunity. See Id. at 9. Ms. Lloyd denies any recollection of this incident. Id. at 10 (citing Def.'s Resp. Pl.'s Interrogs. 9; Lloyd Dep. 130:15-131:4). Approximately one month later, Ms. Sierra avers that Ms. Lloyd again raised the incident and compared Plaintiff to Jerry Sandusky, a notorious child molester, during her performance evaluation, which Ms. Lloyd similarly denies. Id. (citing Sierra Dep. 73-74; Sierra Aff. 17; Lloyd Dep. 131:5-131:21). And on November 18, 2011, Ms. Sierra alleges that Ms. Lloyd chastised her for going to talk ...


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