Nguyen v. Kansas City Board of Public Utilities
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER granting in part and denying in part 42 Motion for Summary Judgment; denying 44 Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. Signed by Chief District Judge Julie A Robinson on 1/29/2018. (hl)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
Case No. 16-2654-JAR
UNIFIED GOVERNMENT OF WYANDOTTE
COUNTY/KANSAS CITY, KANSAS,
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Plaintiff Hoang Nguyen brings this action against his employer the Unified Government
of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas (“Defendant”), alleging discrimination on the basis of
race and national origin and retaliatory non-promotion under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
This matter is before the Court on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment (Docs. 42
and 44). The motions are fully briefed and the Court is prepared to rule. For the reasons stated
below, the Court denies Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and partially grants
Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.1 In
applying this standard, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in
the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.2 “There is no genuine issue of material fact
unless the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is such that a
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Grynberg v. Total, 538 F.3d 1336, 1346 (10th Cir. 2008).
City of Harriman v. Bell, 590 F.3d 1176, 1181 (10th Cir. 2010).
reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”3 A fact is “material” if, under
the applicable substantive law, it is “essential to the proper disposition of the claim.”4 An issue
of fact is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the
To prevail on a motion for summary judgment on a claim upon which the moving party
also bears the burden of proof at trial, the moving party must demonstrate “no reasonable trier of
fact could find other than for the moving party.”6 The facts “must be identified by reference to
an affidavit, a deposition transcript, or a specific exhibit incorporated therein.”7 Rule 56(c)(4)
provides that opposing affidavits must be made on personal knowledge and shall set forth such
facts as would be admissible in evidence.8 The non-moving party cannot avoid summary
judgment by repeating conclusory opinions, allegations unsupported by specific facts, or
speculation.9 “Where, as here, the parties file cross-motions for summary judgment, we are
entitled to assume that no evidence needs to be considered other than that filed by the parties, but
summary judgment is nevertheless inappropriate if disputes remain as to material facts.”10 The
Court considers cross-motions separately: the denial of one does not require the grant of the
Bones v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., 366 F.3d 869, 875 (10th Cir. 2004).
Wright ex rel. Trust Co. of Kan. v. Abbott Labs., Inc., 259 F.3d 1226, 1231–32 (10th Cir. 2001) (citing
Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998)).
Thomas v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 631 F.3d 1153, 1160 (10th Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).
Leone v. Owsley, 810 F.3d 1149, 1153 (10th Cir. 2015).
Adams v. Am. Guar. & Liab. Ins. Co., 233 F.3d 1242, 1246 (10th Cir. 2000).
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4).
Id.; Argo v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Kan., Inc., 452 F.3d 1193, 1199 (10th Cir. 2006) (citation
James Barlow Family Ltd. P’ship v. David M Munson, Inc., 132 F.3d 1316, 1319 (10th Cir. 1997)
other.11 “To the extent the cross-motions overlap, however, the Court may address the legal
Finally, summary judgment is not a “disfavored procedural shortcut;” on the contrary, it
is an important procedure “designed to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of
every action.”13 In responding to a motion for summary judgment, “a party cannot rest on
ignorance of facts, on speculation, or on suspicion and may not escape summary judgment in the
mere hope that something will turn up at trial.”14
Defendant is a consolidated government of a county and a city of the first class with all
the powers, functions, and duties afforded to counties and cities of the first class under the
Kansas Constitution and statutes. Defendant is also a Kansas municipal corporation organized
and existing under the laws of the State of Kansas. The Kansas City Board of Public Utilities
(“BPU”) is an administrative agency of Defendant. The BPU is a public utility that provides
potable water and electrical services.
On or about May 31, 2003, Defendant hired Plaintiff, an Asian-American male of
Vietnamese origin, as a Mechanical Engineer to work at its Quindaro Plant. In the fall of 2010,
the position of Director of Electric Production Operations was posted available following the
retirement of John Fuentes. The Director position required “a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering
from an accredited institution and a minimum of 5 years related work in coal fired steam-electric
generation; or, equivalent professional experience consisting of a minimum of 10 years of
Buell Cabinet Co. v. Sudduth, 608 F.2d 431, 433 (10th Cir. 1979).
Berges v. Standard Ins. Co., 704 F. Supp. 2d 1149, 1155 (D. Kan. 2010) (quotations omitted).
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 1).
