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Lee v. Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

April 14, 2014

CASSANDRA L. LEE, Plaintiff,
v.
VIRGINIA BEACH SHERIFF'S OFFICE, et al., Defendants.

OPINION AND FINAL ORDER

REBECCA BEACH SMITH, Chief District Judge.

This matter comes before the court on the Motion for Summary Judgment and accompanying Memorandum in Support, filed by the Defendants[1] on September 26, 2013. The Plaintiff filed her Opposition to the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on October 17, 2013, [2] and the Defendants filed their Reply on October 25, 2013. The matter is now ripe for review. For the foregoing reasons, the motion is GRANTED.

I. Factual and Procedural History

A. Factual History[3]

From March 1990 through December 2009, the Plaintiff, an African American female, worked for the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office ("VBSO"), ultimately achieving the rank of Captain, and becoming the first minority female to command Correctional Operations in the VBSO.[4] She had achieved several top recognitions prior to being appointed as Commanding Officer of the Inmate Services and Records Division ("ISR"). Pl.'s Am. Compl. ¶ 18. During her tenure as the Commanding Officer of the ISR, which began on May 1, 2008, and ended on June 1, 2009, the Plaintiff complained of difficulty working under Chief Deputy Schuster and Chief Deputy Free because "they were creating a hostile work environment of discrimination and retaliation against [her]."[5] Id . ¶ 23. The Plaintiff met with Sheriff Lanteigne and Chief Deputy Schuster in February 2009 to address her strained working relationship with Chief Deputy Schuster. Defs.' Reply to Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. at 3. To ensure effective communication between the Plaintiff and Chief Deputy Schuster, Sheriff Lantiegne held a meeting between himself, the Plaintiff, and Chief Deputy Schuster in which he asked to be copied on emails between the Plaintiff and Chief Deputy Schuster, and Chief Deputy Schuster asked the Plaintiff for ideas that would better facilitate such communication. Defs.' Reply to Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. at 3; Defs.' Ex. 2, Schuster Aff. ¶ 9; Defs' Ex. 7. At this meeting, the Plaintiff did not address any concerns of discrimination or retaliation. Defs.' Ex. 2, Schuster Aff. ¶ 9.

Additionally, during her tenure in the ISR, the Plaintiff experienced work performance-related issues. Specifically, she was informally counseled for erroneous inmate releases; failing to implement ISR training procedures; failing to effectively communicate with her superiors; ignoring established VBSO directives for reporting critical incidents; acting against those established directives; failing to use a biometric fingerprint system in place for the weekender tracking program; delaying the process of inmates released on bond; failing to provide requested information to her superiors; disregarding directives from her superiors; and failing to track inmates under the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Summ. J. at 4-7; Defs.' Ex. 2, Schuster Aff. ¶¶ 10-15; Defs.' Ex. 11.

The Professional Standards Office ("PSO") in charge of investigating erroneous inmate releases confirmed a deficiency in the ISR training and supervision, and a subsequent audit of the ISR division also revealed deficiencies in the operation of the ISR. Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Summ. J. at 5-8; Defs.' Ex. 12. The auditing team determined that the issues plaguing the ISR were attributable to the senior command officers, which included the Plaintiff and the Lieutenants working for her. Defs.' Ex. 2, Schuster Aff. ¶ 19. The Plaintiff was never formally disciplined as a result of the erroneous inmate releases, or as a result of the ISR audit.[6] She was, however, informed of the results. Id . Because of the PSO investigation, the audit, and the needs of the VBSO, [7] the senior leadership was reassigned. Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Summ. J. at 10. As such, the ISR was reorganized and the Civil Process Division reverted to a former administrative structure, in which a Captain was placed in charge. Id . On April 30, 2009, Sheriff Lanteigne announced this reorganization.

On May 29, 2009, the Plaintiff filed her first Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") charge alleging discrimination and retaliation based on race and gender. On June 1, 2009, the Plaintiff was laterally transferred to the Civil Process Division, where she was assigned as the Commanding Officer of that division. Pl.'s Am. Compl. ¶ 26; Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Summ. J. at 11. The Plaintiff did not suffer a reduction in salary, benefits, or other conditions of employment. Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Summ. J. at 11. The Plaintiff remained as the Commanding Officer of the Civil Process Division until December 16, 2009, when the Sheriff-Elect[8] decided not to reappoint her. Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Summ. J. at 14; Defs.' Ex. 1, Stolle Aff. ¶ 15; Pl.'s Ex. 21. The Defendants assert that the decision was based on the "plaintiff's performance, lack of accountability and failure to accept responsibility, her peers' negative reviews, [9] and her hostile and unreceptive demeanor in two interviews." Id . The Plaintiff was then notified that she would not be reappointed.[10] At the time of her non-reappointment, the Plaintiff was five months short of a twenty-year career with the VBSO. On July 7, 2010, the Plaintiff filed her second EEOC charge alleging discrimination based on race and gender, and retaliation. Defs.' Reply to Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J.

