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Bart-Williams v. Exxon Mobil Corp.

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

October 1, 2017

IRIS BART-WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
EXXON MOBIL CORPORATION Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GERALD BRUCE LEE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant ExxonMobil Corporation ("ExxonMobil")'s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 13), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Plaintiff Iris Bart-Williams filed a Complaint against ExxonMobil alleging: race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Section 1981") (Count I); retaliation under Section 1981 (Count II); discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and sex, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Count III); retaliation under Title VII (Count IV); age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (Count V); and retaliation under the ADEA (Count VI). There are five issues before the Court.

         The first issue is whether certain allegations that form the basis of Plaintiffs Title VII, ADEA, and Section 1981 claims are statutorily time-barred. The Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue for two reasons. First, with respect to her Title VII and ADEA claims, Plaintiff failed to file EEOC charges within 300 days from the occurrence of the allegedly discriminatory events. Second, to the extent that her Section 1981 race discrimination and retaliation claims are premised on conduct that occurred before October 24, 2012, they must be dismissed as untimely.

         The second issue is whether Plaintiff demonstrated a genuine dispute of material fact regarding a prima facie case of discrimination under the familiar burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). The Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue because Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether (1) she suffered an adverse employment action, excluding her termination, (2) she met ExxonMobil's legitimate performance expectations, or (3) she was terminated under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.

         The third issue-assuming arguendo that Plaintiff established a prima facie case for discrimination-is whether Plaintiff, when faced with Defendant's legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for termination, has demonstrated a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether ExxonMobil's actions were a pretext for discrimination. The Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue because Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether ExxonMobil's stated reasons for termination were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination.

         The fourth issue is whether Plaintiff has demonstrated a genuine dispute of fact as to "but for" causation on her ADEA claim. The Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue because Plaintiff has not presented any evidence demonstrating a genuine dispute of material fact as to age-based discrimination.

         The fifth and final issue involves Plaintiffs retaliation claims, and whether she has demonstrated a genuine dispute of material fact concerning her purported protected activity as the "but for" cause of her termination. The Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to Plaintiffs retaliation claims because Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a genuine dispute of fact for trial concerning her purported protected activity as the "but for" cause of her termination.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiffs Experience in Fuels Marketing

         Plaintiff is an African female from Sierra Leone, and was 59 years old at the time the Complaint was filed. (Dkt. 1 ¶ 1). Plaintiff began her employment with ExxonMobil in March 2006, and was hired as a paralegal in the company's Fairfax, Virginia office. (Dkt. 14-25, Deposition of Iris Bart-Williams ("Bart-Williams Dep.") 25:6-12). Throughout her employment, Plaintiff was an "at will" employee. (Id. at 38:13-39:5). During the first several years of her employment, Plaintiff was assigned to the Fuels Marketing Section of ExxonMobil's Downstream Law Department. (Id. at 27:10-16). The Fuels Marketing Section was responsible for retailing and marketing fuel and petroleum products, as well as convenience items. (Dkt. 14-26, Declaration of Doug Neagli ("Neagli Dep.") 12:3-17).

         In her role supporting attorneys within the Fuels Marketing Section, Plaintiff mainly worked on real estate and asset management issues concerning ExxonMobil's company-owned gas stations. (Bart-Williams Dep. at 27:17-28:17). From 2006 to 2011, Plaintiff assisted attorneys who focused on real estate law and asset management, including Don Fullerton, an outside counsel who contracted with ExxonMobil to perform certain legal work in the real estate context. (Id. at 26:11-22; Neagli Dep. 24:12-17).

         In July 2007, Doug Neagli-a 54 year white male-joined the Fuels Marketing Section as Assistant Chief Attorney, and became Chief Attorney of the Section in 2008. (Neagli Dep. 19:3-20). One of Mr. Neagli's responsibilities was coordinating feedback for paralegals and attorneys as part of ExxonMobil's Performance Assessment and Development Process ("PADP"). Relatedly, paralegal coordinator Dara Behan also played a role in the professional development process. (Dkt. 14-28, Deposition of Dara Behan ("Behan Dep.") 8:14-9:2). Ms. Behan is a 43 year old Filipino female. (Dkt. 14-2, Declaration of Austyn E. Johnson ("Johnson Decl.") ¶ 5).