Conaway v. Smith, 853 F.2d 789, 794 (10th Cir. 1988).
progressive operating experience, 4 years management/supervision experience with additional
post high school education preferred.”15 Plaintiff applied for the position.
At the time, Don Gray, the General Manager of BPU, and Darrell Dorsey, then Manager
of Electric Production and Supply, disagreed regarding whether the vacant position should be
filled with an engineer or someone with significant plant operations experience. Gray preferred
someone with operational experience, while Dorsey wanted to fill the position with an engineer.
Gray delegated the task of selecting a new director to Dorsey, the manager of that department.
After going through the selection process, Dorsey recommended Plaintiff for the position
over Patrick Knefel, a BPU employee who did not possess an engineering degree but had over 30
years of operations experience. Gray accepted Dorsey’s recommendation and awarded the
position to Plaintiff, effective January 1, 2011.
On February 2, 2012, prior to Dorsey’s retirement, Gray issued a memorandum to BPU
employees and the Board advising that Dorsey’s manager position would become two positions:
1) Manager of Electric Production and 2) Manager of Electric Supply.16 At the same time, Gray
appointed Dong Quach as Acting Manager of Electric Production and Bob Adams as Acting
Manager of Supply. On or about February 28, 2012, Dorsey retired and Quach became
On March 15, 2012, Plaintiff received a positive evaluation.17
On October 3, 2012, Gray and Quach met with Plaintiff. Gray informed Plaintiff that he
was being removed from the position of Director of Electric Production Operations due to
concerns over morale and reports of one of Plaintiff’s shift supervisors being under the influence
Doc. 43-4 at 1.
Doc. 53-11 at 2.
of alcohol while at work.18 Plaintiff was demoted to Mechanical Engineer, but his salary
remained at the director level through the end of the year.
Gray appointed Knefel as Acting Director of Electric Production Operations in the
meantime. Gray tasked Quach with finding a new Director and working to elevate Plaintiff to a
higher engineering position. On or about January 3, 2013, after Quach created a new Senior
Engineering position, Plaintiff was promoted to Senior Engineer.19
On March 15, 2013, Plaintiff submitted a written internal complaint to Defendant’s
Human Resources Division, stating:
I was demoted from Director Electric Production Operations to Mechanical
Engineer by Mr. Don Gray at 9:30 a.m. October 3rd, 2012 in his conference room
without any reasons. He promoted Patrick Knefel to take my job.
I believed I have been discriminated, unfaired (sic) treated, violated (sic) my
EEO. I have worked hard on all my assignments. However, I am suffering by
this unfair treatment and discrimination since.20
Plaintiff requested the job posting for the Director position be taken down while the situation
remained unresolved.21 He also requested reinstatement as Director of Electric Production
That same day, Ashley Culp, Defendant’s Employment and Compliance Coordinator,
sent Plaintiff a memorandum acknowledging receipt of his complaint and informed him that
Human Resources (“HR”) would “conduct a thorough investigation” of his complaint.23 On
April 12, 2013, Culp sent Plaintiff a memorandum informing him that “[b]ased upon the
Doc. 45-14 at 2 (emphasis in original).
Doc. 45-15 at 2.
information this office has received, there is no evidence of discrimination, unfair treatment, or
violation of EEO . . . .”24
On October 31, 2013, following the selection process, Dong Quach recommended Knefel
for the position of Director of Electric Production Operations. Gray approved Quach’s
recommendation and promoted Knefel to Director of Electric Production Operations.
Knefel retired on March 1, 2014, which led to the posting of his position in Job Bid No.
4112. The minimum requirements for the Director position were:
a B.S. in [e]ither Electrical or Mechanical Engineering from an accredited
institution and a minimum of 5 years related work in coal fired steam-electric
generation; or, equivalent professional experience consisting of a minimum of 10
years of progressive operating experience, 4 years management/supervision
experience with additional post high school education preferred. The incumbent
must have extensive knowledge and understanding of power plant theory and
operating principles and good understanding of all aspects of power plant
maintenance, engineering and environmental. The incumbent must have the
ability to simultaneously manage a variety of issues and objectively interact with
both union and non-union employees as necessary. Must be a good
communicator with verbal, numerical, and planning perception to a high degree
Plaintiff, Jason Moe, George Cooper, Tung Nguyen, Chad Newbill, Daniel Rollins, David
Lynnes, and Josef Perez applied for the job. All but Perez were interviewed.
