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Stuart v. Peake

August 23, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe District Court Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Donald Stuart commenced this action against defendant James B. Peake, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,*fn1 alleging employment-related race discrimination and unlawful retaliation. (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) Pending is Peake's motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 11.) For the reasons that follow, the motion is denied.

II. Background

Plaintiff Donald Stuart is an African-American male who has been employed by the Veterans Administration (VA) since 1985. (See Def. SMF ¶ 1, Dkt. No. 11:3.) Since 1991, Stuart has worked at the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, New York. (See id. at ¶ 2.) After serving as the Financial Manager from 1991 to 1992, Stuart took over as the Fiscal Officer, a position that he held until 1998. (See Stuart Dep. at 7-12, Def. Ex. C, Dkt. No. 11:7.) Then, in 1998, following changes made within the Stratton organizational structure, Stuart took on the new position of Business Office Manager. (See id. at 12-14.) As part of this new position, Stuart assumed the duties of the Associate Director. (See id. at 14-15.)

In June 2002, Mary-Ellen Piche, a Caucasian woman, became the Director of the Stratton facility. (See Def. SMF ¶ 2, Dkt. No. 11:3.) In May 2004, after the Associate Director position was filled, and as a result of further organizational changes, Stuart was appointed to the lateral position of Compliance and Business Integrity Officer (CBIO). (See id. at ¶ 4.) Pursuant to this position, Stuart reported directly to Piche. (See id.)

Beginning around November 2006, problems started to arise between Stuart and Piche.*fn2 According to Peake, Stuart submitted a CBI 2006 Annual Report that was incomplete and deficient. (See id. at ¶¶ 8-9, 11-12.) Piche subsequently met with Stuart several times to counsel him about the Report. (See id.) And on March 8, 2007, Piche issued a written admonishment to Stuart based on his alleged careless and negligent workmanship for failing to meet the substantive and timeliness requirements for the Report. (See id. at ¶ 13.) Stuart submitted a written apology to Piche regarding his failures in drafting and executing the Annual Report. (See Stuart Dep. at 22, Def. Ex. C, Dkt. No. 11:7.) Consistent with the written admonishment, Piche noted in her October 30, 2007 Progress Review that Stuart, as CBIO, needed to "provide leadership to maintain recent improvements and advance the Program to a higher level of performance to result in a favorable review of the 2007 Annual Report." (See Def. SMF ¶ 15, Dkt. No. 11:3; see also Pl. Ex. 6, Dkt. No. 16:2.) Still, in the same Progress Review, which covered the period between October 2006 and September 2007, Piche consistently rated Stuart's performance as "[f]ully [s]uccessful or better." (See Pl. Ex. 6, Dkt. No. 16:2.)

On November 1, 2007, Piche and Stuart attended a video conference with Piche's supervisor, Network Director Steven Lemons, and several Network CBIO personnel including Laurence Kaminsky, Associate Chief of Staff of Research and Development, and Christine Wood, Administrative Officer for Research. (See id. at ¶ 16.) During this meeting, Piche was made aware that seven principal investigators working at the Stratton facility had not completed their required training even though Piche had certified one-hundred percent compliance with training requirements. (See Stuart Dep. at 22, Def. Ex. C, Dkt. No. 11:7; see also Piche Dep. at 18-20, 25, Def. Ex. B, Dkt. No. 11:6.) Accordingly, Lemons scolded Piche for this error, in response to which Piche muted her microphone, stated that that was "embarrassing," and shortly thereafter left the room. (See Stuart Dep. at 22-23, Def. Ex. C, Dkt. No. 11:7; see also Piche Dep. at 22-24, Def. Ex. B, Dkt. No. 11:6.)

On November 8, 2007, one week after the video conference, Piche met with Stuart and asked him to agree to be reassigned to Administrative Officer of the Facilities Management Service. (See Def. SMF ¶ 18, Dkt. No. 11:3.) While Peake contends that this reassignment was based on Stuart's alleged repeated failings as CBIO, (see id. at ¶ 17), Stuart testified that Piche told him that she had "lost confidence in [his] ability to keep her out of embarrassing situations," (Stuart Dep. at 21, Def. Ex. C, Dkt. No. 11:7). Despite Stuart's refusal to acquiesce to be reassigned for something he was not responsible for, Piche notified Stuart the following day that he was being reassigned. (See id. at 24; see also Def. Ex. D, Dkt. No. 11:8.) In this new position, although Stuart maintained the same salary and grade, his duties became clerical with minimal supervisory authority, and he was no longer reporting directly to Piche. (See Stuart Dep. at 25-27, Def. Ex. C, Dkt. No. 11:7.) His new office in the facility's basement consisted of a folding table and chair with no computer. (See id.) The position of CBIO was then filled by Mary Ann Witt, a Caucasian woman. (See Piche Dep. at 14, Def. Ex. B, Dkt. No. 11:6.)

On November 28, 2007, Stuart filed an informal complaint of race discrimination with the VA Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Office. (See Stuart Dep. at 28, Def. Ex. C, Dkt. No. 11:7.) One month later, on December 28, Stuart filed a formal complaint with the VA EEO Office. (See Pl. Ex. 2, Dkt. No. 16:1.)

On January 18, 2008, Stuart was notified by Piche that he was being suspended for three days. (See Def. SMF ¶ 20, Dkt. No. 11:3 (citing Def. Ex. D, Dkt. No. 11:8).) According to Peake, this suspension was based on Stuart's careless and negligent work on the 2007 Annual Report. (See id.) In contrast, Stuart contends that the negative critiques he received from Piche occurred during the preliminary draft review period, which is mandated under the VA's standard procedures and during which the document is placed on a public drive for review and comment. (See Pl. SMF ¶ 31, Dkt. No. 15.) Stuart further points to evidence in the record suggesting that the VA facilities in the Albany region, including Stratton, displayed a marked improvement on the 2007 Annual Reports. (See id. at ¶¶ 32-33.) However, Peake disputes whether Stuart was actually responsible for these improvements. (See Def. Resp. SMF ¶¶ 31-33, Dkt. No. 19). Still, Stuart alleges that after posting his draft report for review, he was removed from his position as CBIO and prevented from effectively completing the 2007 Annual Report. (See Pl. SMF ¶ 31, Dkt. No. 15; see also Feb. 1, 2008 Stuart Mem. at 11, Def. Ex. D, Dkt. No. 11:8.)

On June 27, 2008, Stuart filed an amended complaint with the VA EEO Office to add a claim of retaliation. (See Pl. Ex. 4, Dkt. No. 16:2.) Following a Final Agency Decision dated September 29, 2008, Stuart brought suit on December 18, 2008, against defendant Peake for race discrimination and retaliation. (See Compl. ¶ 5, Dkt. No. 1.) In asserting these claims, Stuart sought economic and non-economic compensatory damages, attorneys' fees and costs, and either restoration to his former position or front pay for diminished opportunity. (See id. at 5.) Following discovery, Peake moved for summary judgment. (See Dkt. No. 11.)

III. Standard of Review

The standard for the grant of summary judgment is well established and will not be repeated here. For a full discussion of the standard, the court refers the parties to its previous opinion in Bain v. Town of Argyle, 499 F. Supp. 2d 192, 194-95 (N.D.N.Y. 2007). In the fact-intensive context of a discrimination action, "direct evidence of discriminatory intent is rare and such intent often must be inferred from circumstantial evidence found in affidavits and depositions." Holtz v. Rockefeller & Co., 258 F.3d 62, 69 (2d Cir. 2001); see also Gallo v. Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd. ...

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