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Chadha v. Northrop Grumman Systems Corp.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 31, 2017

SATISH CHADHA Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHROP GRUMMAN SYSTEMS CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RICHARD D. BENNETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Satish Chadha (“Chadha” or “Plaintiff”) initially filed this action in the Circuit Court of Maryland for Baltimore City against his former employer, Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation (“Defendant” or “Northrop”), alleging violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 61, et seq., the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000, et seq. (Pl.'s Compl., ECF No. 2.) Northrop removed the action to this Court based on this Court's original jurisdiction over these alleged violations of federal law, as well as this Court's diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiff alleges that certain comments and conduct of his coworkers at Northrop Grumman subjected him to a hostile work environment and unlawful harassment. Chadha also claims that his ultimate termination was retaliatory and discriminatory. Northrop has responded that he was fired as a result of fraudulent overbilling of his time working on government contracts.

         Now pending before this Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment “Defendant's Motion.”[1] (ECF No. 19.) This Court has reviewed the parties' submissions, and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated herein, Defendant's Motion is GRANTED, and Summary Judgment will be ENTERED in favor of Northrop on all counts.

         BACKGROUND

         In ruling on a Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court reviews the facts and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Hardwick ex rel. Hardwick v. Heyward, 711 F.3d 426, 433 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Plaintiff Satish Chadha is an Indian-American born in 1944. (Pl.'s Resp., ECF No. 22 at 2.) Plaintiff began working for Defendant Northrop Grumman in 2004. (Id.) In 2005, Plaintiff was transferred to Defendant's Linthicum, Maryland facility to work in the Vendor Material Disposition Area (“VMDA”). (Id.) During this time, Wendy Good (“Good”) was the supervisor of the VMDA. (Id.) Daryl Lang (“Lang”) and Charlie Meyer (“Meyer”) were two of Plaintiff's coworkers at the VMDA, and, like Plaintiff Chadha, were also over 50 years- old during the time relevant to this case. (ECF No. 19 at 17.)

         During Chadha's tenure at the VMDA, Meyer and Lang directed certain comments towards Chadha referring to him as “chicken, ” “old man, ” and “Indian.” (ECF No. 22 at 3.) With some frequency, Lang and Meyer would refer to Plaintiff by his race stating, “Hey, Indian” and “Indian.” (Id.) On a single instance, in the summer of 2011, Lang placed, in the shared work space, cartoon stickers which referred to Indians in a derogatory manner. (Id. at 5.) Meyer and Lang would also call Plaintiff “old man” and discuss retirement with him. (Id. at 3.) Additionally, the coworkers made comments about Plaintiff's hearing disability, including by asking Plaintiff to turn up his hearing aid. (Id. at 4.) On one occasion, Meyer and Lang wrote on an office blackboard that hearing aids should be worn and turned up; the comment apparently was directed at Plaintiff. (Id.) Alongside these taunts, Meyer and Lang, somewhat bizarrely, referred to Plaintiff as “chicken.”[2] (Id.)

         While Plaintiff informed his supervisor, Good, of Lang and Meyer's comments, she apparently took no action against Lang and Meyer. (ECF No. 22 at 5.) Plaintiff also approached Good's supervisor, David Handshu (“Handshu”), and made him aware of Lang and Meyer's derogatory and annoying comments. (ECF No. 19 at 11.)

         In the spring of 2011, Meyer and Lang informed Good that Plaintiff was making numerous personal phone calls and was using the internet for non-work related matters during work hours. (ECF No. 19 at 4.) Following an additional complaint from another coworker regarding Chadha's conduct during work hours, Good began to investigate Chadha's work performance. (Id. at 5.) The investigation revealed that on twenty-four (24) of the sixty-four (64) days reviewed, Plaintiff spent two or more work hours on the internet for personal use. (Id.) Even though Plaintiff was not completing work during those hours, Chadha still billed Northrop's client, the United States Government, for the time. (Id.) Good informed her superiors of Plaintiff's internet usage and fraudulent billing activities. (Id. at 6.) As a result, on September 23, 2011, Chadha was confronted with the information regarding his overbilling on government contracts. (Id.) That same day, Chadha went out on medical leave and remained out on such leave until November 14, 2011. Upon his return from medical leave, on November 15, 2011, Northrop terminated Chadha based on the his billing activities. (Id.)

