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Atkins v. McHugh

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

April 21, 2015

LESLIE ATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN M. McHUGH, Secretary of the Army, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ABDUL K. KALLON, District Judge.

Leslie Atkins, a 54 year old[1] African-American who has worked for the United States Department of the Army for over twenty years, claims that her supervisors denied her promotions and training, and reassigned her to a less desirable job because of her race and age. Doc. 15. Accordingly, Atkins pursues claims against the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, for alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq. Doc. 15. The Secretary moved for summary judgment, doc. 28, which is due to be granted for the reasons below.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." To support a summary judgment motion, the parties must cite to "particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). Moreover, "Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to "go beyond the pleadings" to establish that there is a "genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). However, "mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion." Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Furthermore, "[a] mere scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party." Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[2]

Atkins's allegations center around her experiences while working as an administrative assistant in the Department of Public Works ("DPW") of the U.S. Army Garrison at Redstone Arsenal ("Redstone"). Atkins joined Redstone in 1995 as a secretary for the Fox Army Health Center, and in 2003 transferred to DPW to work as an Office Automation Assistant. Doc. 29-3 at 14-15. Redstone categorized the Office Automation Assistant Position as a "GS-5" grade level position. Id. In October 2006, Atkins earned a promotion to a GS-6 Administrative Support Assistant for the Engineering Division of DPW. Id. at 16. Atkins remained in that position for five years, consistently earning pay raises until she reached the maximum salary allowed for a GS-6 position. Id.

In 2011, Redstone received instructions from its Installation Management Command to "reduce its overall size" by eliminating personnel in excess of the "table distribution of allowances" ("TDA").[3] Docs. 29-6 at 24, 67; 29-8 at 12. In compliance with this mandate, Redstone's Garrison Commander, Colonel John Hamilton, eliminated many clerical positions which were "less critical" to the organization-including Atkins's position at DPW. Doc. 29-8 at 17. As a result, Colonel Hamilton transferred Atkins laterally with no loss in pay to a vacant GS-6 Administrative Support Assistant position with the Installation Safety Directorate (the "Safety Office"). See docs. 29-3 at 18; 29-6 at 67; 29-8 at 18. Atkins contends, however, that the Safety Office is "one of the lowest branches within" Redstone and believes Colonel Hamilton transferred her because of her race and age. Doc. 29-3 at 40, 56.

Atkins also believes that Redstone denied her training because of her race and age throughout her tenure as a GS-6 employee, which presumably prevented her from qualifying for a promotion to a higher grade level. Id. at 26. Specifically, Atkins purportedly requested training from two supervisors-Joey Skinner and Keith Cook-but never received that training because her supervisors told her "they didn't have the funding." Id. at 26, 77. Meanwhile, Atkins's "general belief" is that Redstone offered training to four other Caucasian and/or younger employees, [4] who were then able to successfully compete for promotions. Id. at 30. According to Atkins, Redstone "preselected" these employees for those higher level positions by "fixing" the job announcements. Id.

The four employees Redstone trained and promoted purportedly because of their race and/or age are:

1. Margaret Ingram

Margaret Ingram purportedly received training to help her advance from a GS-7 Environmental Protection Specialist Assistant position to a GS-9 Specialist Assistant position. Id. at 28-30. To support this contention, Atkins claims that she "just [feels] like" Ingram received training. Id. at 29.

2. Teresa Dail

Teresa Dail began working at Redstone in 2006 as a GS-7 Management Assistant. Doc. 29-10 at 4. Two years later, Dail successfully applied for a GS-9 Program Analyst Position. Id. Atkins generally believes that Redstone trained and preselected Dail for the GS-9 position because she "would have to get some on-the-job training or some training somewhere... [since] she doesn't have any education in order to qualify her for the [GS-9] job." Doc. 29-3 at 46. But, Atkins testified that she is "not sure" what on-the-job training Dail received. Id. at 45.

3. Mary Kight

Along the same lines, Atkins seemingly believes that Redstone chose Mary Kight-who is older than Atkins-for a GS-7 position based on discriminatory animus. See id. at 51-53; doc. 29-14 at 24.

4. Misty Taylor

Finally, Atkins takes issue with Redstone's decision to hire and promote Misty Taylor. Taylor joined DPW in June 2009 as a temporary summer hire while in college. Doc. 29-9 at 13. As her summer job came to its end, Taylor asked her supervisors if she could stay on as a "Co-Op" as part of the Student Career Experience Program ("SCEP"), id. at 28, a government program which allows "[s]tudents, who are U.S. citizens, [to] be noncompetitively converted from the [SCEP] to a term, career or career-conditional appointment" upon the satisfactory

Page 6 of 11 completion of certain requirements, 5 C.F.R. § 213.3202(a) & (b)(10)-(11) (2001).[5] In light of Taylor's "exceptional performance and... good [grade point average], " her supervisors kept Taylor at DPW under the SCEP as a Student Trainee Program Analyst in the Master Planning Division. Doc. 29-9 at 25, 28, 30. After Taylor received an associate's degree in July 2010, her supervisors "non-competitively converted" her through the SCEP to a career Management and Program Analyst in a "developmental position." Id. at 48, 64. Taylor's developmental position was a "5-7-9 grade, " which means that she became a career employee with the goal of advancing to a GS-9 position-but, first, she "would start out as a [GS-]5, " and upon completing certain duties to her supervisors' satisfaction, she would ultimately "develop" into her target GS-9 grade. Id. at 48. In July 2011, after Taylor had "worked in the GS-5 level for one year, proved exceptional service, [and] performed all [her] duties as assigned, " Taylor advanced to the GS-7 grade, and then to the GS-9 grade in July 2012. Id. at 65-66. Atkins takes issue with Taylor's promotion because, as she describes in her EEOC complaint, Atkins "had not been selected for any of the secretary/administrative assistant position jobs that were open in DPW, but [the positions] were filled by young students/co-ops" like Taylor. Doc. 29-15 at 2.

