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Sagar v. Mnuchin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 12, 2018

VIDYA SAGAR, Plaintiff,
STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Defendant.


          RANDOLPH D. MOSS United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Vidya Sagar, proceeding pro se, was hired for a one-year probationary period by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and was terminated shortly before the year expired. According to the notice of termination, the Department decided to fire Sagar based on his conduct and performance. Sagar, however, sees it differently and alleges that he was the victim of age discrimination. He brings this action against the Department to challenge his termination, asserting three claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. He contends, first, that he was terminated because of his age; second, that the Department retaliated against him for engaging in ADEA protected activity; and, third, that he was subjected to a hostile work environment because of his age. The matter is now before the Court on the Department's motion for summary judgment, Dkt. 104. For the reasons that follow, the Court will GRANT the Department's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

          A. Factual Background

         On December 20, 2010, Sagar was hired by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) as an Information Technology Specialist at the GS-15 paygrade. Dkt. 101-20 at 3-4 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶¶ 8, 11); Dkt. 104-21 at 1 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 1). He was 62 years old at the time. Dkt. 104-21 at 1 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 1). Sagar was one of several Information Technology Specialists hired to help the IRS implement the Affordable Care Act. Id. (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 1). He was assigned to the Premium Tax Credit (“PTC”) project, which was “build[ing] the application that calculates [the] applicable tax credit for taxpayers.” Id. (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 2). Over the course of Sagar's tenure at the IRS, he had three managers. The first two are the alleged discriminating officials: Matthew Brady, the PTC Section Chief and Sagar's direct manager, and Peter Gianakos, the PTC Branch Chief and Sagar's second-level manager. Id. at 1-2 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 3); Dkt. 64-6 at 6 (Interrogatory No. 11). The third, Sagar's third-level manager, was also the individual who hired him: Gregory Barry, the Director of Compliance and Document Matching, within the IRS's Affordable Care Act Program Management Office. Dkt. 104-21 at 1, 4 (Def.'s SUMF ¶¶ 1, 13).

         Barry served as Sagar's direct manager until January or February 2011, when Gianakos became the Chief of the PTC Branch and thus Sagar's direct manager. Dkt. 100-25 at 5-7 (Interrogatory No. 18). In July 2011, Brady became the PTC Section Chief and replaced Gianakos as Sagar's direct manager. Id. (Interrogatory No. 18). In March 2011, Sagar was “named the requirements lead for the PTC project.” Dkt. 101-20 at 7 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶ 27). His “primary responsibility” was to complete the Requirements Plan, Dkt. 104-21 at 2-3 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 6), which “document[ed] the activities, methods, and techniques that w[ould] be used to perform and support Requirements Development . . . and Requirements Management . . . for the Premium Tax Credit . . . Project, ” Dkt. 85-8 at 7.

         According to the Department and one of Sagar's colleagues, Jonathan Lin, Sagar “began to have negative encounters” with Lin as early as February 2011. Dkt. 104-21 at 2 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 4). Although Lin did not immediately bring these encounters to the attention of management, he kept a running list of the episodes on his work computer. Dkt. 104-6 at 7 (Lin Dep. 42:12-44:19); see Id. at 22-23 (Lin's notes). According to those notes, during the first incident, Sagar (who was not Lin's supervisor) “lectured” Lin “in the break room, ” prompting Lin to email Sagar to ask that they “treat each other with professional courtesies.” Dkt. 104-6 at 22. During subsequent incidents, Sagar purportedly told Lin that he was “not a team player” and “hung up” the telephone on him; interrupted Lin at a meeting with harsh criticism implying that Lin had “confuse[d]” two distinct concepts; and, at another meeting, “threw down his pencil and started to lecture” Lin for having interrupted him, only to then himself interrupt another participant. Id. at 22-23. Finally, Lin's notes report that, at a meeting on May 23, 2011, Sagar “grabbed the [telephone] microphone while [Lin] was speaking and moved it directly in front of him” and, then, “after he finished [speaking], he threw it across the table [in Lin's] direction.” Id. at 22. As the parties describe it, the “microphone” was an extension of a “spider” conference phone, which was typically passed among participants during conference calls. See Dkt. 104-6 at 16 (Lin Dep. 112:4-16); Dkt. 104-21 at 2 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 4). Sagar, for his part, disagrees with Lin's account. He asserts that he “treated Lin with respect and helped Lin, ” Dkt. 112-4 at 4 (Pl.'s Response to Def.'s SUMF); that Lin was “uncooperative [and had an] antagonistic attitude, ” id. at 10; and that Lin “made up [some of the] events [and] distorted facts . . . to get [an] outstanding [performance] rating, ” id. at 9.

