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Bellounis v. Middle-East Broadcasting Networks, Inc.

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

October 31, 2019




         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Middle-East Broadcasting Network, Inc.'s ("Defendant" or "MBN") Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.

         Plaintiff is a female born in 1966, who worked for Defendant, a private, tax-exempt, non-profit corporation in Northern Virginia, between 2009 and 2016. Plaintiff alleges she was subject to discrimination on the basis of her religion, sex, age and disability in violation of Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"}.

         Plaintiff was hired by Defendant as a studio technician in December, 2009. At the beginning of her employment, Plaintiff was given MBN's Employee Handbook which required employees to maintain a respectful work environment. Later, Plaintiff was moved to a studio camera and robotics operator position, where she worked under the supervision of Michael Kauffman, Gail Gleeson and three other individuals.

         In this new position, Plaintiff was responsible for setting up and operating the video and robotic camera equipment for various productions under the vision and command of the director. Due to MBN's restructuring, a male employee, Serzei Kelch, was moved to the studio camera and robotics team in March, 2016. At the time of Plaintiff's employment termination, in August, 2016, the team of studio camera and robotics operators consisted of five other men and Plaintiff. The average age of the other operators was 48 years.

         From the beginning in her new position, Plaintiff had difficulty meeting performance expectations. Her initial 30-day review, the first evaluation of her employment, stated that her performance needed improvement; besides technical performance issues, her communication with directors was specifically noted to be problematic. In the review meeting, her supervisors admonished Plaintiff for being argumentative with them. Plaintiff resisted the feedback.

         In June, 2015, while on the job, Plaintiff referred to a colleague as an "a**hole." That employee filed a complaint. In the following meeting, Plaintiff rejected her supervisors' reprimand, claiming the statement was a joke. She was given verbal warning about her behavior in the workplace.

         In that same month, Plaintiff brought two medical notes to her supervisor. The first note requested that she not work more than eight hours a day and that all her work be scheduled during daylight hours because she had had difficulty with fatigue for the past two months. At that time, all employees with the same position as Plaintiff worked four days per week for ten hours each day on shifts beginning in the dark and ending in daylight, or vice versa. Ultimately, Defendant found an accommodation that did not require Plaintiff to work more than eight hours a day and created a non-traditional shift, during which she would work only during daylight hours.' In her complaint, Plaintiff states her request for accommodation was resolved months before her termination.

         On October 4, immediately before a broadcast, Plaintiff bypassed her director and spoke directly with the anchor of the tv show through the intercom system. The director reminded Plaintiff that only directors should communicate with the anchor. Rather than follow this directive, Plaintiff complained to Mr. Kauffman. Plaintiff rejected the correction, claiming she was only joking with the anchor over the intercom, and that the director had been unprofessional when she screamed at her for violating protocol. MBN investigated the alleged incident and found no evidence of unprofessional conduct by the director. A meeting was scheduled four days later, with Mr. Kauffman and Plaintiff, as well as the operations manager and Plaintiff's current supervisor. They replayed the recording of the communications at issue, and Plaintiff admitted the recording differed substantially from her memory of the incident. The meeting ended with Plaintiff being reminded of her responsibility to talk with the director and not directly with the show's anchor.

         Only five days after this incident, Plaintiff again bypassed a director and spoke with another anchor over the intercom. Per Plaintiff's reguest, she was sent a document showing the protocol for communicating in the control room. This document, MBN best industry practice document distributed to employees in 2010, stated that all crew members answer to the director in the course of production, as a universally accepted principle in the industry. Mr. Kauffman wrote up Plaintiff, warning her that her conduct was unacceptable and that further repetition could result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination. Plaintiff saw and signed this write-up on Oct 27, 2015. In a second, follow-up meeting, Plaintiff's supervisors underscored the importance of her adherence to the protocol and informed her that if she did not follow her supervisor's instructions, her employment would be terminated for insubordination. Plaintiff stated that she understood.

         On December 21, 2015, Plaintiff played a video game on a personal device and listened to music loud enough to be heard outside the video room. Following this incident, Plaintiff received another disciplinary write-up.

         The following year, on February 2, a mistake lead to two seconds of dead air on the tv station, resulting in a black screen for viewers. Dead air is a serious offense at MBN. After an investigation by Defendant's engineers, Defendant's discovered that the incident could have been caused only by human error.

         Plaintiff was then placed on a Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP"). The PIP designated three specific performance deficiencies: on air mistake resulted in dead air during broadcast; insubordination in refusing and guestioning her supervisors directives regarding communications workflows during production; and a lack of full engagement (by watching video and playing games) during the preproduction period.

         On August 6, 2016, Plaintiff jokingly told another employee she would kill him. The comment was reported to Plaintiff s supervisors. In the follow-up meeting, Plaintiff was informed that such jokes were unacceptable in the workplace. The ...

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