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Thornton v. Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 11, 2019




         Defendant, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services ("Defendant"), moves this Court for summary judgment (the "Motion") (ECF No. 63). Defendant seeks a ruling from the Court that pro se Plaintiff Sheron Thornton cannot prevail on her retaliation claim against Defendant because she cannot demonstrate the required elements of the claim. ECF No. 63 at 1-2. Plaintiff filed an opposition to Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 66) and later filed the Motion for Leave to Amend Opposition to Summary Judgment (ECF No. 71). Defendant did not file a reply and the time to do so has since passed. After considering the Motion and response thereto, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). In addition, having reviewed the pleadings of record and all competent and admissible evidence submitted by the parties, the Court finds that there is insufficient evidence from which a jury could find in Plaintiffs favor on the retaliation claim. Accordingly, the Court will GRANT Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 63). Because this Court will grant Defendant's Motion, the other pending motions, Plaintiffs Motion to Compel (ECF No, 56) and Motion for Leave to Amend Opposition to Summary Judgment (ECF No. 71), [1] are DISMISSED as MOOT.

         Factual Background

         This lawsuit arises out of Plaintiffs allegation of retaliation against her former employer, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services ("DPSCS"), in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). The facts are viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiff. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted).

         Plaintiff, an African-American, was employed with DPSCS from May 1997 until her termination on December 22, 2016. ECF No. 63-7 at 2, ¶ 4; ECF No. 63-8 at 1. During that time, Plaintiff held several positions within DPSCS: Arrest Booking Officer at the Baltimore City Central Booking and Intake Center from May 1997 to October 1997; Parole and Probation Agent I with promotions to Parole and Probation Agent II and Parole and Probation Agent Senior with the Division of Parole and Probation ("DPP") from October 1997 until July 2010; Field Supervisor I with DPP from July 2010 until March 2013; and Facility Administrator with the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services from March 2013 until October 17, 2014, when she resigned. ECF No. 63-8 at 1-2; ECF No. 66 at 1-2. Plaintiff then sought and received reinstatement to state service as a Parole and Probation Agent Senior on March 18, 2015 with the DPP office located in Westminster, Maryland. ECF No. 63-8 at 2. Plaintiffs claim of retaliation stems from a series of alleged actions by DPSCS that occurred over the course of at least six years, from 2010 until her termination in 2016. See ECF No. 66. Because many of these allegations are time-barred, as explained further below, the Court will address only the factual background pertinent to the pending Motion, which includes allegations made on or after August 7, 2015 while Plaintiff was working as a senior parole and probation agent in the DPP Westminster office. Plaintiffs allegations primarily relate to denial of promotions, denial of a transfer request, and termination.

         A. Alleged Denial of Promotions

         The Recruitment, Examination and Retention Unit manages the recruitment and hiring processes for all DPSCS units and divisions. ECF No. 63-3 at 1, ¶ 2. Applications for employment with DPSCS are collected and processed through JobAps, "the Maryland State web-based recruitment and applicant tracking system." Id. Once received through the JobAps program, applications are reviewed by the Unit's Human Resources analysts to determine if a position's qualifications are met. Id. at 2, ¶ 3. These analysts independently evaluate a candidate's application and determine whether the candidate meets the requisite qualifications without contacting or discussing a candidate with management or employees or investigating whether a candidate has engaged in protected activity. Id.

