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Strothers v. City of Laurel

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

July 27, 2015

FELICIA STROTHERS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF LAUREL, MARYLAND, Defendant

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Felicia Strothers, Plaintiff, Pro se, Laurel, MD.

For City of Laurel, Maryland, (Mayor & City Council), Defendant: Kevin Bock Karpinski, LEAD ATTORNEY, Karpinski, Colaresi & Karp, P.A., Baltimore, MD.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

Paul W. Grimm, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff has brought this pro se discrimination and retaliation case against her former employer following termination during her initial six-month probationary period. Although Plaintiff purportedly was terminated because of repeated lateness and poor performance, she alleges that the actual reason for her termination was racial animus and/or retaliation for her complaints of harassment. Defendant has moved to dismiss or for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff filed her case more than ninety days after her right-to-sue letter was delivered, that she has not stated a prima facie case for discrimination, and that generalized complaints of harassment do not constitute protected activity for the purposes of retaliation claim. I find that the complaint was timely filed within ninety days of Plaintiff's receipt of the right-to-sue letter and complaints of harassment should have been understood to constitute racial harassment by her employer. However, I agree with Defendant that Plaintiff has not stated a prima facie discrimination claim. Accordingly, I grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

I. BACKGROUND

For the purposes of considering Defendant's motion, I accept the facts that Plaintiff has alleged in her Complaint, ECF No. 2, as true. See Aziz v. Alcolac, 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011). Plaintiff Felicia Strothers is a minority woman over forty. Compl. ¶ 9. On October 7, 2013, Defendant City of Laurel, Md. (the " City" ) hired her as an Administrative Assistant II in its Department of Communications. Id. ¶ 1.

As a new employee, Strothers was placed on a six-month probationary period. Id. ¶ 2 During that time, she alleges that she experienced " daily harassment" at the hands of her supervisor, Carreen Koubek. Id. ¶ 7. Although the Complaint itself is sparse on details, Strothers has provided exhibits that detail some of the criticisms leveled at her by Koubek and resulting exchanges between them. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c) (" A copy of a written instrument that is an exhibit to a pleading is a part of the pleading for all purposes." ).[1]

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The principal dispute between Strothers and Koubek appears to center on Strothers's arrival time: Strothers believed that she was required to be at work by 9:00 a.m., whereas Koubek maintained that Strothers needed to clock in by 8:55 a.m. so as to be at her desk and ready to work before nine.

In November 2013, Strothers requested documents from her Human Resources file and learned that Koubek had sent the Director of Communications, Pete Piringer, a memorandum containing a day-by-day summary of purported issues Koubek had with Strothers's work. Id. ¶ 16. According to those journal entries, Strothers was told to be at work by 8:55 a.m. but repeatedly arrived later than that, though often (but not always) before 9:00 a.m. Koubek Mem., Compl. Ex. 6, ECF No. 13-7. Koubek also describes several interactions with Strothers that Koubek found concerning, id., and noted that Strothers was unfamiliar with software that she had implied she could use during her interview, id. at 5. Strothers alleges that the memorandum was placed in her file " without [her] knowledge," Compl. ¶ 16, though she does not allege that Koubek was obligated to inform her of the memorandum. On December 13, 2013, Strothers sent Piringer an apparently unsolicited five-page memorandum responding to the Koubek Memorandum. Resp. to Koubek Mem., Compl. Ex. 7, ECF No. 13-8. In her response, Strothers stated, " Had I not submitted this request [to Human Resources], I would not have known of such documentation. As a result, I'm obligated to respond to the accusations." Id. at 1. She then responded to each item in the Koubek Memorandum, but did not dispute the arrival times recorded by Koubek. See Resp. to Koubek Mem. She concluded with, " It is very disappointing to be under such scrutiny from the very beginning despite trying to keep the lines of communication open. It is also very disappointing to know that such documentation can be placed in an employee's file without them knowing." Id. at 5.

