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Drake v. Science Applications International Corp.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

March 4, 2018

Ellen Drake, Plaintiff,
Science Applications International Corporation, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court upon Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 52.) Pursuant to the provisions of Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(g), D.S.C., all pretrial matters in employment discrimination cases are referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for consideration. For the reasons set forth herein, the undersigned recommends that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 52) be granted as to all of Plaintiff's claims.


         Defendant is a scientific, engineering, and technology applications company that helps government and commercial clients solve problems in the areas of national security, energy and the environment, critical infrastructure, and health. (Dkt. No. 51 at 2.) In October 2010, Defendant hired Plaintiff as editing specialist. (Id.; Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 23; Dkt. No. 59 at 6.) At the time of hire, Plaintiff (female) was over the age of forty (40)[1] and had several physically apparent medical issues from a car accident that occurred prior to her employment with Defendant. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 24:13-16; Dkt. No. 44 ¶¶ 19, 21.)

         Around December 2013, Plaintiff was assigned to Defendant's Blue Force Tracer Group (“BFTG”) in Charleston, South Carolina as the team's third technical writer. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶¶ 25- 27.) As a technical writer, Plaintiff was tasked with writing, editing, and proofing user documents and training materials utilized by floor technicians in a production environment. (Dkt. No. 51-2.) Plaintiff worked closely with engineers and technicians to create, maintain, and form various types of installation procedures, including instructions and graphics for radio installation manuals. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 67:9-12.) When Plaintiff joined BFTG in 2013, Gary Wingate (“Mr. Wingate”) was one of the team's technical writers, and Jeff Stewart (“Mr. Stewart”) was the team's technical writing manager. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 27.) In September 2014, Mr. Stewart was promoted to the position of task manager, at which point Mr. Wingate became the lead technical writer on BFTG. (Id. ¶ 29; Dkt. No. 51-9 ¶ 8.) Plaintiff claims that she had more experience and was a stronger technical writer than Mr. Wingate at the time of his promotion. (Dkt. 44 ¶ 29.)

         At some point in 2015, Defendant split into two separate entities: Science Applications International Corporation (“SAIC”) and Leidos. (Id. ¶ 31.) Plaintiff remained with SAIC (hereinafter referred to as “Defendant”). (Dkt. No. 61 at 3-4.) Following the split, Defendant reclassified its remaining employees to comport with its ongoing government contracts. (Id.; Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 31.) As a general practice, SAIC employees are classified based on the needs of each particular project; as a result, job classifications change depending on the specific requirements of the underlying government contract. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 31; Dkt. No. 61 at 3-4.) Notwithstanding the reclassification of their contractual roles, employees' official job titles with Defendant otherwise remain the same. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 31; Dkt. No. 61 at 3-4.) Accordingly, although Defendant reclassified Mr. Wingate as “Engineering Technician V” and Plaintiff as “Administrative Assistant V” in 2015, they remained “technical writers” for purposes of their employment with Defendant. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 31; Dkt. No. 61 at 3-4.) According to Plaintiff, however, her particular reclassification as “Administrative Assistant” made her ineligible for raises. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 31; Dkt. No. 59 at 6.)

         Over the course of the next year, Plaintiff claims that she experienced certain negative treatment by Mr. Stewart and Defendant's management team. According to Plaintiff, Defendant scrutinized her work more than other employees, and “watched and monitored [her] at all times regarding her coming and goings, work assignments, duties and responsibilities.” (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 35.) Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Mr. Stewart occasionally “stalked” her in the parking lot at work to ensure that Plaintiff was leaving at the time she represented on her timesheet. (Id. ¶ 37; Dkt. No. 59 at 7.) Further, Plaintiff claims that Defendant policed her productivity, and accused her of spending too much time on the internet despite other male employees doing the same. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 54; Dkt. No. 59 at 7.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendant also scrutinized her requests for vacation and purposely made it more difficult for Plaintiff to obtain approval. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 39; Dkt. No. 59 at 9.) Plaintiff also contends that Mr. Stewart gave her low performance evaluations. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 34.)

         On or around December 19, 2016, Plaintiff claims that she was instructed to format and edit an operator's manual. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 38; Dkt. No. 59 at 7-8.) According to Plaintiff, Defendant's management team provided her with the wrong version of the manual, which made it difficult for Plaintiff to complete the project by the client's due date. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 38; Dkt. No. 59 at 7-8.) Plaintiff claims that she was accused of managing her time poorly, and that none of the managers took responsibility for giving Plaintiff the wrong template and jeopardizing timely completion of the project. (Dkt. No. 59 at 8.)

