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Dieng v. American Institutes For Research In The Behavioral Sciences

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 26, 2019




         Plaintiff Yacine Dieng (“Ms. Dieng”) brings this action against Defendant American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences (“AIR”) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., and the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”), D.C. Code § 2–1401.01 et seq., arising out of the termination of her employment. Ms. Dieng, an African-American woman, alleges that her supervisors at AIR subjected her to discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation on the basis of her race and gender. Pending before the Court is AIR’s motion to dismiss. Upon careful consideration of the motion, the opposition, the reply thereto, the applicable law, and the entire record herein, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART AIR’s Motion to Dismiss. The Court DISMISSES WITHOUT PREJUDICE Ms. Dieng’s hostile work environment and gender discrimination claims.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts reflect the allegations in the operative complaint and the documents incorporated by reference therein, which the Court assumes are true for the purposes of deciding this motion and construes in Ms. Dieng’s favor. See Baird v. Gotbaum, 792 F.3d 166, 169 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 2015). In February 2013, AIR hired Ms. Dieng, an African-American female, as a Senior Database Engineer in its “ORS Department.” Am. Compl., ECF No. 8 at 2 ¶ 5.[1] With more than 1, 800 employees, id. at 2 ¶ 9, AIR is a non-profit organization with a mission to “conduct and apply the best behavioral and social sciences research and evaluation towards improving people’s lives[, ]” Def.’s Ex. 1, ECF No. 9-2 at 1. While working there, Ms. Dieng became an “expert at fixing bugs[.]” Am. Compl., ECF No. 8 at 2 ¶ 10. She often worked “every single day of the week including week nights and weekends[, ] id. at 5 ¶ 29, and she was allowed to telecommute without prior approval from her supervisors, id. at 4 ¶ 22. AIR eventually promoted her to Lead Database Engineer II. Id. at 2 ¶ 5. On February 2, 2018, AIR terminated her employment as a result of “performance issues” and “insubordination.” Id. at 8 ¶ 44.

         During her first year, Ms. Dieng was subjected to “abusive discriminatory behavior” by her Technical Project Manager and she reported that “abusive treatment” to her Staff Manager. Id. at 6 ¶ 38. Ms. Dieng was the only African-American female in a group within the ORS Department. Id. at 2 ¶ 12. According to Ms. Dieng, “upper management and the whole ORS department group” witnessed “[s]uch repeated abusive behavior, ” including one incident where the Technical Project Manager “yelled on top of his lungs for [Ms. Dieng] to sit down and shut up in [the] middle of her presentation.” Id. at 6-7 ¶ 38. The Technical Project Manager’s behavior “seem[ed] to have resolved itself in the later years.” Id. at 6 ¶ 38.

         In September 2015, however, “it became necessary for Ms. Dieng to seek assistance from Human Resources due to a workplace conflict which was created by her Project Manager’s . . . disrespectful and abusive behavior in front of her office co-workers.” Id. at 2 ¶ 11. Ms. Dieng’s Project Manager yelled at her, “demeaning and embarrassing her” during staff meetings. Id. at 3 ¶ 13. Ms. Dieng asserts that “[n]o one else was treated that way” and that “[s]he was the only person abusively reprimanded although others had made the exact same comment without receiving any verbal abuse.” Id. At some point, Ms. Dieng decided to attend the staff meetings via telephone as she waited for AIR to resolve the dispute. Id. Ms. Dieng reported her “concerns about mistreatment to her Staff Manager, who refused to intervene and commanded her to start attending meetings physically again[.]” Id. at 3 ¶ 14.

         Ms. Dieng then informed the Human Resources department about her concerns, explaining that her Project Manager discriminated against her and treated her differently from “every other employee in the group” who were “either Caucasian or a co-national of the [Project Manager] (Indian descent)[.]” Id. at 3 ¶ 16. In response, the Human Resources department told Ms. Dieng to “handle the conflict alone.” Id. at 3 ¶ 17. At some point, the Human Resources department facilitated a meeting with the Project Manager and Ms. Dieng. Id. at 3 ¶ 18. The Project Manager apologized to Ms. Dieng at that meeting. Id. But the Project Manager’s apology did not end Ms. Dieng’s issues at AIR. See id. at 3 ¶ 19. According to Ms. Dieng, the apology was short-lived because the Project Manager became very hostile towards her and the Project Manager “started working very hard” to terminate her employment. Id.