         The parties also disagree about the quality of Sagar's work as a Technology Specialist. According to Brady, when the template for the Requirements Plan was changed, the Plan “needed to be updated to follow the new template, ” but Sagar failed to do so in a timely manner. Dkt. 104-8 at 4 (Brady Dep. 35:20-22). The Requirements Plan, in Brady's view, “was not that complicated, ” and Sagar should have been able to update it more quickly and without assistance from others. Id. (Brady Dep. 37:20-22). But, because Sagar did not do so, the Project Manager, Walter Kirkland, needed to ask Sagar “numerous times” when the Plan would be completed, and Kirkland eventually “asked other team members, including Matthew Sikowitz, the only other GS-15 [Technology] Specialist in PTC[, ] [to assist] in completing the . . . Plan.” Dkt. 104-21 at 2-3 (Def.'s SUMF ¶¶ 6, 8). Moreover, the Department adds, Sagar once “called a meeting to discuss the . . . Plan, but[, ] because he was not prepared to go forward, [Brady was forced to] cancel[] the meeting.” Id. (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 7). Sagar, again, paints a very different picture. He alleges that, even though “[t]he project requirements were changing, ” he successfully completed the Requirements Plan in a timely fashion. Dkt. 101-20 at 7 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶ 29); see Id. at 7-8 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶¶ 30-32); Dkt. 101 at 27 (“Sagar['s] three commitments . . . were completed [on] time, [and his] performance exceeded [the relevant standards].”); id. at 31 (“[E]vidence . . . show[s] that [Sagar] performed at an outstanding/exceptional level . . . .”). He further asserts- albeit in arguably contradictory terms-that he did so without assistance from others. Dkt. 56-17 at 3 (“With team input, the [Plan] was completed by me from start to finish.”). As to the meeting that Brady claims to have adjourned prematurely, Sagar contends that the meeting was scheduled to last for “one hour” and that the meeting, in fact, “lasted an hour.” Oral Arg. Tr. (Rough at 12:12-13).

         In September 2011, Brady turned his attention to whether Sagar's employment with the Department should be terminated before the end of his probationary period. According to Brady, he was not only concerned about Sagar's performance, but had personally observed a number of “ongoing behavioral issues” involving “antagonistic” interactions with “other team members.” Dkt. 64-6 at 34; see Id. at 33-35 (Brady's narrative explanation, which was submitted to the Labor Relations Department, for why he recommended Sagar's dismissal). Brady noted, for example, that “[w]hen someone wished to speak[, ] [Sagar] would hold up his hand and instruct [the person] in a firm voice not to interrupt him and” would admonish that person for “being rude, ” and that, as a result, “many of his team members [would] not speak while in a meeting with him due to intimidation and fear of being shut down.” Dkt. 64-6 at 34. On other occasions, according to Brady, when “confronted with” a disagreement, Sagar would “say angrily[, ] ‘I'll shut up now, ' and [would then] stop talking and . . . [would stop] provid[ing] input to the team.” Id. Around this time, Brady asked other PTC staff whether they had had difficulties working with Sagar, and Lin showed Brady the notes that he had kept regarding Sagar's behavior. Dkt. 104-8 at 3 (Brady Dep. 33:14-19); Dkt. 104-6 at 7 (Lin Dep. 43:10-44:3).

         Toward the end of September, Brady completed Sagar's annual evaluation, which referred to these conduct issues. Brady wrote, for example, that Sagar needed “to work more cooperatively with peers to promote a team environment;” that he “should . . . provide input even when there are disagreements with team members and [should] not shut down as [he has done] in meetings;” and that his demeanor at meetings “contribute[d] to a hostile environment.” Dkt. 104-9 at 7. The evaluation also raised performance issues, noting that, “[a]s a senior technical staff member, [Sagar] should be able to complete assigned tasks without the intervention of the manager and project manager[, ] as was the case for completing the Requirements Plan, ” and that a “meeting had to be shut[ ]down by the manager” because Sagar's presentation “was not ready to be reviewed.” Id. Based on these stated concerns, the review rated Sagar's performance as “[m]inimally [s]atisfactory.” Id. at 9.

