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Ghebreab v. Inova Health System

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

April 26, 2017

EDEN GHEBREAB, Plaintiff,
v.
INOVA HEALTH SYSTEM, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          LEONIE M. BRINKEMA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Eden Ghebreab ("plaintiff” or "Ghebreab"), proceeding pro se, has filed a two-count complaint alleging discrimination in compensation and retaliatory discharge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the basis of race and national origin against defendant Inova Health System ("defendant" or "Inova") and seeking $1, 000, 000.00 in damages. Before the Court is defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, which argues that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the discrimination claim because it was not timely exhausted and that plaintiffs retaliatory discharge claim fails because she has not demonstrated that she engaged in a protected activity. For the reasons that follow, defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ghebreab is a black female from Eritrea. PI. Facts, [Dkt. 39] at ¶ 4. Inova, a large hospital in Northern Virginia, hired her in 2002 as a registrar in its Office of Continuing Medical Education ("CME Department"), an office which "provides services such as accrediting meetings, developing programs, applying for grants or securing other funding for meetings, and managing speakers for meetings." Def. Ex. 1, [Dkt. 33-1] at ¶ 6; Def. SUMF, [Dkt. 33] at ¶ 5.In 2004, Dr. Madeline Erario ("Erario") was made director of the CME Department. At around the same time, plaintiffs title was changed from "registrar" to "data specialist." Def. SUMF, [Dkt. 33] at ¶ 4; PL Facts, [Dkt. 39] at ¶ 6.

         Although plaintiff received generally positive performance reviews, she demonstrated an unwillingness to accept constructive criticism. For example, in 2006, plaintiff received an overall score of 424.25 out of 500 possible points, which is designated "commendable" on Inova's scale for performance reviews.[1] Def. Ex. 7, [Dkt. 33-7] at 10. Her scores were distributed relatively evenly among the "exceeds all standards, " "often exceeds standards, " and "meets standards" categories. Id. at 4-8. Despite the overall positive nature of this review, Ghebreab refused to sign the review, Id. at 1, and attached a self-assessment stating, "The assessment I was give[n]... does not reflect my exceeding all standards of some of my work and often exceeding on others. There for [sic] I have asked for a review by director [sic] before I sign my assessment, " Id. at 13.

         In 2008, plaintiff was promoted to a Senior Meeting Planner and Credentialing Specialist, which included a substantial portfolio of event planning. Def. SUMF, [Dkt. 33] at ¶ 8. The promotion included a pay raise, and in her new position plaintiff was designated as an "exempt" worker under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLS A"), meaning she was not entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA. Id.

         As the CME Department expanded its portfolio, Inova decided to bring additional people into the department. In January 2009, Inova hired Kelley Sanchez ("Sanchez") as the CME Department manager. Id. at ¶ 9. According to plaintiff, Sanchez received the job in part because she was friends with the CME Department's director. PL Facts, [Dkt. 39] ¶ 9. After Catherine Tumelty ("Tumelty") joined the department in August 2009, Sanchez supervised at least three Senior Meeting Planners in total, including Ghebreab, Tumelty, and Kellen Bagnoli ("Bagnoli").[2] Def. SUMF, [Dkt. 33] at¶ 10.

         Plaintiff alleges in an unsigned, undated statement attached to her opposition that Sanchez made two racially-tinged comments in 2009. First, she alleges that on February 5, 2009, "Sanchez said she could not believe how many Africans work[ed] for the hospital giv[en] the location." PL Ex. lcl, [Dkt. 39-2] at 32. When Ghebreab asked what she meant by that, Sanchez allegedly "said the area is considered a 'white neighborhood.'" Id. Sanchez allegedly made the second comment on September 8, 2009, when Ghebreab and Sanchez were working on a CME event that served lunch. Id. According to Ghebreab, Sanchez said, "[T]hese African nurses don't mind standing for a long time on line to get their lunch. To be honest, I think they just come for the lunch, not to learn anything." Id. Defendant denies that Sanchez made these comments.

         CME Department members occasionally travel for educational programming. In 2009, several department members took such a trip to Chicago, with Ghebreab and Tumelty traveling in August and Sanchez and Bagnoli traveling in December. Def. SUMF, [Dkt. 33] at ¶ 11. Because such trips require the Senior Meeting Planners to work long hours on weekends, the department permits them to take compensatory time off ("comp time") in lieu of overtime pay. Inova had a policy governing comp time, which stated that "the CME manager/director" would "approve and provide comp time to CME staff, " and that "the staff will be responsible to keep their hours in a shared drive excel account." PL Ex. Ib5, [Dkt. 39-2] at 9. At some point after the Chicago trip, the practice of keeping such records on a shared drive was abandoned, and employees were responsible for keeping their own records and periodically sharing them with Sanchez, Erario, and Human Resources personnel. See PI. Facts, [Dkt. 39] at ¶ 13.

