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Nguyen v. Mnuchin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 28, 2019

THUY-AI NGUYEN, Plaintiff,
v.
STEVEN MNUCHIN, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Paula Xinis, United States District Judge.

         Pending in this employment discrimination case is Defendant Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, (“the Treasury” or “Treasury”)'s motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. ECF No. 13. The motion has been fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the following reasons, the Court grants in part and denies in part the Treasury's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Background

         A. The Amended Complaint

         In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff Thuy-Ai Nguyen avers that she suffered race, national origin, gender, and disability discrimination. Nguyen, a woman of Vietnamese descent born in 1965, worked for the Internal Revenue Service as an Information Technology (“IT”) Specialist since 2006. ECF No. 9 ¶¶ 8, 14. Although not her full-time assignment, Nguyen sometimes worked on the database for Tax Exempt/Government Entities Rulings & Agreement Control (“TRAC”). Id. ¶ 27. The TRAC system permits users to track specific projects, but the system has been in “crisis” due to its design and user problems. Id. ¶¶ 26, 30. Nguyen had some experience with TRAC, but not enough to become proficient in the system. Id. ¶ 33, In May 2013, Linda Whiting, an African American woman, became Nguyen's supervisor and assigned Nguyen to work on the TRAC project full time. Id. ¶¶ 34-35. Nguyen asserts, without any specific examples, that other, unnamed “non-Vietnamese, non-Asian, male and/or younger employees” were better suited to work on TRAC than herself. Id. ¶ 45. Nguyen gives no details to support this claim.

         Nguyen believes her assignment to TRAC constituted an adverse employment action because the transfer was a set-up for Nguyen's failure. Id. ¶ 55. Nguyen received an introductory training course in TRAC, but otherwise asserts that she lacked the skills, experience and training to perform this assignment adequately. Id. ¶¶ 40, 60. Whiting, as the manager, was the only employee to receive any training on TRAC. Id. ¶ 62. Nguyen also avers that Whiting imposed unreasonable work deadlines on her, which, in combination with the lack of training, contributed to Nguyen's poor job performance. Id. ¶ 67. Nguyen, in the end, believes that she was blamed for all TRAC failures. Id. ¶¶ 52-54, 86.

         Nguyen also contends that Whiting created a hostile work environment by “yelling, ” “making negative comments, ” and “threatening . . . workplace evaluations.” Id. ¶ 68. Although Nguyen emphasizes that performance evaluations are considered for raises, promotions, and the elevation of GS levels, Nguyen does not seem to have missed any of those opportunities. Id. ¶ 69. On November 5, 2014, however, Whiting did give Nguyen “failing marks in every category on her mid-year performance review” in 2014. Id. ¶ 108. Whiting also required Nguyen to undergo monthly performance evaluations, unlike Nguyen's coworkers. Id. ¶¶ 109-10.

         Nguyen also asserts that Whiting was “constantly” hostile to her and treated her “differently” than her non-Vietnamese, non-Asian, male, younger co-workers. Id. ¶ 70. Although Nguyen characterizes Whiting as angrily “berat[ing]” her in front of other coworkers, Nguyen gives precious little context for these supposed displays of hostility. Id. ¶¶ 70-76. Nguyen also claims that Whiting “disparaged Mrs. Nguyen's English on multiple occasions” and Cindy McGregor, her white coworker and project lead, “purposefully ‘dumbed down' her language when communicating with Mrs. Nguyen.” Id. ¶¶ 78-79. Again, the Amended Complaint provides very few particulars about this disparaging conduct that Nguyen endured.

