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Williams v. Smithsonian Institution

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 16, 2019

SAMUEL C. WILLIAMS, IV, Plaintiff,
v.
SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Samuel C. Williams, IV sued his former employer, the Smithsonian Institution, alleging race discrimination and retaliation for protected activity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the Smithsonian moves for summary judgment on both claims. ECF No. 37. For the reasons set forth below, the court will GRANT the Smithsonian's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Williams' Hiring

         Williams, who is African American, was employed by the Smithsonian as a Management and Program Analyst (MPA) in the Systems Engineering Division, Work Management Center (WMC), Office of Facilities Management & Reliability (OFMR), between November 2012 and August 2013. ECF No. 37 (“Def.'s Stmt. Mat. Facts”) ¶¶ 1, 36.

         When Williams applied for the MPA position, WMC Supervisor Enos Scragg required him to complete two evaluations: an Excel assessment and a writing sample. ECF No. 39-1, Ex. D (“Williams Dep.”) at 15:25-16:19.[1] The posting announcing the vacant position, however, did not indicate that any tests were necessary. ECF No. 39-1 (“Pl.'s Ex. A”) at 000003. Scragg, who is Caucasian, hired Williams and became his supervisor in the WMC. Def.'s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 1. Williams' employment at the Smithsonian was subject to a one-year probationary period, which the Smithsonian uses “to determine the fitness of the employee and shall terminate his services during this period if s/he fails to demonstrate fully his qualifications for continued employment.” Id. ¶ 2. During Williams' first year at the Smithsonian, his supervisor was to “continually assess [his] performance during [the] probationary period and may make a determination regarding [his] continued employment at any time during the probationary period.” Id. Williams was informed that the probationary period was “a highly significant and final step in the examining process.” Id.

         B. Management Project Analyst Position

         The OFMR provides maintenance, repair, and other building services to more than 400 facilities owned by the Smithsonian. Id. ¶ 3. Within the OFMR, the WMC is the “key work control point for distributing and tracking facilities work throughout the Institution.” ECF No. 37-9. Specifically, the WMC uses a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) to manage service requests, maintain equipment inventories, schedule equipment testing and inspection, track labor, materials, venders, and contractors, and manage required data and status update reports for Smithsonian facilities in the Washington, D.C. area. Def 's Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 4. An MPA in the WMC performs “detailed-critical work” that requires close attention to ongoing tasks and near-perfect accuracy. Id. ¶ 5.

         Williams' performance plan in the WMC had five elements: (1) analysis and management of computerized maintenance management system processes and activities; (2) customer service and unit staff support; (3) analysis and management of program performance; (4) safety, health, and security; and (5) professional development and teamwork. Id. ¶ 6. The first element required that Williams “[c]onduct[] highly complex, non-routine entry or corrections to data records lacking defined procedures as needed or requested, ” demonstrate a “minimal need for supervisory direction, ” and meet a minimum accuracy level of 95 percent. Id. ¶ 7. The second element required Williams to “[s]erve as CMMS subject matter expert on all scheduled maintenance activities and associated processes.” Id. ¶ 8. The third element required “the effective use of queries, pivot tables, formulas and macros in work assignments resulting accuracy [sic] and consistent output during the performance period.” Id. ¶ 9. The parties do not focus on the specific requirements of the fourth and fifth elements of Williams' performance plan.

         C. Williams' Job Performance

         During the first few months that Williams worked at the Smithsonian, he processed tickets for facility maintenance, which would “come in by the hundreds” daily. Williams Dep. at 35:23-25. The parties dispute whether the ticketing work was included in Williams' duties, or whether customer service representatives were supposed to complete these assignments. ECF No. 39 (“Pl.'s Opp'n”) at 3; ECF No. 40 (“Def.'s Reply”) at 4-5. Williams also asserts that he was responsible for completing more of the ticketing work than other MPAs. Williams Dep. at 35:7-37:8.

         Soon after Williams began working in the WMC, Scragg found that Williams' “Excel skill set was weak.” Def.'s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 10. In addition to discussing Williams' work performance with him on a “daily and weekly basis, ” Scragg held weekly meetings with WMC staff, including Williams, during which Scragg discussed employees' work request statistics and accuracy rates. Id. ¶¶ 11-12. John Kerns, Williams' co-worker and the WMC team lead, also observed errors with Williams' work involving job plans and preventative maintenance schedules. Id. ¶ 13.

         During Williams' mid-year performance appraisal on April 16, 2013, Scragg informed him that his accuracy rate was 94 percent, just below the established minimum accuracy rating of 95 percent required by his performance plan. Id. ¶¶ 15, 17. Scragg noted that Williams' performance was “developing well” and, notwithstanding Williams' accuracy rating, was “confident [Williams was] the right person for this role.” ECF No. 37-16 (“Def.'s Ex. 16”) at 9. Scragg instructed Williams to focus on improving his accuracy, self-reviewing his work, and reviewing standard operating procedures. Id.

         Between April 16, 2013, and July 17, 2013, Williams' accuracy rate decreased to 90.6 percent and his average response time doubled, from 0.09 hours to 0.18 hours. Def.'s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶¶ 17, 20. During this period, Williams had the lowest accuracy rating in the WMC by 7.6 percent. Id. ¶ 22. He and one other employee were tied for the longest response time. Id. ¶ 23.

         In or around late June or early July 2013, Scragg held Williams responsible for major data errors in preventative maintenance schedule plans. Id. ¶ 26. Before leaving for a vacation, Williams produced 73 job plans, but did not review his work. Id. ¶¶ 26-27. The errors in the plans caused the WMC to lose approximately one week of work product, generated confusion throughout the Smithsonian, and took four weeks to fully correct. Id. ¶¶ 28-29. Williams claimed that a system error was responsible for the erroneous work product. Williams Dep. at 66:3-73:19. Dan Boyle, a co-worker, told Williams that the error “was a systems malfunction rather than a user error.” Id. at 72:14-16.

