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Gooding-Williams v. Fairfax County School Board

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

July 19, 2019




         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Fairfax County School Board's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 24). The motion is fully briefed, and the Court dispensed with oral argument. For the reasons stated below, and for good cause shown. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 24) is hereby GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Diamond Gooding-Williams was a Human Resources ("HR") employee of Defendant Fairfax County School Board ("FCSB") for twelve years, until her termination in January 2017. As a "Human Resource Specialist, Equity and Compliance Specialist II," Ms. Gooding-Williams's responsibilities included investigating discrimination and retaliation complaints filed by FCSB employees and ensuring FCSB schools complied with HIPAA.

         From December 2004 until January 2014, Ms. Gooding-Williams reported to Sherry Braithwaite. While Ms. Gooding-Williams was generally reviewed as meeting expectations by Ms. Braithwaite, Ms. Braithwaite did note some problems with Ms. Gooding-Williams's performance. In particular, Ms. Braithwaite raised concerns about Ms. Gooding-Williams's failure to properly monitor her email inbox and ensure that an adequate number of HIPAA posters were available for distribution to all Fairfax County public school facilities.

         In 2013, then-Assistant Superintendent of HR, Dr. Phyllis Pajardo, merged two HR departments into a newly created Office of Equity & Employee Relations ("EER") to improve HR's efficiency. Kevin Sills was hired as the Director of EER and tasked with improving the performance of all EER Specialists. Mr. Sills became Ms. Gooding-Williams's supervisor in January 2014.

         After the restructuring, Ms. Gooding-Williams's job duties generally remained the same, with two exceptions. First, her role expanded to also include advising school principals about day-to-day conduct and performance issues for school employees. Second, rather than providing support across all Fairfax County public schools. Ms. Gooding-Williams was assigned the Region 3 schools as her "clients."

         As part of the effort to improve the EER Specialists' performance, Mr. Sills began holding regular EER staff meetings. Ms. Gooding-Williams failed to attend many of these meetings, and on September 8, 2014, Mr. Sills counseled Ms. Gooding-Williams for missing the meetings and asked her to make attending them a priority.

         On December 10, 2014, Ms. Gooding-Williams reviewed the minutes of an EER staff meeting she had missed while out sick for several weeks and learned that Mr. Sills had reassigned some of her HIPAA duties to Deanna Rodgers, a Senior Specialist placed in charge of supervising discrimination and HIPAA related complaints. Ms. Gooding-Williams was upset that some of her responsibilities had been reassigned without the "professional courtesy of a face-to-face meeting," and accused Mr. Sills of discriminating against her because of her race (black) and national origin (Liberian) in an email to Dr. Pajardo. Dr. Pajardo met with Ms. Gooding- Williams to discuss her complaints on January 9, 2015. Mr. Sills was aware that Ms. Gooding-Williams was unhappy with the reassignment, but did not learn of her discrimination complaint until April or May 2015.

         In the months following her January 9, 2015 meeting with Dr. Pajardo, Ms. Gooding-Williams's conduct and performance began to decline. She displayed unprofessional behavior during a meeting with Mr. Sills and a Region Assistant Superintendent, refused to sign a final version of a discrimination letter after receiving feedback from one of her supervisors, and became combative with another supervisor when that supervisor asked Ms. Gooding-Williams to recite the elements of a prima facie discrimination claim because the supervisor was concerned Ms. Gooding-Williams did not understand the elements. Around the same time, the EER Leadership Team also became concerned with Ms. Gooding-Williams's performance on the two or three days a week she teleworked because she was routinely unreachable and unproductive on those days.

         After numerous informal attempts to address Ms. Gooding-Williams's conduct and performance issues proved unsuccessful, Mr. Sills and the EER Leadership Team decided to place Ms. Gooding-Williams on a performance improvement plan ("PIP"). Mr. Sills communicated this decision to Ms. Gooding-Williams on March 9, 2015, and documented their meeting in a Summary Memo dated March 20, 2015.

         Ms. Gooding-Williams was officially placed on her PIP on April 15, 2015. From then on, Mr. Sills and the EER Leadership Team closely monitored her work. Mr. Sills also closely monitored the work of other EER employees to improve the quality and performance of the entire office. In addition to Ms. Gooding-Williams, two other employees were placed on PIPs, one was demoted with a "last chance" agreement, and a fourth resigned after being recommended for termination. None of these other employees had engaged in protected activity.

         Two days after receiving her PIP, Ms. Gooding-Williams filed a complaint with Dr. Pajardo accusing Mr. Sills of discrimination and retaliation. Mr. Sills was informed of the complaint on May 19, 2015. On June 1, 2015, Mr. Sills shared "The Eagle, The Cat, and The Sow" fable at a staff meeting. Although Mr. Sills habitually shares quotes or stories with staff either at staff meetings or posted at his office, Ms. Gooding-Williams interpreted Mr. Sills's telling of that particular fable as an attempt to pressure her to drop her complaint. Ms. Gooding-Williams also alleged that Mr. Sills pressured her to drop her complaint on June 4, 2015, when he gave her a timed writing exercise based on a fact pattern that closely mirrored her own complaint. Every employee was given a writing exercise based on one of three fact patterns, and the fact pattern Ms. Gooding-Williams received was fairly general and similar to the majority of the complaints EER receives.

         Carolyn Larrabee, a staff attorney at Fairfax County Public Schools' Division Counsel's Office, investigated both Ms. Gooding-Williams's April 17, 2015 complaint and her allegations that Mr. Sills pressured her to drop the complaint. Ms. Larrabee determined that there was no evidence of discrimination, retaliation, or a hostile work environment.

         On June 29, 2015, Mr. Sills informed all EER employees that, beginning September 1, 2015, each EER employee would need to designate a start time between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. as well as an end time between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. This change in work-time policy was ordered by Dr. Ramey, Dr. Pajardo's successor, because school principals, other clients, and Dr. Pajardo had all complained that EER employees were often not reachable during school hours. Ms. Gooding- Williams had typically worked from 6:00 a.m. until ...

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