         Nguyen also recites an array of occasions in which Whiting treated others less poorly than Nguyen. Whiting would “patiently listen[] and acknowledge[]” McGregor and her work, while treating Nguyen with disdain and refusing to credit Nguyen for her work. Id. ¶¶ 85-86. Whiting also praised William Chester, an African American male, for his work but did not acknowledge Nguyen for her contributions. Id. ¶ 87. Nguyen also summarily asserts that Nguyen's second level supervisor, Norman Keith, “also discriminated against [her] and contributed to the hostile work environment.” Id. ¶ 101. Keith did not assist Nguyen with “the way Linda Whiting treated her” and during one meeting on July 2, 2014, “physically threatened [Nguyen] by pounding on his desk.” Id. ¶¶ 103, 105.

         During a time not altogether clear from the Amended Complaint, Whiting also disregarded Nguyen's therapist's explanation that Nguyen should be on a temporary part time status. Id. ¶ 98. Whiting instead demanded that Nguyen returned to full time work immediately. Id.

         At some point, again not clear from the Amended Complaint, Nguyen engaged in what she characterizes as “protected EEO activity in an effort to rectify the harassment and discrimination that she faced.” This included attending an informal mediation session on August 25, 2014. Id. ¶¶ 114-15. The next day, Keith proposed that Nguyen be suspended without pay for one day, which took effect on November 7, 2014, while Nguyen was on sick leave undergoing treatment for her depression. Id. ¶¶ 116-17. Nguyen contends that she suffers from “severe depression, severe anxiety, and mental anguish, ” which has substantially limited her work functioning, all as a result of enduring Whiting's abuse. Id. ¶ 121. Nguyen asked to take leave under FMLA, which Whiting refused. Id. ¶ 130. Nguyen also sought transfer to another department, as recommended by Nguyen's doctors, to accommodate her mental health challenges. Id. ¶ 137. Nguyen provided medical documentation to support the need for such accommodation but, to date, she claims that Treasury has not addressed adequately her disability. Id. ¶¶ 142-43.

         B. The Administrative Record

         Prior to filing this action, Nguyen pursued two separate discrimination complaints with the Treasury. ECF Nos. 19-1, 20. Formal investigations on both produced nearly 3, 600 pages of record evidence, select portions of which the Treasury included in its motion. The Court thereafter ordered production of the entire record.[1] The pertinent parts are summarized as follows.

         The Treasury began the TRAC program without providing any IT employees with the training of which Nguyen claims she alone was deprived. No. funding was available for TRAC training beyond a single introductory course that Nguyen attended. ECF No. 13-2 at 46, 81, 91. Treasury informed any employee who requested training that none would be forthcoming for budgetary reasons. ECF No. 13-2 at 90 (declaration questions of Nguyen's former manager) (“I put in several requests for a class on Oracle Forms and Reports but was told there was no funding.”); ECF No. 13-2 at 80 (McGregor) (“[W]e all asked for training and were all refused.”); ECF No. 12-3 at 95 (Karen Rondini Taylor) (“We were told there was no money in the budget to send me to any formal training, . . . so Cindy researched textbooks on amazon.com, one of which I purchased with my own money for about $5 total.”). Instead, employees were expected to teach themselves the necessary skills to implement their programs or learn through informal training, both of which were available to Nguyen. ECF No. 13-2 at 82, 29.

         Despite being told repeatedly that no such training was available, Nguyen persisted in maintaining that, unlike her coworkers, she could not do the work without formal training. ECF No. 19-6 at 12, 31. During two meetings held on July 2, 2014, Nguyen's singular focus on the issue of training derailed the meeting agendas. ECF No. 13-2 at 47, 72. According to coworkers, Nguyen interrupted Whiting numerous times while ignoring questions that Whiting had asked her. ECF No. 19-1 at 59. Coworkers also described Nguyen's behavior-on numerous occasions-as “rude.” ECF Nos. 19-1 at 29; 19-2 at 428; 19-4 at 632. Whiting often became frustrated while meeting with Nguyen (ECF No. 19-5 at 81) and interrupted Nguyen in an effort to get Nguyen to stop speaking. ECF No. 19-4 at 352. On at least two occasions, Whiting and Nguyen's conversation reached a fevered pitch with Whiting yelling at Nguyen. See ECF No. 19-4 at 367 (describing a shouting match between Whiting and Nguyen); ECF No. 19-5 at 253 (observing that Whiting yelled unspecified comments at Nguyen).