         During the early years of Plaintiffs employment with ExxonMobil, she received generally positive feedback from attorneys and supervisors based on her work on real estate matters, including positive feedback from Mr. Neagli, as expressed on Plaintiffs early EADS forms. (Dkt. 14-3, 2008 Employment Assessment and Development Summary ("EADS"); Bart-Williams Dep. 51:17-52:7, 70:3-18, 74:21-75:5; Dkt. 14-4, 2010 EADS; Dkt. 14-5, 2011 EADS).

         B. ExxonMobil's Performance Assessment and Development Process

         ExxonMobil's PADP is a detailed, multi-step process that seeks to maintain an environment of continuous performance improvement for every employee. (Johnson Decl. ¶ 5; Neagli Dep. 60:12-65:1). Each PADP performance period runs from April 1 of one year through March 31 of the next year. (Johnson Decl. ¶ 5). At the beginning of each period, all employees draft an Employee Assessment and Development Summary ("EADS"), in which they list their contributions and self-assess their work from the prior year. (Id.)

         In addition to an employee's self-assessment, supervisors solicit information regarding the employee's performance from other individuals, known as "knowledgeable others." (Id.) In the Law Department, paralegals can receive input from business line clients (who are external to the Law Department) that the paralegal may identify, but supervisors also receive feedback on a paralegal's performance from the attorneys whom the paralegals are supporting. (Id.) Supervisors are entitled to give different weight to the various feedback received from the different individuals. (Id.) Supervisors then take the employee's self - assessment, their own assessment of the employee, and any feedback from knowledgeable others to update the EADS. (Johnson Decl. ¶ 5; Neagli Dep. 63:5-65:1).

         Furthermore, in addition to EADS feedback, employees are ranked within their particular rank group. (Johnson Decl. ¶ 6). An employee's ranking represents how he or she is performing relative to his or her peers. (Id.)

         C. Plaintiff is Reassigned to the Lubricants and Petroleum Section

         From 2008 to 2012, ExxonMobil divested its ownership interests in company- owned retail and gas stations across the country. (Bart-Williams Dep. 65:12-20). As a result of the divestment, the need for paralegal support in the asset management and real estate context decreased. (Neagli Dep. 42:3-14).

         During the discussion regarding her 2011 EADS, Plaintiffs supervisors informed her that it would be necessary to be "flexible" moving forward because of the divestment of retail stations (also known as the "Business Improvement" process), which was causing changes in the need for legal services in the Fuels Marketing Section. (2011 EADS; Bart-Williams Dep. 65:12-66:21). Plaintiff stated that she was "indeed flexible and looking forward to any new opportunities." (2011 EADS).

         In late 2011, Plaintiff was reassigned from the Fuels Marketing Section to the Lubricants & Petroleum Specialties Section (the "Lubes Section"). (Bart-Williams Dep. 28:21-29:5). The Lubes Section marketed finished lubricants, basestocks, and specialty products such as waxes. (Neagli Dep. 34:14-20). ExxonMobil reassigned Plaintiff from the Fuels Marketing Section to the Lubes Section because of decreasing workloads in the Fuels Marketing Section related to ExxonMobil's divestment of retail station properties. In addition, there was a need for paralegal services in the Lubes Section, in part because another paralegal was scheduled to be on maternity leave for approximately six months. (Bart-Williams Dep. 28:21-29:8).

         The Fuels Marketing Section and the Lubes Section were both in the Downstream Law Department and were both located in the same office area. (Neagli Dep. 43:1-20). Paralegals frequently moved across the Fuels Marketing Section, the Lubes Section, and other business lines within the Downstream Law Department to do tasks. (Id.) All ExxonMobil paralegals are expected to be able to perform assignments and provide support throughout the law department, regardless of their specific assigned sections at any given time. (See id.)

