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Laguerra v. U.S. Department of Treasury

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 20, 2016




         Plaintiff Margaret A. Laguerra has filed suit against Defendants the United States Department of the Treasury ("Treasury"), the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS"), and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") (collectively, "Defendants"), alleging discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634 (2012), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (2012). Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. The Motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition. No hearing is necessary to resolve the issues. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is GRANTED.


         The following facts are presented in the light most favorable to Laguerra, the nonmoving party:

         I. Alleged Discrimination

         Margaret Laguerra, who is 68 years old and African American, began working for the IRS in 1987. In 1997, she was transferred to the Cincinnati, Ohio Benefits and Services Retirement Group ("BeST"). Although her supervisor and most of her BeST colleagues were based in Cincinnati, Laguerra and two others worked at an office in Landover, Maryland, known as the District of Columbia post-of-duty ("D.C. POD"). In 2003, Laguerra became a Human Resources Assistant with BeST. In that position, Laguerra prepared retirement benefit estimates for federal employees.

         In December 2005, Sandra Nahrgang, who had served as a Team Lead for Laguerra's previous supervisor since 2004, became Laguerra's supervisor. Nahrgang and Laguerra became progressively dissatisfied with each other. Nahrgang harbored concerns about the accuracy and efficiency of Laguerra's work, and those concerns grew with time. For her part, Laguerra came to believe that Nahrgang wanted to drive her out of her job because of Laguerra's age. Nahrgang is about two years older than Laguerra. She never made any comments about Laguerra's age, but Laguerra perceived age-related hostility when Nahrgang denied her back-up coverage at the office, excluded her from office meetings, and behaved in a "standoffish" manner towards her. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 7, 2010 Laguerra Dep. at 53-57. Laguerra also contends that Nahrgang treated her differently than the other Human Resources Assistants at BeST, Lamour Ushery and Diann Love. Ushery and Love were approximately 44 and 49 years old, respectively, as of 2005. Both worked in Cincinnati.

         Nahrgang sometimes compared Laguerra's performance to that of Ushery and Love. Laguerra claims that this comparison was unfair since Ushery and Love had a lighter workload and better training opportunities. Specifically, Laguerra asserts that she had more work than Ushery and Love because she had administrative duties and they did not. The D.C. POD had no dedicated clerical staff. Laguerra's two co-workers in that office were both Benefits Specialists, who handled complicated retirement cases and were not assigned administrative tasks. As a result, mail sorting fell to Laguerra. That task involved date stamping the mail, logging it in BeST's tracking system, reviewing lengthy official personnel files to ensure that they were complete (even when they were not Laguerra's cases), and ordering missing information for those files when necessary. At some point, Laguerra complained to Nahrgang about these responsibilities. Nahrgang reduced them, but Laguerra claims that they continued to consume a large portion of her time. By contrast, Ushery and Love did not have to handle the mail because Lana Gabbard, who was also a Human Resources assistant with BeST but at a lower General Schedule grade than Laguerra, Ushery, and Love, processed mail for the Cincinnati office.

         Although Laguerra had administrative duties that Ushery and Love did not, Laguerra handled fewer retirement cases than Ushery or Love. For instance, between June 1, 2010 and December 10, 2010, Laguerra was assigned 53 cases. Ushery and Love were assigned approximately 300 cases each. From January 1, 2011 to mid-March 2011, Laguerra was assigned 38 cases, while Love was assigned 359. Nevertheless, Laguerra claims she shouldered a "double workload" because she had the dual responsibilities of case work and mail sorting. 2010 Laguerra Dep. at 53.

         Laguerra also claims that Ushery and Love benefited from better training opportunities. Specifically, they were permitted to "shadow" Benefits Specialists. PL's Mem. Resp. Mot. Dismiss ("Resp.") Ex. 14, Laguerra Training Decl. at 7-8. By observing their more experienced colleagues, Ushery and Love could improve their job skills without committing errors that would be recorded in their personnel files. Laguerra was never allowed to shadow a Benefits Specialist. Instead, Laguerra's work was "100 percent quality reviewed, " which meant that BeST Team Leads Loretta Dean and Clarence Lehigh reviewed every assignment she completed and provided her with written feedback about her mistakes. Although Nahrgang, Dean, and Lehigh contend that this quality review system was necessary given the persistent errors in Laguerra's work, Laguerra protests that all of her errors were logged in her personnel file, while the shadowing by Ushery and Love did not generate a paper trail of their mistakes. Laguerra also notes that Team Leads "provide mentorship and training" to the Human Resources Assistants in Cincinnati, but since "there is no one in a managerial capacity at the Washington, D.C. office" Laguerra has "not had the benefit of such managerial mentorship and training." Id. at 8. Laguerra perceives age discrimination in these disparate training opportunities. She asserts, "Management does not believe it will recoup the money it spends to train me because of my age and thus it does not offer me any training sessions." Id.

         Laguerra did receive training during her tenure with BeST. She attended formal sessions in 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007. Laguerra also submitted documentation of 25 training sessions she completed between 1998 at 2006. Nahrgang contends that Laguerra's formal training equals or exceeds that received by other Human Resources Assistants. Laguerra also had one-on-one training sessions with Nahrgang and Team Leads on several occasions in Landover and Cincinnati. She regularly asked Nahrgang, Team Leads, and Benefits Specialists questions about her assignments. The quality review process also generated a steady flow of feedback on her work over the course of several years. Laguerra disputes that this training offered a meaningful opportunity for her to improve her performance, arguing that the formal sessions were too advanced or irrelevant and the quality review feedback was unhelpful.