Defendant hired John Fuentes, a former Director of Electric Production Operations, to
consult and assist Quach with the selection of a new director. In September 2014, Quach and
Fuentes interviewed seven applicants using a questionnaire pre-approved by HR.
On October 3, 2014, in an internal office memo to Gray, Quach recommended Moe for
the job, stating: “After a thorough review, Jason Moe is being recommended for [Director of
Doc. 45-17 at 2.
Electric Production Operations]. Jason has demonstrated extensive power plant knowledge and a
good command of understanding in the power plant industry.”26 Quach testified that:
Overall Jason Moe kn[e]w the plant really well and he has a great personality to
be as a supervisor and he — as far as personality, I mean, he can talk to anybody.
He can fit in any environment and he can rally people, so those are the three key
things at that time we looked at.27
Quach also testified that Moe’s communication skills were exceptional: “he has no accent and he
definitely speaks clearly and people can understand him easily.”28 In contrast, Quach testified
that Plaintiff was “hard to understand sometimes,” “he tend[ed] to speak pretty softly,” his
“pronunciation . . . is a little bit deficient . . . given the time he’s been in [the U.S.]”, and “it’s
very hard to understand him” particularly in a big group meeting.29 Quach said that
communication skill was a significant factor in his decision not to select Plaintiff for
Gray had the ultimate authority to approve or deny a manager’s recommendation. As he
had done previously, Gray deferred to the judgment of his manager and adopted Quach’s
recommendation to promote Moe.
On November 10, 2014, Plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission (“EEOC”), alleging discrimination on the basis of race and national origin and
retaliation for complaining of discrimination. The EEOC issued Plaintiff a notice of right to sue
on June 27, 2016. Plaintiff filed this action on September 26, 2016, alleging discrimination on
the basis of race and national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42
Doc. 43-18, Quach Dep. 93:18–24.
Doc. 45-2, Quach Dep. 101: 10–13.
U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (race and national origin discrimination) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (race
discrimination), and retaliatory nonselection in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of
1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.31
Defendant seeks summary judgment on four grounds: 1) Plaintiff’s § 1981 claims fail as
a matter of law because he did not assert them under § 1983; 2) Plaintiff’s retaliatory nonselection claim fails for lack of causal connection; 3) Plaintiff’s discrimination and retaliation
claims fail because he cannot meet his burden of showing Defendant’s nondiscriminatory
reasons for not promoting him were pretexts; and 4) § 2000e-3 of Title VII and § 1981a(b)
prohibit Plaintiff from recovering compensatory damages against a political subdivision based
upon claims of discrimination and retaliatory non-selection. Plaintiff seeks summary judgment
on his discrimination claim, arguing Defendant’s stated nondiscriminatory reasons are
unsupported by the record and that his Vietnamese accent was the real reason for his demotion
and non-promotion. Because the issues in Plaintiff’s motion overlap with Defendant’s third
ground for summary judgment, the Court will address them together.
Section 1981 Claims and the Effect of Failing to Allege § 1983
It is well-settled law that § 1983 provides the exclusive remedy for pursuing damages
against a municipality for claims arising under § 1981.32 Plaintiff concedes this and that he did
not cite § 1983 in his amended complaint or the Pretrial Order. He argues, however, that he has
essentially asserted a claim under §§ 1981 and 1983. Alternatively, he argues the proper remedy
Doc. 39, Pretrial Order at 2. All future references to “Section” or “§” are to Title 42, United States Code,
unless otherwise noted.
Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 735 (1989).
for this “mere pleading defect” is to permit him to amend his complaint to add a § 1983 claim.33
In support of this argument, Plaintiff cites several decisions authorizing such relief: Bolden v.
City of Topeka,34 Dockery v. Unified School District No. 231,35 Stewart v. Board of
Commissioners for Shawnee County, Kansas,36 and Sims v. Unified Government of Wyandotte
The Supreme Court has rejected a heightened standard of pleading in claims against
municipalities.38 “Nevertheless, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a), a plaintiff must make at least
minimal factual allegations on every element.”39 Conclusory allegations will not sustain a
plaintiff’s pleading burden.40 With these principles in mind, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s
allegations in his amended complaint and the Pretrial Order fail to state a municipal liability
claim under § 1983.