         In January 2017, Plaintiff claims that Mr. Stewart changed her workflow without telling her, which complicated Plaintiffs ability to access and review documents. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 40; Dkt. No. 59 at 9-10.) Specifically, as a result of Mr. Stewart's change to the workflow, Plaintiff had to go through the document control manager any time she wanted to move or review a document during the revision process-an inconvenient extra step for Plaintiff. (Dkt. No. 59 at 9; Dkt. No. 51-3 at 123:9-124:15.) Plaintiff did not miss any deadlines because of this change. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 179:24-25.)

         In February 2017, Plaintiff claims that Mr. Stewart and lead technician Brandon Wakefield (“Mr. Wakefield”) approached her and asked if she had printed certain materials in preparation for an upcoming Form Fit. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶¶ 41-42.) During a Form Fit, SAIC engineers, technicians, and technical writers meet with representatives from one of Defendant's clients and use the final draft of a manual to perform a mock installation and determine whether any changes need to be made to the manual's instructions.[2] (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 124:19-125:2; Dkt. No. 51 at 4.) According to Plaintiff, she informed Mr. Stewart that she had not yet printed the materials, at which point he adopted an “aggressive and condescending tone.” (Dkt. No. 44 42; Dkt. No. 59 at 10.) Plaintiff then printed the appropriate documents and took them to Mr. Wakefield. (Dkt. No. 59 at 10.) After delivering the documents, Plaintiff claims that Mr. Wakefield and Mr. Stewart falsely accused her of throwing the documents onto Mr. Wakefield's desk, and that Plaintiff was asked to apologize, although she denied throwing the documents. (Id. at 11; Dkt. No. 53-1 at 126:1-12; Dkt. No. 44 ¶¶ 41-44.)

         On March 7, 2017, Plaintiff attended the first day of the Form Fit, which included Mr. Stewart, SAIC technicians, engineers and writers, and a client representative. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 46; Dkt. No. 51-3 at 130:2-9.) Plaintiff claims that Mr. Stewart degraded Plaintiff throughout the day and displayed an “extremely hostile” attitude towards her. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 138:5-7.) Plaintiff claims that Mr. Stewart “was very abrupt and condescending in the things that he said [and] was clearly just irritated with [Plaintiff].” (Id. at 131:3-5; Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 46.) Plaintiff also claims that Mr. Stewart needlessly marked-up Plaintiff's documentation, and made sarcastic, condescending remarks as he did so. (Dkt. No. 59 at 12; Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 46.)

         On March 8, 2017, Plaintiff returned for the second day of the Form Fit. According to Plaintiff, Mr. Stewart continued to speak to her in an “unprofessional” and “inappropriate” manner and attempted to humiliate her by fabricating flaws in Plaintiff's materials. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 47; Dkt. No. 59 at 12; Dkt. No. 51-3 at 143:10-22.) Plaintiff claims that she felt threatened during the Form Fit because Mr. Stewart and one of the technicians were glaring at her and had “angry body posture.” (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 143:23-144:1, 145:5-9.) At some point during the Form Fit, Plaintiff and Mr. Stewart had a heated disagreement regarding potential revisions to Plaintiff's manual; specifically, Mr. Stewart felt there was ambiguity in the instructions that needed clarification, while Plaintiff felt the steps were sufficient as written. (Id. at 143:7-22.) Plaintiff walked away from the interaction and went to heat up her lunch. (Id. at 147:13-14.) When she returned, Mr. Stewart told Plaintiff to pack her things and leave the Form Fit. (Id. at 147:13-17; Dkt. No. 59 at 13.) Plaintiff asked Mr. Stewart if they could discuss the situation, but he refused. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 147:18-20; 151:2-6; Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 47.) Plaintiff then finished eating her lunch and left the Form Fit. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 151:7-10.)

         After returning to her office on March 8, 2017, Plaintiff made a verbal complaint to Marcia Saari (“Ms. Saari”), Defendant's Human Resources Business Partner, about her interactions with Mr. Stewart during the Form Fit. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 152:16-153:2; Dkt. No. 59 at 13.) According to Ms. Saari, Plaintiff did not raise any express concerns about discrimination of any sort during the conversation on March 8, 2017. (Dkt. No. 51-1 ¶ 4.) Rather, Ms. Saari claims that Plaintiff's complaint was about Mr. Stewart's general “management style” and “communication tone.” (Dkt. No. 51-8 at 15:2-10.)