IV. ANALYSIS

The Secretary maintains that summary judgment is appropriate because: (a) Atkins's failure to promote claims are time barred; and (b) Atkins's reassignment to the Safety Office was not "an adverse employment action, " or alternatively, that Atkins cannot rebut Redstone's legitimate reason for the reassignment. The court addresses these contentions in turn.

A. Claims surrounding promotions of comparators are time barred

It is well-established that a plaintiff alleging discrimination based on "discrete acts such as... failure to promote, " Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 114 (2002), may not bring a Title VII or ADEA action unless the alleged discriminatory act "has been made the subject of a timely-filed [EEOC] charge, " Alexander v. Fulton Cnty., Ga., 207 F.3d 1303, 1332 (11th Cir. 2000) overruled on other grounds by Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2003) (Title VII); see also Hipp v. Liberty Nat. Life Ins. Co., 252 F.3d 1208, 1214 (11th Cir. 2001) (ADEA). Relevant here, because Alabama is a non-deferral state, [6] an EEOC charge is timely where the plaintiff files the charge "within 180 days after the allegedly discriminatory acts." Hipp, 252 F.3d at 1208 n. 2. Giving Atkins the benefit of the doubt and using the December 19, 2011 date when she first contacted an EEOC official-rather than the January 31, 2012 date she filed her complaint, see doc. 29-15 at 2-any claims surrounding promotion decisions occurring prior to June 22, 2011 are time barred. Unfortunately for Atkins, the record is undisputed that the promotions of Ingram, Dail, Kight, and Taylor occurred prior to June 22, 2011. Specifically, Redstone promoted Ingram in February 2009, doc. 29-11 at 18, Dail in May 2008, April 2009, January 2010, and October 2010, doc. 28-12 at 19, Kight in June 2009, doc. 29-14 at 24, and placed Taylor in the developmental series position-through which she advanced to a GS-7 and GS-9-in July 2010, doc. 29-9 at 48, 64. Consequently, to the extent Atkins bases her action on these promotion decisions-or any training that Redstone offered these employees to purportedly "preselect" them or "fix" them up for the promotions[7]-the "acts are untimely filed and no longer actionable." Morgan, 536 U.S. at 115. Therefore, summary judgment is due with respect to the failure to promote claims. See Moses v. State Farm Ins., No. 2:14-CV-00146-MHH, 2015 WL 404264, at *2 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 29, 2015) (granting summary judgment on untimely Title VII and ADEA claims); Goodridge v. Siemens Energy, Inc., No. 4:11-CV-240-VEH, 2013 WL 597782, at *7 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 30, 2013) (same).

B. The allegedly discriminatory reassignment to the Safety Office

Even assuming that Atkins's allegedly discriminatory reassignment is an adverse employment action, summary judgment is also due with respect to this claim because Atkins cannot establish that the Secretary's reason for the reassignment was pretext for discrimination. In fact, there is no evidence that Colonel Hamilton's decision to transfer Atkins "to promote a more effective and efficient operation of the Garrison [at Redstone], " doc. 29-4 at 38, was based on discriminatory animus, see Clark v. Huntsville City Bd. of Educ., 717 F.2d 525, 529 (11th Cir. 1983) (to prove discrimination, a plaintiff "must convince the court that [defendant] operated... with a racially discriminatory motive, purpose, or animus"). As Colonel Hamilton explained, in downsizing to meet TDA requirements, he "had to decide based on... necessity... [and] priority where [Redstone] could afford to cut people, " and which positions were "less critical" to the organization. Doc. 29-8 at 17. He concluded that Atkins's DPW position- along with many other administrative positions supporting lower-level managers- was less critical as compared to administrative positions supporting higher-level managers (such as Atkins's position in the Safety Office). See id. at 16-17. Based on this, Colonel Hamilton eliminated the DPW position and then worked to "get [Atkins and other employees] to other positions that were authorized" by the TDA. Id. Because there is no evidence that Colonel Hamilton's decision was "pretext for accomplishing a racially discriminatory purpose, "[8] Clark, 717 F.2d at 529; see also Alvarez v. Royal Atl. Developers, Inc., 610 F.3d 1253, 1265 (11th Cir. 2010) (to show pretext, a plaintiff must demonstrate "such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could find them unworthy of credence"), the court concludes that summary judgment is appropriate.

V. CONCLUSION

For the reasons above, the court will grant the Secretary's motion for summary judgment and dismiss this action with prejudice. The court will enter a separate order consistent with this opinion.


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