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Perez v. United States Postal Service

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

August 12, 2014

THOMAS E. PEREZ, SECRETARY OF LABOR, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, Defendant.

ORDER DENYING SUMMARY JUDGMENT

RICARDO S. MARTINEZ, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. # 51, Ex. 1. The Court finds this matter appropriate for resolution on the briefing. Having considered Defendant's motion and supporting documentation and the opposition thereto, as well as the remainder of the record, and for the reasons stated herein, the Court denies summary judgment.

Factual Background

Plaintiff United States Department of Labor ("DOL") filed the instant lawsuit on February 24, 2012, seeking injunctive and other relief for alleged discrimination by Defendant United States Postal Service ("USPS") against its employee Arthur Williams, in violation of § 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 ("the Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 651 et seq. See Dkt. # 31 (hereinafter, "Compl."), ¶ 6; Dkt. # 58, Ex. 1. Mr. Williams was hired by USPS on July 10, 1995. Compl. at ¶ VIII. He thereafter received several promotions, including in October 2006 to Safety Specialist at grade 17 on the Executive and Administrative Pay Schedule ("EAS"), at which point his work station was changed from the Queen Anne District Office to the Seattle Processing & Distribution Center ("Seattle P&DC"). Dkt. # 58 ("Williams Decl."), ¶ 23. Mr. Williams thereafter served as the occupational safety and health technical advisor for the Seattle P&DC and three other facilities, where, among his duties, he conducted regular safety inspections, investigated accidents, and ensured compliance with health and safety rules. Id. at ¶ 24; Compl. at ¶ VIII. Mr. Williams' annual performance review of November 2, 2007 indicated that he met expectations in two of four core categories, received a "high contributor" ranking in one category, and received an "exceptional contributor" ranking in "managing accident reduction plans." Dkt. # 58, Ex. 4.

On February 20, 2008, Naseem Banani, a temporary, non-union employee at the Seattle P&DC, went to Williams' office with two union representatives and informed Williams that she was experiencing health complications from her work on a machine and that her supervisor had threatened to fire her if she was unable to continue her work. See Dkt. # 57, Ex. 7, pp. 23-25. Williams assisted Banani by informing her of her rights and providing her a telephone number to contact OSHA. See id. at p. 27; Williams Decl., ¶ 33. That same day, Mr. Williams emailed two of his supervisors to inform them his interaction with Banani, wherein he wrote that "OSHA will be reviewing the results to determine if we have a health issue." Id. at ¶ 34 & Ex. 5.[1]

Williams alleges that he was subject to a number of retaliatory events and practices subsequent to assisting Banani with her OSHA report, which have caused him to experience stress, anxiety, and depression. On February 26, 2008, the same day that OSHA informed USPS of Banani's complaint, USPS transferred Mr. Williams to USPS's Queen Anne District Office. Williams testifies that the transfer occurred precipitously, without process and without opportunity for him to collect his manuals and personal belongings from the Seattle P&DC. Dkt. # 57, Ex. 13, pp. 19-20, 46. Williams was placed at a secretarial desk "in the middle of the floor, " a placement that allegedly "humiliated" him, before being moved to a small and "isolated" office, which a former USPS Labor Relations Manager described as a "very cold" and "damp" storage area. Id. at Ex. 13, pp. 24-25; id. at Ex. 11, pp. 178-79. Although Williams officially maintained his EAS 17 ranking, he reports that his duties were reduced to "menial tasks, " such as filing reports prepared by other safety specialists and cleaning his office. Id. at Ex. 13, pp. 22-23; Williams Decl., ¶ 57.

Also on February 26, 2008, Senior Plant Manager Don Jacobus informed Williams by email that he was "displeased" with aspects of his work and that Williams' "continuing and obvious interest in representing the bargaining unit will not be tolerated." Dkt. # 57 at Ex. 9, p. 19. The email directed Williams to refrain from "ANY professional dialogue with the bargaining unit with exception of [Williams'] domiciled safety advocates and team meetings or projects." Id. On February 27, 2008, Manger of Distribution Operations ("MDO") Carlos Salazar sent an email to MDO Pamela Cook informing her that Don Jacobus "does not want [Williams] to have anything to do with [the OSHA complaint.]" Dkt. # 57, Ex. 5, p. 27. A month later, USPS manager Kelly Johnson extended restrictions on Williams' communications to bar him from engaging in conversations with craft employees and to prohibit him from walking on the workroom floor unless instructed to do so by a supervisor. Williams Decl. at Ex. 8; Dkt. # 57, Ex, 1, p. 60 (email from Johnson sent March 20, 2008, reminding Williams that he is not permitted "to be out on the workroom floor").