         Later that same day, Mr. Stewart prepared a draft letter of reprimand regarding Plaintiff's behavior during the Form Fit. (Dkt. No. 51-6 at 42:23-25; Dkt. No. 51-7.) Among other things, the letter stated that Plaintiff had refused to address a confusing portion of the manual when asked by Mr. Stewart, and that she would not make the recommended revisions to remove the ambiguity. (Dkt. No. 51-7.) The letter also noted that Plaintiff's “outburst” occurred in front of the client's representative.[3] (Id.) Several of the technicians present during the Form Fit provided statements about Plaintiff's conduct, which Mr. Stewart included in the letter of reprimand. (Id.) At the time he drafted the letter, Mr. Stewart claims he was not aware that Plaintiff had made a complaint to Ms. Saari earlier that day, and Ms. Saari confirms that she did not inform Mr. Stewart of Plaintiff's complaint. (Dkt. No. 51-1 ¶ 5; Dkt. No. 51-9 ¶ 3.)

         As a result of Plaintiff's complaint, Ms. Saari deferred any possible discipline against Plaintiff for the Form Fit until she could adequately investigate Plaintiff's concerns. (Dkt. No. 51-1 ¶ 6; Dkt. No. 51-3 at 192:11-20.) On March 16, 2017, per Ms. Saari's request, Plaintiff submitted a written report describing her complaints against Mr. Stewart and Defendant's management team. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 155:9-21; Dkt. No. 51-10.) In her report, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant did not apply its rules equally to all employees. (Dkt. No. 51-10 at 10-11.) Specifically, Plaintiff stated that Defendant's management team had policed her work performance, attendance, and internet usage more closely than other employees. (Dkt. No. 51- 10.) Plaintiff also alleged that Defendant's management team had created a hostile work environment through what Plaintiff considered an “authoritarian management style.” (Id. at 8-9.) The report did not, however, expressly allege discrimination or hostile work environment based on a protected class. Plaintiffs report also included her version of what happened during the Form Fit. (Dkt. No. 51-10; Dkt. No. 51-8 at 15:24-16:1.)

         On May 1, 2017, Plaintiff sent an email to Ms. Saari stating that she wanted to add claims of sex and age discrimination to her complaint against Mr. Stewart and Defendant's management team. (Dkt. No. 51-11.) Ms. Saari then transferred the investigation to Beth Strother (“Ms. Strother”) in Defendant's Corporate Employee Relations Department, which specializes in work environment issues. (Id.) On May 18, 2017, while Ms. Strother's investigation was still pending, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination against Defendant with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging discrimination and harassment based on age and sex (“First Charge”). (Dkt. No. 51-14.)

         On or about June 27, 2017, Ms. Strother concluded her investigation into Plaintiffs complaints. (Dkt. No. 51-12 ¶ 11.) After interviewing the relevant witnesses and reviewing various statements, Ms. Strother concluded that there was no evidence of sex or age discrimination and, with respect to the Form Fit incident, Mr. Stewart had acted appropriately. (Id. ¶¶ 9-10.) Ms. Strother found that Mr. Stewart had requested the necessary revisions from Plaintiff in a “calm, professional manner” during the exercise, and that Plaintiff had responded defiantly. (Id. ¶ 9.) Additionally, with respect to the incident with Mr. Wakefield in February 2017, Ms. Strother concluded, based on witnesses' observations, that Plaintiff had in fact thrown the documents onto Mr. Wakefield's desk. (Id. ¶ 8.)

         Following her complaints to Human Resources and her First Charge, Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Stewart began badmouthing Plaintiff around the workplace, such that Plaintiff was “shunned” by her male colleagues and received dirty looks. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶¶ 53, 59; Dkt. No. 59 at 13.) Plaintiff also claims that Defendant continued to police her conduct at work, and even moved Plaintiff's desk to an area where management could easily spy on her. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶¶ 53, 57, 59; Dkt. No. 59 at 15.) According to Plaintiff, Defendant began to exclude her from team discussions, including the decision to hire several new writers, one of whom was Kim Gasparovic (“Ms. Gasparovic”). (Dkt. No. 59 at 16, 17, 19, 20, 23.) Plaintiff claims that although she had more experience and seniority than Ms. Gasparovic, Mr. Stewart directed that all of Plaintiff's documents be peer-reviewed by Ms. Gasparovic. (Id. at 19-20.) Plaintiff further claims that despite Ms. Gasparovic's lack of experience, Defendant treated her like a senior writer and gave her more opportunities than Plaintiff. (Dkt. No. 59 at 38.)