A plaintiff suing a county/city under § 1983 must plead the defendant “caused the harm
through the execution of its own policy or customs or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be
said to represent official policy.”41 The latter method generally entails alleging a “final
policymaker” acted in violation of his equal rights.42 Plaintiff did not cite § 1983 or allege that
Doc. 50 at 30–31.
441 F.3d 1129 (10th Cir. 2006).
382 F. Supp. 2d 1234 (D. Kan. 2005).
216 F.R.D. 662 (D. Kan. 2003).
120 F. Supp. 2d 938, 953 (D. Kan. 2000).
See Leatherman v. Tarrant Cty., 507 U.S. 163, 168 (1993).
Sims, 120 F. Supp. 2d at 946 (citing Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991)).
Patel v. Hall, 849 F.3d 970, 978 (10th Cir. 2017) (quoting Meade v. Grubbs, 841 F.2d 1512, 1529 (10th
Moss v. Kopp, 559 F.3d 1155, 1168–69 (10th Cir. 2009) (describing allegations needed to assert claim
for damages under § 1983 against municipal entities or local government bodies, including identifying the “final
policymaker” and the actions he took).
his demotion and non-promotion were consistent with a custom, practice, or policy of
Defendant’s. Nor did Plaintiff allege that a city official with final policymaking authority
discriminated against him on the basis of his race or national origin.
The factual allegation that “Gray . . . had the authority to implement the demotion”43
appears to be the sole allegation that could be interpreted to mean that Gray was a final
policymaker. But this allegation is conclusory because “[a]n official is not a policymaker simply
by virtue of possessing discretionary authority to exercise certain functions authorized by
municipal policy; what is required is final authority to establish the policy itself.”44 Moreover,
the identification of a final policymaker is a legal issue for the Court to decide under state and
local law.45 Kansas law places final authority over county personnel decisions in the elected
board of county commissioners except for employees of independently elected officials.46
Absent allegations that the exception applies, the Court concludes Plaintiff’s pleadings fall short
of stating a municipal liability claim.47
As to the proper remedy for this pleading defect, the Court finds allowing amendment
inappropriate at this stage. The cases cited by Plaintiff are all factually distinguishable. In
Bolden, the plaintiff had previously advanced both § 1981 and § 1983 claims, and the Tenth
Circuit specifically found that the former implicitly incorporated the allegations contained in the
Doc. 13, First Amended Complaint at 4, ¶ 20.
Stewart v. Bd. of Comm'rs for Shawnee Cty., Kan., 320 F. Supp. 2d 1143, 1152 (D. Kan. 2004) (citing
City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 125–28 (1988)).
Praprotnik, 485 U.S. at 124, 129–30.
See K.S.A. § 19–101(a); Bd. of Cty. Com’rs of County of Lincoln v. Nielander, 62 P.3d 247 (Kan. 2003).
See Sims v. Unified Gov’t of Wyandotte Cty., 120 F. Supp. 2d 938, 947 (D. Kan. 2000) (concluding
amended complaint fell short of stating a municipal liability claim because arguments regarding sufficiency required
one-too-many steps be taken to interpret what plaintiff intended to allege).
latter.48 Further, the plaintiff in Bolden appeared pro se. In Dockery, Stewart, and Sims, leave to
amend was allowed in response to a motion to dismiss, not a motion for summary judgment.49
Here, Plaintiff appears through counsel, who has offered no good cause for the pleading
deficiencies. More importantly, amendment now will work substantial prejudice to Defendant
and the Court. Discovery is closed and the trial is scheduled in less than three months. No
discovery has been conducted on the existence of Defendant’s policies or procedures, or the
extent of Gray’s authority to implement policy and whether his decisions are subject to
meaningful review.50 Allowing Plaintiff to amend his claims now would create prejudice by
requiring additional discovery. Given the absence of good cause and the substantial prejudice,
the Court denies leave to amend and grants Defendant summary judgment as to the § 1981
claims.51 This conclusion renders discussion unnecessary as to Defendant’s argument regarding
§ 1981a(b)’s limitations on compensatory damages.
Discriminatory Non-Promotion Based on Race or National Origin
Count I alleges that Plaintiff was not promoted in 2014 as the Director of Electric
Production Operations, even though he possessed superior qualifications, because of his race or
national origin. Both parties seek summary judgment on this claim.
