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Ikome v. Csra, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

July 19, 2019

FLORET IKOME, Plaintiff,
v.
CSRA, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL W. GRIMM UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Floret Ikome, who “is from Cameroon and has very dark skin, ” helped his employer, Defendant CSRA, LLC (“CSRA”), win a contract with the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA” and “Infrastructure contract”) and became the Project Manager; two weeks later, CSRA replaced Ikome with CSRA employee Eric Toliver, an African-American with “significantly lighter skin.” Compl. ¶ 15, ECF No. 2; Def.'s Mem. 4, ECF No. 44-1. Ikome filed a discrimination complaint with the Montgomery County Office of Human Resources (“OHR”) and, shortly after, CSRA ended his employment by not assigning him another contract. Compl. ¶¶ 17-18; Def.'s Mem. 6. Ikome then filed suit against CSRA in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, alleging discrimination based on color and national origin, as well as retaliation, in violation of Montgomery County Code § 27-1 et seq.; he also claims that CSRA violated Maryland Wage Payment Collection Law (“MWPCL”), Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 3-501 et seq. when it failed to pay him the “capture bonus” he expected for winning the Infrastructure contract. Compl. ¶¶ 20-34, 35-40. CSRA removed the case to this Court, ECF No. 1, and filed the pending motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 44.[1] Because Ikome offers direct evidence of discrimination, CSRA's motion is denied as to his discrimination claim. Ikome cannot prevail on his retaliation or MWPCL claims, however, and CSRA's motion is granted as to Counts Two and Three.

         Background

         Ikome began working for CSRA, which provides information technology services to government clients, as a Senior Director in July 2015. Compl. ¶¶ 7-8; Def.'s Mem. 3; Offer Ltr., ECF No. 47-3. Initially, he worked as the operations director on a contract for a client other than the EPA. Ikome Dep. 79:17-80:6, ECF No. 47-2; Def.'s Mem. 3. He voluntarily resigned from the project in about September 2016 and, for most of the remainder of 2016, he was “a casual employee (a status where an employee remains employed but is paid only for hours worked) and was not working on a bid or contract for CSRA.” Def.'s Mem. 3; Ikome Dep. 133:7-134:20.

Prior to 2017, the EPA had contracted with CSRA to perform IT services under a number of task orders. Eric Toliver, a long-term employee of CSRA and its predecessor companies, served as the Program Manager for certain of those EPA task orders. In late 2016, the EPA issued proposals for those task orders and others, all of which would be reorganized into three new EPA contracts, at the expiration of the prior contracts. still serving as the Program Manager, Mr. Toliver assisted with the “capture” work [2]for each of those contracts.
CSRA ultimately bid on all three of the contracts, known as the high-end scientific computing contract, infrastructure support and application hosting contract (“Infrastructure”), and end-user services contract (“EUS”). The EUS contract was the highest priority for CSRA because it was the greatest dollar value of the three and CSRA believed it had the highest win probability. . . . CSRA made the decision to select Mr. Toliver as the Program Manager for the EUS bid. . . .
. . . CSRA needed to find an individual to be bid as the Program Manager for the lower-priority Infrastructure contract. Plaintiff, who was still on casual status and not working on a bid or contract for CSRA at the time, was . . . identified for that position, well after the capture and proposal efforts were already underway.

Def.'s Mem. 3-4 (citations omitted); see Pl.'s Opp'n 6.

         At the end of March 2017, CSRA won the Infrastructure contract but not the EUS contract. Def.'s Mem. 5. William Balcke, one of Ikome's supervisors, Pl.'s Opp'n 7, informed Ikome on April 13, 2017 that he no longer would be working as the Program Manager on the Infrastructure contract, because CSRA wanted to replace him with Eric Toliver. Ikome Decl. ¶ 15, ECF No. 47-1; Balcke Dep. 105:8-17, ECF No. 50-3. Ikome offers evidence that, in the same meeting, “Mr. Balcke also made a statement about people in North Carolina being ‘rednecks', which [Ikome] understood to mean that the reason for the decision to replace [him] was that said ‘rednecks' are racist, ” and it “would be more acceptable” for them to have Toliver, who has lighter skin, “in the top post on the Infrastructure [EPA] contract.” Ikome Decl. ¶ 15; see also Ikome Dep. 165:20- 21. Defendants refute this evidence with Balcke's testimony that he did not make such a statement. See Balcke Dep. 106:15-20.

         Plaintiff's counsel sent a demand letter to Paul Nedzbala, Executive Vice President of the Health and Civil Group at CSRA, on April 19, 2017, alleging race and national origin discrimination in CSRA's decision to replace Plaintiff with Eric Toliver.” Pl.'s Opp'n 11; see Apr. 19, 2017 Ltr. from Pl.'s Counsel to Nedzbala, ECF No. 47-5. CSRA informed Ikome that “he would be returned to casual status and subject to discharge if he did not locate an alternate position.” Def.'s Mem. 5-6. Specifically, on April 25, 2017, CSRA notified Ikome that “he could charge his time to an indirect charge code for two weeks and had the option to maintain his employee status without pay for 30 days thereafter before he would be terminated if he did not find another position at CSRA.” Pl.'s Opp'n 4; see Def.'s Mem. 16-17; Apr. 25, 2017 Email from Sellers to Ikome, ECF No. 44-7, at 3).

