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Ingram v. District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 21, 2019

TONIA INGRAM, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CHILD AND FAMILY SERVICES AGENCY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Tonia Ingram, a former employee of the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (“CFSA”), brought this lawsuit challenging discriminatory and retaliatory practices by CFSA that she alleges eventually led to her termination. Ingram suffers from severe anxiety, and she alleges that CFSA discriminated against her on the basis of that disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-213, and D.C. Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”), D.C. Code §§ 2-1401.01 to -1404.04. Ingram further alleges that CFSA retaliated against her after she complained about the discrimination by terminating her employment, in violation of the ADA and DCHRA. CFSA has now moved to dismiss Ingram's complaint in its entirety, arguing that Ingram has failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as to her ADA retaliation claim, never engaged in a protected activity that would form the basis for a DCHRA retaliation claim, and does not qualify as disabled under the ADA and DCHRA. The Court agrees only as to the first argument. First, Ingram concedes that she has failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as to the ADA retaliation claim, and the Court therefore dismisses it. However, taking all inferences in her favor-as it must at the motion to dismiss stage-the Court finds that Ingram has sufficiently alleged that she engaged in a protected activity, and it accordingly denies the motion to dismiss Ingram's DCHRA retaliation claim. And because Ingram has alleged facts sufficient to plausibly infer that she was regarded as disabled by CFSA, the Court also denies the motion to dismiss as to her ADA and DCHRA disability discrimination claims.[1]

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Ingram's Background and Employment at CFSA

         Ingram is a licensed clinical social worker with over fifteen years of experience. Compl. ¶¶ 13-14, ECF No. 1. She suffers from severe anxiety, which she was formally diagnosed with in the 2000s. Id. ¶ 11. Ingram has been prescribed anxiety medication to help deal with the condition and she “also seeks mental health counseling as needed.” Id. While Ingram worked at CFSA, she mentioned her condition to some of her coworkers, including to her supervisors, but she never informed the agency's human resources department (“HR”) of the condition. See Id. ¶ 12.

         In September 2011, Ingram was hired by CFSA as an investigator social worker. Id. ¶ 15. The position required Ingram to “assess[] and investigate[] allegations of neglect and physical and sexual assault of children living in the District of Columbia.” Id. ¶ 16. Ingram performed well on the job, obtaining a “Hero Award” in 2014 for providing excellent service and receiving an invitation to participate in a CFSA rapid response team tackling backlogged cases in 2015. See Id. ¶ 17. In 2016, Ingram was promoted to the position of supervisory social worker, in which she would “supervis[e] a team of four Child Protective Social Workers.” Id. ¶ 19. After her promotion, Ingram's new supervisor became Cherlitheia Irving, a program manager at CFSA. See Id. ¶¶ 18-19.

         Ingram initially had a cordial relationship with Irving. See Id. ¶ 20. While Irving was formally assigned as Ingram's supervisor, Ingram “did not report to her regularly” and Irving would advise Ingram “to seek consultation with another Program Manager because Irving supervised too many people to advise [Ingram].” Id. However, Irving and Ingram began meeting more regularly around November 2017, at which point “the relationship began to sour.” Id. ¶ 21. Although Irving gave Ingram a satisfactory performance evaluation in December 2017, id. ¶ 22, she shortly thereafter began harassing her, id. ¶ 23.

         On December 11, 2017, Irving expressed doubts about Ingram's judgment regarding a particular case where Ingram had indicated that removal of children from their parents' custody might be necessary (the “Gillis case”). Id. ¶¶ 24-25. While discussing the Gillis case, Irving accused Ingram of “failure to listen and failure to accept constructive criticism” in a “harsh and condescending manner.” Id. ¶ 27. According to Ingram, Irving then continued to harass her specifically because of her anxiety, “us[ing] Ingram's anxiety as a means of controlling the narrative of [Ingram]'s work, conduct, and performance.” Id. ¶ 32. Irving “made it appear to others in the organization that [Ingram] was no longer able to make sound clinical decisions due to her anxiety, ” and “mocked [Ingram] by making statements to upper management that she was ‘running around acting anxious.'” Id. Irving also “falsely accused [Ingram] of harassing and chastising workers because she suffers from anxiety.” Id. ¶ 33.

         On December 13, 2017, Ingram reached out to Elizabeth Muffoletto, a program administrator at CFSA. See Id. ¶¶ 31, 35. Ingram “recounted the details of the harassment caused by Irving” but “noted that there was no altercation, rather there was a difference in opinion and a discussion with respect to the Gillis Case.” Id. ¶¶ 36-37. She told Muffoletto that “this was the first time she had a removal case with Irving as supervisor, it was messy, and Irving was unsupportive.” Id. ¶ 37. And she asked Muffoletto if she could be moved from Irving's supervision to another program manager, because “she perform[ed] better under” the other program manager, who was more supportive. Id. ¶ 39. Muffoletto denied the transfer of supervision. See Id. Muffoletto also told Ingram that she “was acting paranoid and that her thoughts were all over the place, ” which Ingram explained was because her anxiety “was getting bad and she was having difficulties articulating her thoughts.” Id. ¶ 38.

         On January 12, 2018, Ingram had a supervision meeting with Irving. See Id. ¶ 43. After the meeting became contentious, Irving called Muffoletto into her office to “observe [Ingram's] behavior.” Id. ¶ 45. Irving accused Ingram of rejecting her supervision and feedback, see Id. ¶ 49, and of failing to take appropriate notes in her cases, id. ¶ 50. Irving also told Ingram that she was “running around the agency acting anxious” the night of the removal in the Gillis case. Id. ¶ 52. Irving continued to criticize Ingram's work over the next few weeks, accusing her of, inter alia, “lying about a case” and “not managing her social workers” on January 18, 2018, id. ¶¶ 58-59. Ingram again complained to Muffoletto, who “took no action” as a result. Id. ¶ 63. At some later point in February, Irving “accused [Ingram] of calling and harassing her social workers after hours, ” which “Irving alleged . . . was . . . because [Ingram's] anxiety caused her an irrational desire to close out cases.” Id. ¶ 69.

         The relationship between Irving and Ingram ultimately got so bad that “Irving began to take notes of every conversation with [Ingram] to create a ‘paper trail, '” with Ingram herself “taking her own notes to paint a more accurate picture of the situation.” Id. ¶ 74. On March 9, 2018, Ingram “participated in a focus group with court-appointed monitors” and “briefly informed them about her ongoing issue with Irving.” Id. ¶ 74. On March 14, Ingram was informed by CFSA HR that she would be terminated, with no explanation for the termination other than the fact that she was an at-will employee. Id. ¶ 78. Ingram was placed on administrative leave starting March 15, and was formally terminated on March 29, 2018. See Id. ¶¶ 78-80.

         B. Procedural History

         Ingram filed a formal charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on March 23, 2018. See Id. ¶ 2. On April 5, 2018, the EEOC issued Ingram a right to sue letter. See Id. ¶ 5. Ingram filed suit on July 5, 2018, bringing claims for disability discrimination and retaliation under both the ADA and DCHRA. See Id. ¶¶ 84-95. CFSA has now moved to dismiss the entire complaint for failure to state a claim. See Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 10. Ingram has filed an opposition, see ...


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