Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Elliott v. MD Dept of Human Resources (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Not Approved for Publication)

Signed February 22, 2007. Memorandum Opinion and Order by Judge Catherine C. Blake. (Not approved for publication)

Upon motion by the defendants for summary judgment on the plaintiff's Title VII claims, the defendants' motion for summary judgment was GRANTED.

The plaintiff ("Elliott") is an African-American woman who was an assistant director in the Dorchester County Department of Social Services ("DCDSS") from 1997 through 2003. Beginning in 2000, her unit was subject to a number of personnel issues, including tension between Elliott and a number of her supervisees, some involving racially derogatory comments allegedly made outside of the workplace. Through a series of meetings and memoranda, the management at DCDSS attempted, with mixed success, to resolve these issues, including counseling Elliott on her management style and practices.

The DCDSS workplace experienced some significant racial tensions and incidents in 2003, leading ultimately to a series of visits from the Deputy Director of DHR's Office of Employment and Program Equity in order to conduct an investigation. He found in part that the employee morale was very low in Elliott's unit, in part due to Elliott's "heavy-handed" management style, and recommended that DCDSS management work with Elliott to improve her management skills. DCDSS management met with Elliott a number of times, and went through multiple drafts of a management action plan for Elliott to follow. Throughout the process, Elliott resisted the need for change, and late in 2003 her employment was terminated. Her responsibilities were reassigned to another member of DCDSS's management, who was also an African American woman.

After first unsuccessfully appealing her termination administratively, Elliott received a right to sue letter from the EEOC in 2005, and this suit followed, alleging discrimination on the basis of race in violation of Title VII and claiming DCDSS and DHR condoned a hostile work environment and discriminated and retaliated against her. DCDSS and DHR moved for summary judgment on all counts.

Summary judgment must be granted if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Under Title VII, when there is, as here, no direct evidence of employment discrimination, the claims are to be analyzed under the burden shifting test of McDonnell Douglass v. Green, first requiring the plaintiff to establish, by a preponderance of evidence, a prima facie case of discrimination. To do so here, the plaintiff must demonstrate she is a member of a protected class, she was performing her duties in a satisfactory manner, she was subjected to an adverse employment action, and circumstances surrounding the employment action support an inference of discriminatory intent. If this is done, the burden shifts to the employer to produce evidence of a nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action, whereupon the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to establish that the proferred nondiscriminatory reason is but a pretext for discrimination.

Defendants allege that Elliott cannot make out a prima facie case of discrimination because her responsibilities were filled by another African American woman. Elliott countered that her position was in fact not filled, but her duties were just passed on to another employee, and thus did not fall under the 4th Circuit rule enunciated in Brown v. McLean. The judge agreed that it is not always necessary to show the position was filled by someone not in the protected class, but disagreed that the failure to fill the position necessarily demonstrated the necessary prima facie case of discrimination. Even assuming such a case had been made out, the judge found that Elliott had failed to provide evidence that the defendants' reasons for her firing were merely pretextual, and granted summary judgment on the discriminatory discharge count.

Elliott also claimed her termination was in retaliation for her complaints about discrimination suffered by her and other African American employees. To succeed, she must show see had engaged in protected activity, her employer had taken adverse employment action against her, and a causal connection existed between the protected activity and the employment action. Assuming Elliott had made out a prima facie case, she again had provided no evidence that the defendants' claimed nondiscriminatory reasons were merely pretextual, but rather that the adverse employment action was in direct response to Elliott's failure to cooperate in addressing the concerns with her management style.

Under the hostile work environment count, Elliott must show that the alleged harassment was unwelcome, based on race, sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment, and there was some basis for imposing liability on the employer. The harassment must be both objectively and subjectively severe and pervasive, looking to the totality of circumstances, including the frequency and severity of the discriminatory conduct, whether to conduct was phyically threatening, humiliating or a mere offensive utterance, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work perfomance. Here, the judge found the alleged incidents to be few in number, largely outside the workplace and none in her presence, and found Elliott had provided no support for the "subjective" component, that the harassment had interfered with her ability to perform her work or significantly affected her psychological well-being, and little support for holding her employer responsible, since DCDSS was not alleged to have conducted the harassment, but instead took measures to address the alleged harassment by others.

The Memorandum Opinion and Order are available in PDF.

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