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Keaton v. State of Connecticut Department of Rehabilitation Services

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 9, 2018



          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff Antoinette H. Keaton filed this action against Defendant, the State of Connecticut Department of Rehabilitation Services (“DORS”), after she was denied a promotion to the position of Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. Invoking Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), Defendant moves to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint, which sets forth claims for discriminatory failure to promote, retaliation, and hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) (Counts One through Three); and deprivation of Keaton's rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count Four). (ECF No. 50.) Keaton seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and an order placing Keaton in the position of Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, among other relief.

         For the reasons discussed below, I DENY the motion to dismiss as to Keaton's failure-to-promote and retaliation claims (Counts One and Two). I GRANT the motion to dismiss as to Keaton's hostile work environment and Section 1981 claims (Counts Three and Four), and as to Keaton's claim for punitive damages.

         I. Factual Allegations

         A. Keaton's Employment at DORS

         Keaton, an African-American woman, has worked for the State of Connecticut for more than 23 years. (ECF No. 50 ¶ 2.) She began working for DORS, a state agency charged with maximizing opportunities for people with disabilities to live, learn, and work independently, in 2009, and has worked for that agency for eight years. (Id. ¶¶ 2-3, 9.)

         B. DORS Denies Keaton's Request for a Promotion to the Position of Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor

         In 2011, Keaton applied for and was denied a promotion to the position of Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. (Id. ¶ 5.) On January 7, 2013, in a letter to her supervisor, David Johnson, Keaton again requested that she be considered for a promotion to that position. (Id.) Keaton met all of the requirements “of the job description and the position posting”: she had previously worked for two and a half years as a senior vocational rehabilitation counselor with another Connecticut agency, Disability Determination Services; she had a Master's degree “from an accredited college”; she had at least four years of experience as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, at least one of which was spent with DORS; and she earned excellent evaluations while serving as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. (Id. ¶ 6.)

         Lynn Frith, DORS's Northern Region District Director, denied Keaton's request for the promotion in a memo dated June 24, 2013, but which Keaton received on August 1, 2013. (Id. ¶ 7.)

         C. DORS Promotes Two White Women to the Position of Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor

         DORS promoted to the “Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor position sought by the Plaintiff” two white women, Allison Kopie and Alicia Kucharczyk, who Keaton alleges were less qualified for the position than she was. (Id. ¶ 8.) Keaton was as or more senior and had greater relevant work experience than either Kopie or Kucharczyk. (Id. ¶ 9.)

         David Johnson supervised Kopie, Kucharczyk, and Keaton, but recommended only Kopie and Kucharczyk for the promotion. (Id. ¶ 10.) While Johnson offered to and did assist Kopie for a year with preparing her cases for review in connection with her candidacy for the promotion, Johnson never offered assistance to Keaton, leaving her disadvantaged in the promotion process. (Id. ¶ 13.) Johnson also permitted Kopie to “complete a summary of her caseload review in connection with her effort to be promoted but denied” Keaton the same opportunity. (Id. ¶ 14.) Kopie was promoted on August 1, 2013, the same day Keaton received the notice she was not promoted. (Id. ¶ 16.)

         DORS cited four “eligibility determination errors” Keaton made as grounds for the denial of her request for promotion. (Id. ¶ 17.) Keaton alleges that these errors were subsequently determined to be the result of a DORS computer system defect “and were approved by” her supervisor, Johnson. She also alleges that other employees “routinely” committed these errors. (Id. ¶ 17.) Keaton alleges that while white employees made errors, those employees' errors did not prevent them from being promoted. (Id. ¶ 18.) For example, Kopie erroneously authorized the purchase of a prosthesis for an individual before that individual was determined to be eligible for DORS's services. (Id. ¶ 19.) Johnson erroneously closed multiple cases prematurely. (Id. ¶ 20.) Keaton alleges that these errors were more serious than her own, but did not prevent Kopie or Johnson from being promoted. (Id. ¶¶ 19-20.)

         D. Minority Employees and Clients Experience Negative Treatment at DORS

         Keaton alleges that Johnson has never recommended any black person for a promotion to the position of Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. (Id. ¶ 10.) Keaton “and many of her co-workers feel that David Johnson possesses a negative animus toward African Americans and Latinos.” (Id. ¶ 11.) In support of this allegation, Keaton alleges that she and her co-worker Latarsha Johnson heard David Johnson refer to a black male DORS client as “scum.” (Id. ¶ 11.) Keaton also alleges that David Johnson, in the course of his work for DORS, “routinely attempted to deny eligibility to African American consumers for even the most minimal services, such as short term transportation, clothing and other resources to assist such consumers in obtaining employment.” (Id. ¶ 12.)

