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Stewart v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 9, 2019




         This is an age discrimination and retaliation case brought by a former employee of the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights (“OHR”). Plaintiff Georgia Stewart alleges that she was was discriminated against and ultimately terminated due to her age and in retaliation for an earlier discrimination complaint. Plaintiff brings this lawsuit against the District of Columbia under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”).

         Before the Court is Defendant District of Columbia's [25] Motion for Summary Judgment. Defendant claims that it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's retaliation claim because Plaintiff has failed to establish causation between her 2013 discrimination complaint and her 2016 termination. Defendant further claims that it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's age discrimination claim as Plaintiff has failed to produce evidence that Defendant's legitimate reasons for terminating Plaintiff are pretextual and because Plaintiff's allegations of a hostile work environment do not state sufficiently severe or pervasive conduct.

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court GRANTS Defendant's motion. As to Plaintiff's retaliation claim, the Court concludes that the almost three years separating Plaintiff's 2013 discrimination charge from her 2016 termination is too long a duration to infer causation. And, Plaintiff has produced no other evidence showing Defendant's proffered, non-retaliatory reasons for its actions to be pretext for retaliation. Next, considering Plaintiff's claim of age discrimination, the Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to show that Defendant's proffered, non-discriminatory reasons for its actions are pretextual, and Plaintiff has offered no evidence connecting Defendant's actions to age discrimination. Finally, in her Opposition to Defendant's Motion, Plaintiff provides no support for her hostile work environment claim, and the Court concludes that the claim fails as a matter of law.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Georgia Stewart began her employment at the OHR in 1967. Def.'s Stmt. of Undisputed Material Facts, ECF No. 25 (“Def.'s Stmt.”), at ¶ 2. During the relevant time period, Plaintiff was the Manager of the Mediation Unit at the OHR. Id. at ¶ 3.

         In January 2013, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Id. at ¶ 6. In her complaint, Plaintiff alleged that her supervisor and then-Director of the OHR, Gustavo Valesquez, retaliated against her for previously engaging in a protected activity. Id. at ¶ 7.

         In November of 2013, Monica Palacio became the Interim Director of the OHR and became the permanent Director in March 2014. Id. at ¶ 8. Upon her appointment as Interim Director, Ms. Palacio became Plaintiff's direct supervisor. Id. at ¶ 9.

         In August 2015, Ms. Palacio submitted a request to the D.C. Department of Human Resources and obtained a 10% increase to Plaintiff's salary after Plaintiff informed Mr. Palacio that she had not received a raise in several years. Id. at ¶¶ 10-11. Ms. Palacio also approved Plaintiff for a flexible work schedule. Id. at ¶ 12.

         Ms. Palacio states that she began to observe performance issues with Plaintiff in early 2015 to early 2016. Def.'s Stmt., ECF No. 25, ¶ 13. As the Mediation Manager, Plaintiff was responsible for maintaining and updating information about mediations in the case management system called “MATS.” Def.'s Stmt., ECF No. 25, ¶ 15. When a complaint of discrimination is received by OHR, the case goes through intake, mediation, and if necessary, investigation, legal review, and conclusion. Id. at ¶ 17. It is crucial that MATS is updated regularly with mediation information so that OHR's Investigations Unit knows if a case has been settled or if an investigation is needed. Id. at ¶ 20. Ms. Palacio determined that the failure to regularly update MATS resulted in inefficiencies in OHR's case management. Id. at ¶ 21. As a result, Ms. Palacio requested that Plaintiff update MATS with mediation information within 24-48 hours of mediation. Id. at ¶ 22. Plaintiff failed to consistently update MATS in the timely manner requested. Id. at ¶ 23. Plaintiff does not dispute this failure, but instead argues that updating MATS in accord with Ms. Palacio's request was not possible due to workload constraints. Pl.'s Res., ECF No. 32, ¶ 23.

         Sometime in approximately 2015 or 2016, Plaintiff requested an additional administrative assistant to assist with the workload. Def.'s Stmt., ECF No. 25, ¶ 41. But, Ms. Palacio did not approve the request citing insufficient funds. Id. at ¶ 42. Additionally, Plaintiff already had a permanent administrative assistant. However, this permanent administrative assistant also provided coverage for the front desk on occasion. Id. at ¶¶ 43-44.