         Scragg acknowledged that systemic issues were the underlying cause of the error, but he contended that Williams, who was expected to be an expert in the system, should have quickly identified the error had he reviewed his work and followed standard operating procedures. Id. ¶ 30; Williams Dep. at 72:25-73:19. Williams then e-mailed Scragg on July 5, 2013 to request a copy of the relevant standard operating procedures. Id. at 73:21-75:10; Pl.'s Ex. A at 000041- 42. In response, Scragg explained that “[t]he procedure I referred to is the standing expectation that any work done is reviewed for errors. If you had double checked the job plans you created to verify the procedures and work tasks had been generated properly, the system error would have been discovered sooner.” Pl.'s Ex. A at 000041. Williams' attempts to address the errors contained mistakes that other WMC employees subsequently had to correct. Def.'s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 28.

         D. Scragg's Use of Pre-Employment Tests and Williams' Exchanges with Katherine Simenton

         Soon after he was hired by the Smithsonian, Williams requested a copy of his pre-employment test results from Katherine Simenton, in the Personnel Unit of the Business Operations Division of the OFMR. Pl.'s Ex. A at 000003. Simenton informed him that no tests were required for his position. Id. Scragg states he requested that applicants complete the two assessments because the skills they tested were important to the MPA position. Def.'s Mot. S.J. at 16; ECF No. 37-10 (“Scragg Dep.”) at 54:1-6, 59:4-61:21. Scragg also asserts that each time he was the hiring official for a vacant position, he requested that every applicant submit the same information, including the pre-employment tests. Id. at 51:7-12; 128:15-21.

         While assisting with an interview panel for a vacant MPA position in or around May 2013, Williams heard Scragg, the hiring official, ask an African American applicant if the applicant had submitted a written test. Pl.'s Ex. A at 000003. After the candidate refused to complete the tests on the grounds that they were not required by the vacancy posting, Scragg instructed the panel to remove the candidate's name from the pool of applicants. Id. Tamia Rush, who is also African American, was ultimately hired to fill the position. Id. She later told Williams that she had been required only to submit a writing sample during the application process. Id. Scragg claims that, by this time, he had decided to eliminate the Excel component of the assessment “because he lost faith that he was getting accurate results.” Scragg Dep. at 56:6-12. Scragg later discontinued the writing sample as well. Id. at 56:6-20.

         In early July 2013, Williams, allegedly confused by how Scragg handled the system malfunction issue and concerned by the “disparity in job requirements, ” spoke to Simenton about the pre-employment tests and “expressed to her his belief it was discriminatory.” Pl.'s Ex. A at 000003. Simenton told him that Scragg had previously been informed that the two evaluations fell outside of the Smithsonian's Office of Personnel Management's guidelines. Id. On July 9, 2013, Williams met with Simenton to “discuss inconsistencies with pre-employment tests that were given to Tamia Rush . . . and [himself].” Id. at 000014. During this conversation, Simenton reiterated that such tests were prohibited unless included on the position announcement and said she had informed Scragg that pre-employment testing was “illegal.” Williams Dep. at 124:2-125:17. Later that day, Scragg stopped at Williams' cubicle while Williams was talking to co-worker Chris Butler. Pl.'s Ex. A at 000033. Scragg remarked, “What kind of trouble are you troublemakers getting into?” Id. When Williams and Butler asked what Scragg meant, Scragg “replied with a snicker and walked off.” Id.

         E. Williams' Termination from the Smithsonian

         Citing Williams' unsatisfactory performance as an MPA and his inability to accept responsibility for errors in his work, Scragg notified Williams on July 23, 2013 that he would be terminated from his employment at the Smithsonian prior to the end of his probationary period.[2]Scragg Dep. at 82:20-83:3. Scragg had previously discussed the decision to fire Williams with Scragg's supervisor, Kendra Gastright, the OFMR director. Def.'s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 35; Pl.'s Ex. A at 000003. Williams' termination became effective August 6, 2013. Def.'s Stmt. Mat. Facts ¶ 36.

         On July 29, 2013, six days after Williams received notification of his termination, he sought counseling from an Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) counselor at the Smithsonian. Id. ¶ 38. He subsequently filed a formal complaint with the Smithsonian's Office of Equal Employment and Minority Affairs (“OEEMA”), the agency's EEO office, on March 10, 2014. Id. ¶ 39. In his complaint, Williams claimed he had been subject to discrimination on the basis of race when Scragg required him to take two pre-employment tests. Id. ¶ 40. Williams also submitted a retaliation complaint, alleging that he was fired because he had expressed concerns about Scragg's use of the pre-employment assessments. Id. ¶ 42. OEEMA completed its investigation and issued its Report of Investigation to Williams (included in the record) on September 11, 2014. Id. ¶ 51. Additionally, Williams filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, reiterating the claims that he made in his EEO complaint. ECF No. 37-6 at 181:2-15. After conducting an initial investigation, the Office of Special Counsel elected not to take further action. ECF No. 37-30.

         F. Procedural History

         The Smithsonian previously filed a motion to dismiss Williams' retaliation claim and his claim that the Smithsonian denied him training opportunities on account of race. ECF No. 6. The court dismissed Williams' failure-to-train claim because Williams conceded that he had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Williams v. Smithsonian Inst., 177 F.Supp.3d 331, 334 (D.D.C. 2016). The court denied the Smithsonian's motion to dismiss the retaliation claim, finding that Williams had established a prima facie case for retaliation. Id. at 6. The Smithsonian has now moved for summary judgment on Williams' remaining discrimination and retaliation claims, ECF No. 37.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. ...


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