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Khatana v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

February 27, 2017



          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge.

         From 2002 until 2014, Plaintiff Deborah Harrison Khatana was employed by Defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”). At the time of her termination, she worked as a garage fleet servicer at WMATA's Bus Maintenance and Fleet Service, Western Division (“Western”). On April 23, 2014, Harrison Khatana struck a fuel hose with the right-side mirror of a bus while positioning the vehicle for fueling, causing the hose to detach from the fuel dispenser. Although Harrison Khatana reported a problem with the fuel hose, she did not tell her superiors that the bus she was driving had any role in its detachment. But after reviewing video footage of the incident, on May 19, 2014, WMATA determined that Harrison Khatana had failed to comply with its accident-reporting policies and terminated her employment. Following her termination, Harrison Khatana brought suit in this Court, alleging that the termination constituted gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (“Title VII”) (Count I); disability discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Count II); and retaliation in violation of the Rehabilitation Act (Count III).[1] Am. Compl., ECF No. 17. She also alleges that a hostile work environment existed at Western and that WMATA discriminated on the basis of sex when it failed to promote her. Id. WMATA moves for summary judgment on all of these claims. Def.'s Mem., ECF No. 38. Harrison Khatana has filed an Opposition, Pl.'s Opp'n, ECF No. 39, to which WMATA has replied, Reply, ECF No. 41. No hearing is necessary. Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md.). Because I find that Harrison Khatana has failed to produce any evidence suggesting that WMATA's legitimate non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reason for terminating her employment was pretextual nor any evidence supporting her hostile-work-environment or failure-to-promote claims, I will grant WMATA's Motion.


         On April 23, 2014, while working as a Garage Fleet Servicer at Western, Harrison Khatana drove Bus #7112 through a service lane, where buses are refueled, cleaned, and washed. Arbitration Tr. 30:3-5, J.A. 15.[2] While maneuvering the bus, the vehicle's right-side mirror struck a fuel hose and dragged it a short distance. Bus #7112 Video, Cameras 3 & 9, at 17:59:15-35, Jt. Ex. 1;[3] Harrison Khatana Dep. 78:20-79:7, J.A. 21 (acknowledging that the surveillance video shows that the bus's mirror “touched” the fuel hose). After parking, Harrison Khatana exited the bus and dragged the hose to the rear of the vehicle, id. at 17:59:35-18:00:14, but found that the hose would not dispense fuel, Arbitration Tr. 107:10-13, J.A. 34.

         Fuel hose detachments occur frequently at Western. Arbitration Tr. 36:15, J.A. 16; Harrison Khatana Dep. 73:14-22, J.A. 87. Sometimes, fuel pressure or a bad connection causes hoses to detach from the dispenser on their own, a problem Western personnel refer to as a “pop off.” Arbitration Tr. 38:11-17, 102:12-14, J.A. 17, 33. Detachments also occur when drivers pull buses forward with the fuel nozzle still inserted into the bus's gas tank, a problem known as a “pull off.” Arbitration Tr. 33:22-34:10, 102:20-22, J.A. 15-16, 33. On the day prior to the incident, the Superintendent of Western Bus Maintenance, John Coleman, issued a memorandum to all Western personnel reporting several instances of “fuel hose breakaway couplings [being] pulled apart and service lane personnel . . . attempt[ing] to re-attach them.” Memorandum from John Coleman, Jr., to Western Personnel, J.A. 142. Coleman's memo instructed that “[a]ny time service lane equipment is damaged, the supervisor is to be notified and any repair actions will be scheduled and/or authorized by him or her.” Id. Coleman issued the memo because Western personnel cannot properly repair fuel hoses if they are under the impression that a “pop off” rather than a “pull off” caused a disconnection. Arbitration Tr. 77:15-78:7, J.A. 26-27. Timely accident reports also allow WMATA to test employees for drug and alcohol use to ensure safe operation of equipment. Id. at 44:18-45:14, 78:8-11, J.A. 18, 27.

         After struggling to fuel her bus, Harrison Khatana requested assistance from the lead person on her lane, Jeff Winfree. Harrison Khatana Dep. 34:1-5; Arbitration Tr. 107:13-14, J.A. 34. Harrison Khatana did not inform Winfree that the bus had come into contact with the fuel hose. Based solely on the hose's physical appearance, Winfree concluded that a “pop off” had occurred. Arbitration Tr. 107:20-21, J.A. 34; Harrison Khatana Dep. 72:13-14, J.A. 87. Winfree notified Kelvin Rufus, the lead maintenance staff person, who then contacted the shift supervisor, James Libscomb. Id. at 36:18-37, J.A. 16; Lipscomb Statement, J.A. 144; Rufus Statement, J.A. 145. Rufus and Lipscomb then inspected the fuel line, and Lipscomb ordered line staff to reconnect the fuel hose. Lipscomb Statement, J.A. 144. Lipscomb recalls Harrison Khatana personally telling him that a “pop off” had occurred. Arbitration Tr. 38:8-10. Harrison Khatana maintains that she did not speak to Lipscomb that day, but asserts that Winfree informed Lipscomb that a “pop off” had occurred based on his own diagnosis of the problem. Id. at 121:8-10, J.A. 37; Harrison Khatana Dep. 74:8-12, J.A. 88. Harrison Khatana never filed an incident report with Lipscomb nor informed him that her bus had come into contact with the fuel hose. Harrison Khatana Dep. 72:5-7.

