United States District Court, D. Maryland
CHARLES K. GATEBE, Plaintiff
JAMES F. BRIDENSTINE, Administrator, NASA, Defendant
Xinis United States District Judge
in this employment discrimination case is Defendant James F.
Bridenstine, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (“NASA”)'s Motion to
Dismiss, or Alternatively, for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 25.
The motion is fully briefed, and a hearing was held on
November 19, 2018. For the reasons that follow, the Court
grants in part and denies in part NASA's motion.
Dr. Charles Gatebe, an African American man, began working at
the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland,
in 2000, through a Cooperative Agreement with the University
of Maryland, Baltimore County. ECF No. 11 ¶ 36. On April
20, 2011, Dr. Gatebe was offered the position of Manager II
with the Universities Space Research Association
(“USRA”), another organization performing work at
the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Id. ¶ 31.
Before Dr. Gatebe began work on the new job in May of 2011,
NASA had to approve Dr. Gatebe's qualifications.
Id. ¶¶ 32, 33.
current position, Dr. Gatebe manages twenty USRA employees at
NASA and performs research in atmospheric sciences
collaboratively with NASA. Id. ¶¶ 33, 38.
Both USRA and NASA assign work to Dr. Gatebe, including work
involving the Cloud Absorption Radiometer and the
Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function, Albedo,
Cloud, Aerosol Radiometer. Id. ¶¶ 38-39.
All of Dr. Gatebe's work is conducted on NASA property
and NASA provides Dr. Gatebe's office space and other
resources. Id. ¶¶ 41-42. USRA provides Dr.
Gatebe's salary and benefits. ECF No. 25-6 at 1. Dr.
Gatebe is directly supervised by USRA employee Dr. William
Corso, and his second-level supervisor is Dr. Charles Ichoku
of NASA. ECF No. 11 ¶ 33; ECF No. 25-30 at
Dr. Ichoku describes his role as “see[ing] that
overall, [Dr. Gatebe's] research is in line with
NASA's Strategic goals” and “collaborat[ing]
on some research.” ECF No. 25-8 at 1.
Dr. Gatebe's Applications for Exclusive Employment with
2009 and 2015, Dr. Gatebe has applied for nine open positions
to work exclusively for NASA and was not selected for any of
the positions. ECF No. 11 ¶¶ 43-44, 47, 50. In
2009, NASA rejected Dr. Gatebe for the position of
Experimental Scientist. Id. ¶ 43. Between 2011
and 2013, NASA rejected Dr. Gatebe for six Atmospheric
Science positions, four of which Dr. Gatebe had reached the
final interview phase. Id. ¶ 58. In 2015, NASA
rejected Dr. Gatebe for the positions of Physical Scientist
in the Earth Sciences Division (“the management
position”) and Research Physical Scientist in the
Climate and Radiation Laboratory, also within the Earth
Sciences Division (“the research position”).
Id. ¶¶ 47, 50. These latter two positions
are the primary subject of the Complaint.
Gatebe asserts that his experience is not unique. In the past
twenty years, only one African American has been selected as
a Physical Scientist in the Climate and Radiation Laboratory.
No. African American occupies any senior management positions
in the Earth Science's Division. Id. ¶ 59;
ECF No. 25-30 at 9.
The Management Position
Goddard Space Flight Center's Office of Human Capital
Management, in consultation with a subject matter expert,
reviewed the applications for the management position and
pre-selected four qualified applicants, which included Dr.
Gatebe. ECF No. 25-18 at 3. Dr. James Irons, Deputy Director
of the Earth Sciences Division, Science Exploration
Directorate, led the interview panel responsible for
selecting the management position. ECF No. 11 ¶ 46; ECF
No. 25-18 at 1. The panel consisted of Dr. Irons, Dr. Kenneth
Ranson, Dr. Scott Braun, and Shane Dover, all white men. ECF
No. 25-30 at 2. The panel asked each applicant the same six
questions, which were designed to explore the applicants'
previous experience, career goals, communication styles, and
vision for the Earth Sciences Division. ECF No. 25-19. Three
of the panelists kept contemporaneous handwritten notes
reflecting the candidates' answers. ECF Nos. 25-19,
completing the interviews, the panelists discussed the
candidates and came to a consensus as to the most qualified
for the position. ECF No. 25-21 at 3. The panelists
prioritized candidates with experience in planning,
organizing, and managing airborne science field campaigns,
and unanimously selected Christy Hansen, a white woman. ECF
No. 25-18 at 3; ECF No. 25-21 at 3; ECF No. 25-23 at 2. The
panelists unanimously agreed that Dr. Gatebe was the second
most qualified candidate. ECF No. 25-18 at 4; ECF No. 25-21
at 5; ECF No. 25-23 at 3.
Hansen had previous experience planning, implementing, and
managing a multi-year NASA airborne mission, Operation Ice
Bridge, that had three annual field deployments. ECF No.
25-21 at 4. Ms. Hansen also managed the Arctic Radiation
IceBridge Sea and Ice Experiment. ECF No. 25-18 at 3.
Altogether, Ms. Hansen had managed eight campaigns, each with
three to five instruments operated by three to five
investigation teams. Id. at 4. Ms. Hansen received
awards for her work on these campaigns. ECF No. 25-17 at 2.
Prior to this work, Ms. Hansen worked as a robotic refueling
mission operations manager from 2010-2012 and an engineer,
astronaut instructor, and flight controller from 1999-2010.
Id. at 3-4. Ms. Hansen holds a Master's Degree
in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota.
Id. at 7.
Gatebe has sixteen years of experience in airborne missions
and has managed three instruments: Cloud Absorption
Radiometer (“CAR”), CAR Autonomous Navigation
System, and Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function,
Albedo, Cloud, Aerosol Radiometer. ECF No. 25-30 at 4. Dr.
