Edwards v. Vilsak

Filing 36

MEMORANDUM OPINION (c/m to Plaintiff 7/7/16 sat). Signed by Judge Deborah K. Chasanow on 7/7/2016. (sat, Chambers)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND : MARGUERITE E. EDWARDS : v. : Civil Action No. DKC 15-1823 : THOMAS J. VILSACK, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture : : MEMORANDUM OPINION Presently pending and ready for resolution in this employment discrimination case is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Thomas J. Vilsack, Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (“Defendant”). (ECF No. 21). The issues have been fully briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment will be granted. I. Background A. Factual Background Unless undisputed otherwise and noted, construed in the facts outlined the light most Plaintiff Marguerite E. Edwards (“Plaintiff”). here favorable are to On May 9, 2010, Plaintiff, a fifty-nine year old, African-American woman, began working at the United States Department “USDA”) as a temporary program assistant. of Agriculture (the (ECF No. 21-1, at 4). Plaintiff was one of six 12-month temporary employees hired to assist permanent Project” to staff update veterinarians. to Dr. “required a huge verification the (Id. according members H. data process USDA’s 3).1 at Todd on a The Behre, far of accredited Accreditation the project’s exceeded the Project, supervisor, cleansing, capacity of [USDA] full-time staff personnel.” 5). “Accreditation database acquisition, that large entry, time and and work (ECF No. 21-4 ¶ Four of the five other temporary employees were African American. that she another (ECF No. 21-5, at 9). was the temporary Plaintiff. oldest Although Plaintiff contends temporary employee, was only employee, one year Shirley younger Bell, than (See ECF Nos. 21-4 ¶ 14; 21-5, at 10). Following an orientation session, the six temporary employees began working in cubicles on the fourth floor. Nos. 21-1, at 4; 28, at 3). (ECF On approximately May 18 or 20, Plaintiff began working in a workspace on the third floor, where she sat in close proximity to Stephen Hood, another temporary employee. (ECF Nos. 21-4 ¶ 15; 28, at 4). On May 27, Plaintiff sent Dr. Behre and other supervisors an e-mail requesting that either she or Mr. Hood be allowed to move because she was having 1 The USDA also utilized an employment agency to obtain additional temporary contractor personnel “[w]hen the project exceeded the capacity of the regular staff and the temporary staff.” (ECF No. 21-4 ¶ 7). 2 allergy symptoms that she believed were caused by Mr. Hood. (ECF No. 21-3, at 80). On June 17, Plaintiff thought that Mr. Hood placed a chair at her desk, and she confronted him and asked him to “stop bothering around her desk.” (ECF No. 28, at 5). Dr. Behre avers that Plaintiff believed Mr. Hood was “performing some sort of witchcraft” on her. (ECF No. 21-4 ¶ 15). Plaintiff sent another e-mail to Dr. Behre informing him that she did not feel safe working with Mr. Hood. (ECF No. 21-3, at 83). Mr. Hood informed his supervisors that Plaintiff said, in a threatening tone, “one of us will leave this room.” 21-8, at 2). (Id. at 84-85; ECF No. Dr. Behre was not in the office, so Plaintiff spoke with Betsy Sillers, another supervisor, about her concerns with Mr. Hood. (ECF No. 21-3, at 82). Plaintiff informed Ms. Sillers that she was worried about a powder that she believed Mr. Hood was putting on her chair. (Id.). Ms. Sillers and Dr. Behre instructed Plaintiff to leave the third-floor room and sit in the office library. Despite Dr. Behre’s instruction, Plaintiff returned to the third-floor room the following day. (ECF No. 21-1, at 8). On June 18, Dr. Behre and two human resources representatives met with Plaintiff and Mr. Hood to discuss the previous day’s incident. (Id. at 6). According to Plaintiff, Dr. Behre told her that she could either work in the third-floor 3 room or could take leave without pay. (ECF No. 28, at 6). Plaintiff believed that she had retained leave from a previous federal government job and filled out a request for leave or approved absence, noting that it was “tentative” and that she “may or may not take leave.” (ECF No. 28-3, at 2). Plaintiff’s supervisors recall that they instructed Plaintiff to call Dr. Behre if she decided not to report to work. 6; 21-3, at 86). (ECF Nos. 21-1, at Plaintiff did not report to work the next two days and did not call Dr. Behre to inform him that she would not be working. (ECF Nos. 21-1, at 7; 28, at 6). On the second day, Plaintiff called Dr. Behre and asked if she could report to work for the rest of the Plaintiff returned to work. week and wear a dust mask, and (ECF No. 28, at 6). On June 29, a USDA database administrator informed one of Plaintiff’s supervisors that Plaintiff had made mistakes in her data entry. (ECF Nos. 21-1, at 8-9; 21-3, at 54). Plaintiff had begun utilizing a new process that she believed was faster, but which led to formatting problems and inaccurate entries. Plaintiff’s supervisors later discovered that Plaintiff was, on average, completing approximately 61% of the work as the other temporary employees. Plaintiff’s “continuing (ECF No. 21-3, performance at and Plaintiff was put on administrative leave. 