At all times relevant to the Plaintiff's employment, the VBSO had in effect an internal Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") Policy, whereby any employee could file a formal complaint of discrimination and/or sexual harassment. See Defs.' Ex. 5. The filing of a complaint pursuant to the VBSO policy did not preclude the filing of an EEOC charge. Id . Any filed complaint would be internally investigated by the PSO. Id . At all times relevant to her employment with the VBSO, the Plaintiff never filed an internal EEO complaint pursuant to the VBSO EEO Policy to address her discrimination and retaliation complaints.[11] As such, no internal resolution of her complaints was achieved. See Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Summ. J. at 4; Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. ¶ 11. The Plaintiff, however, was aware of the policy.[12]

B. Procedural History

On March 13, 2013, the Plaintiff, Cassandra L. Lee, proceeding pro se, [13] filed an Amended Complaint against the Defendants, alleging two counts of discrimination and two counts of retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and the Virginia Human Rights Act ("VHRA").[14] The Plaintiff alleges that, during her employment with the VBSO, the Defendants discriminated against her on the basis of her race and gender, and retaliated against her for filing two charges with the EEOC. Both EEOC charges were investigated and referred to the Department of Justice ("DOJ") after failed attempts at conciliation; however, the DOJ refused to file suit on both charges and, subsequently, forwarded the Plaintiff a notice of the right to sue. Pl.'s Ex. 28. The Plaintiff timely filed her Amended Complaint on March 31, 2013, and on September 26, 2013, the Defendants moved for summary judgment. On October 17, 2013, the Plaintiff filed her Opposition to the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, and the Defendants filed their reply on October 25, 2013.

In her Amended Complaint, the Plaintiff names the following entities as the Defendants in their official and individual capacities:[15] the VBSO, the former and current Sheriff, other officers, and a civilian employee.

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("FRCP") 56 is appropriate when the court, viewing the record as a whole and in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, finds there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248-50 (1986). A court should grant summary judgment if the nonmoving party, after adequate time for discovery, has failed to establish the existence of an essential element of that party's case, on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In essence, the non-movant must present "evidence on which the [trier of fact] could reasonably find" for the non-moving party. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 252.

To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must go beyond the facts alleged in the pleadings, and rely instead on affidavits, depositions, or other evidence to show a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex , 477 U.S. at 324; see also M & M Med. Supplies & Serv., Inc. v. Pleasant Valley Hosp., Inc. , 981 F.2d 160, 163 (4th Cir. 1993) ("A motion for summary judgment may not be defeated by evidence that is merely colorable' or is not sufficiently probative.'") (quoting Anderson , 477 U.S. at 249-50). Conclusory statements, without specific evidentiary support, do not suffice, Causey v. Balog , 162 F.3d 795, 802 (4th Cir. 1998), nor does "[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position." Anderson , 477 U.S. at 252. Rather, "there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff." Id.

A. Statutory Basis and Burden of Proof

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to "discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). It also prohibits retaliation against an employee, making it unlawful for "an employer to discriminate against any of his employees... because [the employee] has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter." Id . § 2000e-3(a).

To avert summary judgment, a plaintiff alleging discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title VII may proceed through two avenues of proof. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co. , 416 F.3d 310, 318 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Management, Inc. , 354 F.3d 277, 284 (4th Cir. 2004)). The plaintiff may present "direct or circumstantial evidence that raises a genuine issue of material fact as to whether an impermissible factor such as race motivated the employer's adverse employment decision." Id . Alternatively, the plaintiff may proceed under the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green , 411 U.S. 792 (1973).[16] Id . In this case, the Plaintiff seeks to proceed under the burden-shifting framework.[17]

Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, this court must first consider whether the Plaintiff has established a prima facie case of race or gender-based discrimination. McDonnell , 411 U.S. at 802. The essential elements of a prima facie case vary slightly depending upon the manner in which the Defendants allegedly discriminated against the Plaintiff. Compare Coleman v. Md. Court of Appeals , 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010) (listing the elements of discrimination based on disparate treatment) with Diamond , 416 F.3d at 319 n.6 (listing the essential elements of a claim of racial discrimination in a failure to promote case) and Bryant v. Bell Atl. Maryland Inc. , 288 F.3d 124, 133 {4th Cir. 2002) (setting forth the essential elements of a claim of racial discrimination in the enforcement of employee disciplinary measures). If the Plaintiff fails to establish any of the essential elements of a prima facie case of discrimination, the court must grant summary judgment in favor of the Defendants. See Bryant , 288 F.3d at 133-35. If, on the other hand, the Plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the Defendants to articulate a non discriminatory reason for the difference in treatment. Id. at 133. If the Defendants articulate one or more such reasons, the burden shifts back to the Plaintiff to demonstrate that the Defendants' reasons were merely a pretext for discrimination. Id.

B. Scope and Timeframe of the Plaintiff's Claims

The Plaintiff's claims are limited to the timeframe and issues raised in her EEOC charges as her EEOC charges define the scope of her Title VII claims. See Jones v. Calvert Group, Ltd. , 552 F.3d 297, 300 (4th Cir. 2009) (stating that "only those discrimination claims stated in the initial charge, those reasonably related to the original complaint, and those developed by reasonable investigation of the original complaint may be maintained in a subsequent Title VII lawsuit") (quoting Evans v. Technologies Applications & Serv. Co. , 80 F.3d 954, 963 (4th Cir. 1996)).

III. Analysis

The Defendants advance six arguments in support of their Motion for Summary Judgment. The Defendants allege that 1) the Plaintiff cannot establish discrimination based on race or gender; 2) the Plaintiff cannot establish a hostile work environment; 3) the Plaintiff cannot establish retaliation; 4) the Eleventh Amendment bars the Plaintiff's official capacity claims that seek money damages against the Defendants; 5) Title VII does not provide the Plaintiff a remedy against the Defendants in their individual capacities; and 6) the VHRA does not provide the Plaintiff a remedy.

A. Discrimination Claims

The Plaintiff alleges race and gender discrimination based on disparate treatment when the Defendants subjected her to an audit, reprimand, and transfer. The Plaintiff also alleges race ...


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