         In addition to issues around MATS, Ms. Palacio further determined that Plaintiff demonstrated poor judgment and management of her staff. Id. at ¶ 26. As an example of such mismanagement, when a full-time staff mediator under Plaintiff's supervision resigned from the OHR, she informed Ms. Palacio that Plaintiff had not assigned her enough work. Id. at ¶ 27. Additionally, Ms. Palacio determined that Plaintiff was relying too heavily on contract mediators, rather than on staff mediators, costing the agency additional money. Id. at ¶ 28. And, Ms. Palacio also found that Plaintiff demonstrated poor judgment in hiring an unqualified individual as a staff mediator. Id. at ¶ 29. Plaintiff recommended that this individual be hired; however, serious problems emerged shortly after the hiring. Id. at ¶ 31. These problems included that the individual slept in his office, was disrespectful to Plaintiff, and could not use his computer. Id. at ¶ 32. When Ms. Palacio confronted Plaintiff about this individual, Plaintiff admitted that she could not manage him. Id. at ¶ 33. Ms. Palacio requested that Plaintiff prepare a memorandum about her concerns pertaining to this individual, and Ms. Palacio terminated the individual's employment on the basis of this information. Id. at ¶¶ 34-35.

         Finally, Ms. Palacio determined that Plaintiff had difficulties attending management and staff meetings and behaving appropriately. Plaintiff failed to attend several regularly scheduled management and staff meetings or would arrive late. Id. at ¶¶ 36-37. Plaintiff contests Defendant's argument, explaining that she failed to attend these meetings due to participation in mediations. Pl.'s Res., ECF No. 32, ¶ 36. But, in Ms. Palacio's view, the failure to attend these meetings on time was inexcusable as the meetings were regularly scheduled for the first and second Tuesday of every month. Def.'s Stmt., ECF No. 25, ¶ 37. Additionally, when Plaintiff did attend meetings, she made unproductive and disrespectful comments. Id. at ¶ 38. As an example, when Ms. Palacio asked Plaintiff a question at a staff meeting with approximately 40 employees, Plaintiff replied, “I don't have to answer that.” Id. at ¶ 39.

         In a September 20, 2016 memorandum, Ms. Palacio recommended Plaintiff's termination. Id. at ¶ 56. In the memorandum containing detailed examples, Ms. Palacio requested termination based on (1) Plaintiff's failure and refusal to follow case processing guidelines; (2) Plaintiff's failure to attend management meetings or collaborate with other managers; and (3) Plaintiff's poor professional judgment and ineffective or wasteful management decisions. Id. at ¶ 57. Plaintiff was notified of her termination on September 30, 2016. Id. at ¶ 60. Plaintiff was replaced as Mediation Manager by an existing OHR employee who was over 40 years old. Id. at ¶¶ 61-62.

         Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and received a right-to-sue letter on December 19, 2016. On March 17, 2017, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit. On November 6, 2017, Court dismissed Plaintiff's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim and replaced the individual Defendants Plaintiff had sued with the proper Defendant, the District of Columbia. Nov. 6, 2017 Order, ECF No. 10. Following the Court's Order, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint and the parties engaged in discovery. On May 10, 2019, Defendant filed for summary judgment. Defendant's Reply in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment included a request that the Court strike or disregard seven exhibits relied upon by Plaintiff in her Opposition to Defendant's Motion on the grounds that Plaintiff did not produce such documents during discovery. The Court ordered additional briefing so that Plaintiff would have the opportunity to respond to Defendant's allegation. As will be further explained below, the Court concludes that Plaintiff committed a discovery violation in failing to produce these documents and that the documents should be disregarded. See Supra Sec. III.A. However, throughout this opinion, where relevant, the Court considers Plaintiff's non-produced documents because they do not lead the Court to a different result.

         In addition to the above factual background, the Court also notes the following three disputes of fact which the Court concludes are either not material or not genuine. First, Defendant states that, sometime in 2015, Ms. Palacio approved a television for Plaintiff's office. Def.'s Stmt., ECF No. 25, ¶ 12. Plaintiff disputes the fact that Ms. Palacio approved a television for her office and contends that she already had a television in her office. Pl.'s Res. to Def.'s Stmt. Of Undisputed Material Facts (“Pl.'s Res.”), ECF No. 32, ¶ 12. The Court concludes that this factual dispute is immaterial as neither party relies on this fact as evidence proving or disproving retaliation or age discrimination.

