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O'Brien v. Johanns

May 15, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Susan Webber Wright United States District Judge


Sandra L. O'Brien ("O'Brien") and Donna E. Peterson ("Peterson") bring this case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., against the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), alleging racial harassment and retaliation. Peterson also alleges constructive discharge. This case is set for trial the week of August 13, 2007. Now before the Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment to which plaintiffs responded and defendant replied. After careful consideration, and for the reasons stated below, the Court determines that the motion for summary judgment should be granted.


O'Brien, a white female, is employed by the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service ("NRCS") in Little Rock, Arkansas, as a Human Resources Specialist. Peterson, a white female, was employed by the NRCS in Little Rock in the position of Human Resources Officer, from May 17, 1981, until April 30, 2005. Peterson was O'Brien's supervisor during the relevant time period.

Kalven Trice, a black male, was the State Conservationist for Arkansas, the chief NRCS official in Arkansas, and Peterson's second line supervisor. Joseph Manuel, a white male, was Peterson's first line supervisor from May 2001 to August 19, 2004.

In 2003, following several cancer surgeries, O'Brien was receiving chemotherapy. On May 27, 2003, she submitted a request to Manuel for permission to work from home. Manuel submitted the request to Trice, who took no action. On September 13, 2003, O'Brien submitted a second request, which Trice approved on September 22, 2003. O'Brien worked from home for two days after Trice approved her request.

On September 30, 2003, O'Brien, whose job was to rate and rank job applicants, issued a list of the best qualified candidates for two secretarial positions to Trice, the selecting official. On October 9, 2003, Trice called Manuel to his office to explain the ranking and rating of the applicants. Manuel could not a answer Trice's questions so he called O'Brien into Trice's office.*fn1 During the meeting, Trice questioned O'Brien about alleged inconsistencies and deficiencies in her rating and ranking of the panels. O'Brien testified she believed Trice was upset that a friend of his, a black female, was not on the list of rated applicants.*fn2 O'Brien said she had been rating candidates for years and had never been asked such detailed questions about how she arrived at the points she gave particular candidates.*fn3 Both Trice and O'Brien raised their voices, and O'Brien considered Trice to be berating and verbally battering her. She began to cry. Peterson became aware that the meeting was in progress and decided to enter Trice's office. Peterson advised O'Brien to leave, and the meeting continued with Peterson, Trice, and Manuel.

O'Brien filed an informal complaint with the EEOC on October 15, 2003. She claimed Trice retaliated against her for testimony she gave in January 2000 at an EEOC hearing concerning a complaint Peterson filed against Trice in 1997.*fn4 She also alleged hostile work environment and harassment.*fn5

In mid-October 2003, Trice sent the application files prepared by O'Brien to the regional office for a second opinion on the ratings and rankings of the secretarial applicants. On October 29, 2003, Peterson sent an e-mail to Anderson Neal, a black male, who was assistant state conservationist of operations, asking him to ask Trice to return the application files. The files were returned from the regional office in late January or early February 2004. On December 4, 2003, Trice informed Manuel by telephone that he did not want Human Resources to rate and rank any applications. On December 8, 2003, Trice directed Manuel by e-mail not to rate and rank any panels.

At some point, Manuel designated Peterson to serve as acting state administrative officer for the month of November 2003. Peterson sent an e-mail to all employees, notifying them she would be serving in that capacity while Manuel was on leave. When Trice learned of this, he sent an e-mail to all employees, advising them that Neal would be acting state administrator for that period of time.

In November 2003, O'Brien, Peterson, and Linda Aldridge, another human resource employee supervised by Peterson, attended an Office of Personnel Management ("OPM") training session in San Diego, California. The training committee approved the OPM training for Aldridge and O'Brien but not for Peterson. Manuel approved the training for all three but did not inform Trice. On November 17, 2003, Trice asked Manuel about the whereabouts of the human resource staff. Trice thought it was inappropriate for the entire staff to go the same training and asked Manuel to provide him with the out-of-state training policy and travel authorization for the San Diego trip. Manuel asked Peterson to pull the information. Trice later obtained copies of pertinent travel vouchers from various staff members.

On January 15, 2004, Trice received a report from the regional office which found discrepancies and inconsistencies in the process O'Brien used to rate and rank applications. Trice wrote a confidential memorandum on January 22, 2004, addressed to Manuel and copied to members of the management team. Trice attached a copy of the regional office review. On January 27, 2004, Trice met with Manuel and Peterson, and instructed them to review the regional office's findings. On February 9, 2004, Manuel and Peterson submitted their review. Trice was upset with their review because they rebutted the regional office's findings and forwarded copies of their review to Trice's supervisor before giving Trice an opportunity to review their findings.

On February 10, 2004, Trice met with Manuel and Peterson to discuss their review. He directed Manuel not to send copies of correspondence to his superior or anyone above the state conservationist level without Trice's prior approval. In a memorandum dated February 12, 2004, Trice told Manuel it appeared Manuel had tried to find holes in the regional office's findings rather than address the issues raised, and Trice found this unacceptable.

O'Brien followed up her informal complaint of October 2003 with a formal complaint in December 2003. Diane McFadden, a black female, and Shelly Moore, a white female, were directed to conduct an investigation to determine whether there was a hostile work environment at the NRCS office in Little Rock. They conducted their investigation on January 22 and 23, 2004. They concluded that Trice had not created a hostile work environment for O'Brien. Trice announced the results of the investigation at a management team meeting in March 2004.

In March 2004, O'Brien was scheduled to attend a yearly DEU training session in Texas. She also was supposed to review the Texas office's DEU procedures. She complains that Trice refused to permit her to perform the review, and that Trice told others that O'Brien would not be attending the training session until her ...

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