Holbrook v. Reno, No. 98-5462

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
Writing for the CourtTatel
Citation196 F.3d 255
Parties(D.C. Cir. 1999) Dawnele Lyn Holbrook, Appellant v. Janet Reno, Attorney General, Appellee
Docket NumberNo. 98-5462
Decision Date26 November 1999

Page 255

196 F.3d 255 (D.C. Cir. 1999)
Dawnele Lyn Holbrook, Appellant
Janet Reno, Attorney General, Appellee
No. 98-5462
United States Court of Appeals
Argued October 7, 1999
Decided November 26, 1999

Page 256

Copyrighted Material Omitted

Page 257

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia(No. 97cv01762)

Richard L. Swick argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

Anthony M. Alexis, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief were Wilma A. Lewis, U.S. Attorney, and Mark E. Nagle and R. Craig Lawrence, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

Before: Ginsburg, Rogers and Tatel, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge Tatel.

Tatel, Circuit Judge:

Concluding that appellant, a new agent trainee at the FBI Academy, had not forthrightly answered questions about an alleged improper relationship with her physical trainer, the FBI found her unsuitable to become a Special Agent, reassigned her to her former job as an Intelligence Assistant, and suspended her for five days. Appellant filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that the FBI discriminated against her on the basis of sex, created a hostile work environment by subjecting her to an intrusive and abusive four-hour interview, and retaliated against her when she filed an EEO complaint. At the close of appellant's case, the district court, finding that she had failed to produce evidence upon which the jury could return a verdict in her favor on any of her claims, granted the Government's motion for judgment as a matter of law. We affirm.


After graduating from high school in 1987, Appellant Dawnele Lyn Holbrook went to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She received consistent "exceptional" job ratings and several promotions. Having put herself through college, Holbrook entered the FBI Academy at Quantico in 1995 to begin training to become a Special Agent. Her experience at the Academy forms the basis of this lawsuit. Because the district court granted judgment as a matter of law, we describe the facts in the light most favorable to Holbrook. See McGehee v. CIA, 697 F.2d 1095, 1098 n.3 (D.C. Cir. 1983).

Page 258

Holbrook performed well in new agent training. Having developed shin splints during physical exercises, she was referred for treatment to Joe Palermo, an FBI Agent, instructor, and physical trainer. Holbrook and Palermo became friends. They talked about his children and her career goals. At one point, Holbrook went to Palermo's house to pick up empty boxes to move some personal belongings. Seeking a quiet place to study, Holbrook went to his house again the next week. Because bad weather had made the roads dangerous, she accepted Palermo's invitation to spend the night and slept on a downstairs couch. Holbrook spent the night at Palermo's home on three other occasions, each time sleeping on the couch.

At a party celebrating the end of the training program, Special Agent Kevin Crawford, the primary instructor for Holbrook's class at the Academy, observed "eye contact" between Holbrook and Palermo. Suspecting an improper relationship between the two, Crawford reported his observations to Special Agent Lisa Massaroni, the staff counselor responsible for supervising the new agents in Holbrook's class. Massaroni did not report the information to her superiors.

This was not the first time Crawford had taken an interest in Holbrook. He had told Palermo that Holbrook was "fine" and, on another occasion, that Holbrook could some day be "the next Mrs. Palermo." Although Holbrook herself characterized Crawford as a "good instructor," she cited several instances in which he was "unprofessional." For example, he declared his preference for "long-haired blonds" (Holbrook is blond) and made crude sexual allusions during class.

Crawford's suspicions about a Palermo/Holbrook relationship were heightened when, a week after the party, Palermo told Crawford that Holbrook was sick and that the nurse had told him that she should not participate in a training exercise the next day. Questioning the nurse, Crawford learned that although Holbrook had in fact been excused from the exercise, the nurse had never told Palermo about her illness. Crawford reported Palermo's false statement about the nurse, as well as his own suspicions of a relationship, to his superior, Acting Unit Chief Brent Mosher. Mosher had heard about the possible relationship from another instructor. He reported these suspicions to his superior, Assistant Director in Charge of the Academy George Clow, and his deputy, Jeffrey Higginbotham. Concerned that an instructor might be showing favoritism to a trainee, Higginbotham directed Unit Chief Marlene Hunter and Agent Massaroni to interview Holbrook.

During the interview with Massaroni and Hunter, Holbrook denied any romantic relationship with Palermo. Asked if she had been to his home on a date, she answered no. The investigation was closed.

Over the following weekend, Holbrook became concerned about having told the agents that she had not been to Palermo's house for a date. Wanting to clarify that she had been there, but not for a date, she went to see Massaroni.Massaroni had prepared an electronic communication that summarized the interview and stated that Holbrook denied having been to Palermo's home. Holbrook corrected it to read that she had been there "to pick up moving boxes."

