Robinson v. Rubin

Decision Date21 June 1999
Docket NumberNo. Civ.A. H-98-1509.,Civ.A. H-98-1509.
Citation77 F.Supp.2d 784
PartiesVera ROBINSON, Plaintiff, v. Robert RUBIN, Secretary of Treasury, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas

Stephen Edward Menn, Attorney at Law, Houston, TX, for Vera Robinson, plaintiff.

Anthony Wei Chun Hong, Office of U.S. Attorney, Houston, TX, for Robert Rubin, Sec. of Treasury, defendant.


ROSENTHAL, District Judge.

Pending before this court in this employment civil rights lawsuit is a motion for summary judgment filed by defendant Robert Rubin, Secretary of the United States Treasury Department. (Docket Entry No. 25). Plaintiff, Vera Robinson, has responded. (Docket Entry No. 29). Defendant has replied. (Docket Entry No. 33). Based on the motion, the pleadings, the parties' submissions, and the applicable law, this court GRANTS defendant's motion for summary judgment. The reasons for this ruling are stated below.

I. Background

Robinson, an African-American female, is employed as a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Specialist with the Special Procedures Branch of the Collection Division of the Internal Revenue Service in Houston, Texas. She has worked for the IRS for approximately thirteen years. Robinson's job classification is General Service ("GS") level 9. In this lawsuit, Robinson alleges retaliation, race discrimination, and sex discrimination under Title VII; violations of her rights under the federal whistle-blower statute; and violations of her First Amendment, due process, and equal protection rights under the United States Constitution.

Robinson bases her claims on allegations she raised in two Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaints, numbers 97-2223 and 97-2270.1 In EEO complaint number 97-2223, Robinson alleged that in February 1997, her first-line supervisor, Lynne Langdale, gave Robinson an undeservedly low annual evaluation in retaliation for prior EEO complaints.2 (Docket Entry No. 25, Ex. 7). Robinson signed the EEO counseling report, dated March 6, 1997, (id., Ex. 8) and the EEO complaint, dated March 27, 1997. (Id., Ex. 7). Robinson marked the box on these forms to state that she based her claim on "retaliation reprisal," not "race," "color," "sex," or "national origin" discrimination.

Langdale gave Robinson an overall rating of 3.57 on a scale beginning at 1 (unacceptable) and ending at 5 (outstanding), for the period ending February 2, 1997. (Id., Ex. 11). The IRS considers a rating of 3.57 to be "fully successful." This rating represented an increase over the 3.0 rating that Langdale gave Robinson in the evaluation for the previous year, Robinson's first as a GS-9 bankruptcy specialist. (Id., Ex. 12). Robinson nevertheless alleges that the 3.57 rating is retaliatory because it is a "low rating at the IRS" and prevented her from receiving promotions and pay raises. (Docket Entry No. 29, p. 5).

Langdale supervised and evaluated two other bankruptcy specialists in February 1997: Rita Galvan and Jacqueline Jackson. (Docket Entry No. 25, Ex. 13, Declaration of Lynne Langdale, ¶ 2). Both are female; Galvan is Hispanic. Galvan received an overall rating of 4.0; Jackson received an overall rating of 3.29. (Id., Exs. 14, 15). Langdale attributed Galvan's higher rating to her prior service as a bankruptcy technician, which "would have exposed [her] to knowledge and experiences that would have helped her function as a bankruptcy specialist." (Id., Ex. 13, ¶ 2). Robinson did not previously serve as a bankruptcy technician.

The allegations raised in EEO complaint number 97-2270 and in this lawsuit arose out of Robinson's working relationship with a GS-11 bankruptcy advisor named Liana White. Employees in Robinson's division typically work in teams consisting of a technician, a specialist, and an advisor. (Id., Ex. 1, pp. 21-24, 30). Robinson and White worked in a team between May and September of 1997. (Id., Ex. 1, pp. 61, 69). Robinson alleges that White "place[d] negative information about [her] on the Automated Information System (AIS)," a system used for tracking bankruptcy cases involving the IRS which other IRS employees can access. (Docket Entry No. 1, p. 8; see also Docket Entry No. 25, Ex. 1, pp. 30, 35-37). Robinson also accuses White of "say[ing] negative things about [her] to other employees, to the attorneys and district counsel" and "try[ing] to discredit [her] work." (Docket Entry No. 25, Ex. 1, p. 37). Robinson did not hear White make any of these comments directly. (Id., Ex. 1, p. 42). Finally, Robinson asserts that White left Robinson's file cabinets open, which could have, but did not subject Robinson to discipline. (Id., Ex. 1, pp. 37, 41).