         D. Plaintiffs Work Performance Begins to Decline

         Soon after Plaintiff joined the Lubes Section, her co-workers and supervisors began to recognize deficiencies in her performance. Plaintiff testified that shortly after her reassignment, Lubes Section Chief Attorney Jo Anne Murphy, a 59 year old white female, and attorney Sensimone Williams, a 46 year old African-American female, began "commenting that my performance was not up to par." (Bart-Williams Dep. 83:3-13; Dkt. 14-6, 2013 Performance Improvement Letter; Bart-Williams Dep. 39:12-14, 42:12-43:9). For example, Plaintiff had difficulty with basic tasks in both Microsoft Excel and Word. (Behan Dep. 53:7-12).

         Ms. Murphy specifically noted that while Plaintiffs performance in the Fuels Marketing Section during the first half of the assessment period had been strong, her work following her reassignment to the Lubes Section needed to improve. (Dkt. 14-7, 2012 EADS ("[S]he still has a lot of work to do to proactively climb the learning curve if she is to master her new [Lubricants & Specialties] portfolio."); Bart-Williams Dep. 92:16-21). This is notable because employees of the Law Department regularly transfer between sections and are expected to have the skills needed to succeed, even if the subject matter of the new assignment is different. (Neagli Dep. 43:10-20, 57:9-21). In an effort to help Plaintiff improve her performance, Ms. Murphy began meeting with Plaintiff on a regular basis for informal coaching and counseling sessions. (See Dkt. 14-6, 2013 Performance Improvement Letter).

         E. Plaintiffs Initial "Box Review" Work Assignment

         In June 2012, Plaintiff was assigned to work on the Lubes Record Management Guideline Box Review Project. (Bart-Williams Dep. 105:12-106:1). For this project, attorneys performed substantive reviews of various documents and provided the information to Plaintiff, who was supposed to pull the Lubes Section information together for Robert Lee, the records administrator, who was coordinating the review across the entire Downstream Law Department. (Behan Dep. 37:4-38:4). Plaintiff struggled to complete the project in a timely and organized fashion. Plaintiffs supervisor stated that Plaintiff "was disorganized and lacked the basic computer skills to update Excel spreadsheets to efficiently track the boxes." (Dkt. 14-8, 2013 EADS; Bart-Williams. Dep. 141:2- 6, 142:2-6). In an email to paralegal coordinator Dara Behan, Attorney Sensimone Williams requested that an alternate paralegal be assigned to the project to ensure that the box review was completed in a timely manner. (Dkt. 14-16, Declaration of Dara Behan ("Behan Decl.") ¶ 3; Dkt. 14-17)

         F. Paralegal Coordinator Sends Plaintiff Performance Improvement Letter

         Because Plaintiffs performance continued to decline, on February 26, 2013, Paralegal Coordinator Dara Behan sent Plaintiff a performance improvement letter. (Dkt. 14-6, 2013 Performance Improvement Letter; Bart-Williams Dep. 43:2-4). Ms. Behan informed Plaintiff that her performance level declined during the previous year. (Dkt. 14-6). Ms. Behan referenced negative feedback from attorneys and law department staff who had worked with Plaintiff. (Id.) The letter also specifically highlighted areas of performance on which Plaintiff was encouraged to focus as part of the performance improvement process. (Id.)

         By this time, Kelly Scoffield, a 60 year old white male, had joined the Downstream Law Department as an Assistant Chief Attorney. (Johnson Decl. ¶ 16). In this role, Mr. Scoffield served as Plaintiffs supervisor with respect to performance evaluations. As the months ensued, Mr. Scoffield and Ms. Behan met with Plaintiff on numerous occasions for informal coaching and counseling sessions. (Bart-Williams Dep. 124:16-125:4). Plaintiff did not improve her performance, however. (Neagli Dep. 20:6-22; Dkt. 14-8, 2013 EADS).

         G. Plaintiff Returns to Asset Management Work But Continues to Struggle

         In 2013, ExxonMobil assigned Plaintiff to resume supporting attorneys who worked on asset management. (Bart-Williams Dep. 36:13-15). During this period, Noreen Tama, a 56 year old white female and an attorney with ExxonMobil, was in charge of ExxonMobil's asset management portfolio. (Johnson Decl. ¶ 17; Dkt. 14-27, Deposition of Noreen Tama ("Tama Dep.") 47:21-48:1). Ms. Tama oversaw all company asset management work, including work done by outside counsel such as Don Fullerton. (Tama Dep. 48:2-14).

