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Schroeder v. Brennan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 6, 2019

Sonja Schroeder, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Megan J. Brennan, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         At issue is Defendant Megan J. Brennan's Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff Sonja Schroeder's Claims for Disparate Treatment and Retaliation (Doc. 72, “MSJ”), to which Plaintiff Sonja Schroeder filed a Response (Doc. 81, “Resp.”), and Defendant filed a Reply (Doc. 86, “Reply”). The Court finds these matters appropriate for decision without oral argument. See LRCiv 7.2(f). For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Plaintiff has shown that genuine issues of material fact exist, and Defendant is not entitled to summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was hired by the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) as a Rural Carrier Associate (“carrier”) at the Peoria Main Post Office (the “Peoria post office”) in 2013. During the relevant time period, Plaintiff's direct supervisor was Lynn McLuty. Isaac Rudd served as the Acting Postmaster for the Peoria post office from January 2015 until November 2015, Albert Zavala served as the Acting Postmaster in December 2015 and January 2016, and Mr. Rudd returned as the Acting Postmaster until July 2016.

         A. Supervisor Lynn McLuty's Treatment of Female Employees

         Female carriers who worked under the supervision of Mr. McLuty at the Peoria post office testified that Mr. McLuty frequently used offensive and intimidating words and behavior towards them. Linda Miano testified that Mr. McLuty was abusive towards female carriers. (Doc. 82, Ex. 7, Deposition of Linda Miano (Miano Dep.) at 37:25-38:2.) She said that Mr. McLuty singled out female carriers for criticism-at times reducing them to tears-and “routinely called women ‘bitches.'” (Miano Dep. at 38:12-38:20; 61:19- 61:24.) On the other hand, Ms. Miano said that Mr. McLuty “wouldn't harass the guys” and “wrote up very little discipline for male carriers.” (Miano Dep. at 63:11; 112:12- 112:13.) Alegria Arment testified that Mr. McLuty called female carriers “crybabies[, ]” “pussy[, ]” and “spoiled bitches.” (Doc. 82, Ex. 9, Deposition of Amber Alegria (Alegria Dep.) at 15:15-15:20.) She said that she never witnessed Mr. McLuty “invade [male carriers'] personal space[] as he would the women [or] call a male carrier by any other name than what their name was[.]” (Alegria Dep. at 16:7-16:12.)

         Barbara Feno, a rural carrier who had worked for USPS for 18 years, testified that Mr. McLuty “tormented [her] life for so long[.]” (Doc. 82, Ex. 10, Deposition of Barbara Jean Feno (Feno Dep.) at 16:9-16:10.) Ms. Feno said that Mr. McLuty used words that were gender specific and offensive, including “bitch” and “the F word.” (Feno Dep. at 24:15-25:3.) She testified that Mr. McLuty previously had to leave a different post office “because of the way he treated women.” (Feno Dep. at 33:7-33:8.) She described Mr. McLuty as a “bully” who would “get right in [the] face” of women. (Feno Dep. at 38:16-38:25.) Ms. Feno said that if “you were a man, [Mr. McLuty] wasn't going to mess with you[, ] but he targeted “[w]eak women mostly[.]” (Feno Dep. at 43:13-43:17.) In addition, Ms. Feno said that Mr. Zavala and Mr. McLuty were “like two peas in a pod, ” except that Mr. Zavala knew “how to control himself better” than Mr. McLuty did. (Feno Dep. at 39:15-39:16.)

         B. Plaintiff's Informal Hostile Work Environment Complaint to the USPS Human Resources Department (December 2015)

         On December 17, 2015, Plaintiff made an informal complaint to USPS of a hostile work environment-though the complaint was not about Mr. McLuty's conduct described above. Acting Postmaster Mr. Zavala interviewed Plaintiff, Mr. McLuty, and two witnesses and completed a USPS hostile work environment packet. (Doc. 73-2, Ex. 2-A, Hostile Work Environment Packet at 47-62.) Plaintiff provided a statement alleging that she and Mr. McLuty had a verbal altercation that day and that Mr. McLuty pulled her “cage, ” causing an injury-a scratch-on her left side. Plaintiff also alleged that Mr. McLuty called her a “pussy.” (Doc. 73, Ex. 5, Deposition of Sonja Schroeder (Schroeder Dep.) at 53:10- 26:11.) Mr. Zavala immediately sent the Hostile Work Environment packet and interview notes to the Phoenix District Office's Human Resources (“HR”) department. Mr. Zavala never received a response from HR. When Mr. Rudd returned as Acting Postmaster, no one informed him about the incident or Plaintiff's informal complaint. Later, HR had no record of the informal complaint.

         C. Plaintiff's Backpack Incident and 14-Day Suspension (March 2016)

         Mr. McLuty stated that in March 2016, his managers told him that he needed to start enforcing a USPS rule which prohibited employees from having large personal items on the workroom floor. (Doc. 73, Ex. 1, Declaration of Lynn McLuty (McLuty Decl.) ¶ 18.) Mr. McLuty said he had previously told the carriers that they could not keep personal items larger than a shoe box on the workroom floor but could keep larger items in their vehicles or their lockers in the employee locker room. (McLuty Decl. ¶ 16.) On March 22, 2016, Mr. McLuty told Plaintiff to remove her backpack from the workroom floor. (McLuty Decl. ¶ 19.) Plaintiff went to Acting Postmaster Mr. Zavala, who confirmed that the instruction was coming from him. (McLuty Decl. ¶ 19; Ex. 1-E; Ex. 1-F.) Plaintiff took her backpack to her car and returned with a smaller bag. (McLuty Decl. ¶ 19; Ex. 1-E; Ex. 1-F.)