Robinson filed EEO complaint number 2270 on July 24, 1997. In this complaint, Robinson alleged that:

From 5-13-97 to present, management officials "allowed" me to be subjected to a hostile work environment as well as harassment by Liana White (co-worker). Liana White made false statements about me when she was informed that she would be charged with "insubordination" after refusing to work with me. Liana then began a vicious cycle to discredit my work performance on AIS history. "Management allowed Liona to harass me because I have an [sic] Civil Suit pending."

(Id., Ex. 16, p. 6). On the complaint form, Robinson marked the box to state that she based her claim on "retaliation reprisal," not "race," "color," "sex," or "national origin" discrimination. (Id.). In response to this complaint, White filed an affidavit accusing Robinson of being a racist. (Id., Ex. 1, p. 42). The dispute resulted in White's transfer to another location in September 1997. (Id., Ex. 1, pp. 37, 69-70).

Robinson's whistleblower claim and constitutional claims arise out her communications with her congressman. Robinson wrote her congressman in August 1996, complaining of harassment and discrimination at her job. The congressman forwarded the complaint to the EEO. Robinson asserts a violation of her rights because "Ms. Linda Payonk, an inspector with IRS Internal Security, [twice] visited [the] Houston congressional office and asked to review Ms. Robinson's casefile. The assigned caseworker, assuming that Ms. Payonk was working on the complaint [the congressman's] office had forwarded to the EEO and Diversity Office, cooperated and copied documents from the casefile that were requested by Ms. Payonk." (Docket Entry No. 29, att. i, Letter of April 24, 1998 from Congressman Ken Bentsen, Jr. to Commissioner of IRS).

In April 1998, Robinson received a letter of reprimand from the IRS, citing the fact that her letter to the congressman included confidential information about specific taxpayers. (Docket Entry No. 25, Ex. 1, pp. 225-26). Robinson bases her constitutional and whistleblower claims on the letter of reprimand, though Robinson admits that the letter did not affect her pay or her benefits. (Id., Ex. 1, pp. 232-33.). When the congressman found out about the letter of reprimand, he wrote the IRS Commissioner that he "was angered and appalled than an IRS inspector had obtained information from my office without disclosing her true purpose and used this information against my constituent rather [than] to help resolve her complaint as both she and I intended." (Docket Entry No. 29, att. i, Letter of April 24, 1998 from Congressman Ken Bentsen, Jr. to Commissioner of IRS). This incident attracted the attention of the local and national press. (Id., atts. c-h).

On April 30, 1999, defendant filed a motion for summary judgment as to all Robinson's claims. This court considers this motion below.

II. The Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See FED.R.CIV.P. 56. Under FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c), the moving party bears the initial burden of "informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue for trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Norman v. Apache Corp., 19 F.3d 1017, 1023 (5th Cir.1994). The party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, but need not negate the elements of the nonmovant's case. See Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). If the moving party fails to meet its initial burden, the motion for summary judgment must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant's response. See id.

When the moving party has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the nonmovant cannot survive a motion for summary judgment by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings. See McCallum Highlands, Ltd. v. Washington Capital Dus, Inc., 66 F.3d 89, 92 (5th Cir.1995). The nonmovant must go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Little, 37 F.3d at 1075 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548).

In deciding a summary judgment motion, "[t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). "Rule 56 `mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery, and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'" Little, 37 F.3d at 1075 (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548).

III. The Title VII Claims
A. The Legal Standards

Robinson alleges that she was retaliated against and subjected to discrimination based on race and sex, in violation of Title VII. To state a prima facie case of race or sex discrimination, a plaintiff must show that she is a member of a protected class, that she...

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