9; 28-8). 44). conduct In light of situations,” (ECF Nos. 21-1, at Plaintiff was paid while on administrative leave, but 4 was told to not report to the office or perform any official duties. (ECF No. 28-8). Dr. Behre states that Plaintiff was placed on administrative leave to provide time to formalize her termination. (ECF No. 21-3, at 44). On July 7, Dr. Behre sent Plaintiff a letter terminating her employment because she had “failed to follow instructions and [exhibited] inappropriate conduct” that “undermine[d] the basic employee/employer trust and impede[d] the goals and objectives of the agency.” 28-9, at 2-3). (ECF No. Dr. Behre’s letter specifically noted that Plaintiff: interrupted coworkers with questions that should have been directed to Dr. Behre; ignored instructions on completing time and attendance reports; failed to follow instructions regarding avoiding the third-floor room and Mr. Hood; failed to inform Dr. Behre that she would be absent from work; and failed to follow proper data entry procedures. B. (Id.). Procedural History On July 8, 2010, Plaintiff contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor at the USDA. September 24, Plaintiff filed (ECF No. 21-3, at 13). a formal complaint On of discrimination with the USDA, alleging that she was wrongfully placed on administrative leave and terminated because of her age and race. (Id. at 9). On October 23, 2012, an administrative judge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) granted the USDA’s motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 21-9), 5 which was affirmed by the USDA Office of Adjudication (ECF No. 21-13). Plaintiff appealed the decision to the EEOC, which affirmed. (ECF No. 21-14). On June 22, 2015, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed a complaint commencing this action (ECF No. 1), and the court granted Plaintiff’s motion to proceed in forma pauperis (ECF No. 5). The complaint asserts two counts: discrimination based on age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (Count I); and discrimination based on race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Count II). Following multiple extensions of time, Defendant filed the pending motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 21). Plaintiff was provided with a Roseboro notice, which advised her of the pendency of the motion for summary judgment and her entitlement to respond within 17 days. (ECF No. 22); see Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309, 310 (4th Cir. 1975) (holding that pro se plaintiffs should be advised of their right to file responsive material to a motion for summary judgment). Plaintiff responded to Defendant’s motion (ECF No. 28), and Defendant replied (ECF No. 33). II. Standard of Review Summary judgment is appropriate under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 56(a) when there is no genuine dispute as to any 6 material fact, and the moving party is plainly judgment in its favor as a matter of law. entitled In to Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986), the Supreme Court of the United States explained that, in considering a motion for summary judgment, the “judge’s function is not himself to weigh the evidence determine and determine the there a whether is truth of genuine the issue matter for but to trial.” A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that nonmoving a reasonable party.” jury Id. at could 248. return Thus, a verdict “the judge for the must ask himself not whether he thinks the evidence unmistakably favors one side return or a the other verdict presented.” but for the whether a [nonmoving fair-minded party] on jury the could evidence Id. at 252. In undertaking this inquiry, a court must view the facts and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom “in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); see also EEOC v. Navy Fed. Credit Union, 424 F.3d 397, 405 (4th Cir. 2005). evidence is not sufficient to preclude an order granting summary judgment. See Liberty in support The mere existence of a “scintilla” of Lobby, 477 of U.S. the at nonmoving 252. 