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Dixon v. Metropolitan District Commission

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 25, 2017

SHARON DIXON, Plaintiff,



         Sharon Dixon (“Plaintiff”) filed this lawsuit against her former employer, Metropolitan District Commission (“Defendant, ” or “MDC”). Compl., ECF No. 1. Ms. Dixon claims that MDC retaliated against her for making protected discrimination complaints, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sec. Am. Compl., ECF No. 46.

         MDC has moved for summary judgment and seeks dismissal of Ms. Dixon's sole claim of retaliation under Title VII. Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 61. As explained in further detail below, MDC's [61] Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.


         Sharon Dixon is a former employee of MDC, a non-profit municipal corporation chartered to provide water and wastewater treatment services to several towns and municipal entities in Connecticut. L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶ 16. Ms. Dixon began working for MDC as a Senior Clerk in the Human Resources (“HR”) Department in July 1987. Id. at ¶ 1. She continued working within the HR Department until 2007, when she transferred to work in the Diversity Department, and she remained employed by MDC until her position was terminated as part of a reduction in force (“RIF”) in late 2011. Id. at ¶¶ 1, 26.

         A. 2006 Discrimination Complaints and Settlement

         In September 2005, MDC posted a job opening for an Executive Administrative Assistant position with MDC's Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”), Charles Sheehan. L.R. 56(a)(2) p. 17. Ms. Dixon applied for the position that same month and she was eventually selected as one of three finalists. Id. Ms. Dixon, however, was ultimately not selected for the position and she believed race discrimination played a role in the selection process, as she considered the individual hired to be less qualified than her. Id. at 18.

         On January 12, 2006, Ms. Dixon filed an internal complaint with Rick Gomez, who was serving as MDC's Affirmative Action Officer at the time, alleging race discrimination. Id.; L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶¶ 2-3; 2006 Internal Compl., Pl. Ex. 38, ECF No. 69-38.[2] Mr. Gomez initiated an investigation into Ms. Dixon's claims, and he ultimately determined that MDC's rejection of Ms. Dixon for the position in question did not have to do with her race. Gomez Mem. to CEO, Pl. Ex. 39, ECF No. 69-39; Mar. 2006 Gomez. Ltr., Shea Aff. Ex. B, ECF No. 64-2.

         On June 22, 2006, Ms. Dixon filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (“CHRO”) and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (“EEOC”) based on the same allegations raised in her internal complaint. L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶ 4; 2006 CHRO Compl., Pl. Ex. 4, ECF No. 69-4. Ms. Dixon then attended a conference with representatives of MDC to discuss her administrative complaint. L.R. 56(a)(2) p. 19. During that conference, MDC agreed to transfer Ms. Dixon to a new position in exchange for the withdrawal of her complaint. Id.; L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶¶ 5-6. Ms. Dixon agreed, and in 2007, she assumed the new role of Community Affairs Assistant with MDC's Diversity Department, which came with a higher salary and a higher status within the company. Id.

         B. Verbal Reprimands

         Ms. Dixon alleges that, in June 2011, she received a verbal reprimand from her supervisor for misusing her personal break time. L.R. 56(a)(2) p. 22. According to Ms. Dixon, MDC offers its employees two fifteen-minute breaks during the day, as well as a lunch break. Dixon Aff. ¶ 29, Pl. Opp. Ex. 1, ECF No. 69-1. Ms. Dixon claims that she used one of her fifteen-minute breaks to make a personal phone call on one of the balconies. Id. At the conclusion of her call, which she alleges did not last more than fifteen minutes, she saw Bart Halloran, MDC Counsel, watching her from the other side of the glass door to the balcony. Id. One or two days later, George Scurlock, Ms. Dixon's supervisor within the Diversity Department, called her into his office and informed her that she was observed taking a personal phone call on the balcony for thirty to forty-five minutes. Id. at ¶ 30. Ms. Dixon protested, insisting that she was not on the phone for more than fifteen minutes. Id. She states that, after her meeting with Mr. Scurlock, she felt “upset” and as if she was being “sought out.” Id. at ¶ 31. She was not formally reprimanded, nor was any formal discipline imposed. Id.

         The following month, in July 2011, she alleges that Chris Stone, another one of MDC's attorneys, reprimanded her for not responding to an e-mail from Mr. Halloran, District Counsel for MDC. Id. According to Ms. Dixon, Mr. Halloran had sent her an e-mail asking her to complete certain tasks for a Clean Water Project, and she completed the requested tasks. Id. at ¶ 33. Ms. Dixon states that Mr. Halloran's e-mail did not request or require a response. Id. at ¶ 34. Nevertheless, following this incident, Ms. Dixon had tasks she had been performing for the Clean Water Project reassigned to another employee. Id.

         Ms. Dixon claims that both of these incidents were in retaliation for filing complaints in 2006. Id.

         C. Reduction in Force

         Ms. Dixon worked for MDC's Diversity Department from her transfer in 2007 until October 2011, when her position was selected for termination in connection with a company-wide reduction in force. Id. at ¶¶ 1, 26.