         Furthermore, a survey of DORS employees conducted at an annual meeting, which Keaton participated in, revealed that DORS's “minority employees believe that [DORS] promotes very few, if any, minority employees, ” and “revealed the perception that [DORS] . . . treat[s] people of color unfairly.” (Id. ¶¶ 15, 29.) DORS's most recent promotions were of three white women, Kucharczyk, Kopie, and Maureen Furey, and a white man, Johnson. (Id. ¶ 16.)

         E. Keaton Challenges DORS's Promotion Decision and Criticizes DORS's Treatment of Minority Employees and Clients

         After she learned that DORS denied her request to be promoted to the Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor position, Keaton filed a grievance challenging the decision. (Id. ¶ 26.) Keaton alleges that “the substance of this grievance was that she was not promoted while a white female co-worker with less seniority and less experience was promoted.” (Id. ¶ 27.) DORS attaches to its motion to dismiss a grievance that a union representative filed on behalf of Keaton. The entire “Statement of Grievance” reads: “Bargaining unit sought promotion. Employer denied the promotion in violation of the Contract. Employer otherwise violated the Contract.” (ECF No. 54-3 at 1.) The grievance DORS submits does not mention that Keaton's white, female co-worker was promoted while she was not, and includes no allegations that Keaton was not promoted for discriminatory reasons. Keaton stated in her amended CHRO complaint that she “did not mention discrimination” in her union grievance “because [she] was unsure of the reason for the denial of [the] promotion” at the time (ECF No. 54-2 at 6.) Keaton reiterated in her opposition brief that she did not use “the word ‘discrimination'” in the grievance. (ECF No. 57 at 11)

         “[S]ubsequent to not being promoted and prior to November 14, 2013, ” Keaton “joined with other co-workers in openly expressing doubt that people of color within the DORS had a fair and equal opportunity for advancement within the department.” (Id. ¶ 27.) Keaton “openly complained” that she, the only black person under Johnson's supervision, was not promoted, while three white women were. (Id. ¶ 28.)

         Keaton also confronted Johnson “on a number of occasions . . . concerning his disparaging description of a Black client as well as his habit of attempting to deny services to prospective clients based on the prospective client's race rather than the prospective client's disability and need for services.” (Id. ¶ 30.)

         Keaton alleges that DORS was aware of her comments about DORS's discriminatory treatment of her, other employees, and “clients and prospective clients” of color. (Id. ¶ 31.) DORS was also aware of her grievance, as DORS is typically notified of grievances when they are filed. (Id. ¶ 32.)

         F. Keaton Receives a Negative Performance Evaluation and Experiences Additional Scrutiny at Work

         On November 14, 2013, Johnson approached Keaton with his written performance evaluation of her and “insisted that she sign it immediately.” (Id. ¶ 33.) In response, Keaton indicated to Johnson that she wanted the opportunity to read and review the evaluation before signing it. (Id. ¶ 34.) Johnson “threatened” to report Keaton's refusal to sign the evaluation to Frith if she did not sign immediately. (Id. ¶ 35.)

         Keaton reviewed the evaluation and discovered that Johnson rated her performance as “unsatisfactory” and awarded her 20 supervisor discretionary points, despite awarding her 31 supervisor discretionary points and rating her as “excellent” in all five of the categories assessed in her previous evaluation. (Id. ¶¶ 36-37.) Keaton alleges that she exhibited no change in work performance, that she had not received any complaints, criticism, or warnings, and had not been placed on a performance improvement plan or corrective action plan in the year preceding the November 2013 evaluation. (Id. ¶ 38.) The November 2013 evaluation was Johnson's first opportunity to evaluate Keaton's work after she filed her grievance and openly criticized DORS. (Id. ¶ 40.)

         Also on November 14, 2013, “[a]mong other dates and times, ” Keaton reported “harassment” to Frith, who did nothing. (Id. ¶ 93.)

         From July 5, 2014 onward, Keaton was the only employee in her office who did not have an onsite supervisor. (Id. ¶ 41.) While she was away from her office, Johnson “demanded keys to her file cabinet on the pretense that he may have to access her files while she was away.” (Id. ¶ 44.) From June 25, 2014 to July 7, 2014, Keaton was the only person in her office who could not access her computer, causing her to be concerned that her year-end statistics would be affected. (Id. ¶ 42.) Keaton later learned from Information Technology personnel that “someone had ...

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