         Second, Defendant contends that Ms. Palacio met with Plaintiff regularly, provided guidance, and requested that she improve her performance. Def.'s Stmt., ECF No. 25, ¶ 14. Plaintiff disputes this fact and contends that Ms. Palacio never made Plaintiff aware of any issues. Pl.'s Res., ECF No. 32, ¶¶ 13-14. However, Plaintiff later refers to an ongoing “conflicting issue between [Ms.] Palacio and [herself] about the frequency with which IMS cases should be verified and documented.” Ex. A, ECF No. 32-1, ¶ 55. As such, the Court finds that this dispute is not genuine because, in her Declaration, Plaintiff admits that Ms. Palacio had informed her of concerns regarding Plaintiff's failure to follow case processing guidelines. Moreover, this dispute is immaterial as Plaintiff does not argue that Ms. Palacio's alleged failure to make her aware of issues is probative of possible retaliation or discrimination.

         Third, Plaintiff disputes that funding was the true reason for Ms. Palacio's refusal to hire an additional administrative assistant. Pl.'s Res., ECF No. 32, ¶ 42. However, the documents to which Plaintiff cites as evidence of the fact that budget constraints were not the true reason for the refusal to hire an additional administrative assistant concern the OHR's decisions to convert a mediator position into an investigator position and to remove a vacancy for a mediator. The documents say nothing about hiring an additional administrative assistant. Ex. H, ECF No. 32-1, 62-67. As Plaintiff has produced no evidence refuting Ms. Palacio's given reason for not hiring a second administrative assistant, this dispute is not genuine.


         Summary judgment is appropriate where “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The mere existence of some factual dispute is insufficient on its own to bar summary judgment; the dispute must pertain to a “material” fact. Id. Accordingly, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Nor may summary judgment be avoided based on just any disagreement as to the relevant facts; the dispute must be “genuine, ” meaning that there must be sufficient admissible evidence for a reasonable trier of fact to find for the non-movant. Id.

         In order to establish that a fact is or cannot be genuinely disputed, a party must (a) cite to specific parts of the record-including deposition testimony, documentary evidence, affidavits or declarations, or other competent evidence-in support of its position, or (b) demonstrate that the materials relied upon by the opposing party do not actually establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Conclusory assertions offered without any factual basis in the record cannot create a genuine dispute sufficient to survive summary judgment. See Ass'n of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO v. Dep't of Transp., 564 F.3d 462, 465-66 (D.C. Cir. 2009). Moreover, where “a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact, ” the district court may “consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).

         When faced with a motion for summary judgment, the district court may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence; instead, the evidence must be analyzed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, with all justifiable inferences drawn in her favor. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. If material facts are genuinely in dispute, or undisputed facts are susceptible to divergent yet justifiable inferences, summary judgment is inappropriate. Moore v. Hartman, 571 F.3d 62, 66 (D.C. Cir. 2009). In the end, the district court's task is to determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 251-52. In this regard, the non-movant must “do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted).

         In recognition of the difficulty in uncovering clear evidence of discriminatory or retaliatory intent, the district court should approach summary judgment in an action for employment discrimination or retaliation with “special caution.” Aka v. Wash. Hosp. Ctr., 116 F.3d 876, 879-80 (D.C. Cir. 1997), vacated on other grounds, 156 F.3d 1284 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (en banc). Be that as it may, the plaintiff is not relieved of her burden to support her allegations with competent evidence. Brown v. Mills, 674 F.Supp.2d 182, 188 (D.D.C. 2009). As in any context, where the plaintiff would bear the burden of proof on a dispositive issue at trial, at the summary judgment stage she bears the burden of production to designate specific facts showing that there exists a genuine dispute requiring trial. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009). Otherwise, the plaintiff could effectively defeat the “central purpose” of the summary judgment device-namely, “to weed out those cases insufficiently meritorious to warrant . . . trial”- simply by way of offering conclusory allegations, speculation, and argument. Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999).


         Defendant has moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's retaliation and age discrimination claims. First, Defendant contends that Plaintiff's retaliation claim fails as a matter of law because there is no evidence of causation between Plaintiff's 2013 charge of discrimination and her 2016 termination. Second, Defendant argues that summary judgment should be granted on Plaintiff's age discrimination claim. Defendant contends that Plaintiff has failed to produce any evidence that she was terminated on account of her age and that Plaintiff's allegations are not substantial or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment. The Court will address each argument in turn. However, prior to addressing Defendant's arguments in ...

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