Bolden v. City of Topeka, 441 F.3d 1129, 1137 (10th Cir. 2006).
Dockery v. Unified Sch. Dist. No. 231, 382 F. Supp. 2d 1234 (D. Kan. 2005); Stewart, 320 F. Supp. 2d at
1146; Sims, 120 F. Supp. 2d at 938.
See Randle v. City of Aurora, 69 F.3d 441, 448 (10th Cir. 1995) (identifying three elements in
determining whether an individual is a final policymaker: 1) whether the official is meaningfully constrained by
policies not of that official’s own making; 2) whether the official’s decisions are subject to any meaningful review;
and 3) whether the policy decision purportedly made by the official is within the realm of the official’s grant of
Brown v. Unified Sch. Dist. No. 501, No. 10-1096-JTM, 2011 WL 2174948 (D. Kan. June 3, 2011)
(denying leave to amend and granting summary judgment on § 1981 claims for similar reasons), aff’d, 459 F. App’x
705 (10th Cir. 2012); Butler v. La. Dep’t of Health & Hosps., No. 07-723-SCR, 2009 WL 2382556, at *7–8 (M.D.
La. July 31, 2009) (concluding defendants were entitled to summary judgment as to claims brought under § 1981
due to plaintiff’s failure to cite § 1983 or indicate in any way that her § 1981 claim was brought pursuant to § 1983
in her complaints).
The parties agree the familiar McDonnel Douglas52 burden shifting framework applies
here. Under McDonnell Douglas, Plaintiff initially bears the burden of production to establish a
prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation.53 If Plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the
burden shifts to Defendant to articulate a facially nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.54 If
Defendant articulates a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason, the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to
present evidence from which a jury might conclude that Defendant’s proffered reason is
pretextual, that is, “unworthy of belief.”55
Defendant concedes Plaintiff can establish a prima facie case of discrimination based on
race or national origin. The burden thus shifts to Defendant to articulate a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for not promoting Plaintiff. Defendant asserts that Quach selected
Moe over Plaintiff because: 1) Moe was the most qualified candidate, 2) he had extensive power
plant knowledge; and 3) he possessed superior interpersonal, leadership, and communication
skills. The Court finds that Defendant has articulated facially nondiscriminatory reasons for not
selecting Plaintiff for promotion.
Defendant contends Plaintiff cannot show that its proffered, nondiscriminatory reasons
for selecting Moe were pretexts. Plaintiff argues pretext based on the following: 1) Moe did not
meet the objective qualifications for the Director position, thus Defendant’s claim that “Moe was
the most qualified candidate” is false; 2) Defendant’s investigation of his internal complaint was
so inadequate that it supports an inference of discrimination; and 3) both Gray and Quach
McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).
Id. at 802.
Beaird v. Seagate Tech., Inc., 145 F.3d 1159, 1165 (10th Cir. 1998) (quoting Randle, 69 F.3d at 451).
commented about Plaintiff’s accent yet there is no evidence that it affected his performance as
Pretext in General
A plaintiff shows “pretext by revealing such weaknesses, implausibilities,
inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons
for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them unworthy of credence.”56 A
plaintiff typically makes a showing of pretext in one of three ways: (1) evidence that defendant’s
stated reason for the adverse employment action was false, i.e. unworthy of belief; (2) evidence
that defendant acted contrary to a written company policy prescribing the action to be taken
under the circumstances; or (3) evidence that defendant acted contrary to an unwritten policy or
contrary to company practice when making the adverse employment decision affecting
In determining weaknesses or contradictions in proffered reasons for non-promotion,
courts “examine the facts as they appear to the person making the decision, not the plaintiff’s
subjective evaluation of the decision.”58 “The relevant inquiry is not whether the employer’s
proffered reasons were wise, fair or correct, but whether it honestly believed those reasons and
acted in good faith upon those beliefs.”59 “[T]he plaintiff must come forward with evidence that
the employer acted in bad faith, or that the employer’s asserted justification is false.”60 A
plaintiff can satisfy this burden by showing: “(1) the defendant fabricated documentation relating
Green v. New Mexico, 420 F.3d 1189, 1192–93 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotations omitted).
Kendrick v. Penske Transp. Servs, Inc., 220 F.3d 1220, 1230 (10th Cir. 2000).