Beginning on March 5, 2008, Johnson conducted the first of four investigative interviews with Williams, which Johnson contends were motivated by three complaints by Jacobus about Williams' on-the-job performance: berating of a forklift driver for driving too fast, maintaining a messy office, and failing to timely complete reports. See Dkt. # 57, Ex. 1, p. 83. Williams, who characterized Johnson's demeanor during the interviews as antagonistic and disrespectful, alleges that the interviews were motivated instead by and focused principally on his assistance to Banani. See Williams Decl. at ¶¶ 42, 49, 54, 75. Following the third interview on April 11, 2008, Williams went on Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") leave due to stress, headaches, and difficulty sleeping and began receiving treatment for psychosis and depression. See id. at ¶¶ 55-56; Dkt. # 57, Ex. 13, p. 36. Williams contends that Johnson subsequently changed his leave status from FMLA to annual/sick leave despite receiving notes from Williams' physician indicating that he was being treated for a serious medical condition. Williams Decl. at ¶¶ 61-65.

When Williams attempted to return to work on July 28, 2008 with clearance from his physician to work under different supervision, Johnson informed Williams that he had "not been cleared to work" and ordered him to return home. Id. at ¶ 68; Dkt. # 57, Ex. 1, p. 158. Later that day, Johnson sent Williams a letter notifying him that he would be placed on enforced leave as a result of his medical condition. Id. at p. 72. Upon his return to work on September 15, 2008 with full clearance from his physician, Williams was again placed at a secretary's desk and Johnson publicly announced the reassignment of Williams' responsibility of the P&DC to an EAS 16 employee. Williams Decl., ¶ 72. On October 3, 2008, Johnson issued Williams a formal Letter of Warning, accusing him of failing to follow USPS policies, including his duty of "loyalty" to Defendant. Williams Decl. at Ex. 13. Williams' 2008 annual performance evaluation reflected this displeasure; Johnson ranked him as a "noncontributor" on oral communication and described him as uncooperative and unforthcoming. Id. at Ex. 4, p. 22.

Williams contends that Defendant continued to retaliate against him on account of his protected activities by refusing to consider him for an EAS 20 Manager of Safety position, for which Williams applied in October 2009. One of the three members of the applicant review committee, Charles Kosmicki, testified that the selection officer, Helen Pelton, explicitly informed Kosmicki that she did not want Williams' name put forward for an interview, mentioning his "prior EEO activity and Whistleblower complaint as reasons." Dkt. # 57, Ex. 11, p. 50. Kosmicki asked to be removed from the committee as a result of the interaction, which he regarded as improper, though Pelton did not allow him to withdraw. See id. Kosmicki ultimately determined that Williams was not minimally qualified for the position. He later testified that he "sure want[ed] to believe that [he] would be immune to being influenced." Dkt. # 43, Ex. 1, p. 188. Despite these events, in January 2010, Williams applied for and was promoted to an FMLA Coordination EAS 18 position, which resulted in a slight pay raise. See Dkt. # 52, Ex. 2, p. 41. Williams remained in this position until it was transferred to Greensboro, North Carolina in April 2011. See id. at Ex. 1, p. 76.

On April 18, 2008, Williams filed a formal complaint with OSHA alleging that Defendant had retaliated against him in response to his assistance to Banani, subjecting him to harassment, intimidation, and a hostile work environment in violation of Section 11(c) of the Act. See Dkt. # 44, Ex. 1; Williams Decl., ¶ 59. On April 21, 2008, OSHA assigned an investigator to the complaint and sent USPS a formal letter, notifying it that the investigation could result in litigation. Dkt. # 44, ¶¶ 3-4, Ex. 1. Williams made three subsequent complaints regarding the same treatment, and OSHA's investigation of the matter continued until January 12, 2012. Id. at ¶ 5. Shortly thereafter, the DOL filed the instant lawsuit pursuant to its statutory authority to prosecute whistleblower claims. See 29 U.S.C. § 660(c)(2). The Department of Labor has since moved the Court to sanction USPS for its alleged spoliation of documents relevant to this litigation (Dkt. # 42), which the Court addresses in an accompanying Order on spoliation. Through the instant Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant seeks dismissal of all claims in Plaintiff's operative complaint (Dkt. # 31).

Summary Judgment Standard

A motion for summary judgment requires the court to determine whether the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on identified claims or defenses based on the evidence thus far presented. Fed. R. Cv. P. 56(a). Summary judgment is proper where "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Id. at 248. An issue of material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court is not empowered to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence, but may only determine whether there is a genuine issue of fact for trial. Crane v. Conoco, 41 F.3d 547, 549 (9th Cir. 1994); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. However, conclusory allegations and speculative or unsubstantiated testimony are insufficient to raise a genuine issue of fact to defeat summary judgment. Anheuser-Busch, Inc. v. Natural Beverage Distributors, 69 F.3d 337, 345 (9th Cir. 1995). Further, "the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts... must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). "In evaluating motions for summary judgment in the context of employment discrimination, [the Ninth Circuit] has emphasized the importance of zealously guarding an employee's right to a full trial, since discrimination claims are frequently difficult ...


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