         As for Nguyen's performance evaluations, the record reflects that Nguyen's 2014 midyear review had failing marks in eleven categories, meets standards in two categories, and skills not exhibited in two categories. ECF No. 13-2 at 54-57. Four of the five other employees who Whiting later evaluated monthly were non-Vietnamese. ECF No. 19-3 at 137.

         As to Whiting and McGregor making disparaging comments about Nguyen's command of English, the record reflects two particular relevant instances. In the first, Whiting asked Nguyen whether she had contacted a coworker for assistance. ECF No. 19-2 at 179-80. Nguyen responded, “Yes, I share the information” with the coworker. Id. Whiting responded to Nguyen that “[s]haring and asking for help are two different things.” Id. Second, in reviewing Nguyen's summary of a meeting that had taken place with Whiting, Nguyen wrote that “the meeting had to be terminated and ended at 9:10 AM because Linda [Whiting] had another meeting at 9:15 AM on the same day.” ECF No. 19-2 at 203. Whiting responded, “The meeting was scheduled from 8:30 - 9:15. Therefore it was not terminated, it ended.” Id. Whiting also corrected other coworkers' word choice, including that of one white American male and one African American male. ECF Nos. 19-1 at 42; 19-5 at 284.

         As to Keith's involvement with Nguyen, he recommended Nguyen for disciplinary action because of her constant and unending inquiries about TRAC training. On July 2, 2014, Keith and Whiting spent ninety minutes arguing with Nguyen over the need for formal training, despite Nguyen having been told repeatedly that no such formal training exists for anyone in the department. ECF No. 13-2 at 48, 72-73, 86. That same day, Whiting sent Keith an email asking if she should take disciplinary action against Nguyen, to which Keith replied, “Start immediately.” ECF No. 13-2 at 61. On July 9, Whiting and Keith decided to pursue a one-day suspension after human resources suggested that a reprimand was insufficient. ECF No. 19-4 at 46, 60. Treasury Guidelines provide a range of discipline for first-time offenses, dependent on the nature of the infraction. The suggested discipline for the relevant infractions includes admonishment or written reprimand through suspension and in certain circumstances, removal. ECF No. 19-5 at 485, 487-88.

         On July 11, 2014, the Treasury informed Nguyen of its intention to suspend her for one day for “failure to follow managerial directives (including directives regarding assigned work), insubordination and continuing behavior which disrupts planned meetings.” ECF No. 13-2 at 21. Five days later, Nguyen contacted the EEO for her initial interview. Id. at 17.

         On August 22, 2014, the Treasury sent a notice of proposed disciplinary suspension, which was implemented by Nguyen's third-level supervisor, Linda Gilpin, on November 7, 2014. Id. at 34, 38-40.[2] The notice stated that the suspension was being imposed to address Nguyen's failure to follow management's instruction that she, like all employees, must learn how to perform her work without formal training, as well as the disruption she had caused at the July 2nd meetings. Id. at 34, 38.

         With regard to Nguyen's mental health, Nguyen's doctor documented not only that Nguyen suffered from depression and anxiety, but that workplace stresses “significantly worsened” her condition. ECF No. 20 at 143. Nguyen's doctor further noted that Nguyen's mental health challenges affect her concentration, short term memory, and ability to drive safely on busy streets. Id. at 108; ECF No. 20-1 at 27, 31. The doctor recommended that Nguyen be transferred to a different project under different supervisors, as well as be given a part-time “flexi-place” work schedule and training. ECF No. 20 at 89, 121, 143.

         In response, the Treasury offered the following accommodations: placement of Nguyen in a new position with different first- and second-line supervisors, additional training and a part-time schedule for the first six months. ECF No. 13-6 at 7. Nguyen rejected that position because she would have the same ...


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