Lobato v. N.M. Env’t Dep’t, 733 F.3d 1283, 1289 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Luster v. Vilsack, 667 F.3d
1089, 1093 (10th Cir. 2011)).
Luster, 667 F.3d at 1094.
Hudson v. Leavenworth Cty. Sheriff's Office, No. 14-CV-02065-JAR, 2015 WL 6738681, at *9 (D. Kan.
Nov. 4, 2015) (citing Young v. Dillon Cos., 468 F.3d 1243, 1251 (10th Cir. 2006)).
to the adverse employment action; (2) the defendant did not follow its own written procedures;
(3) the stated basis for adverse employment action was a post hoc fabrication; or (4) the
defendant was not actually motivated by its stated non-discriminatory justifications.”61 The
Court’s role is to prevent intentional discriminatory hiring practices, not to act as a “super
personnel department,” second guessing employers’ honestly held (even if erroneous) business
Plaintiff claims that Moe did not meet the objective, minimum requirement for the
Director position because he had only three and one-half years of experience in coal-fired power
generation, instead of the required five years. Defendant argues that Moe possessed the
minimum coal-fired power plant experience because it considers gas electric generation
experience the equivalent of coal generation experience. Defendant explained that the five year
work experience in coal-fired steam electric generation requirement was left over from “the
olden days.”63 Plaintiff rejoins that by re-defining the qualifications, Defendant has offered a
post hoc rationalization, which is evidence of pretext. He points out that Defendant had revised
the director position’s description in February 2013, thus Defendant’s reference to the “olden
days” is baseless. Moreover, Quach’s interview questionnaire, prepared shortly before the
interviews, also listed “a minimum of five years related work in coal fired steam-electric
generation” as a requirement. Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court
concludes Plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence of pretext regarding Moe being the most
Id. (citations omitted).
Young, 468 F.3d at 1250.
Doc. 49-4, Quach Dep. 40:1–15.
qualified candidate for the Director position. Because a genuine issue of fact exists as to Moe’s
objective qualifications, summary judgment is inappropriate.
Plaintiff argues that Defendant’s investigation of his internal complaint was grossly
inadequate and designed by HR to find no evidence of discrimination. He argues these facts
strongly support an inference of discriminatory intent and pretext. Defendant argues the
investigation had no causal connection to Plaintiff’s non-promotion and does not constitute
evidence of discriminatory or retaliatory animus. The Court disagrees.
“A ‘failure to conduct what appeared to be a fair investigation of’ the violation that
purportedly prompted adverse action may support an inference of pretext.”64 An employer may
“defeat the inference” of pretext stemming from an allegedly unfair investigation by “simply
asking an employee for his version of events.”65 Here, Plaintiff has sufficiently raised a genuine
issue as to whether his internal complaint had been properly investigated. It appears the
investigation consisted of a single interview of Gray, asking him to clarify his reasons for
demoting Plaintiff. And although HR did meet with Plaintiff the day before he filed his
grievance, HR did not meet with Plaintiff afterwards to clarify the basis for him alleging
discrimination. The HR Director testified that he first became aware of a discrimination claim
based on race or national origin when Plaintiff filed his charge with the EEOC. And HR’s memo
regarding its investigative findings was conclusory —“Based upon the information this office
has received, there is no evidence of discrimination, unfair treatment, or violation of EEO were
Smothers v. Solvay Chems., Inc., 740 F.3d 530, 542 (10th Cir. 2014) (quoting Trujillo v. PacifiCorp, 524
F.3d 1149, 1160 (10th Cir. 2008)).
EEOC v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of L.A., 450 F.3d 476, 488 (10th Cir. 2006).
found.”66 A jury could infer from these facts that HR did not investigate Plaintiff’s claim of
discrimination. This, combined with evidence that Moe may not have met the objective,
minimum requirements for the Director position and Defendant’s comments regarding Plaintiff’s
accent, is sufficient to permit a jury to infer pretext.
Plaintiff claims that his Vietnamese accent was the real reason for his demotion and nonpromotion. He argues that because there is no evidence that his accent interfered with his ability
to perform the Director job, Defendant’s proffered excuse that Moe had superior communication
skills was a pretext for discrimination. Defendant argues the accent argument should be stricken
because it was not raised in the Pretrial Order. Alternatively, Defendant argues the Director
position requires strong communication and leadership skills and the testimony regarding
Plaintiff’s accent demonstrated Plaintiff’s weaknesses in those areas, not discriminatory animus.
