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Wilson v. Potter

August 29, 2006

KAREN WILSON AND ELIZABETH JEAN SETTLES PLAINTIFFS
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wm. R. Wilson, Jr. United States District Judge

ORDER

Pending is Defendant's Consolidated Motion for Summary Judgment.*fn1 Plaintiffs both bring their cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, alleging race-based disparate treatment. Plaintiff Wilson also alleges hostile work environment and retaliation claims.

For the reasons set forth below, the Consolidated Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED in part and GRANTED in part.

I. Background

Ms. Karen Wilson ("Wilson") is an African American -- employed by Defendant since February 18, 1986. Ms. Elizabeth Settles ("Settles") is an African American -- employed by Defendant from June 22, 1974, to December 30, 2004.

In October 2000, a Dispute Resolution Specialist ("DRS") position became available in the Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") Department. In January 2001, four individuals were selected to interview for the position. Among them were Settles, Wilson, and Ms. Pemberton -- a Caucasian female. Sam Alexander, Defendant's EEO Dispute Resolution Manager, recommended Settles for the position. However, Ms. Pemberton ("Pemberton") was chosen by the District Human Resources Manager.

Pemberton worked in a department that was eliminated for budget reasons. The Postal Service has a reduction-in-force ("RIF") policy that allows noncompetitive placement of employees, who are terminated because of cut-backs. Defendant asserts that Pemberton was placed in the DRS position to avoid a RIF termination. Plaintiffs contend that the assignment was too late to comply with RIF avoidance, and they point to other procedures that were not followed when Pemberton was given the job.

In addition to a disparate treatment claim, Wilson alleged a hostile work-environment beginning in 1996 and continuing until April 2001. Wilson also alleged that, after she filed her EEO complaint, she was subjected to retaliation when her work environment became worse.

In June 2003, Settles discovered that she was passed over for the DRS promotion, even though she was chosen as most qualified. Settles contacted an EEO counselor on July 1, 2003 about possible discrimination. Later, she filed a formal complaint and an appeal -- both were decided against her. This action was filed on June 16, 2005.*fn2 Settles alleges that her exhaustion of administrative remedies was timely because she did not learn that she was selected as the most qualified candidate until June 25, 2003. Defendant concedes that Settles' claim would be timely if she was unaware of the discrimination at the time it took place.

II. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue of material fact, so that the dispute may be decided on purely legal grounds.*fn3 The Supreme Court has established guidelines to assist trial courts in determining whether this standard has been met:

The inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial -- whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.*fn4 The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has cautioned that summary judgment is an extreme remedy that should only be granted when the movant has established a right to the judgment beyond controversy.*fn5 Nevertheless, summary judgment promotes judicial economy by preventing trial when no genuine issue of fact remains.*fn6 This court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.*fn7 The Eighth Circuit has also set out the burden of the parties in connection with a summary judgment motion:

[T]he burden on the party moving for summary judgment is only to demonstrate, i.e.,"[to point] out to the District Court," that the record does not disclose a genuine dispute on a material fact. It is enough for the movant to bring up the fact that the record does not contain such an issue and to identify that part of the record which bears out his assertion. Once this is done, his burden is discharged, and, if the record in fact bears out the claim that no genuine dispute exists on any material fact, it is then the respondent's burden to set forth affirmative evidence, specific facts, showing that there is a genuine dispute on that issue. If the respondent fails to carry that burden, summary judgment should be granted.*fn8 Only disputes over facts that may affect the outcome of the suit under governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.*fn9

III. Discussion

A. Disparate Treatment

1. Authority

Plaintiffs' disparate treatment claims are based on indirect evidence, and must be analyzed under the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.*fn10 Under thisanalysis, Plaintiffs must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. In a failure-to-promote claim, Plaintiffs must make an initial showing that (1) they are members of a protected class; (2) they were qualified for the position; (3) they were denied the position; and (4) the employer selected a similarly situated person who was not a member of the protected class for the position.*fn11

At the prima facie stage, Plaintiffs' burden of showing that they are similarly situated to other job applicants is not "onerous."*fn12 Employees applying for promotions are similarly situated where they meet the minimum qualifications for the position.*fn13 "Whether the applicants' experience and qualifications were in fact a legitimate basis for the [employer's] decision is more relevant to the issue of pretext than the plaintiff's prima facie burden."*fn14

Once Plaintiffs meets this initial threshold, a presumption that the employer "unlawfully discriminated against the employee" arises.*fn15 The burden of production then shifts to the employer, who must state some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employment decision.*fn16

If the defendant states a "legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision," the presumption raised by the prima facie case of discrimination is rebutted and "drops from the case."*fn17 When the defendant meets this burden, the plaintiff must have "a fair opportunity to show that the stated reasons for [the employment decision] was, in fact, pretext,"*fn18 or were not true.*fn19

It is well established that "Title VII claims may be 'subject to waiver as well as tolling when equity so requires.' "*fn20 "[E]quitable tolling is a remedy reserved for circumstances that are truly beyond the control of the plaintiff."*fn21 This doctrine will extend a deadline missed due to an employee's excusable ignorance.*fn22 The Sixth Circuit has set forth five factors that help determine if equitable tolling is appropriate in a given case: (1) whether a plaintiff lacked actual notice; (2) whether the plaintiff lacked constructive notice, i.e., should have known; (3) the diligence with which a plaintiff pursued her rights; (4) whether there would be prejudice to the defendant if the statute were tolled; and (5) the reasonableness of the plaintiff remaining ignorant of his rights.*fn23

2. Analysis

Settles lost the promotion in 2001, but did not file her EEO claim until 2 years later, well after the 45 day deadline. However, Settles maintains that she was not aware of the discrimination until she discovered that she, not Pemberton, was selected as the most qualified candidate. In view of this, the statute of limitations is tolled due to her excusable ignorance. I believe her claim was filed in time, i.e., when she reasonably became aware that she had lost a promotion to an allegedly less qualified applicant.

Plaintiffs assert that Defendant discriminated against them based on their race by failing to promote them to the DRS position in 2001. Defendant concedes that Plaintiffs satisfy the first three elements of the prima facie case.*fn24 However, Defendant contends Plaintiffs cannot show that they were similarly situated to Pemberton, because she was subject to RIF avoidance policies, and Plaintiffs were not. Therefore, argues Defendant, Plaintiffs fail to establish a prima facie case, but it is mistaken.

Based on the holding in Peterson v. Scott County,*fn25 the issue of Pemberton's RIF status is relevant to the issue of pretext, not Plaintiffs' prima facie burden. The only facts relevant to the "similarly situated" element in these claims, are Wilsons' and Settles' qualifications, and there is no dispute that they met the qualifications.*fn26 So, Wilson and Settles produced sufficient evidence to create a prima facie case. Thus, the ball moves to the Defendant's court to come up with a non-discriminatory reason for the Pemberton's promotion.

Defendant offers evidence that Pemberton's promotion was a legitimate exercise of the Postal Service's RIF policies.*fn27 Evidence offered by Wilson and Settles that RIF procedures were not followed, counter this explanation for ...


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