         II. 2008 EEO Complaint

         From 2001 until 2007, Laguerra received annual performance reviews that generally rated her work at approximately 3.0 points on a 5.0-point scale, considered "fully successful." On June 30, 2008, Nahrgang issued a performance review that dropped Laguerra's rating from 3.2 to 1.6, considered "unacceptable." Of the 229 cases assigned to Laguerra during the evaluation period, she completed only 22. Of the 22 completed, Laguerra finished only nine within internal deadlines. Laguerra's unfinished work had to be reapportioned among other BeST employees. Over that same period, Ushery and Love completed 492 and 206 cases, respectively. Customers complained that Laguerra did not return their calls or emails. Laguerra continued to make the same types of mistakes even after they were pointed out to her. Laguerra claims that she received no advanced notice of the negative performance review. She also counters that one of the reasons her work was late was because she often did not receive case files until after the internal deadline for processing them had already passed.

         On July 16, 2008, Laguerra went out on extended sick leave. For several pay periods in 2008 and 2009, Laguerra's leave status was classified-incorrectly, according to her-as either absent without leave or leave without pay. Laguerra also claims that she did not accrue the sick and annual leave to which she was entitled during this period. Nahrgang counters that Laguerra was put on absent without leave status because she had not provided adequate medical documentation. Then, Laguerra was put on leave without pay because she had exhausted her accumulated and donated leave.

         On November 14, 2008, while out on sick leave, Laguerra filed an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint with Treasury. Laguerra returned to work on February 3, 2009, when she discovered that a color printer had been removed from her cubicle. Because other printers were not working, it had been moved to a location where the Benefits Specialists could access it.

         When Laguerra came back from sick leave, she asked for and received 90 days to retrain. She did not handle live cases during this period. After 90 days, she was assigned one new case per day, a case assignment rate lower than that of other Human Resources Assistants. On July 1, 2009, Nahrgang issued another annual appraisal rating Laguerra's performance as unacceptable.

         On July 9, 2009, she amended the November 2008 EEO complaint after receiving her performance rating. The amended complaint alleged that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of race, color, age, and retaliation for prior EEO activity. She cited the 2008 performance review, training and workload disparities between her and her coworkers, and Nahrgang's denial of back-up office coverage as evidence of the hostile work environment. She also claimed she was retaliated against through the improper calculation and classification of her sick leave, the removal of the printer, and her 2009 performance rating.

         The IRS conducted an investigation and, on August 11, 2011, an EEOC Administrative Judge ("AJ") granted the IRS's motion for summary judgment. The IRS issued a final order adopting the AJ's decision. On May 28, 2014, the EEOC's Office of Federal Operations affirmed the agency's decision. The Office of Federal Operations found that Laguerra failed to show that IRS management took the actions about which she complained for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons.

         III. 2010 EEO Complaint

         Laguerra claims that while her 2008 EEO complaint was pending, she was subjected to additional retaliation. In her annual appraisal in June 2010, Nahrgang again rated Laguerra's performance as unacceptable. During the relevant evaluation period, Laguerra was assigned 127 cases. Of the 92 she completed, 53 contained errors, and 90 percent were not finished on time. On October 31, 2010, Laguerra filed another EEO complaint with Treasury.

         In February 2011, Laguerra's request to attend a training session on the Federal Erroneous Retirement Coverage Corrections Act ("FERCCA") was denied. A Benefits Specialist from the D.C. POD attended that training. Nahrgang contends that the training was irrelevant to Laguerra's job duties since FERCCA cases are handled by Benefits Specialists, not Human Resources Assistants. In March 2011, Nahrgang removed Laguerra from her Alternative Work Schedule. IRS policy prohibits employees whose work has been rated unacceptable to work such schedules.

         On March 8, 2011, Laguerra had a call with Nahrgang about Laguerra's performance. Days later, she learned that others had been listening to the call but had not been announced. Laguerra felt that her privacy had been violated. Also in March 2011, Nahrgang increased the rate at which Laguerra was assigned cases from one per day to two per day. Nahrgang asserts that a rising caseload for all of BeST necessitated the increase. Even with the increase, Laguerra was still being assigned fewer cases than other Human Resources Assistants, whom Nahrgang expected to complete three to five cases per day.

         On April 5, 2011, Laguerra amended the October 2010 EEO Complaint. The amended complaint alleged that Laguerra was subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of age and as retaliation for prior EEO activity. She cited her 2010 performance review, the denial of FERCCA training, her removal from the Alternative Work Schedule, her telephone call with unannounced participants, and her increased workload. On October 15, 2014, an EEOC AJ dismissed the complaint as duplicative of this lawsuit, which Laguerra filed on August 21, 2014. On December 11, 2014, the IRS affirmed the dismissal, and, on March 19, 2015, the EEOC Office of Federal Operations did the same.

         IV. Performance Improvement Plan and Retirement

         Following the 2010 performance review, Nahrgang did not perceive an improvement in Laguerra's work. Between June 1, 2010 and May 16, 2011, Laguerra completed just 41 cases, with 26 having been prepared incorrectly. Laguerra responds that she actually completed 48 cases, 28 of which contained minor errors. She claims that she closed additional cases but did not receive credit for that work. On May 16, 2011, Nahrgang placed Laguerra on a Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP"), giving her 60 days "to demonstrate at least minimally successful performance" or face termination. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 3, 2010 EEO Compl. Report of Investigation at 417. Over the course of the next month, BeST team members provided Laguerra with 12 refresher training sessions, each about one hour in length. Laguerra contends that the sessions were too short to be helpful. In July of 2011, Nahrgang retired. On July 29, 2011, Laguerra received a fourth consecutive annual performance appraisal rating her work as unacceptable (1.4 points out of 5.0). The appraisal stated that Laguerra was assigned 232 cases during the appraisal period, 70 of which had to be reassigned because they were still pending one to three ...

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