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Qaiser v. Small Business Administration

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

March 18, 2016

AMNAH QAISER, Plaintiff,
v.
SMALL BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION, ET AL., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES C. CACHERIS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

This matter is before the Court on Defendants’ motion to dismiss or for summary judgment in this Title VII employment discrimination and hostile work environment case. [Dkt. 14.] For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Background

Plaintiff Amnah Qaiser (“Qaiser”) is a Muslim, is Pakistani, and has brown skin. (Compl. [Dkt. 2] ¶ 13.) From 2006 through September 2012 she provided loan servicing assistance as a contractor for the United States Small Business Administration’s (“SBA”) National Guaranty Purchase Center (“Center”) in Herndon, Virginia. (Id. ¶ 20.) Qaiser brings this lawsuit alleging that Center Director Vanessa Piccioni (“Piccioni”) and “her underlings” discriminated against Qaiser based on race, color, national origin, and religion during the time she provided contract services for the Center. (Id. ¶ 20.) Those allegations focus on two incidents in 2010 and one incident in 2012.

The first allegedly discriminatory incident occurred in April 2010. At that time, Qaiser had worked in various loan servicing assistance roles at the Center for several years as a contract employee for a company holding a contract with the SBA, Washington Products Services (“WPS”). (Id. ¶ 3.) In March 2010, Qaiser applied and interviewed for a promotion to a loan specialist position with WPS. (Id. ¶ 4.) On April 1, Qaiser received a congratulatory email from WPS offering her the promotion and instructing her to sign and return an acceptance letter that day. (Compl. Ex. A [Dkt. 2-7].) Two hours later, and before Qaiser submitted her acceptance, a WPS officer emailed Qaiser withdrawing the offer. (Compl. Ex. B [Dkt. 2-7].) The email explained that the SBA liaison called WPS and said the “SBA has decided that the Loan Specialist position will not be filled at this time.” (Id.) Less than two weeks later, however, WPS allegedly offered the position to someone who is not Muslim or Pakistani and who had less experience working at the Center than Qaiser. (Compl. ¶ 12; Afari Decl. [Dkt. 20-4] ¶ 7.)

Qaiser alleges that WPS withdrew the promotion offer because Piccioni “interfered, and with intimidation and threat to WPS demanded that they retract the offer they made to [her].” (Compl. ¶¶ 4, 21; Afari Decl. ¶ 6.) According to the complaint, Piccioni “hated [Qaiser] for some unexplained reason, and not because she was not qualified for the position or any justifiable business reasons.” (Compl. ¶ 4.) No SBA employee ever told Qaiser that Piccioni hated her or that Piccioni’s alleged hatred motivated WPS’s decision to withdraw the offer. (Compl. ¶ 21.) After this withdrawn promotion, Qaiser continued working as a loan servicing assistant contractor for WPS at the Center in Herndon. (Compl. ¶¶ 11-12.)

The second alleged act of discrimination occurred in May 2010. (Compl. ¶ 27.) Around this time, Qaiser had ordered some vitamins and diet pills to be delivered to the Center. (Compl. ¶ 5; Compl. Ex. G [Dkt. 2-12]; Qaiser Depo. [Dkt. 15-4] at 42.) On a Friday, Qaiser was searching around the Center for the package when she came across a work friend, who invited Qaiser to walk to a supermarket next door. (Compl. Ex. G; Qaiser Depo. at 42-43.) While on this break, Qaiser complained to her friend about her package delivery woes. (Compl. Ex. G; Qaiser Depo. at 44.) Qaiser grumbled that, in addition to mishandling the diet-pills package, the postal service once wrongly delivered a package to the Center, when the package should have gone to the Inspector General’s Office. (Compl. Ex. G; Qaiser Depo. at 44.) Qaiser, who was working in the Center mailroom at the time, unknowingly opened the Inspector General’s package and found a firearm inside. (Compl. Ex. G; Qaiser Depo. at 44.) Qaiser explained that she took the package and firearm to the Inspector General’s Office where an employee instructed her not to open the Inspector General’s packages. (Compl. Ex. G; Qaiser Depo. at 45.)

