Klotzbach-Piper v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., Civil Action 18-1702 (RC)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtRUDOLPH CONTRERAS United States District Judge
Docket NumberCivil Action 18-1702 (RC)
Decision Date03 September 2021



Civil Action No. 18-1702 (RC)

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 3, 2021


RUDOLPH CONTRERAS United States District Judge


Karen Klotzbach-Piper alleges that she suffered regular mistreatment at the hands of two coworkers while she was training to become a locomotive engineer. They called her names, hit her when she operated the train, and touched her inappropriately. The mistreatment ended when one of the coworkers changed jobs. Several months later, however, Klotzbach-Piper failed to qualify as a certified engineer. She now brings a variety of discrimination claims against her employer, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, more commonly known as Amtrak. Amtrak moves for summary judgment. It is entitled to summary judgment on most of her claims. But Klotzbach-Piper may present her two hostile work environment claims to a jury.


Klotzbach-Piper worked at Amtrak in a variety of roles for almost thirty years. Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s SMF”) ¶¶ 8-9, 13, ECF No. 29-1. After eleven years in clerical, dispatching, and operations positions, she became a certified locomotive engineer. Id. ¶ 9. Right after obtaining her certification, however, she took a job as a systems operations duty officer in Amtrak's Consolidated National Operations Center. Id. ¶ 13. She stayed in that job for fifteen years and let her locomotive engineer certification lapse. Id. ¶ 15.

In March 2014, Klotzbach-Piper bid for a position as a locomotive engineer in Jacksonville, Florida because she planned to retire in a nearby town. Id. ¶¶ 17, 19-20. She retained union seniority from her previous stint as an engineer, so she won the position. Id. ¶ 22. A condition of the job was that she be recertified as a locomotive engineer. Id. ¶ 23. A certified locomotive engineer must be certified in general and qualified on her assigned routes. Id. ¶ 10. Amtrak cannot certify an engineer who has not demonstrated that she possesses the skills to safely operate a train. Id. ¶ 34; 49 C.F.R. § 240.211(a). And to qualify on a route, an engineer must memorize the route's physical characteristics-such as bridges or inclines-and speed restrictions. Def.'s SMF ¶ 32. Amtrak had Klotzbach-Piper train on only one of the two routes out of Jacksonville: the Jacksonville-Florence route. Id. ¶ 38.

To prepare for certification, Klotzbach-Piper received classroom and on-the-job training. Id. ¶¶ 24, 30. Her on-the-job training included observing other engineers and operating a locomotive herself under a training instructor's supervision. Id. ¶ 30. Training instructors regularly reviewed her performance using scored evaluation forms. Id. ¶¶ 45-46. Klotzbach-Piper worked with two training instructors at any given time. Pl.'s Dep. at 67:14-15, ECF No. 29-4. One of her trainers was Brian Morrison, whom Klotzbach-Piper described as a “pretty good instructor.” Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 42, 44. Beginning in September 2014, her other trainer was Phillip Shaw. Id. ¶ 55. Shaw changed jobs in February 2015 and was replaced by Sharif Ahmed. Id. ¶ 59. Klotzbach-Piper would ride with each trainer for one trip a week. Id. ¶ 56.

During Klotzbach-Piper's qualifying period, road foremen Richard Nunziato and Matthew Reinert accompanied her on certain trips to evaluate her performance. Id. ¶¶ 60-61. They too filled out scored evaluation forms, but their forms were different than the ones that training instructors used. Id. ¶¶ 61-63. Road foremen's evaluations are meant to determine whether a locomotive engineer should qualify on a route. Id. ¶ 62. In addition to evaluating Klotzbach-Piper for qualification, Nunziato was her direct supervisor. Id. ¶ 41.

Klotzbach-Piper alleges that, when she rode with Shaw, he and another engineer, Christopher Martone, tormented her. Among other things, they called her names like “bitch” and “grandmother, ” kicked her or hit her with a flagging stick while she was operating the train, and brushed up against her breasts unnecessarily. See id. ¶ 119; Mian Decl., Ex. 5 (“Pl.'s Interview Notes”) 01/19/2016 ¶¶ 14, 36, 45, ECF No. 29-3.[1] Klotzbach-Piper says that she complained to Nunziato on several occasions. See Pl.'s Interview Notes 01/19/2016 ¶¶ 10-11; Pl.'s Dep. at 128:1-18; Def.'s SMF ¶ 120. She claims that, in January 2015, she filed a formal complaint through her union representative that made its way to Nunziato, Reinert, and Jacksonville Assistant Superintendent Kevin Banks. See Pl.'s Interview Notes 01/19/2016 ¶ 11; id. 05/17/2016 ¶ 20; Pl.'s Dep. at 128:1-18. According to Klotzbach-Piper, Nunziato spoke with Shaw and Martone but later told her dismissively that they were just “young” and “immature.” Pl.'s Interview Notes 01/19/2016 ¶¶ 11, 47; Pl.'s Dep. at 128:3-18. The mistreatment continued until Shaw voluntarily bid to a new job a few weeks later. See Pl.'s Interview Notes 01/19/2016 ¶ 18; Pl.'s Dep. at 112:7-113:1. Klotzbach-Piper testified that he told her he left because “[h]e didn't want to deal with working with women anymore.” Pl.'s Dep. at 113:11-12. Nunziato denied ever receiving complaints about harassment from Klotzbach-Piper. Mian Decl. ¶ 17.

