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Hatch v. Brennan

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 13, 2018

MARY HATCH and KEITH HENDERSON, Plaintiffs,
v.
MEGAN J. BRENNAN, POSTMASTER GENERAL, Defendant.

          RULING ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JANET BOND ARTERTON U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiffs Mary Hatch and Keith Henderson allege against Defendant Megan J. Brennan, the Postmaster General, that Defendant discriminated against Plaintiffs based upon their age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (Counts One and Two), as well as on the basis of perceived disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. (Counts Three and Four), and that Defendant retaliated against Plaintiffs in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2OOOe (Counts Five and Six).[1] Defendant now moves [Doc. # 55] for summary judgment on all claims. Oral argument was held April 20, 2018. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion is granted.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Mary Hatch and Keith Henderson worked as human resources specialists for the United States Postal Service ("USPS") in the Connecticut Valley District-Hatch beginning in 1985 and Henderson in 1979. (Def.'s Loc. R. 56(a) 1 Stmt. % 1 ("Def.'s LR 56 Stmt"); PL's Loc. R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ l ("PL's LR 56 Stmt").)[2] During the relevant time period, Plaintiffs were employed in the "Learning Development and Diversity" ("LD&D") Unit. (LR 56 Stmt. 5 2.) Beginning January 2014, through their respective retirements, Plaintiffs' supervisor in the LD&D Unit was Catherine Litke. (Id. ¶ 3.)

         A. Working Under Litke

         Hatch testified that Litke was rude, insulting, and berating, and spoke "down" to her and numerous other employees. (Hatch Tr. at 59:24-60:17.) Henderson experienced Litke condescendingly talking to him as if he were a "two-year old" or "a young child" on a consistent basis. (Henderson Tr. at 56:1-57:10.) Both Plaintiffs wrote on their respective EEO Investigative Affidavits[3] that Litke spoke to them in "demeaning, insulting, berating manner in front of colleagues and others." (See, e.g., Ex. C (Hatch EEO Aff.) to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. # 55-3] at 76; Ex D (Henderson EEO Aff.) to id. [Doc. # 55-4] at 105.)

         Plaintiffs further stated that Litke routinely imposed completely unreasonable deadlines for the projects she assigned to Plaintiffs. (Hatch Tr. at 32:24-33:2; Henderson Tr. at 29-33, 136.) Henderson found that Litke would demand that he be able to deliver more work than was possible in the given time frame, and that when he advised her that her time frame expectations were unrealistic, she informed him she did not like his attitude and it would have to change, and he would have to work harder. (Henderson Tr. at 28:12-29:4.) Plaintiffs both testified that, in contrast, Litke took projects away from younger employees when they complained of being overwhelmed. (Hatch Tr. at 115:8-16; Henderson Tr. at 145:1-4.)

         Hatch claims that Litke threatened her with discipline in nearly every conversation (Hatch Tr. at 63:15-21), and that "the threat was hanging over [her] head constantly" (id. at 65:7-8). Similarly, Henderson was constantly threatened with disciplinary action by Litke when he complained to her about his workload. (Henderson Tr. at 65.) Moreover, although denied by Litke, Plaintiffs assert that Litke would frequently ask them to stay beyond their scheduled departure time, without the benefit of compensation. (Hatch Tr. at 67:14-22; Henderson Tr. at 125:23-126:11, 1281-129:8; Litke Tr. at 88:13-25.)[4]

         After coming under Litke's supervision, Plaintiff Hatch experienced severe headaches, anxiety, depression, inability to concentrate, sleeplessness, exhaustion, nightmares, and neck pain. (LR 56 Stmt. ¶ 9.) Henderson testified that as a result of the treatment he received from Litke and other managers, he developed a diagnosed general anxiety disorder. (Henderson Tr. at 38:1-11.) He also testified that he suffered from "extreme stress." (Id. at 42:6-12.)

         B. Hatch's Form 3971 and Letter of Warning

         Hatch submitted to Litke a Request for Absence (a "Form 3971") for 1.5 hours of leave time, dated January 8, 2015, on which she wrote under "remarks[:]" "STRESS/ HARASSMENT/HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT FOR THE PAST YEAR." (Ex. 7 (Form 3971) to PL's Opp'n.) Litke gave the Form 3971 to her manager, Ms. Theresa Bruso, but neither Litke nor Bruso took any substantive, affirmative steps regarding Hatch's claim of harassment and hostile work environment. (Litke Tr. at 16:4-16; Hatch Tr. at 75:11-17.)

         On January 20, 2015, Litke issued a Letter of Warning to Hatch regarding Hatch's failure to provide a certain report by the requested deadline. (See Ex. 15 (Hatch Warning Letter) to PL's Opp'n [Doc. # 59-6]; Ex. E to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J.) Hatch, who in the previous thirty years of employment had a completely exemplary and unblemished disciplinary record, found this action deeply insulting and punitive. (See Hatch Tr. at 90:18-23.)