When Clow and Higginbotham learned that Holbrook had corrected the electronic communication, they obtained authorization from the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility ("OPR") to open a formal investigation. Two agents reinterviewed Holbrook. According to Holbrook, the agents questioned her about her "entire sex life" and repeatedly asked her whether she had had sexual relations with Palermo or with other FBI agents. Although Holbrook told them that it was difficult for her to answer their questions because she had been sexually abused as a child, they continued the questioning. Holbrook testified: "It was just very humiliating and

Page 259

very degrading and embarrassing to have to try to explain a feeling inside or a scare to--to two people that you don't know, and also to people that you know are holding your career in their hands." "[A]t one point," Holbrook testified, "they became very evasive in their questioning, where it didn't matter if I had slept with Mr. Palermo one time or 50 times, that they just basically needed to know how many times I had slept with him." The agent who testified at trial disputed Holbrook's characterization of the meeting, claiming that Holbrook's evasiveness prolonged the session, which lasted four hours.

Based on this interview, Clow concluded that Holbrook had lied about her visits to Palermo's house. He also concluded that she had violated an order not to speak with Palermo during the pendency of the OPR investigation. Finding Holbrook unsuitable to become an FBI Agent, Clow removed her from the Academy and reassigned her to her previous job as an Intelligence Assistant.

OPR subsequently completed its investigation, finding that Holbrook had committed three offenses: exercising poor judgment by maintaining a personal relationship with an instructor; initially lying to her superiors; and disobeying Clow's order not to talk to Palermo. The Unit Chief of OPR's Adjudication Unit, Charles Dixon, approved the OPR staff's recommendation of a three-day suspension. The Academy had recommended only a letter of censure. Noting that Holbrook's misconduct involved "lying and blatant insubordination," Dixon's superiors increased the suspension from three to five days.

During the pendency of the OPR investigation, Holbrook filed an EEO complaint challenging her removal from the Academy. Unable to resolve the complaint, Holbrook filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. She claimed sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation for having filed the EEO complaint. After the district court denied the FBI's pre-trial motions, Holbrook tried her case to a jury over three days. She presented thirteen witnesses.

Following the close of her evidence, the district court granted the Government's motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), concluding that Holbrook had failed to produce evidence from which the jury could find in her favor on any of her claims.With regard to her discrimination claim, the district court identified several breaks in the chain of causation between Crawford's allegedly discriminatory remarks and Clow's decision to remove Holbrook from the Academy. The district court also found that Holbrook had not identified any "similarly situated" employees and thus failed to make out a prima facie case of indirect discrimination. Pointing to the absence of any evidence relating to "pervasive conduct" or "intolerable conditions," the district court found that no reasonable juror could conclude that the four-hour interview amounted to sexual harassment. Finally, observing that the evidence on the retaliation claim was "thin to the point of abstraction," the district court concluded that Holbrook had failed to produce any evidence that the five-day suspension was influenced by the filing of the EEO complaint. Holbrook appeals.


District courts may grant judgment as a matter of law only if "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for" the nonmoving party. Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). We review grants of judgment...

To continue reading

Request your trial
251 cases
  • Scarborough v. Natsios, No. Civ.A. 99-2454(ESH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • March 20, 2002
    ...10, at Admissions 34, 38.) 9. This Circuit has held that claims of retaliation are governed by McDonnell Douglas, Holbrook v. Reno, 196 F.3d 255, 263 (D.C.Cir. 1999), as are cases brought under the Rehabilitation Act, McGill v. Munoz, 203 F.3d 843, 845 (D.C.Cir.2000), where there is no dire......
  • Harris v. Wackenhut Services, Inc., Civil Action No. 04-2132 (RBW).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • December 9, 2008
    ...he must demonstrate that the comments were frequent and unreasonably interfered with his ability to perform his job. Holbrook v. Reno, 196 F.3d 255, 262 (D.C.Cir.1999) ("To violate Title VII, workplace harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the victi......
  • Velikonja v. Mueller, No. CIV.A.03-0832(ESH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • April 13, 2004
    ...class; and (3) she was treated differently from the similarly situated employee. Hanna, 121 F.Supp.2d at 118 (citing Holbrook v. Reno, 196 F.3d 255, 261 (D.C.Cir.1999)); see also Robinson v. Detroit News, Inc., 211 F.Supp.2d 101, 112-13 (D.D.C.2002) (to make out a prima facie case, "the pla......
  • Turner v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 02-1514(RMU).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • August 25, 2005
    ...who was not a member of the protected class; and (3) she and the similarly situated employee were treated disparately. Holbrook v. Reno, 196 F.3d 255, 261 (D.C.Cir.1999). Although the plaintiff and Dr. Sankar were "similarly situated," the major flaw in the plaintiff's understaffing claim i......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT