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Sillah v. Price

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 9, 2018

FANTA SILLAH, Plaintiff,
THOMAS E. PRICE, et al., Defendants.



         Pending in this employment discrimination case are two Motions for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc. (“Leidos”), ECF No. 83, and then-Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan, ECF No. 86.[1] The issues have been fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Loc. R. 105.6. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motions are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In February 2012, Plaintiff Fanta Sillah began working for Leidos (then SAIC-Frederick) as a Patient Care Coordinator II, and was assigned to work at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (“NIAMS”) at the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”). See ECF No. 83-3 at 79-80 (Sillah Dep. Ex. 2); ECF No. 86-3 at 9, 10 (Sillah Dep. 35:1-4, 37:2-20). The NIH had engaged Leidos to provide clinical support personnel for the institution. ECF No. 86-5 at 21 (Talar-Williams Dep. 77:16-79:5). Sillah worked at an NIH building and received training from the NIH. ECF No. 86-3 at 73 (Sillah Dep. 292:3-16). Leidos paid Sillah's salary and determined her sick leave. ECF 86-3 at 74 (Sillah Dep. 294:13-20).

         Sillah worked for the Lupus Clinical Research Program in NIAMS, led by Dr. Sarfaraz Hasni. ECF No. 89-13 ¶ 3; ECF No. 86-4 at 6 (Hasni Dep. 18:22-19:8). Sillah scheduled patients and acted as a liaison between physicians, nursing staff, and other departments. ECF No. 86-7. Sillah's duties also included picking up blood specimens (“blood pickups” or “blood runs”), calling patients, and giving occasional support to clinical trials. ECF No. 86-3 at 11 (Sillah Dep. 42:11-44:9). Defendants contend that Sillah's job performance had become increasingly poor leading up to her termination. See ECF No. 86-5 at 13 (Talar-Williams Dep. 45:12-47:8). Sillah received a rating of 3 out of 5 in her 2013 and 2014 performance reviews, and 2 out of 5 in 2015. ECF No. 86-3 at 12, 13, 14 (Sillah Dep. 47:10-16, 49:5-15, 56:4-18).

         In mid-2014, Sillah became pregnant. ECF 86-3 at 16 (Sillah Dep. 64:16-19). In November 2014, Sillah experienced complications arising from her pregnancy which resulted in her hospitalization. See ECF 86-3 at 17 (Sillah Dep. 66:17-22). Initially, Sillah told her Leidos supervisor, Taree Foltz, that she had been hospitalized for a stomach virus, but later told Foltz the truth when more extensive hospitalization was needed. ECF No. 86-6 at 16 (Foltz Dep. 59:6-16, 60:2-12). On December 2, 2014, Sillah suffered a miscarriage. ECF No. 86-3 at 19 (Sillah Dep. 75:4-6). She received short-term disability insurance and took time off pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act from November 18, 2014, through January 12, 2015. ECF No. 86-3 at 18-19 (Sillah Dep. 72:16-74:10). Sillah returned to work on January 13, 2015. ECF No. 86-3 at 19 (Sillah Dep.75:8-10).

         In March 2015, Dr. Hasni expressed concerns about Sillah's work performance. ECF No. 89-13 ¶¶ 4-6. Although Sillah's performance review in 2014 was generally positive, according to Dr. Hasni, Sillah's performance was unsatisfactory and inconsistent in 2014 (before she became pregnant), as well as after she returned from leave in January 2015. See ECF No. 86-4 at 21 (Hasni Dep. 79:2-80:11). Like Dr. Hasni, Foltz testified that Sillah's performance was lacking both before and after her first pregnancy and that Sillah's work performance suffered from her unsatisfactory communication skills. ECF No. 86-6 at 17 (Foltz Dep. 62:22- 64:4); see also ECF No. 92-35 at 2 (noting issues with Sillah in October 2014). On March 10, 2015, Dr. Hasni emailed NIAMS clinical operations manager Cheryl Talar-Williams to say that he had met with Sillah's coworkers regarding their complaints about Sillah's poor work performance. See generally ECF No. 89-14. Dr. Hasni also told Talar-Williams that “we need a more reliable person as a patient care coordinator. Can we please discuss her performance and work on getting a better alternative.” ECF No. 89-14 at 3. On March 11, 2015, Talar-Williams said she would touch base with Foltz. ECF No. 89-14 at 2.

         On March 12, 2015, Foltz met with Sillah to discuss performance concerns, noting Sillah's problems with completing tasks, responding to requests, and communication. ECF No. 89-15 at 2-3. Foltz warned Sillah that she may be placed on a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) in the future. ECF No. 89-15 at 3.