         On January 30, 2015, Hatch responded to the Letter of Warning with a letter to Litke, addressed "To whom it may concern," comprehensively explaining why the project had not been completed as requested. (See Ex. 8 (Hatch Response Letter) to PL's Opp'n.) Hatch ended her letter, "[t]he fact of the matter is we are drowning in a sea of constant chaos, bullying, harassment, ineffective and unknowledgeable micromanagement and demeaning monologues that have eroded our reputation, confidence, and ability to maintain the level of excellent service we have always provided...." (Hatch Response Letter at 3.)

         In the meantime, both Plaintiffs left work on sick leave, neither of whom would ever return to work, and instead retired. Hatch's last day of work was January 20, 2015. (Ex. C (Hatch EEO Aff.) to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. # 55-3] at 110.) Similarly, Henderson was out on sick leave beginning January 22, 2015 "due to the hostile work environment [he] was subject to." (Ex D (Henderson EEO Aff.) to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J [Doc. # 55-4] at 130.)

         C. The Joint Complaint

         While out on sick leave, Plaintiffs authored a joint letter of complaint (the "Joint Complaint") dated February 20, 2015, notifying the Postal Service's management about the working conditions and seeking intervention because Plaintiffs "couldn't live and survive in that kind of environment and do the amount of work" required of them. (Hatch Tr. at 69:2-21; Ex. 6 (the Joint Complaint) to PL's Opp'n.) The Joint Complaint listed twenty-nine examples of the treatment Plaintiffs characterized as "daily bullying, harassment, humiliation, intimidation and demeaning aggression the manager displayed against" them. (Joint Complaint at 4364.) However, it makes no mention of any disability or impairment, nor does it refer to or imply differential treatment on the basis of age, disability, or prior EEO activity. (Def.'s LR 56 Stmt. ¶¶ 6-8.) Moreover, the Joint Complaint states that it would be "fair to say that [Plaintiffs were] not the only victims of [Litke's] wrath, but that everyone in the department, and well beyond, have suffered from her irrational and hostile behavior as well." (Id.)

         Bruso received the Joint Complaint from Jim Bachteler, the National Association of Postal Supervisors ("NAPS") advocate acting on behalf of Plaintiffs. (Bruso Tr. at 1-12; Ex. 9 (Bachteler Email) to PL's Opp'n at 5308.) Bachteler's email noted that he was "filing a Hostile Workplace compliant [sic] against the Manager of LD&D Cathy Litke." (Bachteler Email at 5308.) Finding the Joint Complaint to be serious, Bruso brought it to the attention of Andrew Cullen, who was Bruso's manager of labor, in the middle of March, 2015. (Bruso Tr. at 42:11-16; Cullen Tr. at 51:19-20.)[5]

         Bruso testified that she decided to remove herself from direct involvement because Litke reported directly to her, and that she therefore asked Cullen to take the lead on investigating the Complaint. (Bruso Tr. at 42:15-20.) Cullen proceeded with "an informal investigation to make the determination if it was necessary "to proceed with a more formal investigation." (Cullen Tr. at 58:10-12.)[6]

         In conducting his informal investigation, Cullen believed it was more beneficial not to let Bruso and Litke know they were being examined, as they would, presumably, be more apt to speak candidly.[7] (Id. at 59:5-10, 78:6-10.) Consequently, Cullen spoke to Bruso and Litke on "unrelated issues" in order to determine whether the assertions raised by Hatch and Henderson in the Joint Complaint warranted closer scrutiny. (Id. at 59:11-60:6.) He did ask Litke about working with Plaintiffs, and was informed that Hatch could be difficult to work with and Henderson essentially followed what Hatch did. (Id. at 78:14-79:5.) Cullen testified that in his view, "it wasn't necessarily whether [Litke's statements] were true or not" but rather "how [Litke] said it," i.e., he wanted to see if Litke spoke in a condescending manner or in a way that Cullen felt belittled Plaintiffs. (Id. at 79:8-12.) He further stated: "You know, if I get the eyes rolling or if I get the disgusted tone in someone, that's what I was looking for when I met with [Litke], to see if she had that about [Plaintiffs]. She didn't act that way," from which he concluded "that she didn't have a level of disdain for them." (Id. at 79:17-24.) He clarified this fact alone did not mean harassment had not occurred but was one of the factors he took into consideration. (Id. at 79:25-80:4.)

