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Lena Branch v. Spencer

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 10, 2019

LENA BRANCH, Plaintiff,


          TIMOTHY J. KELLY United States District Judge.

         Lena Branch is a former logistics management specialist for the United States Navy. She alleges that beginning in 2014, her supervisors began mistreating her. The next year, she suffered a stroke, her relationship with her supervisors deteriorated further, and she was suspended for two days. Now Branch has sued the Navy, asserting claims of disability discrimination and retaliation. She claims that her suspension was motivated by her stroke and her complaints about being mistreated.

         Defendant has moved for summary judgment, arguing that Branch's claims are either untimely or unsupported by the record, because no reasonable juror could infer that her supervisors' motives were either discriminatory or retaliatory. The Court agrees, and summary judgment will be entered for Defendant. The Court will also deny Branch's motion to amend her complaint, filed ten months after summary judgment briefing was complete, because permitting Branch to add new claims at such a late stage would prejudice Defendant and unduly expand the scope of the case.[1]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Branch's Alleged Mistreatment

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Branch began working for the Navy in 2010. Def's SOF ¶ 1; Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 1-4. As of 2014, she worked as a logistics management specialist at pay grade GS-11. Def's SOF ¶ 2; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 4. In March 2014, Branch clashed with her supervisor, Lieutenant Commander Jay Gaul, when she denied him access to a space containing classified information because she thought he lacked the security clearance to enter. Def's SOF ¶¶ 3, 10-25; Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 11-15, 18. Branch found Gaul's behavior threatening and discriminatory based on her gender and she reported the incident to Daniel Gardner, who supervised them both. Def's SOF ¶¶ 3, 6, 31-33; Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 5, 8, 19.

         Branch also asked Gardner for the contact information for the Equal Employment Opportunity office. See Def's SOF ¶¶ 27-28, 37-39; Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 19-21. Branch asserts that she contacted the EEO office in March 2014. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 21; see also Am. Compl. ¶ 18 (“Plaintiff subsequently . . . sought an EEO counselor to file an EEO discrimination complaint against Lt. Gaul in March 2014.”); ECF No. 20-1 at 5 (“I contacted the EEO office in March 2014 . . . and filed a complaint.”). Defendant appears to dispute that Branch did so. See ECF No. 23 at 6 (describing Plaintiffs statement that she “engaged in a protected activity by complaining of discrimination to the EEO in March 2014” as a “characterization of the intent of the Navy's SOF and . . . not a fact”). Branch also filed a complaint about the incident with the Navy's inspector general. Def's SOF ¶ 102; ECF No. 20-1 at 3.

         In April 2014, Branch was promoted to supervisory logistics management specialist at pay grade GS-12. Def.'s SOF ¶ 47; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 24. With that promotion, Branch inherited responsibility for a “mobility section, ” Def.'s SOF ¶ 53, meaning she coordinated the provision of equipment to deploying servicemembers, Def.'s Mot. at 3. The mobility section was in a different building, so in October 2014, Sherry Mellon, Branch's supervisor who had replaced Gaul, asked her to work out of a building that was closer to her new supervisees. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 60-62. Branch delayed doing so until she was issued a letter of caution for her failure to follow Mellon's instruction. Id. ¶¶ 66-67. And when she did move, it did not go smoothly: Mellon and others found Branch hard to get in touch with, and Branch felt that she could not manage her workload while splitting time between two buildings. Id. ¶¶ 62-63, 68-70; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 32. According to Branch, in May 2015 she complained to Chief Master Sergeant Kevin Kloeppel, a senior management official, that the move was discriminatory and contributed to a hostile work environment for her. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 32; ECF No. 22-6 ¶¶ 2-3. She also says that, shortly after she met with Kloeppel, she was “immediately questioned [and] summoned by her supervisor Mellon to have a meeting with . . . Gardner.” Pl.'s SOF ¶ 32. Following this meeting, she received an email from Gardner on May 13, 2015, that she describes as reprimanding her for speaking with Kloeppel. Id. Defendant disputes most of the facts surrounding Branch's meeting with Kloeppel, arguing that nothing in the record suggests that Branch complained to him of discrimination or retaliation, or that she was reprimanded. ECF No. 23 at 8.

         B. Branch's Stroke

         On June 22, 2015, Branch suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 33. She was released from the hospital two days later but remained out of work on doctor's orders for several months. Id. ¶¶ 36-37, 40. Shortly after her stroke, Branch's sister called Mellon to inform her that Branch was in the hospital. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 81-83; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 35. In July, Branch told Mellon herself that she would be out sick for some time. Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 38-39.

         C. Branch's October 2015 Suspension

         On June 10, 2015, less than two weeks before Branch's stroke, Mellon began the process to discipline her for various performance problems. Def.'s SOF ¶ 92.[2] Branch does not dispute this timing. See Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 42-44, 50-54. Branch did not find out about the discipline, however, until a few months later. Def.'s SOF ¶ 96; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 42. More precisely, in late July, Branch's supervisors mailed her a Notice of Proposed 14-Calendar Day Suspension, which she received in August. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 94-96; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 42. The notice described the reasons for Branch's proposed discipline as delaying in carrying out an assignment, failure to follow instructions, and disrespectful conduct. Def.'s SOF ¶ 94.

         The charge for delay in carrying out an assignment was based on two incidents further described in the notice. First, Branch allegedly failed to “develop a draft of the Installation Deployment Plan” by March 23, 2015. ECF No. 20-1 at 113. She received several extensions, until April 7, May 19, May 26, June 1, and June 8, but purportedly failed to complete a draft by any of those dates. Id. at 113-14. Second, Branch was tasked with “accomplish[ing] a critical analysis project” for a superior by 10:00 a.m. on March 16, 2015, but she allegedly did not send the analysis until 12:06 p.m. Id. at 114.

         The charge for failure to follow instructions was based on a May 13, 2015 meeting held with Branch “to discuss the proper use of chain of command, reporting procedures, reporting to work, and communication issues.” Id. But a few weeks later, Branch allegedly did not appear for a meeting with a co-worker, Holli Dunn. Id. When Dunn went looking for Branch, she found a sign on Branch's door that did not help her find or contact Branch, which violated the procedures discussed with Branch at the May 13 meeting. Id. And Dunn had no way to leave a voice mail for Branch, because Branch had not set up a voice mailbox despite having been told to do so. Id.

         The charge for disrespectful conduct arose from an incident between Branch and Dunn on June 1, 2015. Id. In describing the basis for this charge, Dunn wrote:

On 1 June 2015, while in your office you had informed me that you could not meet with me on 2 June 2015 due to a scheduled brief with the Vice Commander. I informed you that I was not made aware of that brief, to which you stated that you did not need to tell me about it. I informed you that that was not correct and as the Deputy Site Director, I am responsible for the operations of the Organization and reminded you of your chain of command. I informed you that you needed to brief Ms. Mellon that afternoon on the information that you were going to present to the Installation Commander. You informed me that you didn't need to do that. I was going to say, “Lena, we need to go over the material so we know what's going to be briefed and make sure you are prepared, ” however, all I was able to say was “Lena” and you immediately cut me off and said, “Holli” in a very disrespectful manner while taking an aggressive stance.

Id. at 114-15.

         After receiving the notice in the mail, Branch contacted the EEO office on August 17, 2015, to file a complaint about the proposed suspension. Def.'s SOF ¶ 41; Pl.'s SOF ¶ 45. In late August, Gardner began considering whether to issue the proposed discipline, and in September he opted to suspend her for two days. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 97-98; Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ ...

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