Additionally, because Quach, the decision-maker regarding who to recommend for promotion,
was of the same race and national origin as Plaintiff, Defendant claims that Plaintiff cannot meet
his burden of showing pretext.
The Court finds the sentence, “Although Mr. Nguyen speaks English fluently, Mr. Quach
and Mr. Gray have acknowledged that they perceive him as difficult to understand[,]” combined
with a claim of discrimination based on national origin, sufficient to alert Defendant that
Plaintiff’s accent was at issue. Accent and national origin are generally inextricably
intertwined.67 Accordingly, the Court denies Defendant’s request to strike the accent argument.
Griffis v. City of Norman, 232 F.3d 901 (10th Cir. 2000) (citing Fragante v. City & Cty. of Honolulu, 888
F.2d 591, 596 (9th Cir. 1989)).
Plaintiff offers his performance evaluation dated March 15, 2012, as evidence that his
accent did not affect his ability to perform the Director job.68 Quach completed the evaluation
and gave Plaintiff a positive review. He did not note any problems with Plaintiff’s accent or
communication skills then, but now says Plaintiff is difficult to understand and his pronunciation
is deficient. Plaintiff also offers a letter from Darrell Dorsey, Quach’s predecessor, who opined
that Plaintiff was fully capable of performing the Director job. In light of Plaintiff’s evidence
that his accent was a non-issue with respect to his job performance, comments to the contrary by
Defendant could be viewed by the jury as evidence of pretext or of animus against Plaintiff on
account of his national origin.69
As for the-decision-maker-is-the-same-origin argument, the Court agrees that
discrimination claims become less plausible and inferences of discrimination are weakened when
the decision-maker is in the same protected class as the plaintiff.70 But this fact alone is not
dispositive. Members of a protected class may sometimes discriminate against other members of
that same class.71 Here, Plaintiff alleged that Gray, a white male, demoted Plaintiff on the basis
of his race or national origin. If Plaintiff’s demotion was a result of discrimination, a jury could
find that Quach, as Gray’s subordinate, not only went along with his superior’s discrimination,
but he continued with it by choosing not to recommend Plaintiff for promotion.
See Carino v. Univ. of Okla. Bd. of Regents, 750 F.2d 815, 819 (10th Cir. 1984) (finding a foreign accent
that does not interfere with a Title VII claimant’s ability to perform duties of the position he has been denied is not a
legitimate justification for adverse employment decisions).
Kendrick v. Penske Transp. Servs., Inc., 1999 WL 450886 at *7 (D. Kan. Apr. 13, 1999) (race
discrimination case noting, “the plaintiff may have difficulty establishing discrimination where the alleged
discriminatory decision-maker is in the same protected class as plaintiff”) aff’d, 220 F.3d 1220 (10th Cir. 2000).
Oncale v. Sundower Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 78 (1998).
Given the evidence described above, the Court concludes that genuine disputes exist
regarding whether Defendant’s proffered non-discriminatory reasons were pretextual. Summary
judgment is thus inappropriate on the discrimination claim.
C. Retaliatory Non-Promotion
Count II asserts Defendant did not select Plaintiff for promotion as the Director of
Electric Production Operations, even though he possessed superior qualifications, in retaliation
for filing an internal complaint regarding his demotion from that position. Title VII makes it
unlawful to retaliate against an employee because the employee has opposed any practice made
unlawful by Title VII, or because the employee has “made a charge . . . or participated . . . in an
investigation, proceeding or hearing.”72 Defendant argues it is entitled to summary judgment on
this claim because Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of retaliation; and even if he
could, Defendant had legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for selecting Moe over Plaintiff for the
The McDonnell Douglas framework also applies to retaliation claims where direct
evidence of retaliatory intent is lacking.73 To state a prima face case of retaliation, Plaintiff must
allege three elements: 1) he engaged in protected opposition to Title VII discrimination; 2) he
suffered an adverse employment action; and 3) a causal connection exists between the protected
activity and the adverse employment action.74 Defendant challenges Plaintiff’s establishment of
a causal connection.
42 U.S.C. § 2000e–3(a).
Meiners v. Univ. of Kan., 359 F.3d 1222, 1228 (10th Cir. 2004) (applying McDonnell Douglas
framework to Title VII retaliation claim); Davis v. Unified Sch. Dist. 500, 750 F.3d 1168, 1170 (10th Cir. 2014)
Meiners, 359 F.3d at 1229.