As Qaiser described this incident, her friend became confused. (Compl. Ex. G; Qaiser Depo. at 46.) Misunderstanding Qaiser’s story, the friend came to believe that the firearm incident had occurred that same day and the friend grew concerned about a gun being at the workplace. (Compl. Ex. G; Qaiser Depo. at 46.) Before going home for the weekend, the friend relayed her concern to Piccioni by reporting that Qaiser found a firearm at the Center and gave it to the Inspector General. (Compl. Ex. G; Qaiser Depo. at 46.) Piccioni also became concerned and contacted the Inspector General’s Office to verify its receipt of the firearm. (Compl. Ex. G.) When the Inspector General’s Office reported that it had not received any firearm recently from Qaiser, Piccioni called WPS to get Qaiser’s cellphone number to investigate this incident. (Compl. Ex. G.) After receiving no answer from Qaiser, Piccioni sent an email instructing Center employees not to come to the office over the weekend. (Compl. Ex. G.) Piccioni then emailed WPS and asked that they contact Qaiser immediately to investigate this issue. (Compl. Ex. G.) About thirty minutes later, Piccioni was able to reach Qaiser by cellphone, but Qaiser said she had no idea what firearm Piccioni was talking about. (Compl. Ex. G.) Piccioni instructed Qaiser to report to work early on Monday to meet with an Inspector General agent and told Qaiser she would have no access to the Center until that interview. (Compl. Ex. G.)

On Monday morning around 7:00 a.m., an Inspector General agent and Piccioni interviewed Qaiser and the friend about the firearm. (Compl. Ex. G.) From those interviews, Piccioni learned that the whole incident was the result of the friend misunderstanding Qaiser’s story. (Compl. Ex. G.) Piccioni explained in an email to WPS officers, SBA administrators, Inspector General agents, and Qaiser, that the whole episode was “a situation of a major miscommunication.” (Id.) Qaiser returned to work that same morning. (Id.)

The third incident occurred in September 2012, when Qaiser was not hired for a permanent SBA job opening at the Center. In April 2012, Piccioni informed the Center’s contract employees that several permanent loan servicing assistant positions had just been made publicly available. (Pl.’s Ex. 8 [Dkt. 20-9]; Compl. ¶ 6.) Qaiser applied and learned in June 2012 that the SBA staffing office in Denver deemed her “qualified” and referred her name “to the selecting official(s) for consideration.” (Pl.’s Ex. 9 [Dkt. 20-10].) A three-person panel then interviewed Qaiser and twenty-one other qualified applicants for the position. (Hardy Decl. [Dkt. 15-7] ¶ 5.) The SBA ultimately hired ten applicants, but Qaiser was not one of them. (Hardy Decl. attach. 1.)

The interview panel included the following three senior Center employees: Assistant Director for Center Operations Kevin Hardy (“Hardy”), an African-American (Qaiser Depo. at 3; Hardy Decl.); Supervisory Loan Specialist for the Loan Accounting Division Angelia Hicks (“Hicks”), an African-American and a Christian (Qaiser Depo. at 3; Hicks Decl. [Dkt. 15-9]; Pl.’s Ex. 13 [Dkt. 20-15] at 7); and Supervisory Loan Specialist in the Care and Preservation Costs Department Cynthia Smith (“Smith”), who is white and a Catholic (Qaiser Depo. at 3; Smith Decl. [Dkt. 15-10]; Pl.’s Ex. 13 at 6). The interviewers asked the candidates two questions about work-related experience, two questions about displays of initiative, and two questions about character. (Hardy Decl. ¶ 5; Hardy Decl. attach. 1.) The interviewers independently assigned the candidates scores of 0 to 5 for each question and weighted the total scores to create a scaled candidate score from 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest. (Hardy Decl. attach. 1.)

Qaiser did not receive good scores from her interview. Although Qaiser testified that her interview “went great” because she got feedback of “good facial expressions, ” the interviewers testified otherwise. (Qaiser Depo. at 4.) Hardy said that “Qaiser’s responses demonstrated that she seemed confused about how to prioritize her work, ” that she “talked around” a question rather than answering it directly, that she “didn’t seem to understand” another question, and that her answer regarding a professional or personal challenge “did not add up.” (Hardy Decl. ¶ 7.) He gave her a total score of 5.25 out of 10. (Hardy Decl. attach. 1.)

Hicks said Qaiser had a “very subtle and kind disposition” and that she answered a question related to teamwork well, but that “there were some things on her resume that she could not expound on, she did not express herself very well, and she did not really answer one of the questions.” (Hicks Decl. ¶ 7.) Overall, Hicks said that Qaiser’s “responses were not extraordinary responses that displayed extensive knowledge and skills.” (Id.) Hicks gave her a score of 6.44 out of 10. (Hicks Decl. attach. 1.)

Smith said that “[b]ased on the interviews, I did not believe that Ms. Qaiser was one of the best candidates for the position.” (Smith Decl. ¶ 6.) Smith also noted that the interviewers were “looking for mortgage professionals, people who had experience in the mortgage services industry, ” but Qaiser “did not demonstrate that experience well in her interview.” (Id.) Smith gave Qaiser a score of 6.25 out of 10. (Smith Decl. attach. 1.)

