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Bagwell v. Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 15, 2020



          Ellen L. Hollander United States District Judge

         In this employment discrimination case, plaintiff Tashia M. Bagwell, who is African American, filed suit against her former employer, Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Inc. (“Downtown” or “DPOB”), alleging that DPOB unlawfully terminated her on the basis of her race. ECF 1 (the “Complaint”). Bagwell asserted four claims: race discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”) (Count I); wrongful discharge under Maryland law (Count II); disparate treatment, in violation of Title VII (Count III); and violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count IV).

         In response, Downtown moved to dismiss Counts II and IV of the Complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). ECF 14. In a Memorandum (ECF 22) and Order (ECF 23) of November 8, 2018, I granted the motion as to Counts II and IV.

         Now pending is DPOB's post-discovery motion for summary judgment with respect to Counts I and III, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. ECF 33. The motion is supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 33-1) (collectively, the “Motion”) and fourteen exhibits. ECF 33-2 to ECF 33-15. Plaintiff opposes the Motion. ECF 36 (“Opposition”). The Opposition is supported by four exhibits. ECF 36-1 to ECF 26-5. Defendant replied (ECF 37) and submitted four additional exhibits. ECF 37-1 to ECF 37-4.

         No hearing is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105(6). For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the Motion.

         I. Factual Background

         A. Evidence Concerning Bagwell

         Downtown is a “non-profit organization, with a mission that includes retaining businesses and advocating for qualify of life improvements” in Baltimore. Adam Bedmar, Wanted Leader for Downtown Group, The Daily Record, Jan. 15, 2020, at 3A. On November 13, 2006, Downtown hired Bagwell to serve as an administrative assistant. See ECF 33-2 (Bagwell Deposition) at 5, Tr. 14. Her job responsibilities included filing documents, creating employee folders, answering phone calls, handling mail, stocking the mailroom, assisting with payroll, and processing new employees. Id. at 7, Tr. 21.

         While at DPOB, Bagwell was disciplined on multiple occasions. On May 1, 2009, Downtown's Director of Human Resources, Debbie Campbell, issued a “Disciplinary Warning Letter” to Bagwell. ECF 33-2 at 9, Tr. 31; ECF 33-4 (Letter of May 1, 2009). In the letter, Campbell stated that, despite “numerous” conversations with Bagwell “regarding taking initiative and being proactive in [her] day to day job responsibilities, ” Bagwell's job performance “ha[d] not improved.” ECF 33-4. Campbell also referred to earlier discussions with Bagwell in January, February, and March of 2009. Id. And, she identified several tasks that Bagwell had failed to complete, adding that Bagwell was spending too much time on her personal cell phone and surfing the web. Id. Bagwell was warned that further violations could lead to termination. Id.

         Plaintiff received a verbal warning on May 9, 2013, from Campbell and Michele Rutkowski, Downtown's Chief Operation Officer. ECF 33-2 at 10, Tr. 34; see ECF 33-5 (Letter of December 10, 2013). The warning stemmed from Bagwell's failure to perform work tasks in a timely manner. ECF 33-2 at 10, Tr. 34-35. Then, on December 10, 2013, Campbell issued another disciplinary letter to plaintiff. ECF 33-5. Campbell identified several issues with Bagwell's performance, including poor time management, extended periods of absence, and lack of communication with her supervisors. Id.

         Downtown disciplined Bagwell again in March 2017. In a Memorandum dated March 6, 2017 (ECF 33-6), Campbell explained that on March 1, 2017, she entered Bagwell's office to retrieve employee files that she needed to perform an audit. Id. In doing so, she discovered “piles and piles of paperwork that hadn't been filed in 6 months or longer.” Id. This shocked Campbell because plaintiff had been told repeatedly that her “‘filing needs to get under control and better managed'” and that “‘keeping up with filing should be a top priority[.]'” Id.

         According to Campbell, Bagwell's failure to maintain accurate records was “a complete dereliction of [her] duties[.]” Id. Therefore, Downtown suspended Bagwell for three days, without pay. Id. To keep her position at Downtown, plaintiff was required to complete all delinquent filings within five days upon returning. Id. Further, plaintiff was placed on a six-month probationary period during which Bagwell could face further disciplinary action, including termination, if her performance did not improve. Id. The Memorandum was signed by Bagwell, Campbell, and Rutkowski. Id.

         On November 2, 2017, at 4:10 p.m., John Kirby Fowler, Jr., the President of Downtown, sent an e-mail to all DPOB staff. ECF 33-7. The email announced the merger of Downtown's two “Park Steward teams.” Id. In addition, Mr. Fowler announced two promotions. He stated: “As a result of the expanded responsibilities and personnel on the Parks Team, I am delighted to inform you that Shannon Brown has been promoted to Senior Director and Brandon Kelly has been promoted to Director. As you know, they are truly deserving of these promotions. Please be sure to congratulate them!” Id.