To establish causal connection, an employee must show either that the employer’s motive
for taking the adverse action was its retaliatory desire, or that circumstances exist, such as
temporal proximity, which justify an inference of retaliatory motive.75 Defendant argues that
Plaintiff cannot establish a causal connection between the alleged protected activity and the
alleged retaliatory failure to promote because these two events lack temporal proximity. Plaintiff
argues Defendant’s temporal proximity argument is misleading because the Director position did
not become available again until 2014, thus Defendant retaliated against him at the first
opportunity after Plaintiff engaged in protected activity in March 2013.
Defendant’s argument is unpersuasive because temporal proximity is not the only way to
establish causal connection. In Xia v. Salazar,76 the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s
grant of summary judgment on a retaliation claim despite its agreement that a ten-month period
between the protected activity and the adverse action was insufficient to establish the requisite
causal connection.77 The Tenth Circuit stated that “[a] district court errs when it ‘refus[es] to
consider pretext in determining there was no evidence of a causal connection between’ a
plaintiff’s protected activity and an employer’s adverse action.”78 Accordingly, the Court will
consider evidence beyond temporal proximity in analyzing causal connection.
The burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation is not
onerous.79 The Supreme Court has clarified that a Title VII plaintiff asserting a claim of
Beams v. Norton, 335 F. Supp. 2d 1135, 1155 (D. Kan. 2004), aff’d, 141 F. App’x 769 (10th Cir. 2005)
(citing Wells v. Colo. Dep’t of Transp., 325 F.3d 1205, 1218 (10th Cir. 2003); Annett v. Univ. of Kan., 371 F.3d
1233, 1239–40 (10th Cir. 2004)).
503 F. App’x 577 (10th Cir. 2012).
Id. at 580.
Id. (quoting Bertsch v. Overstock.com, 684 F.3d 1023, 1029 (10th Cir. 2012)).
Tex. Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981) (“The burden of establishing a prima
facie case of disparate treatment is not onerous.”); Marquez v. Baker Process, Inc., 42 F. App’x 272, 276 (10th Cir.
retaliation must show that his protected activity was the but-for cause of the alleged adverse
For purposes of the instant motion and viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to
Plaintiff, the Court concludes that Plaintiff has set forth sufficient evidence that he would have
been promoted to the Director position but for his 2012 Internal Complaint. The pretextual
evidence raises an inferential link between his discrimination and his non-selection for the
Director position. Specifically, while Quach thought Moe was the better candidate in relation to
communication skills, Plaintiff was arguably more qualified for the position considering he had
more educational degrees and more power plant experience than Moe, who may have not met the
minimum, objective requirement of having five years of experience in coal-fired power
generation. And given Quach’s knowledge of Plaintiff’s demotion and his working relationship
with Gray, who was named in the internal complaint, Plaintiff has presented the requisite causal
connection. The Court concludes Plaintiff has established a prime facie case of retaliation.
Proceeding to the next McDonnell Douglas step, the Court finds Defendant has
articulated facially nondiscriminatory reasons for not selecting Plaintiff for promotion. Plaintiff
asserts the same bases for pretext in his retaliation claim as he does in his discrimination claim.
For the same reasons stated in the section above, the Court concludes genuine issues of fact
remain regarding the issue of pretext, making summary judgment inappropriate on the retaliation
2002) (stating a plaintiff’s burden to demonstrate a prima facie case for a claim of retaliation is no more so than in
the context of disparate treatment).
Univ. of Tex. S.W. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2534 (2013).
Plaintiff’s pleadings fall short of stating a municipal liability claim under § 1983. And
given the absence of good cause and the substantial prejudice, the Court denies Plaintiff leave to
amend the Complaint to add a § 1983 claim. The Court therefore grants Defendant summary
judgment as to the § 1981 claims because § 1983 provides the exclusive remedy for Plaintiff to
pursue § 1981 claims against Defendant. Plaintiff’s claims for discrimination and retaliation
under Title VII survive summary judgment as issues of fact remain with respect to pretext.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is
GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART (Doc. 42), and Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary
Judgment is DENIED (Doc. 44).
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: January 29, 2018
S/ Julie A. Robinson
JULIE A. ROBINSON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?