         On August 28, 2015, Plaintiff submitted an application for reinstatement to the position of Field Supervisor I. ECF No. 63-4 at 3. According to Plaintiffs JobAps application history, Plaintiff was eligible for reinstatement and was scheduled for an interview for the position. Id. On March 9, 2016, Plaintiff applied for a Parole and Probation Regional Administrator position through JobAps. Id. Her application was evaluated by Sandra Regler, Human Resources Administrator IV, who determined that Plaintiff did not meet the qualification requiring six years of experience in parole and probation work including two years with administrative or supervisory responsibility. ECF No. 63-3 at 2-3, ¶ 5; ECF No. 63-5. In a letter dated July 22, 2016, Alicia Coleman, Human Resources Administrator I, informed Plaintiff of the conclusion of her application. ECF No. 63-3 at 3, ¶ 5; ECF No. 63-5. Finally, on April 7, 2016, Plaintiff applied for a Correctional Hearing Officer I position through JobAps. ECF No. 63-4 at 3. The application was evaluated by Sharon Grant, Human Resources Officer III, who concluded that Plaintiff did not meet the minimum experience required for the position. ECF No. 63-3 at 3, ¶ 6; ECF No. 63- 6. In a letter dated June 24, 2016, Ms. Grant informed Plaintiff of the conclusion of her application. ECF No. 63-6.

         B. Alleged Denial of Transfer Request

         Upon her reinstatement to state service on March 18, 2015, Plaintiff was assigned to the DPP office in Westminster, Maryland. ECF No. 63-8 at 2. Prior to her assignment in Westminster, Plaintiff had worked in Baltimore City for the entirety of her career. ECF No. 66 at 5-6. On January 10, 2016, Plaintiff sent a formal request for transfer to an office in the Baltimore City (Central) Region to the Regional Administrator, Dale Maselli. ECF No. 66, Ex. B. In her request, Plaintiff stated:

I am requesting a hardship as my home was in foreclosure and I had moved out before I beg[a]n employment in Westminster. However[, ] I have regained rights to said property, and will be living in Baltimore. I am also in fear of the harassment that I have encountered that has continued despite my voicing my concerns. As a result, I have had to seek medical attentions thus my health is being affected.


         On February 11, 2016, Plaintiff sent an email to Walter Nolley, Regional Administrator for the Central Region, inquiring about the status of her transfer request. Id. Plaintiff reiterated the hardship that her commute placed on her: "My commute from Baltimore to Westminster is, round trip 70 miles per day, and this is very taxing on my already 13 year[ ] old vehicle." Id. Plaintiffs request was ultimately referred to the Manager of the Employee Relations Unit, Glendell Adamson, for assessment. ECF No. 63-11. In a memorandum, dated March 11, 2016, Ms. Adamson utilized the Voluntary Transfer Policy, a policy that became effective for all DPSCS uniformed officers and parole and probation agents on August 14, 2015, to analyze Plaintiffs request. Id. at 4-6; ECF No. 63-12. Sections I, II, and VII of the Voluntary Transfer Policy were deemed applicable to Plaintiffs request and state:

I. This policy applies to all Uniformed Officers and Parole and Probation Agents who voluntarily request to transfer from one work assignment to another work assignment within DPSCS.
II. An employee must have two years of service that includes the probationary period in their current position and location before requesting an initial transfer.
VII. Under circumstances of extreme hardship, the Deputy Secretary for Operations may make an exception to the two year waiting period. Such hardships must be documented and must have developed subsequent to the employee accepting their current position. Under no circumstances will pre-existing conditions/circumstances or commuting distance be considered as reason for transfer prior to the two year requirement.

ECF No. 63-12 at 3-4. Based on these provisions, Ms. Adamson found that"[Plaintiff]'s request for a voluntary transfer based on hardship is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Department's Voluntary Transfer Policy" and recommended that Plaintiffs request be denied. ECF No. 63-11 at 5-6. Specifically, Ms. Adamson noted that Plaintiff did not satisfy Section II of the policy because she had not been assigned to the Westminster office for the required two years or Section VII of the policy because the circumstances leading to her hardship did not occur subsequent to accepting the position in Westminster. Id. at 5. Ms. Adamson also noted that she found "no evidence that [Plaintiff] had been previously involuntarily reassigned, as her assignment to the Westminster field office was based on the needs of the agency at the time of her reinstatement." Id. Based on this assessment, Plaintiffs request for transfer was denied. ECF No. 63-7 at 4, ¶ 10. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a grievance challenging the denial of her transfer request and her case was referred to an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") with the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH"). Id; ECF No. 63-13. In a written decision dated August 16, 2016, the ALJ dismissed Plaintiffs grievance. ECF No. 63-13. Plaintiff petitioned the Circuit Court for Baltimore County for review, but her petition was dismissed for being untimely filed. ECF No. 63-14.