Klotzbach-Piper had a run-in with Reinert too. While out to lunch with a group of coworkers, someone mentioned that Reinert was a registered sex offender. Pl.'s Interview Notes 01/19/2016 ¶ 49. Klotzbach-Piper responded that he did not “deserve[] to be walking the streets and breathing the same air as I do let alone holding a Management Position in in a Company that cultivates a family atmosphere.” Pl.'s Dep., Ex. 17 (“Boardman Letter”); see also Pl.'s Interview Notes 01/19/2016 ¶ 49; Hines Dep., Ex. 5 (“Decision Letter Resp.”) at 3, ECF No. 29-6. She later found out that someone repeated what she said to Reinert. Pl.'s Interview Notes 01/19/2016 ¶ 49. After that, she says, her evaluation scores from him declined. Pl.'s Interview Notes 01/19/2016 ¶ 49; Boardman Letter; Decision Letter Resp. at 3-4.

From May through August 2015, Klotzbach-Piper took several qualifying rides. See Hines Dep., Ex. 4 (“Decision Letter”); see also Pl.'s Dep. 97:7-22, 101:16-22; id. Ex. 5. The scores she received from Nunziato and Reinert ranged from middling to failing. See Decision Letter; Pl.'s Dep. at 97:7-22, 101:16-22; id. Ex. 5. Reinert observed that she needed to work on remembering interlocking names and mileposts, that she lacked train handling skills and the ability to multitask, that she violated a speed restriction on one ride, and that she missed a station platform on another. See Decision Letter; Pl.'s Dep. at 97:20-22; id. Ex. 5. Nunziato supervised her final qualifying ride and gave her a failing score. Nunziato Decl. ¶¶ 9, 11, ECF No. 29-9. On that ride alone, Klotzbach-Piper missed a station platform twice and violated a speed restriction. Id. ¶ 10; see also Pl.'s Dep. at 157:2-158:13. Nunziato ended up having Ahmed operate the train. Nunziato Decl. ¶ 10; Pl.'s Dep. at 158:8-16.

Two days after that final qualifying ride, Klotzbach-Piper stopped reporting to work. Def.'s SMF ¶ 96. She later requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), Warner Decl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 29-8, which allows eligible employees to take unpaid leave for certain family or medical reasons, 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1). A medical professional had diagnosed her with anxiety and a mood disorder. See Pl.'s Opp'n Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. F (“Statement of Disability”), ECF No. 34-9. Amtrak denied Klotzbach-Piper FMLA leave but allowed her to take non-FMLA medical leave. Warner Decl. ¶¶ 7-8. She was on leave from August 28 to December 7, 2015. Id. ¶ 8.

After her leave ended, Klotzbach-Piper wrote a letter to Amtrak's CEO, Joseph Boardman. See Boardman Letter. She told him that she “suffered daily insults, harassment and abuse” during her training in Jacksonville. Id. “Not only was I ‘a carpet bagger, '” she wrote, “but a woman to boot.” Id. She then alleged that Reinert gave her worse evaluation scores after she commented on his status as a sex offender. Id. She became “so beaten down” by her treatment, she said, that she “developed an anxiety disorder” and took leave. Id. Finally, she told Boardman that she wanted to return to work but Amtrak had not responded to her inquiries. Id. She asked him to look into the issue. Id. On January 11, 2016, Amtrak's Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance Office responded to her letter and promised to investigate. Mian Decl., Ex. 4. An investigator interviewed Klotzbach-Piper on January 19. See Pl.'s Interview Notes.

On January 13, however, Klotzbach-Piper received a letter stating that Amtrak was denying her certification. See Decision Letter. The author was Jonathan Hines, Amtrak's System General Road Foreman at the time. Id. He was based in Wilmington, Delaware. Id. As System General Road Foreman, Hines was responsible for overseeing the training and certification programs for locomotive engineers. Def.'s SMF ¶ 89. Three system road foremen reported to him. Id. ¶ 90. Ordinarily, the system road foremen reviewed engineers' evaluations and made certification decisions. Id. But in Klotzbach-Piper's case, Jacksonville Assistant Superintendent Scott Kenner asked Hines to make the decision himself. Hines Dep. at 88:1889:8.[2] Hines explained in his letter that Klotzbach-Piper “ha[d] not demonstrated the necessary proficiency in the knowledge, skills and abilities required to retain certification . . . based on [her] failure to pass numerous skills performance evaluations.” Decision Letter. He summarized the poor evaluations from Klotzbach-Piper's qualifying rides, noting that “different Road Foremen” had assessed her performance. Id. Then, he noted that...

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