         He also spoke with Walkden and Zaskey, two other Human Resource Specialists within the LD8cD Unit who reported to Litke. (Id. at 63:15-66:21.) However, over the course of his three to four week informal investigation, Cullen never spoke to either Hatch or Henderson because he did not think it was necessary. (Id. at 68:4-9, 80:15-20.) Cullen testified that he had not been aware of Hatch's 3971 Form during his investigation. (Id. at 108:2-3.)

         Cullen ultimately determined that harassment never occurred between Litke and Hatch and Henderson in the workplace. (Id. at 66:22-25.) He considered the circumstances as a whole based on his investigation, noting that Hatch was passed over for the management job Litke received, the outgoing manager was very well-liked and had a different personality and management style, Henderson had had attendance issues, and Plaintiffs' complaints were not made contemporaneously with the underlying events. (Cullen Tr. at 69:1-73:17.) He also concluded that there could "possibly" be some resentment on the part of Plaintiffs toward Litke. (Id. at 76:1-10.)

         Plaintiffs never received any response to their Joint Complaint, and each testified that they felt forced to retire as a result of this lack of response. (Hatch Tr. at 73:13-24; Henderson Tr. at 80:23-81:25.) Bruso opined that only when an investigation of harassment/hostile work environment becomes formal, which it did not here, does the Complainant need to be notified of the results. (Bruso Tr. at 48:21-49:6.)

         D. Communications While Plaintiffs Were on FMLA Leave

         Hatch received a letter dated February 27, 2015 from Litke advising her of a scheduled pre- disciplinary interview to discuss her "continued absence since February 10, 2015" and notifying her that her "absence since that date ha[d] been designated as AWOL." (Ex. 19 (Pre-Disciplinary Interview Letter) to PL's Opp'n [Doc. # 59-6].) The letter further indicated that discipline, including potential removal from the Postal Service, was being considered. (Id.) Hatch emailed Litke on March 1, notifying Litke she had faxed and sent hard copies of the latest FMLA paperwork covering the period of January 21 through March 9, 2015 to Shared Services. (Ex. 20 (Hatch-Litke FMLA Emails) to PL's Opp'n [Doc. #59-6].) Litke responded that Hatch's FMLA was approved only through February 9, 2015, and that she had previously sent a letter to Hatch instructing her to submit documentation, which she failed to provide, resulting in her continued absence since February 10, 2015 being designated as AWOL. (Id.) Hatch felt these letters were a way for Litke to harass her. (Hatch Tr. at 129:12-21.)

         Subsequently, Litke issued Plaintiff Henderson a Letter of Warning dated May 22, 2015, for "failure to be in regular attendance."[8] (See Ex. F to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J; Ex. 13 to PL's Opp'n.) It stated that Henderson had been absent from position since April 17, 2015 on sick leave and that his record ". .. reveals a lack of dependability in maintaining [his] work schedule." (Id.) Although Henderson was out of work in accordance with his physician's orders, Litke believed his time was no longer FMLA protected, which pursuant to Postal Service Policy, is a violation of the Employee and Labor Relations Manual ("ELM"). (Litke Tr. at 110:6-113:25.) Henderson appealed the decision, but his appeal was denied and the Letter of Warning remained on his record. (Ex. 16 (Henderson Appeal) to PL's Opp'n; Ex. 17 to id.)[9]

         On June 25, 2015 Cullen sent a letter to Henderson requesting certain medication information from his treating physician in response to Henderson's request for accommodation. (Ex. 14 (Reasonable Accommodation Letter) to PL's Opp'n.) After Henderson supplied this documentation he attended one District Reasonable Accommodation Committee ("DRAC") meeting on August 2015.[10] (Henderson Tr. at 17:7-12, 20:9-11.) He testified that at that meeting Cullen, also the head of the DRAC, asked what the Postal Service could do to get him back to work, to which Henderson responded that he could not make that determination until he found out the results of his hostile workplace complaint. (Id. at 17:22-18:4.) He asserts that Cullen stated he had not been aware Henderson filed a complaint, but had thought Henderson was just backing up Hatch. (Id. at 18:5-9.) He then promised to get back to Henderson regarding that complaint. (Id. at 18:11-13.) The United States Postal Service never followed up with regard to a reasonable accommodation nor did Henderson ever hear from Cullen regarding the Joint Complaint. (Id. at 19:23-20:8.)

         Hatch officially retired April 30, 2015[11] although she had planned on working until June 2018. (Ex. C (Hatch EEO Aff.) to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. # 55-3] at 110.) Henderson remained out of work until he retired on May 31, 2016. (Henderson Tr. at 94:21-23). Henderson testified he would not have retired but he ran out of sick leave and "couldn't return to an environment that [he] felt was hostile and detrimental to [his] physical and mental health." (Henderson Tr. at 81:1-3.)

         E. Facts Related to Plaintiffs' Age and ...


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