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Coats v. Leavitt

January 31, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Denise Cote, District Judge


This Opinion addresses a discrimination claim by a plaintiff who admits that her employer used valid criteria in making a promotion decision. Plaintiff Andrea B. Coats ("Coats") has brought this Title VII employment discrimination case against her employer, Michael O. Leavitt ("Leavitt"), Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA"). In March 2002, Coats, an African American GS 12-level environmental engineer at the EPA, applied for a promotion to a GS 13-level position ("position"). In April 2002, the promotion was granted to Karen O'Brien ("O'Brien"), a Caucasian. Coats claims that she was discriminated against based on race. Leavitt has moved for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the motion is denied.


The following facts are undisputed or taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, unless otherwise indicated. Plaintiff Coats is a 41-year-old African American female, who has been employed by the EPA as an environmental engineer since February 1987. Coats has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and a master's degree in environmental engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. As an environmental engineer, plaintiff is responsible for writing permits that regulate the discharge of chemicals at waste water treatment plants and drinking water plants, primarily in Puerto Rico. She is also regional coordinator of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations ("CAFO") program, which deals with regulations governing facilities that house dairy animals.

Coats was originally hired by the EPA as a GS-5 level federal employee. She received standard annual promotions until she reached the grade of GS-12. Beyond GS-12, promotions are competitive, and Coats has not been promoted to the next grade.

In 1996, Philip Sweeney ("Sweeney") began supervising Coats's work at the EPA. In 1998, Karen O'Brien, a Caucasian, joined the EPA and began working under Sweeney's supervision.

O'Brien took over the New Jersey portion of the CAFO program, although Coats retained her responsibilities as regional administrator and continued to manage the New York and Puerto Rico portions of the program. Meanwhile, O'Brien led the region in a storm water program, through which she had access to training in statistics and computer modeling. In addition, O'Brien was often designated to fill in for Sweeney when he was out of the office. Coats was given this responsibility less frequently.

On March 1, 2002, the EPA issued an Inspector Vacancy Announcement regarding the GS-13 position of Water Quality Permitting Expert for Region 2, which had been vacant for over a year. The EPA designated Sweeney as the selecting official for the position. Prior to the announcement, Sweeney, in conjunction with the Human Resources Branch Staff, developed an electronic questionnaire and weighting system that would automatically rank the applicants for the position.

Coats completed the electronic questionnaire during the two-week submission period. At the end of this period, Sweeney was given the names of the six candidates who had received the highest scores on the questionnaire: plaintiff (African American), Joseph Cardile (Caucasian), Jerry Ciotola (Caucasian), Karen O'Brien (Caucasian), Thuan Tran (Asian), and Stephen Venezia (Caucasian). Tran subsequently removed his name from consideration before he could be further evaluated.

Sweeney then reviewed the electronic questionnaire responses and developed a standardized set of questions to ask the five remaining candidates during individual interviews. The questions focused on three areas: (1) general engineering and scientific education and knowledge, including overall Clean Water Act knowledge; (2) specific National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System ("NPDES") water quality-based permitting knowledge and skills, including related technical and statistical capabilities; and (3) writing and communication skills.

Sweeney took notes during each interview. Afterward, he wrote a summary evaluation of each applicant, noting his assessment of the candidate's strengths and weaknesses. In April 2002, Sweeney designated O'Brien to fill the position.

The following month, Coats wrote a memo to Sweeney questioning his reasons for not selecting her for the position and suggesting that the decision was "based upon racial preference." On June 28, 2002, Sweeney responded to plaintiff via e-mail, describing his assessments of Coats and O'Brien. Sweeny wrote that Coats was "generally strong" in the area of general scientific and engineering knowledge, as well as knowledge of the Clean Water Act. He said that he viewed her as "somewhat weaker" in the area of NPDES water quality-based permitting knowledge and related technical and statistical capabilities. Sweeney described Coats as possessing "mid-range" writing and communication skills. Sweeney then listed three "concerns" regarding Coats's performance during the interview:

she failed to discuss an issue related to NPDES regulations; she did not address statistical approaches commonly used in water quality-based permitting; and she did not display significant experience or skill with spreadsheets, databases, or sophisticated water quality models. Sweeney said that O'Brien had "demonstrated a higher degree of knowledge and skill" in those areas. He also said that in making his decision, he had taken into account his past experience supervising the candidates, and specifically noted that Coats had not completed an assignment dealing with Caribbean Petroleum Refining discharge data.

On July 26, 2002, plaintiff filed an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint, challenging her non-selection for the position on the ground of race discrimination, and making similar charges about two other incidents that are not before this Court. ...

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