On January 6, 2014, Strothers received an evaluation from Koubek rating her " Unsatisfactory" in every category and overall and noting that she required excessive guidance and follow-up and was " [c]onsistently late to work." Performance Evaluation, Compl. Ex. 9. In the section allowing for employee comments, Strothers " note[d] that [she did] not agree with the evaluation of unsatisfactory," and protested Koubek's assertion that she was required to be at work by 8:55 a.m. Id. at 2. Strothers also sent a memorandum to Piringer disputing her evaluation and noting that her position " was ill-defined" and that she had tried to understand and define her position. Resp. to Evaluation, Compl. Ex. 10, ECF No. 13-11.

On February 26, 2014, Strothers sent a memorandum to Piringer regarding an incident involving Koubek. Casual Friday Mem., Compl. Ex. 12, ECF No. 13-13. According to Strothers, Koubek had confronted her and told her that her pants were not appropriate for casual Friday because they appeared to be leggings, although Strothers maintains that they were not. Id. Strothers said that she was " shocked and humiliated" by the experience, and that since she had started working for the City, she " did not feel welcome by Carreen [Koubek]." Id. at 2. She concluded by saying,

I've been treated as if I'm a Receptionist, not an Administrative Assistant and we have a building receptionist who calls before letting anyone come back to our office. Documentation have [ sic] been placed in my file without my knowledge by Carreen, it has been a very uncomfortable and hostile environment since day 1. I have had to respond to documentation on more than one occasion. I

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was given a 3-month evaluation without ever being told I would have one. I was given an unsatisfactory after only 3 months in an ill-defined office and position. I did not agree with the evaluation and responded in writing to Pete. It has been difficult to come into work under these circumstances and I've been left to feel like I have no say or any rights because I'm on 6-month probation. I have over 20 years office experience, I have a Bachelor's degree and I have never been through anything like this. I was not told before accepting the job, that Carreen Koubek would be my supervisor, the acceptance letter just stated that on the first day I need to report to Carreen. It wasn't until after a month or two that she said to me, " Felicia, I am your supervisor." Pete, when I asked you, you said, " No, you don't think so." I had no idea I would have a supervisor, especially one that does not want me here to begin with.
In summary, I have tried to make this work and things have not gotten better. I need to be moved, or Carreen no longer my supervisor. The stress and harassment has become unbearable, making it difficult to come into the office.

Id. at 2-3.

According to Strothers, she complained about Koubek's behavior orally and in writing to numerous individuals, including Piringer, City Administrator Kristie Mills, Michael Greene of the Human Resources Department, City Council President Fred Smalls, and Mayor Craig A. Moe. Compl. ¶ 7. No action was taken in response to these complaints, id. ¶ 8, although Strothers alleges that Piringer once said that Koubek wanted to replace her with an internal hire of a different race, id. ¶ 9.

On March 7, 2014, just a few weeks after she had complained about Koubek's behavior, Strothers was terminated. Id. ¶ ¶ 3, 20.[2] According to Strothers, her termination was " a result of a departmental reorganization and as a result of harassment by Careen Koubek; retaliation." Id. ¶ 5. The memorandum notifying her of her termination said that Strothers had " been counseled by [her] supervisor several times regarding performance issues including continuing tardiness and some other performance expectations," and that " of the approximately 90 working days since [she] began employment, [she had] been tardy at least 38 of those days." Termination Mem., Compl. Ex. 14, ECF No. 13-15. Strothers alleges that she was not excessively tardy. Compl. ¶ 4. She appealed her termination but the appeal was denied. Id. ¶ 21.

On March 18, 2014, Strothers filed a charge of discrimination (the " EEOC Charge" ) with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the " EEOC" ) alleging race discrimination and retaliation. EEOC Charge, Def.'s Mem. Ex. A, ECF No. 14-2. On June 27, 2014, the EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights (" Right-to-Sue Letter" ), which bore a June 30, 2014 postmark. Right-to-Sue Letter, Compl. Ex. 1, ECF No. 13-2. According to Strothers, she was away that week for the Fourth of July and received the Right-to-Sue Letter when she returned home on Saturday, July 5, 2014. Id.

On October 3, 2014, Strothers filed her pro se complaint in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. Compl. Although she did not expressly enumerate her claims for relief, she appears to ...


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