         Ms. Tama also observed several performance deficiencies in Plaintiff. For example, in feedback for the April 1, 2013 through March 31, 2014 assessment period, Ms. Tama stated that Plaintiff "makes more obvious mistakes and errors" than other paralegals. (Johnson Decl. ¶ 45; Dkt. 14-9, 2013-2014 Client Input Form). Ms. Tama further stated that Plaintiff "is not self-motivated and does not look for ways to make herself helpful, " and further that she did not seem "particularly knowledgeable about the company despite having been here for 8 years." (Dkt. 14-9).

         On September 16, 2013 as part of the Performance Assessment and Development Process ("PADP"), Mr. Scoffield and Ms. Behan met with Plaintiff to discuss her 2013 EADS evaluation. (Dkt. 14-8). In Mr. Scoffield's written summary of the September 16, 2013 meeting, he stated:

On September 16, 2013, Dara Behan and I reviewed with Iris her client feedback and EADS comments. One client gave her a low rating and the others chose not to provide any comments/comparison. We told Iris that compared to other paralegals, her feedback was weak. As we had several times during the ranking cycle, we told her that the overall trend in her performance is not good and was not improving. We told her that she had fallen in the rank group, and was now in the bottom third. We emphasized that she needed better client feedback, but more importantly she needed to improve the input she gets from the attorneys she supports. We indicated that without a material change in her performance, it may be in her interests to think about employment elsewhere. She said she understood.

(Id.)

         H. Plaintiff is Placed on a Performance Improvement Plan

         Plaintiff was placed on a performance improvement plan ("PIP") on March 28, 2014, because her performance had continued to fall below expectations. (Bart-Williams Dep. 208:7-11). The purpose of a PIP is to improve an employee's performance. (Johnson Decl. ¶ 7). At this point in time, the Fuels Marketing Section and Lubes Section had merged to form one section, led by Chief Attorney Doug Neagli (Neagli Dep. 10:18-11:10). Mr. Neagli provided Plaintiff with a written letter detailing the reasons for her placement on the PIP and also provided structured feedback regarding areas for improvement. (Dkt. 14-10, 2014 PIP; Bart-Williams Dep. 43:12-15, 49:18-50:4).

         The written PIP informed Plaintiff that her performance would be monitored over a six-month period, and that she would receive bi-weekly coaching and counseling sessions. (Id.) The PIP further advised Plaintiff that if, at the conclusion of the six-month period, her performance continued to fall below the expected performance level, then "additional actions will be considered, which may include termination." (Id.) Plaintiff was aware that a failure to improve her performance might result in termination. (PI. Dep. 201:9-13).

         As part of the PIP, Plaintiff was assigned to coordinate and manage the Downstream Legacy Box Review Project. (Dkt. 14-10). This project again involved attorneys reviewing documents for compliance with the company's record retention requirements and Plaintiff working with records administrator Robert Lee, a 69 year old Filipino male, to coordinate the responses. (Neagli Dep. 143:8-144:8). Once again, Plaintiffs supervisors and co-workers stated that Plaintiff s performance on this second box review project was deficient. (Dkt. 14-11, 2014 EADS; Bart-Williams Dep. 248:10-13, 251:15-252:1). Mr. Lee commented that Plaintiff "demonstrated her lack of skills in planning, implementing and managing a project." (Dkt. 14-9, 2013-2014 Client Input Form). Likewise, Mr. Neagli, who directly supervised Plaintiffs performance on the project, testified that "her performance on the box review project was deficient." (Neagli Dep. 148:9-10).

         Plaintiff also struggled in other areas. For example, in a June 11, 2014 email to Dara Behan, attorney Linda Fannin, a 61 year old African-American female, stated as follows: "During my discussion with Iris, it became clear that independent work is a challenge for her. Iris needs close supervision with hard deadlines; otherwise, her assignments may not get done." (Dkt. 14-18, June 11, 2014 email; Behan Decl. ¶ 4).

         I. Plaintiffs Performance Improvement ...


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