Gatebe won several achievement awards for his work on
airborne field campaigns. Id. at 5. He now works as
a Group Lead, supervising twenty scientists on various
projects. Id. at 7. However, Dr. Gatebe has not
managed multiple investigators and airborne assets on a
cohesive field campaign, a fact weighted heavily by the
interviewing panel. ECF No. 25-18 at 4. Dr. Gatebe received a
doctorate in atmospheric physics, summa cum laude,
from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South
Africa. ECF No. 11 ¶ 37; ECF No. 25-16 at 4.
the interview, Dr. Irons informed Dr. Gatebe that his
interview went well and his qualifications were “very
good.” ECF No. 25-30 at 3. Dr. Irons also told Dr.
Gatebe that there was “no merit reason” for his
non-selection. ECF No. 11 ¶ 53.
The Research Position
Lazaros Oreopoulos of the Climate and Radiation Laboratory
led the interview process for the research position. ECF No.
25-24 at 1. Previously, Dr. Oreopoulos had informed Dr.
Gatebe that he had somebody in mind for the position and that
the job announcement was just a routine to comply with the
agency's hiring requirements. ECF No. 25-30 at 11. The
Goddard Space Flight Center's Office of Human Capital
Management, in consultation with a subject matter expert,
selected an unknown number of applicants as qualified for the
research position. ECF No. 25-24 at 2. Included for the final
interview was Dr. Gatebe. Dr. Oreopoulos then led a panel
interview for each of the qualified applicants. Id.
The panel consisted of Dr. Oreopoulos, Dr. Nickolay Krotkov,
and Dr. Donifan Barahona. Id. The first two
panelists are white men and the latter is a man of
“[m]ixed race of Hispanic background.”
Id.; ECF No. 25-25 at 2; ECF No. 25-26 at 2.
panelists asked each applicant nine questions, compiled by
Dr. Oreopoulos, which focused on experience, leadership,
community service, and development of NASA's mission. ECF
No. 25-28. Only Dr. Oreopoulos provided his own
non-handwritten notes on the candidates' answers to these
questions. Id. Dr. Oreopoulos considered the
candidates' experience, publications, and stature in the
scientific community, and recommended Dr. Daniel Feldman, a
white man, for the position. ECF No. 25-24 at 2-3. Dr.
Krotkov “was not asked to score or rank
candidates.” ECF No. 25-25 at 2. Nor did Dr. Krotkov
know who was selected for the position or the reasons for
such selection. Id. at 3. Dr. Barahona discussed the
candidates with Dr. Oreopoulos and agreed that Dr. Feldman
was best suited for the position. ECF No. 25-26 at 2-3.
Feldman declined the job offer. ECF No. 25-24 at 7. The
position was never filled. Id. Dr. Oreopoulos
asserts that the position was not filled because no other
candidate was qualified for the position. Id.
Contradicting Dr. Oreopoulos' account, Dr. Gatebe alleges
that the position was subsequently offered to an unnamed
applicant, who also declined the offer. ECF No. 25-30 at 10.
Feldman was employed at the Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory, performing atmospheric science and
climate-related research with a focus on radiation science.
ECF No. 25-27 at 1. His previous work involved using
atmospheric radiation codes and simulating radiance for
climate model runs. Id. at 1-2. Dr. Oreopoulos
credited Dr. Feldman's first-author publication in the
journal Nature (with an unknown number of
citations). ECF No. 25-24 at 4. Dr. Oreopoulos also
“deemed [Dr. Feldman's career] to be in an
ascending trajectory with great potential for
excellence.” Id. Dr. Feldman received a
doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering from the
California Institute of Technology in 2008. ECF No. 25-27 at
addition to Dr. Gatebe's qualifications described above,
Dr. Gatebe published at least nineteen papers, and he was the
first author listed for twelve of the papers. ECF No. 25-16
at 5- 7. According to Dr. Oreopoulos, three of Dr.
Gatebe's publications received a total of 27 citations
from other authors, a number which Dr. Oreopoulos interprets
as “modest.” ECF No. 25-24 at 6-7. Dr. Barahona
noted Dr. Gatebe's “extensive experience in
radiation research, ” but stated he had less experience
in developing radiative codes for atmospheric models. ECF No.
25-26 at 5. According to Dr. Gatebe, he works with models for
satellite assessment of direct radiative forcing by wildfire
aerosols. ECF No. 25-16 at 2. It is unclear the overlap, if
any, between Dr. Gatebe's work on radiation and the
job's requisite experience in radiative transfer
algorithms and radiative transfer modeling. See ECF
No. 25-14 at 2.
Encounters with Robert Cahalan
Gatebe also recounts a series of much earlier unfavorable
exchanges with Robert Cahalan, a Lab Chief in the Laboratory
for Atmospheres, as part of his retaliation and hostile work
environment claims. In 2011, Mr. Cahalan shouted at Dr.
Gatebe to stop speaking with Civil Servants about funding for
his projects and forced Dr. Gatebe “to make unnecessary
changes in a journal paper, ” even though Mr. Cahalan
was not an author on the paper. ECF No. 11 ¶¶ 63,
65. Finally, Mr. Cahalan sent Dr. Gatebe an email, which Dr.
Gatebe characterizes as “threatening.”
Id. ¶ 64. The email reads:
Charles, Your “I have clarified S” sentence is
precisely what I instructed you NOT to do. I believe you
understood this, but apparently you chose to ignore my
direction to you. Of course, I'm not your supervisor. If
I was, (i.e. if you were a civil servant in my group) then
this would be a serious problem. If you disagree with my
interpretation of your “I have clarified S”
sentence, then please come see me. -Bob-
ECF No. 25-29 at 1.
Dr. Gatebe's Initial ...