         Ms. Dieng alleges the following grievances: (1) the Project Manager ignored Ms. Dieng at staff meetings, id. at 4 ¶ 19; (2) the Staff Manager “constant[ly] question[ed]” her work and made “irrelevant probes, ” id. at 4 ¶ 21; (3) the Staff Manager asserted false claims that her “code was buggy” based on a report issued by the Project Manager, id.; (4) the Project Manager’s reports questioned “Ms. Dieng’s ongoing ad hoc telecommuting” during the summer of 2017, id. at 4 ¶ 22; (5) the Staff Manager required Ms. Dieng to seek prior approval from senior management before telecommuting while her team members telecommuted without prior approval, id.; (6) the Staff Manager “sternly reprimand[ed]” her for telecommuting after the Staff Manager verbally approved her request to do so, id. at 5 ¶ 26; (7) the Staff Manager labeled Ms. Dieng as insubordinate when she refused to follow an order generated by the Project Manager, id. at 5 ¶ 27; (8) the Staff Manager “put in writing a blatant lie” in her performance evaluation-for the period of January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016-that she received “negative feedback” from her co-workers about her work product, id. at 6 ¶ 33, but the Staff Manager did “not lie on evaluations of similarly situated Caucasians/[the Project Manager’s] co-Nationals co-workers[, ]” id. at 6 ¶ 34; and (9) neither the Project Manager nor the Staff Manager responded to Ms. Dieng’s repeated verbal and written requests to dispute the “false evaluation, ” id. at 6 ¶ 35.

         Ms. Dieng also asserts the following allegations: (1) the Staff Manager raised “false performance issues” about Ms. Dieng at a meeting with her and Human Resources personnel, id. at 6 ¶ 37; (2) the Staff Manager accused Ms. Dieng of “not getting along with the whole team, ” id. at 6 ¶ 38; (3) the Staff Manager initially rejected Ms. Dieng’s request for a new laptop, but the Staff Manager later approved her request after “[o]ne of the [Project Manager’s] co-national co-workers” explained that Ms. Dieng needed a new laptop due to certain issues with the old one, id. at 7 ¶ 42; (4) the Senior Manager accused Ms. Dieng of “touching the production system without permission” in January 2018 even though she had “followed the same procedure for the past [five] years by requesting permission from her [Project Manager], ” id. at 7 ¶ 43; and (5) management revoked Ms. Dieng’s access to the production system even though none of her “Caucasian/[Project Manager’s] co-nationals co-workers” received the same treatment when they touched the production system, id. at 8 ¶ 43. AIR ultimately fired Ms. Dieng for insubordination and performance issues. Id. at 8 ¶ 44.

         Ms. Dieng asserts that AIR’s “prior mistreatment” and her termination were “because of her race and in retaliation for her complaints.” Id. at 8 ¶ 45. She also alleges that AIR’s mistreatment created a hostile work environment. Id. After her termination in February 2018, Ms. Dieng filed a “timely complaint” with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Id. at 8 ¶ 46. On February 22, 2018, the EEOC issued a notice of right to file suit. Id. at 8 ¶ 47.

         B. Procedural History

         On May 24, 2018, Ms. Dieng filed this employment discrimination lawsuit, asserting Title VII and DCHRA claims against AIR. See Compl., ECF No. 1 at 5-6. AIR moved to dismiss the initial complaint on August 13, 2018, see generally Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 6, and the Court denied without prejudice AIR’s motion after Ms. Dieng filed an Amended Complaint on September 4, 2018. See Min. Order of Sept. 6, 2018; see generally Am. Compl., ECF No. 8.[2] Ms. Dieng’s allegations against AIR fall into three categories: (1) AIR created a hostile work environment because of her race and gender in violation of Title VII and DCHRA; (2) AIR discriminated against her and terminated her because of her race and gender in violation of Title VII and DCHRA; and (3) AIR retaliated against her for engaging in protected activities in violation of Title VII and DCHRA. See Am. Compl., ECF No. 8 at 9-10.[3]

         AIR filed its motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint on September 18, 2018, see Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 9, Ms. Dieng filed her opposition brief on October 9, 2018, see Pl.’s Opp’n, ECF No. 11, and AIR filed its reply brief on October 16, 2018, see Def.’s Reply, ECF No. 12. The motion is ripe and ready for the Court’s adjudication.[4]

         II. Legal Standard

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) “tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint.” Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). The court will dismiss a claim if the complaint fails to plead “enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), “in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         A complaint survives a Rule 12(b)(6) motion only if it “contain[s] sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw [a] reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. A complaint alleging facts which are “‘merely consistent with’ a defendant’s liability . . . ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.’” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         III. Analysis

         AIR advances three primary arguments for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6). See Def.’s Mem., ECF No. 9-1 at 8-17. First, Ms. Dieng has not stated a discrimination claim because she alleges no facts from which it can be inferred that race was a factor in AIR’s decision to terminate her. Id. at 14-15. Next, Ms. Dieng fails to state a retaliation claim because the Project Manager’s apology resolved the one arguable protected activity (i.e. her 2015 complaint to AIR’s Human Resources department) and there are no allegations that the discriminatory acts were connected to the 2015 protected activity. Id. at 15-17. Finally, Ms. Dieng fails to state a hostile work environment claim on the basis of her race because the alleged “isolated events” of hostility were ...

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