         On September 29, 2011, Brady met with Sagar to present the evaluation. Dkt. 104-1 at 3-4 (Brady Decl. ¶ 7). Although the exact timeline is not crystal clear, at some point, Sagar “informed” Brady and Gianakos that the evaluation “was not consistent and was not true.” Dkt. 101-3 at 5. In addition, Sagar asserts that he met with Gianakos “around October 3, 2011” for “a few minutes” and told him that “the review was incorrect, biased and vindictive, ” and that he met with Brady later that same afternoon, who said he would “look into the review on receipt of [Sagar's] response.” Id. Sagar sent his “response” to Brady on October 5, 2011. Id. Among other things, his response asserted that “there seems to be some misunderstanding since I don't interrupt the thought processes of others that may be equally applicable or don't know the complete picture/context of the issue/discussion.” Dkt. 56-17 at 2. Sagar's response also suggested that, going forward, he could improve workplace relations by bringing his experience as a graduate school teacher to bear in fostering the expression of “diverse opinions.” Id. And, with respect to the Requirements Plan, the response noted that there was a “new template;” that “[t]he contents were still getting revised as we proceeded to complete” the Plan; that “we got it done relatively quickly;” and that, “[w]ith team input, the [Plan] was completed by me from start to finish.” Id. at 2-3.

         Brady and Gianakos, nonetheless, decided to “recommend termination during [Sagar's] probationary period.” Dkt. 104-21 at 4 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 12). On October 27, 2011, Gianakos met with Sagar and gave him the option of either resigning or waiting to receive “a written proposal/termination letter.” Dkt. 41 at 23. When Sagar declined to resign, Gianakos sent Sagar a letter, dated October 27, 2011, notifying Sagar of his decision to terminate his employment with the IRS. Dkt. 104-4 at 2-4. The letter noted that Sagar was a probationary employee and that “[t]he purpose of the probationary period was to allow [Sagar] the opportunity to demonstrate the skills, performance, and conduct necessary for continued employment with the Federal Government.” Id. at 2. The letter then listed five “incidents in which [Sagar] failed to meet the expectations of [his] position [or] displayed unprofessional behavior, ” including:

(1) On May 23, 2011, you displayed unprofessional behavior during a [meeting when] you grabbed the microphone from a colleague while he was speaking[, ] placed it in front of you[, ] [and, after] you spoke[, ] . . . threw it across the table in the other employee's direction, which was very disruptive to others in attendance.
(2) On May 26, 2011, you proceeded to chastise another employee after he interrupted you during a group discussion. You were visibly upset and proceeded to tell this employee that “gentlem[e]n should not interrupt other people while they speak[, ]” [y]et . . . you displayed this very behavior when another team member was speaking.
(3) On August 12, 2011, you were assigned as Requirements Manger for the PTC Project and were responsible for producing the Requirements Plan. The template for this project had been updated but follow-up conversations were required to further explain your responsibility to revise the plan documentation. You still did not understand your role as Requirements Manager, even after several follow-up meetings regarding the same. As a result, it became necessary to assign several junior staff members to assist you with the [P]lan.
(4) On August 22, 2011, you scheduled a meeting and invited the entire team; however, you were not prepared to present and proceeded to make corrections during the discussion. Consequently, your manager made an executive decision to adjourn the meeting and asked others to step in and complete the document to avoid further delay.
(5) On September 29, 2011, your manager met with you to discuss both performance and conduct issues. At this time, he offered advice on how to improve your communication and leadership skills. Unfortunately, you did not agree that there was any need for improvement.

Id. at 2-3. The letter concluded that, “[a]lthough you have been counseled regarding the deficiencies in your performance[, ] there has been no improvement in your performance as an Information Technology Specialist, ” and thus “[i]t is my decision to separate you from the Federal Service during your probationary period for your performance deficiencies.” Id. at 3.