         On March 25, 2016, Plaintiff again had her backpack in the workroom and was reprimanded by Mr. McLuty. The parties disagree about exactly what occurred. According to Plaintiff, she was outside on a break when her coworker came to tell her that Mr. McLuty had kicked Plaintiff's backpack, causing its contents to fall out. (Schroeder Dep. at 26:3- 26:7.) Plaintiff said that she immediately went inside and found her personal belongings laying on the workroom floor. (Schroeder Dep. at 26:18-26:21.) She picked up her belongings and put them away. (Schroeder Dep. at 26:23-26:24, 27:1.) Then, she relayed the incident to Acting Postmaster Mr. Zavala, who allegedly told her that if she “didn't want to be bothered by Lynn McLuty, [she] needed to carry a clear plastic purse or see-through bag.” (Schroeder Dep. at 28:11-28:18.) Plaintiff alleges that Mr. McLuty was present for the conversation and that he agreed with the clear bag instruction. (Schroeder Dep. at 30:5-30:15.)

         According to Defendant, Mr. McLuty told Plaintiff to remove her backpack from the workroom floor, but Plaintiff claimed that her backpack was not a personal item because it contained work materials. (McLuty Decl. ¶ 19, 22; Ex. 1-F.) Defendant alleges that Plaintiff then went to Mr. Zavala and told him she needed to keep her medicine at her work station. (Doc. 73, Ex. 2, Declaration of Albert Zavala (Zavala Decl.) ¶ 12.) Mr. Zavala told Plaintiff that she could keep her medicine at her work station in a clear bag. (Zavala Decl. ¶ 12.) Later that day, Plaintiff took photographs of purses she said she found in her coworkers' work stations. (Doc. 73, Ex. 6, Schroeder Letter.)

         Mr. McLuty prepared a proposed personnel action for Plaintiff recommending a 14-day suspension for her failure to follow the instruction not to keep her backpack at her work station and for taking photographs in the workroom.[1] (Doc. 73, Ex. 1-F, Proposed Personnel Action.) On April 6, 2016, Mr. McLuty issued a notice of 14-day paper suspension for Plaintiff's “failure to follow [her] supervisor's instructions.” (Doc. 73, Ex. 1-G, Notice of 14-Day Suspension.) The notice explained that although a paper suspension does not require an employee to serve time-off, “it has the equivalent degree of seriousness as if [the employee] had served time-off without pay.” (Notice of 14-Day Suspension.) The notice also stated that a 14-day suspension “is more serious than a Letter of Warning and seven (7) day paper suspension” and that “[f]uture deficiencies will normally result in [the employee's] removal from the Postal Service.” (Notice of 14-Day Suspension.)

         D. Plaintiff's Formal Complaint to the USPS's Equal Employment Opportunity Office (July 2016)

         Plaintiff filed a formal complaint with USPS's Equal Employment Opportunity office (USPS EEO office) on July 8, 2016.[2] In her formal EEO complaint, Plaintiff alleged that her manager, Mr. Zavala, and her supervisor, Mr. McLuty, took discriminatory actions against her based on “sex” and “retaliation.” (Doc. 9 Ex. 1-A at 1.) Plaintiff discussed two specific incidents. She alleged that on December 17, 2015, she “was physically injured by supervisor McLuty at work” and that her “Hostile Work Environment complaint” about the incident “was never acted upon or investigated by USPS[.]” (Doc. 9 Ex. 1-A at 1.) And she alleged that on March 25, 2016, she “was singled out for scrutiny which included being prohibited from use of [her] backpack, required to use clear plastic bag for person[al] possessions and treated as [an] untrustworthy employee without cause.” (Doc. 9 Ex. 1-A at 1.)

         On August 3, 2016, the USPS EEO office sent Plaintiff a letter entitled “Partial Acceptance/Partial Dismissal of Formal EEO Complaint.” (Doc. 9 Ex. 1-B at 1-6.) The USPS EEO office recognized three alleged instances of discrimination: (1) the March 25, 2016 incident where management “singled out” Plaintiff by requiring her to use a clear bag for personal possessions; (2) management's failure to advise Plaintiff of the results of her December 17, 2015 informal complaint; and (3) Plaintiff's April 6, 2016 Notice of 14-Day Suspension for Failure to Follow Supervisor's Instructions. (Doc. 9 Ex. 1-B at 2.) The USPS EEO office accepted the second and third alleged instances of discrimination but dismissed the March 25, 2016 incident where Plaintiff was required to use a clear bag for personal possessions. (Doc. 9 Ex. 1-B at 2-3.) The letter stated that Plaintiff had seven days to notify them if she disagreed with their definition of the accepted issues. (Doc. 9 Ex. 1-B at 3.) Plaintiff did not provide a response.

         On February 2, 2017, the USPS EEO office issued its “Final Agency Decision” in which it determined that the evidence did not support a finding of discrimination for Plaintiff's second and third alleged instances of discrimination. (Doc. 9 Ex. 1-C (Final Agency Decision) at 18-35.) Regarding the second instance, where Defendant allegedly failed to advise Plaintiff of the results of her informal hostile work environment complaint, the USPS EEO office found that: Plaintiff met her burden of proving a prima facie case of discrimination on the basis of sex; Defendant articulated a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its conduct; but Plaintiff failed to show that Defendant's legitimate reason was pretext for discrimination. (Final Agency Decision at 29, 32-33.) Regarding the third instance, Plaintiff's 14-day paper suspension, the USPS found that Plaintiff failed to show that she was treated less favorably than similarly situated individuals who were not female. (Final Agency Decision at 27.)

         The formal EEO complaint is the prerequisite for bringing a later action under Title VII in the District Court. A complainant may file a civil action in United States District Court within 90 calendar days of the USPS EEO ...


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