Averaging the three scores together, Qaiser received a rating of 5.98 out of 10. (Hardy Decl. attach. 2.) This ranked her twentieth out of the twenty-two candidates interviewed. (Id.) These rankings were then given to Piccioni, who extended offers to the top ten candidates. (Piccioni Decl. [Dkt. 15-8] ¶ 6.) Because some of the top candidates declined the offer and others did not pass security clearance, Piccioni ultimately extended offers to the top seventeen individuals before all ten positions were filled. (Id.) Among those hired were six African Americans, one Caucasian, one Indian, one Asian, and one Egyptian. (Id. ¶ 8.) Qaiser ranked twentieth on the list and thus was not selected. (Id. ¶ 7.) All three interviewers testified that race, color, national origin, and religion did not factor into their evaluations. (Hardy Decl. ¶ 7; Hicks Decl. ¶ 6; Smith Decl. ¶ 7.)

Qaiser appears to allege that Piccioni influenced the interviewers’ evaluation of Qaiser in some way, although that accusation is far from clear. The complaint alleges that Piccioni discriminated against Qaiser as follows:

when she was passed for selection, apparently because she was not experienced, and yet, being asked to train and she did, new hires who used the skills she imparted to them, to earn more money and enjoy all the benefits of being a United States permanent employer, when she could not just because she was a Pakistani and a Muslim and Vanessa Picciono did not like her, even though she knew she was a good worker and used her like a slave.

(Compl. ¶ 29 (all errors in original).) In assorted paragraphs in the complaint, Qaiser makes several allegations that she believes demonstrate Piccioni interfered with the panel’s evaluation, including the following: some time after the interviews, Hardy asked Qaiser to help train three of the hired candidates and told her “good job”; Qaiser had over four years’ experience working as a loan servicing assistant contractor; a supervisor wrote her a favorable recommendation letter; and Piccioni “reserve[d] slots” for other candidates. (Compl. ¶¶ 4, 6, 11, 12, 13, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29.) The substantiation behind those allegations and Defendants’ responses are discussed more fully in the pretext analysis below.

After not receiving the permanent job offer, Smith’s contract was nearing its natural end around September 28, 2012. (Compl. ¶ 3.) On September 21, she contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity Counselor (“EEO Counselor”) regarding the two incidents in 2010 and the recent hiring decision. (See EEO Report [Dkt. 15-3].) After listening to Qaiser, the EEO Counselor interviewed the three panelists and reviewed several documents related to Qaiser’s allegations. On October 16, 2012, the EEO Counselor issued a notice of right to file a formal complaint, which Qaiser did on November 1, 2012. (EEO Compl. [Dkt. 15-1]; EEO Report.) On November 30, 2012, the EEO Director for the SBA sent Qaiser a notice that she would investigate the allegations related to the 2012 interview, but that the two 2010 incidents were dismissed as untimely. (EEO Notice [Dkt. 15-6].) Thereafter, an EEO contractor investigated the decision not to hire Qaiser in 2012, resulting in a 681-page report. (Defs.’ Ex. M [Dkt. 15-13].) After receiving the report, Qaiser requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (ALJ Mem. Op. [Dkt. 15-14].) Initially Qaiser proceeded pro se, but she retained counsel near the end of discovery for this administrative hearing. (Pl.’s Ex. 12 [Dkt. 20-14].) Ultimately, however, the ALJ granted summary judgment as to the 2012 claim without conducting a formal hearing. (ALJ Mem. Op. at 7.)

On June 29, 2015, Qaiser filed a corrected complaint with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia alleging three causes of action related to the incidents discussed above: (1) unlawful discrimination under Title VII; (2) discriminatory harassment; and (3) hostile work environment. Qaiser named the SBA, SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweed, and Piccioni as defendants (collectively “Defendants”). After the case was transferred here, Defendants motioned to dismiss or for summary judgment. After full briefing and oral argument, this motion is ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a court to dismiss allegations that fail “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). A court reviewing a complaint on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion must accept well-pleaded allegations as true and must construe factual allegations in favor of the plaintiff. See Randall v. United States, 30 F.3d 518, 522 (4th Cir. 1994).

If the court considers matters outside of the pleadings on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, it shall treat the motion as one for summary judgment, to be disposed of under Rule 56, and provide all parties a “reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to such a motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). “When a party is aware that material outside the pleadings is before the court, the party is on notice that a Rule ...


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