         A few days later, Sagar wrote to Barry-his third-level manager-to alert Barry to “certain events” that had affected Sagar's “career at the IRS.” Dkt. 100-20 at 2. He explained that his annual performance review came as “a shock” and that the evaluation was a “180 [-]degree distortion.” Id. He went on to assert that he was “one of the best in the technology field;” that he had “undertaken all assigned tasks;” and that, based on his “superior performance, there [was] no cause for the proposed threat of removal action.” Id. Sagar also asked that Barry “consider [him] for one of the vacant positions [on] other projects.” Id. at 3. Barry was unpersuaded, and he executed the Standard Form 52, terminating Sagar's employment with the IRS, effective November 2, 2011. Dkt. 104-20 at 2-3. On that same day, moreover, Sagar received Gianakos's letter dated October 27, 2011, setting forth the grounds for termination. Dkt. 104-21 at 4-5 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 14); Dkt. 104-4 at 2.

         On November 4, 2011, Sagar sought equal employment opportunity (“EEO”) counseling regarding “[w]hether [he was] disparately treated on the basis of [a]ge” when he was fired. Dkt. 104-10 at 2-3 (EEO Counseling Report). About a week later, he lodged a formal complaint with the Department, asserting that his termination was the product of age discrimination and retaliation and requesting reinstatement and backpay. Dkt. 104-11 at 3. The Department conducted an “administrative investigation.” Dkt. 104-21 at 5 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 18). Although neither party has directed the Court to any formal findings or decisions rendered in the Department's administrative process, the Department presumably upheld Sagar's termination.

         B. Procedural History

         Following the conclusion of the Department's “administrative investigation, ” Sagar filed this action. Dkt. 104-21 at 5 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 18); see Dkt. 1. His amended complaint, Dkt. 41, initially asserted six claims, which the Court construed in an earlier memorandum opinion as follows: age discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment claims under the ADEA, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (Counts 1, 4, and 6); two claims based on the Department's alleged violation of ethical rules and regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. (Counts 2 and 3); and a claim under the Whistleblower Protection Act, 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8) (Count 5). Sagar v. Lew, 211 F.Supp.3d 262, 265 (D.D.C. 2016). On the Department's motion to dismiss, the Court dismissed Sagar's claims under the APA and the Whistleblower Protection Act. Id. at 263. Accordingly, the only claims remaining are Sagar's three claims under the ADEA.[1] Id. Sagar and the Department both moved for summary judgment. See Dkt. 101 (Sagar's motion); Dkt. 104 (Department's motion). The Court heard oral argument on March 14, 2018, and the Court denied Sagar's motion because he “failed to offer uncontroverted evidence” establishing that he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on any of his three claims. Minute Order (Mar. 31, 2018). Accordingly, all that remains before the Court is the Department's motion for summary judgment on Sagar's three ADEA claims.


         The moving party is entitled to summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 if he can “show[] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [that he] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility” of “identifying those portions” of the record that “demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A fact is “material” if it could affect the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). And a dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). The Court, moreover, must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Talavera v. Shah, 638 F.3d 303, 308 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

         If the moving party carries this initial burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to show that sufficient evidence exists for a reasonable jury to find in the nonmoving party's favor with respect to the “element[s] essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. (quoting Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006)). The nonmoving party's opposition, accordingly, must consist of more than unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits, declarations, or other competent evidence, setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. That is, once the moving party carries its initial burden on summary judgment, the nonmoving party must provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find in his favor. See Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1241 (D.C. Cir. 1987). If the nonmoving party's evidence is “merely colorable” or “not significantly probative, ” the Court should grant summary judgment. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The ADEA prohibits the federal government from discriminating against its employees aged forty or older on the basis of age, 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a), and from retaliating against them for complaining about age discrimination, 29 U.S.C. § 623(d). See Gomez-Perez v. Potter, 553 U.S. 474, 479 (2008); Kilby-Robb v. DeVos, 246 F.Supp.3d 182, 193 (D.D.C. 2017). The statute's prohibition on age discrimination, moreover, takes two forms: it bars federal employers from taking age-based adverse employment actions against their employees, and it bars them from subjecting their employees “to ‘discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult' that is ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.'” Baloch v. Kempthorne, 550 F.3d 1191, 1201 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). Invoking ...

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