         Lipscomb informed Superintendent Coleman, based on the information that he had at the time, that a “pop off” had occurred. Email from James Lipscomb, to John O. Coleman (Apr. 23, 2014, 6:11 P.M.), J.A. 143. Coleman requested that Lipscomb gather closed-circuit video of the incident. Arbitration Tr. 71:19-21, J.A. 25. It is standard WMATA procedure to review video of fuel-hose-detachment incidents. Id. at 41:7-9, J.A. 17. Coleman reviewed the video and concluded that a “pull off” rather than a “pop off” caused the fuel-hose detachment. Id. at 72:4-8, J.A. 25. Coleman reviewed the video with Lipscomb, who agreed that a “pull off” had occurred. Id. at 41:10-42:10, 72:18, J.A. 17-18, 25. Coleman determined that Harrison Khatana was aware of the “pull off” because of the hose's distance from its normal storage spot when she picked it up to fuel the bus and because she looked at the garage ceiling as she dragged the hose to the rear of the bus. Id. at 93:7-94:5, J.A. 33-34. In view of the discrepancy between Lipscomb's contemporaneous understanding of what happened and what the video depicted, the two men decided to interview Harrison Khatana. Id. at 72:19-22, J.A. 25. The interview occurred on May 14, 2014, and Harrison Khatana maintained that she did not realize that the bus caused the detachment and signed a statement to that effect. Id. at 73:5-7, J.A. 25; Harrison Khatana Statement, J.A. 146 (“I Harrison Khatana have no knowledge of the alleged accident that occurred on 4/23/14 . . . .”).

         Five days after the interview, WMATA suspended Harrison Khatana for having two accidents in a single calendar year, Accident Report Form, J.A. 4-5, and terminated her employment, Memorandum from John Coleman, to Deborah Harrison Khatana (May 19, 2014), J.A. 2-3.[4] Harrison Khatana's suspension never took effect due to her termination. Arbitration Tr. 85:19, J.A. 28. Harrison Khatana filed a grievance regarding the termination through her union, and a neutral arbitrator upheld the termination, determining that Harrison Khatana “deliberately failed” to report the contact between the bus she was driving and the fuel hose “when she only informed [Winfree] of the problem with the fueling rather than explaining the circumstances leading up to that problem” and that she “knew an accident/incident occurred.” Arbitration Decision 7-8, J.A. 153-54. On June 14, 2014, Harrison Khatana also filed a Charge of Discrimination with the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Charge of Discrimination, J.A. 156-57. The EEOC issued Harrison Khatana a right-to-sue letter, Def.'s Mem. 8, and she filed suit in this Court, Compl., ECF No. 1. WMATA now seeks summary judgment on all of Harrison Khatana's claims.

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates, through “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c)(1)(A); see also Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 833 (4th Cir. 2013). If the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-87 & n.10 (1986). The existence of only a “scintilla of evidence” is not enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Instead, the evidentiary materials submitted must show facts from which the finder of fact reasonably could find for the party opposing summary judgment. Id.


         Wrongful Discharge Claims

         Harrison Khatana asserts that WMATA terminated her (1) because of her sex; (2) because of her alleged disability; and (3) in retaliation for her efforts to secure reasonable accommodation for that disability. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 96, 111, 117. Title VII prohibits employers from “discriminat[ing] on the basis of . . . sex, ” 42 § 2000e-2(a)(1), and the Rehabilitation Act prohibits recipients of federal funding, such as WMATA, from discriminating against an “otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . solely by reason of her or his disability.” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). The Rehabilitation Act also incorporates the American with Disability Act (ADA)'s anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 794(d), which prohibits “discrimination against any individual because [she] has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by” the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a). Under all three wrongful-termination theories, when the record contains no direct evidence of discrimination or retaliation, as is the case here, the plaintiff may prove that the employer acted with an unlawful motive by indirect evidence through the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. See Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Invs., LLC, 828 F.3d 208, 216-17 (4th Cir. 2016). Under that test:

(1) the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination or retaliation; (2) the burden of production then shifts to the employer to articulate a non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory reason for the adverse action; (3) the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the stated reason for the ...

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