         In April 2015, Foltz emailed Dr. Hasni and other members of Sillah's NIAMS team for feedback in advance of Sillah's annual performance evaluation. ECF No. 89-16 at 2. Dr. Hasni wrote, “I have noticed improvement in her work. But I think she still need[s] to work on closing the loop of her assigned work at the end of the day. However, a significant improvement overall.” ECF No. 89-16 at 2.

         On April 20, 2015, Sillah received a rating of 2 out of 5 for her 2015 performance evaluation. ECF No. 86-9 at 2. That rating is described as “generally meets expectations.” ECF No. 86-9 at 1. The review stated that Sillah's work was “somewhat inconsistent” and that Sillah required “step-by-step instructions on how to complete various tasks.” ECF No. 86-9 at 1. In the review, it was “strongly suggested that [Sillah] utilize existing out-of-office notifications, both via email and phone, so that staff and patients are made aware of her availability.” ECF No. 86-9 at 1. Although initially Foltz had planned to put Sillah on a PIP at that time, Foltz decided to withhold the PIP and instead monitor Sillah less formally. ECF No. 89-18 at 2.

         After the April evaluation, in late April or early May, Sillah learned that she was pregnant again. ECF No. 86-3 at 20 (Sillah Dep. 77:9-11). Although Sillah did not announce her pregnancy at that time, Sillah testified that she began showing physical signs of pregnancy in late May or early June. ECF No. 86-3 at 21 (Sillah Dep. 81:1-15). Sillah states that she suffered from morning sickness while at work, but admits that she did not tell her co-workers, nor did anyone ask. ECF No. 86-3 at 21 (Sillah Dep. 82:11-22). No. other record evidence demonstrates that anyone knew about Sillah's second pregnancy at that time.

         On June 1, 2015, Foltz met with Sillah to discuss persistent work deficiencies, including Sillah's failure to complete tasks, notify her supervisor and team of absences, or set up out-of-office notifications. ECF No. 89-18 at 2-3; see ECF No. 86-3 at 26 (Sillah Dep. 103:10- 104:18). On June 15, 2015, Sillah emailed Dr. Hasni and Foltz that she was out sick. ECF No. 89-44 at 5. Foltz replied to Sillah's email asking whether she set an out-of-office notification. ECF No. 89-44 at 4. On June 16, 2015, Sillah followed up with Foltz, explaining that she had not set a notification because she had been hospitalized due to a stomach virus. ECF No. 89-44 at 3-4.

         On June 17, 2015, Foltz reached out to Dr. Hasni for feedback on Sillah's performance, noting that Dr. Hasni and Talar-Williams had expressed disappointment that Sillah had not been placed on a PIP. ECF No. 89-21 at 2-3. Dr. Hasni confirmed that he was surprised Sillah was not already on a PIP, and that “[h]er performance is unpredictable at times[.] [S]he will do things right and other times she will not.” ECF No. 89-21 at 2. Indeed, both Dr. Hasni and Talar-Williams believed that Sillah had been put on a PIP by Foltz around April, and only later learned that Foltz had delayed its implementation. ECF No. 86-5 at 17 (Talar-Williams Dep. 62:18-64:21).

         On June 24, 2015, Foltz placed Sillah on a sixty-day PIP, which required that Sillah improve her “reliability, communication skills, organization, and attention to detail.” ECF No. 89-22 at 2. If Sillah “fail[ed] to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement” in identified performance areas, Sillah “may be released from employment at the end of the 60 days.” ECF No. 89-22 at 4. As part of the PIP, Sillah was required to complete weekly progress logs and meetings regarding her work. ECF No. 89-22 at 3; see ECF No. 89-23.

         On June 26, 2015, Sillah met with Dr. Hasni and Mary Spinelli, who was filling in for Foltz. ECF No. 89-23 at 2; ECF No. 89-37 at 20 (Spinelli Dep. 70:18-21). Dr. Hasni discussed with Sillah the need for better communication skills, initiative to complete assignments in a timely fashion, and notification to her team of absences. ECF No. 89-23 at 2.

         In early July 2015, Sillah required surgery related to her pregnancy and missed one week of work as a result. ECF No. 86-3 at 32 (Sillah Dep. 127:21-128:4). Sillah did not tell her supervisors that the surgery was pregnancy-related. ECF No. 86-3 at 52 (Sillah Dep. 205:5-20); ECF No. 86-4 ...

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