         On May 3, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). (ECF No. 2 ¶ 8.) Over three years later, the EEOC opted not to bring suit on behalf of Chadha, and issued him a Notice of a Right to Sue on October 29, 2015. (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff filed his Complaint in the Circuit Court of Maryland for Baltimore City on January 12, 2016. (ECF No. 2.) On April 12, 2016, Northrop removed the case to this Court. (Id.) Following discovery, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on all claims. (ECF No. 19.) This Motion is now fully ripe for this Court's resolution.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows 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(c). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A genuine issue over a material fact exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When considering a motion for summary judgment, a judge's function is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence exists on a claimed factual dispute to warrant submission of the matter to a jury for resolution at trial. Id. at 249. In undertaking this inquiry, this Court must consider the facts and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Libertarian Party of Va., 718 F.3d at 312; see also Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). This Court “must not weigh evidence or make credibility determinations.” Foster v. University of Md.-Eastern Shore, 787 F.3d 243, 248 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing Mercantile Peninsula Bank v. French, 499 F.3d 345, 352 (4th Cir. 2007)). However, this Court must also abide by its affirmative obligation to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from going to trial. Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778-79 (4th Cir. 1993).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Hostile Work Environment

         The test for hostile work environment is the same under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and Title VII. See Causey v. Balog, 162 F.3d 795, 801 (4th Cir. 1998)(Title VII); Fox v. Gen. Motors Corp., 247 F.3d 169, 177 (4th Cir. 2001)(ADA); Wells v. Gate, 336 F. App'x. 378, 387 (4th Cir. 2009)(ADEA). This test sets a very high bar for establishing that a work environment is a legally actionable hostile one. See Tawwaab v. Virginia Linen Serv., Inc., 729 F.Supp.2d 757, 776 (D. Md. 2010). To demonstrate a prima facie case of a hostile work environment a plaintiff must show: “(1) that [plaintiff] was subjected to unwelcome conduct; (2) the unwelcome conduct was based on [race, age, or disability]; (3) it was sufficiently pervasive or severe to alter the conditions of employment and to create a hostile work environment; and (4) some basis exists for imputing liability to the employer.” Rachel-Smith v. FTData, Inc., 247 F.Supp.2d 734, 749 (D. Md. 2003) (citing Smith v. First Union Nat'l Bank, 202 F.3d 234 (4th Cir. 2000)). In weighing the “severe and pervasive” factor, courts look at the totality of the circumstances and consider: (1) the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; (2) its severity; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance. Wells, 336 F. App'x. at 388 (quoting Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993)). In addition, courts are instructed that “the objective severity of harassment should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position.” Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 81 (1998) (internal quotations omitted).

         While the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has explained that protected characteristics under Title VII may be considered together in assessing hostile work environment claims, that court has not addressed whether characteristics protected under distinct statutes may be considered as a whole in assessing whether an employee was subject to a hostile work environment. Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Investments, LLC, 828 F.3d 208, 226 n.9 (4th Cir. 2016). In this case, the evidence cited in support of Plaintiff's race discrimination claim is sufficiently distinct from the evidence underpinning his age- and disability-based claims such that they should not be considered together. On the other hand, the factual bases for Chadha's age and disability (hearing impairment) claims are not so easily parsed. That is, given the familiar correlation between advanced age and hearing loss, the alleged discriminatory comments regarding hearing loss reasonably may be construed both in the context of his disability discrimination and age discrimination claims. Ultimately however, established precedent does not permit this Court to consider all of Plaintiff's separate discrimination claims as a whole in determining whether Chadha was subjected to a hostile work environment. See id. Indeed, while Title VII prohibits particular types of discriminatory conduct, it is not a general “bad acts” statute. Hart v. Broadway Servs., Inc., 899 F.Supp.2d 433, 441 (D. Md. 2012) (quoting Bonds v. Leavitt, 629 F.3d 369, 384 (4th Cir. 2011)). As such, each claim is addressed separately below.

         A. The “Chicken” Comments Do Not Target a ...


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