         1. Loss of Contract

         For twenty-seven years, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (“CRRA”) (the “Mid-Conn Contract”) contracted with MDC to operate and maintain the Mid-Conn Facility, a large trash facility located in Hartford, Connecticut. L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶ 7; L.R. 56(a)(2) pp. 3, 26. The contract expired in 2011. L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶¶ 8-12. In late 2010, CRRA opened up a competitive bidding process to determine who would operate the Mid-Conn Contract for the coming term. Id. MDC bid to provide services, but CRRA chose another company. Id.

         Indirect revenue from the Mid-Conn Contract totaled $2.1 million, and the end of this contract resulted in significant financial loss to MDC. Id. MDC challenged CRRA's competitive bidding process through litigation in Connecticut Superior Court; the court, however, rejected MDC's claims in August 2011 and this effort to prevent the termination of the Mid-Conn Contract failed. Id.

         2. Cost-Saving Committee and Methodology

         Beginning in September 2011, individuals involved in the management of MDC began to discuss ways of responding to the financial losses associated with the loss of the Mid-Conn Contract. Id. ¶ 13. They created a committee to explore how to implement the required cost savings. Id. According to Ms. Dixon, MDC selected six individuals to serve on this committee: Robert Zaik; Deputy CEO Scott Jellison; Deputy CEO and Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”) John Zinzarella; Interim HR Director Erin Ryan; and MDC counsel Bart Halloran and Christopher Stone. L.R. 56(a)(2) p. 23. The committee determined that, in order to accomplish the desired cost savings, MDC would need to conduct a reduction in force.[3] L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶ 16. Accordingly, the committee established a multi-step methodology to determine which positions would be eliminated. L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶¶ 21-24. The committee's first meeting was in September of 2011. L.R. 56(a)(2) p. 24.

         MDC describes the selection of positions for layoff as essentially a two-step process. During the first step, MDC identified positions that were either directly or indirectly involved with the Mid-Conn Contract. Id. at ¶¶ 22-24. According to MDC, only three positions were identified in this category by the committee. Id. During the second step, MDC identified positions that could be eliminated without impacting MDC's core functions. Id. According to MDC, fourteen positions were identified in this category, including Ms. Dixon's position. Id. MDC insists that the committee was tasked with identifying positions for elimination, not individual people.[4] Id. at ¶ 20.

         Ms. Dixon challenges some aspects of MDC's description of this process. According to Ms. Dixon, the process was a four-step process, not two, through which MDC would identify (1) “[p]ositions assigned directly” to the Mid-Conn Contract; (2) “[p]ositions that provide direct support” to the contract; (3) “[p]ositions that provide back-office administrative supports” to the contract; and (4) “[p]ositions whose elimination will not affect the core business needs” of MDC. L.R. 56(a)(2) at p. 26. Ms. Dixon acknowledges that her position would have been selected for termination as part of the fourth and final category. Id. at 33.

         Ms. Dixon, however, claims that her position was selected for termination even before the committee began the first step of this selection process. Id. at 34 (“Plaintiff was pre-selected for layoff”). She alleges that, on Labor Day weekend in 2011 - before the committee's first meeting - Mr. Halloran informed Mr. Scurlock, Director of Diversity and Ms. Dixon's supervisor, that MDC would be laying off both Ms. Dixon and Rick Gomez and instructed Mr. Scurlock to keep this information confidential. Id. at 34. MDC, on the other hand, insists that Ms. Dixon's position was selected for termination later, as a result of the committee's multi-step methodology. L.R. 56(a)(1) ¶¶ 36-37.

         3. Termination

         On October 6, 2011, the District Board of Commissioners (“the Board”), which governs MDC, adopted a resolution directing the management of MDC to “eliminate such positions within the District organizational structure as are reasonably and functionally necessary to address the budgetary and financial consequences resulting from the expiration of the District contract with Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority….” Id. at ¶ 19. The following day, on October 7, 2011, Ms. Dixon was notified that her position was being eliminated. Id. at ¶ 7.

         Erin Ryan, one of the committee members, was primarily responsible for assessing Ms. Dixon's position and recommending her position for elimination. Id. at ¶ 37. Ms. Ryan joined MDC in January 2011, and she assumed the position of Interim HR Director in July 2011. Id. at ¶¶ 32-34. According to Ms. Dixon, Ms. Ryan was not very familiar with either the nature of Ms. Dixon's position or the work of the Diversity Department when she made the decision. L.R. 56(a)(2) pp. 30, 33. Ms. Dixon also insists that Ms. Ryan and all of the other committee members were aware of Ms. Dixon's prior discrimination complaints at the time the decision was made to eliminate her position. Id. at 43.

         A total of twenty jobs were eliminated through this reduction in force, including Ms. Dixon's position, three of which were union positions directly related to the Mid-Conn Contract and another three of which were non-union positions with direct ties to the Mid-Conn Contract. Id. at 31. The remaining fourteen positions were selected based on the logic that their elimination would not affect MDC's core business needs. Id. at 32. Ms. Dixon claims that the Diversity ...

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