         Ikome filed a discrimination complaint with OHR on May 15, 2017. Compl. ¶ 3; Def.'s Mem. 6. On June 30, 2017, at which point Ikome had not secured another position, CSRA terminated his employment. Compl. ¶ 4; Def.'s Mem. 6. He filed a second OHR complaint, Compl. ¶ 4, and then filed this suit in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County on October 2, 2017, id. at 1. He claims that CSRA discriminated against him based on color and national origin when it replaced him with Toliver on the Infrastructure contract, and that it then retaliated against him for filing the May 15, 2017 ORH complaint, by terminating his employment on June 30, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 23, 30-31. He views these acts as violations of Montgomery County Code § 27-1 et seq. Ikome also claims that CSRA violated the MWPCL when it failed to pay him a “capture bonus” that he expected for winning the Infrastructure contract. Compl. ¶¶ 20-34, 35-40.

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates, through “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” 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(a), (c)(1)(A); see Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 833 (4th Cir. 2013). If the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-87 & n.10 (1986). The existence of only a “scintilla of evidence” is not enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Instead, the evidentiary materials submitted must show facts from which the finder of fact reasonably could find for the party opposing summary judgment. Id.

         Count One -Discrimination

          Ikome claims discrimination in violation of Montgomery County law. “Maryland courts construe [discrimination] claims [under the Montgomery County Human Rights Act] similarly to those made under Title VII, ” Whittaker v. David's Beautiful People, Inc., No. DKC-14-2483, 2016 WL 429963, at *2 n.2 (D. Md. Feb. 4, 2016), and “it is appropriate to consider federal precedents when interpreting state and local laws, ” Haas v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 914 A.2d 735, 743 n.8 (Md. 2007). The elements of a claim for race or national origin discrimination under Title VII or Montgomery County Code are “(1) membership in a protected class; (2) satisfactory job performance; (3) an adverse employment action; and (4) less favorable treatment than similarly situated employees outside the protected class.” Linton v. Johns Hopkins Univ. Applied Physics Lab., LLC, No. JKB-10-276, 2011 WL 4549177, at *5 (D. Md. Sept. 28, 2011) (citing White v. BFI Waste Servs., 375 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2004)); see also Coleman, 626 F.3d at 190. A plaintiff may prove discrimination using direct evidence or under the McDonnell Douglas[3] burden-shifting approach. Ruffin v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 126 F.Supp.3d 521, 526-27 (D. Md. 2015), aff'd as modified, No. 15-2067, 2016 WL 4750626 (4th Cir. Sept. 13, 2016); see Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., Inc., 354 F.3d 277, 284 (4th Cir. 2004). “Under either avenue of proof, the focus is on whether a reasonable juror could conclude that illegal discrimination was a motivating factor in the employment decision.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n v. Dimensions Healthcare Sys., No. PX-15-2342, 2016 WL 4593470, at *3 (D. Md. Sept. 2, 2016) (citing Sawicki v. Morgan State Univ., No. WMN-03-1600, 2005 WL 5351448, at *6 (D. Md. Aug. 2, 2005), aff'd, 170 Fed.Appx. 271 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         “Direct evidence must be ‘evidence of conduct or statements that both reflect directly the alleged discriminatory attitude and that bear directly on the contested employment decision.' Even if there is a statement that reflects a discriminatory attitude, it must have a nexus with the adverse employment action.” Warch v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 510, 520 (4th Cir. 2006) (quoting Taylor v. Va. Union Univ., 193 F.3d 219, 232 (4th Cir. 1999) (en banc) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). Stated differently, “[t]o constitute direct evidence, statements must be directly related to the employment decision in question” and must be “‘the most blatant remarks, whose intent could be nothing other than to discriminat[e].'” Betof v. Suburban Hosp., Inc., No. DKC-11-1452, 2012 WL 2564781, at *6 (D. Md. June 29, 2012) (quoting Signal v. Gonzales, 430 F.Supp.2d 528, 541 n.5 (D.S.C. 2006) (citation omitted)). The statement must be one that, “[i]f believed, . . . ‘would prove the existence of a fact . . . without any inference or presumptions, '” such as an explicit statement “that an impermissible consideration was a determining factor.” Id. (quoting O'Connor v. Consol. Coin Caterers Corp., 56 F.3d 542, 548 (4th Cir. 1995) (internal quotation marks omitted), rev'd on other grounds, 517 U.S. 308 (1996)).

         The facts in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins are illustrative. 490 U.S. 228 (1989), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Preston v. Virginia ex rel. New River Cmty. Coll., 31 F.3d 203 (4th Cir. 1994). There, Hopkins filed a sex discrimination suit after she was proposed, but not selected, for partnership at the accounting firm where she worked as a senior manager. Id. at 231- 33. The existing partners weighed in on the decision, and it was “Hopkins' perceived shortcomings in th[e] important area” of interpersonal relations that “doomed her bid for partnership, ” which was put on hold and then not reconsidered. Id. at 232, 234-35. The Supreme Court noted that “[t]here were clear signs” in the comments the partners provided “that some of the partners reacted negatively to Hopkins' personality because she was a woman, ” with “[o]ne partner describ[ing] her as ‘macho'; another suggest[ing] that she ‘overcompensated for being a woman'; [and] a third advis[ing] her to take ‘a course at charm school.'” Id. at 235 (citations to record omitted). Additionally, when “[s]everal partners criticized her use of profanity . . ., one partner suggested that those partners objected to her swearing only ‘because it's a lady using foul language.'” Id. (citation to record omitted). Of most significance was one partner's advice to Hopkins when he explained to her why her bid for partnership was on hold: “in order to improve her chances for partnership, ” he suggested that she “‘walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.'” Id. (citation to record omitted). The Supreme Court concluded that these facts were sufficient direct evidence of sex discrimination, reasoning:

Hopkins proved that Price Waterhouse invited partners to submit comments; that some of the comments stemmed from sex stereotypes; that an important part of the Policy Board's decision on Hopkins was an assessment of the submitted comments; and that Price ...

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