         C. Termination

         All DPSCS employees are required to comply with the DPSCS Standards of Conduct and Internal Administrative Disciplinary Process ("DPSCS Standards of Conduct") as well as Executive Directives. ECF No. 63-7 at 2, ¶ 5. Several provisions of the DPSCS Standards of Conduct and Executive Directive ADM.050.0043, titled "Employee and Inmate Visiting and Communication," prohibit employees from having contact with inmates in correctional facilities, offenders, or other clients except for business purposes. Id; ECF No. 63-8 at 6. Pursuant to Section II.DD of the DPSCS Standards of Conduct:

(1) An employee may not visit the homes of inmates, offenders or clients, relatives of inmates, offenders or clients, or known friends of inmates, offenders or clients for any purpose other than official Agency business. If such visit is necessary, prior written approval from the appointing authority or designee shall be obtained and made a matter of record. Such contacts shall be handled in an objective and professional manner.
(2) An employee may not contact or visit inmates at any correctional facility, regardless of whether he/she is on or off duty, for any purpose other than official Department business. The exception to this shall be for an employee who is related to the inmate. Any request for permission to visit relatives shall be approved by both the employee's appointing authority or designee and by the appointing authority o[r] designee of the institution or facility where the relative is incarcerated.
(3) An employee may not become socially, personally, or intimately involved in relationships with inmates, offenders, or clients of the Department. This includes communication through written correspondence, telecommunications and social interactions.
(4) An employee may not allow inmates to contact or visit them for any purpose while off duty.

ECF No. 63-8 at 6-7.

         On December 22, 2016, Plaintiff was terminated from her position as a senior parole and probation agent because she had unauthorized contact with an inmate in a correctional facility, failed to disclose the contact, and made false statements during an investigation into the matter, in violation of the DPSCS Standards of Conduct. ECF No. 63-7 at 2, ¶¶ 4-5; ECF No. 63-8 at 2-8. The unauthorized contact occurred on August 6, 2016, when Plaintiff accepted a telephone call on her personal cell phone from Phillip Wise, an inmate in the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit at the time. ECF No. 63-8 at 2. During the eight-minute telephone call, Plaintiff relayed personal information, such as her new assignment to the Westminster office and her upcoming birthday and advised Mr. Wise not to call her "because you know why. I don't want to get in trouble." Id. Plaintiff also encouraged Mr. Wise to write to her and verified that he had her home mailing address. Id. Plaintiff failed to report this contact to her supervisor or anyone in the chain of command. Id. at 5.

         On November 22, 2016, a DPSCS analyst with the Intelligence and Investigation Division, Nicholas Weikel, learned of the conversation when conducting routine monitoring of inmate phone calls.[2] Id; see ECF No. 63-9 at 5-6. Mr. Weikel reported the contact and the matter was assigned to Detective Johnnathan Wright for investigation. ECF No. 63-8 at 2-3. Detective Wright's preliminary investigation established that Plaintiffs personnel file did not contain written documentation authorizing communication with Mr. Wise or any other inmate and that Plaintiff had signed an acknowledgement of the DPSCS Standards of Conduct. Id. at 3. Plaintiff s records also confirmed her home address and verified that her personal cell phone number was the number Mr. Wise had contacted. Id.

         On December 6, 2016, Detective Wright interviewed Plaintiff about the phone call. Id. at 3-4. Plaintiff denied having any contact with Mr. Wise until she was shown a photo of him and specifically asked whether she had had a telephone conversation with him. Id. at 4. Plaintiff stated that she had accepted Mr. Wise's phone call but told him she could not speak with him and hung up ...

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