7 A party’s “party case cannot create a genuine dispute of material fact through mere speculation or compilation of inferences.” Shin v. Shalala, 166 F.Supp.2d 373, 375 (D.Md. 2001) (citation omitted). Indeed, this court has an affirmative obligation to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from going to trial. F.2d 774, 778–79 (4th Cir. See Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 1993) (quoting Felty v. Graves– Humphreys Co., 818 F.2d 1126, 1128 (4th Cir. 1987)). Although pro se litigants are to be given some latitude, the above standards apply to everyone. Thus, as courts have recognized repeatedly, even a pro se party may not avoid summary judgment arguments. by relying on bald assertions and speculative See Smith v. Vilsack, 832 F.Supp.2d 573, 580 (D.Md. 2011) (citing cases). III. Analysis Plaintiff asserts that she was discriminated against on the basis of her race and age when she was placed on administrative leave and Defendant when her counters employment that the at the USDA USDA placed was terminated. Plaintiff on administrative leave and subsequently terminated her employment because “she was ‘imperiling the data entry project’ that she was hired to complete.” (ECF No. 21-1, at 3). Title VII prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s personal characteristics such as “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a); Univ. of Texas Sw. 8 Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2525 (2013). prohibits employers prospective from employees U.S.C. § 623(a). discriminating because of the against The ADEA employees individual’s age. or 29 The ADEA’s protections apply to individuals at least forty (40) years of age, 29 U.S.C. § 631(a), and do not permit “a mixed-motives age discrimination claim.” Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 175 (2009). must “establish that age employer’s adverse action.” To survive a motion was the Gross v. FBL Instead, Plaintiff ‘but-for’ cause of the Id. at 177. for summary judgment, a plaintiff asserting a Title VII or ADEA claim must provide evidence of intentional discrimination through one of two avenues of proof: (1) direct or circumstantial evidence that discrimination motivated the employer’s adverse employment decision; or (2) the McDonnell Douglas “pretext framework” that requires a plaintiff to show that the “employer’s proffered permissible reason for taking an adverse employment action is actually a pretext for [discrimination].” Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Management, Inc., 354 F.3d 277, 284-85 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)). Here, Plaintiff provides no direct evidence of discrimination for her Title VII or ADEA claims. Accordingly, she must rely on the McDonnell Douglas framework. 9 Under McDonnell Douglas, once a plaintiff meets her initial burden of establishing a prima facie case for discrimination, “the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.” Id. at 285. Once the employer meets this burden of production, “the shifts burden back to the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the employer’s stated reasons ‘were not its discrimination.’” true Id. reasons, were Reeves (quoting but v. Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143 (2000)). a pretext Sanderson for Plumbing “The final pretext inquiry merges with the ultimate burden of persuading the court that [the plaintiff] has been the victim of intentional discrimination, which at all times remains with the plaintiff.” Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 601 F.3d 289, 294 (4th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). To establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discipline, Plaintiff must show that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) the prohibited conduct in which she engaged was comparable in seriousness to misconduct of employees outside the protected class; and (3) disciplinary measures enforced against her (i.e., administrative leave) were more severe than those enforced against other employees. Jenkins v. Baltimore City Fire Dep’t, 862 F.Supp.2d 427, 452 (D.Md. 2012) (citing Cook v. CSX Transp. Corp., 988 F.2d 507, 510 (4th Cir. 1993)). 10 To satisfy comparators the and third the element, seriousness “[t]he of similarity between their respective offenses must be clearly established” by Plaintiff. Lightner v. City of Wilmington, N.C., 545 F.3d 260, 265 (4th Cir. 2008). ‘[s]uch dealt a with showing the would same include supervisor, evidence [were] that the subject “Indeed, employees to the same standards and . . . engaged in the same conduct without such differentiating or mitigating circumstances that would distinguish their conduct or the employer’s treatment of them for it.’” Williams v. Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Dep’t, 86 F.Supp.3d 398, 420 (D.Md. 2015) (quoting Haywood v. Locke, 397 F.App’x 355, 359 (4th Cir. 2010)). Here, Plaintiff has failed to identify a similarly situated employee. Although Plaintiff alleges that other employees made mistakes and yet were not placed on administrative leave, there is no evidence that any other employee repeatedly failed to follow explicit instructions regarding data entry and other procedures, or had issues working with colleagues that “created a continuous distraction (ECF No. 21-4 ¶ 15). and disruption” within the office. Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discipline because she cannot show that any other employee had similar performance and conduct issues. See Martin v. Montgomery Cty. Public Schools, 223 F.Supp.2d 742, 744 (D.Md. 2002) (granting summary judgment for the defendant 11 because the “plaintiff . . . presented no objective evidence that a similarly situated [person outside his class], i.e., one having substantial performance differently than he”). difficulties, was treated any Accordingly, Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s discriminatory discipline claims under Title VII and the ADEA. To establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge, Plaintiff must show that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she suffered adverse employment action, which is satisfied by her termination; (3) she was performing her job duties at a level that met her employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of the adverse employment action; and (4) the qualified position remained applicants open outside or the was filled protected by similarly class. Bonds v. Leavitt, 629 F.3d 369, 386 (4th Cir. 2011) (citing Hill, 354 F.3d at 285). her Here, Plaintiff has provided no evidence supporting conclusory assertions that her Behre’s legitimate expectations. job performance met Dr. “It is the perception of the decision maker which is relevant, not the self-assessment of the plaintiff.” Hawkins v. PepsiCo, Inc., 203 F.3d 274, 280 (4th Cir. 2000) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). outlined in Dr. correspondence misconduct, Behre’s from Dr. failure to letter Behre to to follow 12 Plaintiff his and colleagues, instructions, and in As e-mail Plaintiff’s data-entry mistakes did not meet his job performance expectations for Plaintiff, particularly given the scale and short duration of the Accreditation Project. Accordingly, Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge. Even assuming Plaintiff could establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discipline or discharge, she has failed to show that Defendant’s nondiscriminatory reasons for placing her on administrative leave and for terminating her employment were pretext for discrimination. employment due continued failure interactions to a combination to with Dr. Behre terminated Plaintiff’s follow Mr. of her performance instructions, Hood and other and issues, disruptive colleagues that “undermine[d] the basic employee/employer trust and impede[d] the goals and objectives of the agency.” 3). (ECF No. 28-9, at 2- Dr. Behre was also concerned that Plaintiff’s conduct might put Mr. Hood or other employees in danger. 84). (ECF No. 21-3, at Federal courts do “not sit as a kind of super-personnel department weighing the prudence of employment decisions made by [employers] charged with employment discrimination.” DeJarnette v. Corning Inc., 133 F.3d 293, 299 (4th Cir. 1998) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A court’s role is not to “decide whether the reason was wise, fair, or even correct, ultimately, so long as plaintiff’s termination.” it truly was the reason for the Id. (citation and internal quotation 13 marks omitted). Here, there is no evidence whatsoever supporting Plaintiff’s conclusory assertions that Dr. Behre’s decision was motivated by discriminatory animus. Thus, even if Plaintiff was meeting Dr. Behre’s job performance expectations or could point to similarly-situated comparators, she has not shown that Dr. Behre’s belief that her performance and conduct were negatively impacting the success of the Accreditation Project was pretext for discrimination. IV. Conclusion For the foregoing reasons, the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant will be granted. A separate order follow. /s/ DEBORAH K. CHASANOW United States District Judge 14 will

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