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Edwards v. Vilsak

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 7, 2016

MARGUERITE E. EDWARDS
v.
THOMAS J. VILSACK, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBORAH K. CHASANOW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         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 otherwise noted, the facts outlined here are undisputed and construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff Marguerite E. Edwards ("Plaintiff"). On May 9, 2010, Plaintiff, a fifty-nine year old, African-American woman, began working at the United States Department of Agriculture (the "USDA") as a temporary program assistant. (ECF No. 21-1, at 4). Plaintiff was one of six 12-month temporary employees hired to assist permanent staff members on a large "Accreditation Project" to update the USDA's database of accredited veterinarians. (Id. at 3).[1] The Accreditation Project, according to Dr. Todd H. Behre, the project's supervisor, "required a huge data acquisition, cleansing, entry, and verification process that far exceeded the time and work capacity of [USDA] full-time staff personnel." (ECF No. 21-4 ¶ 5). Four of the five other temporary employees were African American. (ECF No. 21-5, at 9). Although Plaintiff contends that she was the oldest temporary employee, Shirley Bell, another temporary employee, was only one year younger than Plaintiff. (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. (ECF Nos. 21-1, at 4; 28, at 3). 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 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." (Id. at 84-85; ECF No. 21-8, at 2). 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 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. (ECF Nos. 21-1, at 6; 21-3, at 86). 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 week and wear a dust mask, and Plaintiff returned to work. (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. (ECF No. 21-3, at 44). In light of Plaintiff's "continuing performance and conduct situations, " Plaintiff was put on administrative leave. (ECF Nos. 21-1, at 9; 28-8). Plaintiff was paid while on administrative leave, but 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." (ECF No. 28-9, at 2-3). 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. (Id.).

         B. Procedural History

         On July 8, 2010, Plaintiff contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor at the USDA. (ECF No. 21-3, at 13). On September 24, Plaintiff filed a formal complaint 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), 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 material fact, and the moving party is plainly entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law. In 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 and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." A dispute about a material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. Thus, "the judge must ask himself not whether he thinks ...


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