         Nine minutes later, Bagwell send an email to Fowler and all of Downtown's staff. It stated, in its entirety: “Congratulations Brandon! Well deserved!” ECF 33-8.

         Fowler called Rutkowski on November 2, 2017, to express his unhappiness with Bagwell's email. ECF 33-9 (Rutkowski Deposition) at 3, Tr. 24. Fowler perceived Bagwell's email to be inappropriate because it mentioned Kelly but not Brown. ECF 33-10 (Fowler Deposition) at 4, Tr. 41. At his deposition, Fowler stated: “I believe it is obvious that when someone excludes somebody from a congratulatory email and sends it out to 40-plus individuals, that they're excluding a person on purpose.” Id.

         According to Rutkowski, Fowler instructed her to speak with Bagwell and to tell Bagwell to send a corrected email congratulating both parties. ECF 33-9 at 4, Tr. 25. Rutkowski then went to talk with Bagwell in her office. ECF 33-2 at 16, Tr. 59. According to plaintiff, Rutkowski told her that Fowler “was not pleased with [her] email” and asked “if [she] could send out a follow-up email congratulating Shannon as well.” Id. Bagwell responded, “‘Do I have to?'” Id., Tr. 59, 60. Rutkowski responded, “‘No, you don't have to, but Kirby is going to want to have a conversation with you.'” Id. Bagwell told Rutkowski that she would speak with Fowler. Id.

         Although Bagwell knew that Fowler was upset about her email, and that he had asked her to send a follow-up email to congratulate both Brown and Kelly, plaintiff did not do so. Id., Tr. 61. She explained that she “didn't feel the need to send one, ” id., and “didn't see that there was an issue with the email that [she] sent.” Id., Tr. 61-62. She also claimed that she “felt bullied” by Rutkowski. Id., Tr. 61.

         After Rutkowski met with Bagwell, Rutkowski told Fowler of her conversation with Bagwell. ECF 33-10 at 8, Tr. 57. Rutkowski related to Fowler that she told Bagwell that Fowler was displeased with her email, that he wanted her to send a follow-up email, and that Bagwell did not want to do so. Id., Tr. 57-58. Fowler then sent Bagwell the following email at 5:04 p.m. on November 2, 2017: “I'm extremely disappointed in you. Very unprofessional and divisive.” ECF 33-11. Bagwell did not respond.

         At his deposition, Fowler stated that he decided to terminate Bagwell after learning from Rutkowski that Bagwell “refused to send a follow-up email with no explanation.” ECF 33-10 at 12, Tr. 88; see id., Tr. 87; id. at 13, Tr. 102. He added, id. at 12, Tr. 85: “I still don't know why she did not send a follow-up e-mail . . . the first email was problematic . . . when she did not want to send a follow-up e-mail [that] was [also] problematic.” Further, he stated, id.: “And if I hadn't terminated [Bagwell] and just let it go, I would not be able to have the kind of morale I want in the organization and people would think that I was not able to control the morale of the organization.”

         Fowler met with Rutkowski and Campbell on November 3, 2017, to discuss Bagwell. Id. at 5, Tr. 46. Campbell and Rutkowski expressed their belief that Bagwell's behavior did not warrant her termination. See Id. at 7, Tr. 54. However, after Fowler explained why he felt Bagwell's continued employment would be problematic, they agreed to terminate her. Id. at 6, Tr. 51-52.

         Campbell and Rutkowski terminated Bagwell during an in-person meeting on November 3, 2017. ECF 33-2 at 19, Tr. 70; see also ECF 33-12 (Termination Letter of Nov. 3, 2017).[1] Rutkowski gave Bagwell a copy of the Termination Letter, which was signed by Rutkowski. ECF 33-2 at 19; ECF 33-12. The Termination Letter stated that plaintiff's termination was due to her “(1) Failure to meet the standards and expectations established for this organization”; “(2) Misuse of email”; and “(3) Deliberate attempt to undermine morale.” ECF 33-12. It also stated, id.:

Downtown Partnership prides itself on good communication between employees. On Thursday November 2, 2017 our President sent out an All Staff email informing every one of two promotions in our Events Department. You replied with an All Staff email in a perceived negative fashion when only congratulating one of the two promotions that Kirby mentioned. Immediately I came into your office expressing how unhappy Kirby was with your email and he wanted you to send a follow up email out. You hesitated and asked if you had to send the email. I said no that you didn't have to, but I reiterated ...

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