         Ghebreab claims that Sanchez specifically told her that she was not permitted to take comp time for the Chicago trip, although Sanchez has no memory of any such conversation. Compare PI. Facts, [Dkt. 39] at ¶ 14, with Def. SUMF, [Dkt. 33] at ¶ 19. Sanchez does remember speaking to Tumelty, who was new to the department, about the comp time policy shortly before the Chicago trip, and does not remember if Bagnoli was present for that conversation. Def. SUMF, [Dkt. 33] at¶¶ 13-14. Both Bagnoli and Tumelty received comp time for the Chicago trip. Id. Plaintiff claims that she did not know at the time that the other two Senior Meeting Planners received comp time for the Chicago trip. PI. Facts, [Dkt. 39] at ¶ 15. She asserts, without pointing to any evidentiary support for the claim, that Sanchez changed the policy about keeping comp time on the shared drive with the purpose of keeping this disparate treatment hidden from Ghebreab. Id. at ¶ 13.

         In August 2010, plaintiff took a trip to Eritrea. She alleges in the same undated, unsigned document discussed above that on her first day back, August 16, 2010, Sanchez said "I bet you are so glad to be back to civilization I don't know how you do it, I would never put myself through that. You look like you [are] going to need recover[y] time." PI. Ex. lcl, [Dkt. 39-2] at 32. Plaintiff took this comment to be racially motivated. See id.

         In November 2010, while Sanchez was on maternity leave, plaintiff took a trip to Richmond with Tumelty and Bagnoli. PL Facts, [Dkt. 39] at ¶ 15. While they were on the train, plaintiff claims that Tumelty and Bagnoli said they were looking forward to receiving comp time for the trip. Id. Plaintiff claims that she expressed surprise, thinking that the trip could not add to their comp time because she was told that the Chicago trip did not count. Id. Tumelty and Bagnoli then informed plaintiff that they were both given comp time for the Chicago 2009 trip. Id.

         Because Sanchez was out on maternity leave when plaintiff learned about Tumelty and Bagnoli receiving comp time, she complained directly to Erario. According to plaintiff, she "clearly informed Ms. Erario of my discrimination and past miss treatments [sic] by Ms. Sanchez." Id. at ¶ 16.[3] When Erario asked her why Sanchez might be discriminating against her, plaintiff alleges that she replied, "I don't know, I work very hard on all my work always and do great job [sic] per your feedback. The only thing is I am different form [s]c] them and it hurts to feel this way and I can't change who I am even if I want to." Id. Beyond the vague reference to being "different" from Bagnoli and Tumelty, plaintiff did not mention her race or national origin explicitly in her account of that conversation. See Id.

         On November 29, 2010, Sanchez returned from maternity leave, and Ghebreab presented her with a written complaint airing a number of grievances, including the Chicago comp time disparity. Def. Ex. 5, [Dkt. 33-5]. The complaint began with a brief introduction, which stated, "For the last two years of your time her[e] at CMEI kept doubting my self [s]c] saying maybe I am paying attention to the things that are bothersome and disappointing to me. However after reviewing my two years evaluation and thinking about all the things listed below I was correct in my feelings that as Inova's 9 years's [sic] employee I have being [s]c] treated unfairly." Id. at 1. Ghebreab then listed 13 numbered complaints, covering a wide range of issues from financial recordkeeping, to the comfort of the chairs provided to employees. Not a single issue referenced plaintiffs race, national origin, or the discriminatory comments she alleges Sanchez made. Id. at 1-5. The paragraph on the comp time issue reads as follows:[4]

You informed all three of us to remove the comp time from the share drive so that Maureena [a Human Resources employee] doesn't have access to see it so we moved it. At this point no one is over seeing the comp time and I have been learning there is more to it than Maureena seen it. Early in 2010 you called me to your office and said our director has a problem with my comp time and I said okay lets got meet with her, we went and I could not see where she has a problem eveiything was fine as my work ethic is to be trustful and not to cheat inova of any time so I had no worries. The ironic about this is that after all four of us when to Chicago for ACCME you informed my collogues to add 16 hours of comp time for the trip and no one knows what you added for your self. However you never informed me to add 16 hours for my time, I was the only one who did not get the comp time for the time that I took from my kids. Why wasn't one e-mail out to all the staff? Even if you request to see every one's comp time more than one time, clearly mine was not there... I am just finding out about this. Had the comp time was stored where every one could see in shared drive as it had being all a long I would of asked about this then. Individuals frequently leave at half day to doctor's appointments and never have to make it up. In my case the times I had doctors appointment I always would make it up and you never said as exempt employee I don't have to make it up, why? I worked in this deparment for 9 years and I have never seen people earning as much time off as I am seeing in such a short time or I am not aware of a new inova's police that explains it. Anyways I will leave this for due time and I will be focusing on my miss treatment.

Id. at ¶ 4. Ghebreab concluded the complaint by writing:

I am not so naive to think this issue/mistreatment will be gone by me addressing it however I need to make sure my rights as Inova employee is understood. I also know this hostility is harmful to my health however I couldn't just leave the CME department after investing almost ten years of my time and not having done any thing wrong except looking out for nova's best interest. I also might add I suffered foot injury in this department and it has being ongoing treatment and suffering. Therefore the needs for it that Dr. Erario allows me to walk and get movement on my foot is some thing in my best interest. With all that has being said at the end of the day Inova is responsible. The only thing I can ...

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