         On June 28, 2017, Plaintiff met with Ms. Saari and several members of Defendant's management team about her behavior during the Form Fit. Rather than issue Mr. Stewart's letter of reprimand, Defendant ultimately gave Plaintiff a Memorandum of Expectations (“MOE”), which is a written warning that goes in the employee's personnel file. (Dkt. No. 51-8 at 16:19- 17:9; Dkt. No. 51-15.) The MOE stated that Plaintiff's refusal to participate productively in the document development exercise led to her removal from the Form Fit. (Dkt. No. 51-15.) Plaintiff refused to sign the MOE; instead, she submitted a written response to Human Resources explaining why she disagreed with the MOE, and alleging that placement of the MOE in her personnel file was “retaliatory in nature” and reflected a hostile work environment. (Dkt. No. 51-15; Dkt. No. 51-8 at 17:3-6.) The MOE did not affect Plaintiff's compensation or job in any way. (Dkt. No. 51-1 ¶ 10.)

         On July 11, 2017, the EEOC issued a notice of right to sue in response to Plaintiff's First Charge. (Dkt. No. 44 ¶ 18.) On August 15, 2017, Plaintiff filed another charge of discrimination against Defendant with the EEOC, this time adding claims of retaliation, hostile work environment, and disability discrimination (“Second Charge”). (Dkt. No. 51-16.) On October 3, 2017, after receiving a notice of right to sue in response to her Second Charge, Plaintiff filed the instant case against Defendant. (Dkt. No. 1.) Plaintiff amended her Complaint on December 7, 2017, (Dkt. No. 14), and again on September 18, 2018, (Dkt. No. 44). During this time, in April 2018, Plaintiff was offered and accepted a lateral transfer to another technical writer position and received a raise. (Dkt. No. 51-3 at 165:12-24.)

         Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint alleges five causes of action: (1) sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”); (2) age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”); (3) disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); (4) hostile work environment based on sex and age in violation of Title VII and the ADEA; and (5) retaliation in violation of Title VII and the ADEA. (Dkt. No. 44.) On November 20, 2018, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint. Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition on December 17, 2018, (Dkt. No. 59), and Defendant filed its reply on December 27, 2018, (Dkt. No. 61).


         Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment “shall” be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Facts are ‘material' when they might affect the outcome of the case, and a ‘genuine issue' exists when the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” The News & Observer Publ'g Co. v. Raleigh-Durham Airport Auth., 597 F.3d 570, 576 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, “‘the nonmoving party's evidence is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in that party's favor.'” Id. (quoting Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999)); see also Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 123-24 (4th Cir. 1990). However, “the nonmoving party must rely on more than conclusory allegations, mere speculation, the building of one inference upon another, or the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence.” Dash v. Mayweather, 731 F.3d 303, 311 (4th Cir. 2013).


         I. Plaintiff's Discrimination Claims

         Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint alleges three counts of discrimination: sex discrimination in violation of Title VII; age discrimination in violation of the ADEA; and disability discrimination in violation of the ADA. (Dkt. No. 44.) Plaintiff may establish discrimination under each of these statutes through direct evidence or indirectly through the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). See, e.g., Jeffers v. Lafarge N. Am., Inc., 622 F.Supp.2d 303, 315 (D.S.C. 2008) (ADEA); Hemphill v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 975 F.Supp.2d 548, 558 (D.S.C. 2013) (Title VII); and Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 572 (4th Cir. 2015) (ADA); see also Marzett v. Charleston Cty. Sch. Dist., No. 2:14-CV-3932-RMG-MGB, 2017 WL 1274254, at *8 (D.S.C. Jan. 27, 2017), adopted, No. 2:14-CV-03932-RMG, 2017 WL 589110 (D.S.C. Feb. 14, 2017), aff'd, 697 Fed.Appx. 186 (4th Cir. 2017).

         Here, Plaintiff has not presented any direct evidence of age, sex, or disability discrimination.[4] Thus, the undersigned must analyze Plaintiff's discrimination claims pursuant to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Under this paradigm, Plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. Ferguson v. Waffle House, Inc., 18 F.Supp.3d 705, 719 (D.S.C. 2014). If Plaintiff can set forth each of the elements of a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden then shifts to Defendant “to show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions.” Id. If Defendant provides a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, the burden then shifts back to Plaintiff “to come forward with evidence that the Defendant's asserted reasons for its actions are a mere pretext for its true discriminatory motives, and that the actions of the Defendant were really based on Plaintiff's [protected characteristic].” See Id. (referencing McDonnell Douglas Corp., 411 U.S. at 802-05); see also Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., 290 F.3d 639, 647 (4th Cir. 2002) (noting that the plaintiff may show pretext, among other methods, by demonstrating that the asserted justifications, ...

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