Sagar v. Mnuchin

Decision Date12 April 2018
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 14–1058 (RDM)
Citation305 F.Supp.3d 99
Parties Vidya SAGAR, Plaintiff, v. Steven MNUCHIN, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Vidya Sagar, Hyattsville, MD, pro se.

Claire M. Whitaker, U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, Rafique O. Anderson, Office of Employment Counsel, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Randolph D. Moss, United States District Judge

Plaintiff Vidya Sagar, proceeding pro se , was hired for a one-year probationary period by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and was terminated shortly before the year expired. According to the notice of termination, the Department decided to fire Sagar based on his conduct and performance. Sagar, however, sees it differently and alleges that he was the victim of age discrimination. He brings this action against the Department to challenge his termination, asserting three claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. He contends, first, that he was terminated because of his age; second, that the Department retaliated against him for engaging in ADEA protected activity; and, third, that he was subjected to a hostile work environment because of his age. The matter is now before the Court on the Department's motion for summary judgment, Dkt. 104. For the reasons that follow, the Court will GRANT the Department's motion.

I. BACKGROUND
A. Factual Background

On December 20, 2010, Sagar was hired by the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") as an Information Technology Specialist at the GS–15 paygrade. Dkt. 101–20 at 3–4 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶¶ 8, 11); Dkt. 104–21 at 1 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 1). He was 62 years old at the time. Dkt. 104–21 at 1 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 1). Sagar was one of several Information Technology Specialists hired to help the IRS implement the Affordable Care Act. Id. (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 1). He was assigned to the Premium Tax Credit ("PTC") project, which was "build[ing] the application that calculates [the] applicable tax credit for taxpayers." Id. (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 2). Over the course of Sagar's tenure at the IRS, he had three managers. The first two are the alleged discriminating officials: Matthew Brady, the PTC Section Chief and Sagar's direct manager, and Peter Gianakos, the PTC Branch Chief and Sagar's second-level manager. Id. at 1–2 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 3); Dkt. 64–6 at 6 (Interrogatory No. 11). The third, Sagar's third-level manager, was also the individual who hired him: Gregory Barry, the Director of Compliance and Document Matching, within the IRS's Affordable Care Act Program Management Office. Dkt. 104–21 at 1, 4 (Def.'s SUMF ¶¶ 1, 13).

Barry served as Sagar's direct manager until January or February 2011, when Gianakos became the Chief of the PTC Branch and thus Sagar's direct manager. Dkt. 100–25 at 5–7 (Interrogatory No. 18). In July 2011, Brady became the PTC Section Chief and replaced Gianakos as Sagar's direct manager. Id. (Interrogatory No. 18). In March 2011, Sagar was "named the requirements lead for the PTC project." Dkt. 101–20 at 7 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶ 27). His "primary responsibility" was to complete the Requirements Plan, Dkt. 104–21 at 2–3 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 6), which "document[ed] the activities, methods, and techniques that w[ould] be used to perform and support Requirements Development ... and Requirements Management ... for the Premium Tax Credit ... Project," Dkt. 85–8 at 7.

According to the Department and one of Sagar's colleagues, Jonathan Lin, Sagar "began to have negative encounters" with Lin as early as February 2011. Dkt. 104–21 at 2 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 4). Although Lin did not immediately bring these encounters to the attention of management, he kept a running list of the episodes on his work computer. Dkt. 104–6 at 7 (Lin Dep. 42:12–44:19); see id. at 22–23 (Lin's notes). According to those notes, during the first incident, Sagar (who was not Lin's supervisor) "lectured" Lin "in the break room," prompting Lin to email Sagar to ask that they "treat each other with professional courtesies." Dkt. 104–6 at 22. During subsequent incidents, Sagar purportedly told Lin that he was "not a team player" and "hung up" the telephone on him; interrupted Lin at a meeting with harsh criticism implying that Lin had "confuse[d]" two distinct concepts; and, at another meeting, "threw down his pencil and started to lecture" Lin for having interrupted him, only to then himself interrupt another participant. Id. at 22–23. Finally, Lin's notes report that, at a meeting on May 23, 2011, Sagar "grabbed the [telephone] microphone while [Lin] was speaking and moved it directly in front of him" and, then, "after he finished [speaking], he threw it across the table [in Lin's] direction." Id. at 22. As the parties describe it, the "microphone" was an extension of a "spider" conference phone, which was typically passed among participants during conference calls. See Dkt. 104–6 at 16 (Lin Dep. 112:4–16); Dkt. 104–21 at 2 (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 4). Sagar, for his part, disagrees with Lin's account. He asserts that he "treated Lin with respect and helped Lin," Dkt. 112–4 at 4 (Pl.'s Response to Def.'s SUMF); that Lin was "uncooperative [and had an] antagonistic attitude," id. at 10; and that Lin "made up [some of the] events [and] distorted facts ... to get [an] outstanding [performance] rating," id. at 9.

The parties also disagree about the quality of Sagar's work as a Technology Specialist. According to Brady, when the template for the Requirements Plan was changed, the Plan "needed to be updated to follow the new template," but Sagar failed to do so in a timely manner. Dkt. 104–8 at 4 (Brady Dep. 35:20–22). The Requirements Plan, in Brady's view, "was not that complicated," and Sagar should have been able to update it more quickly and without assistance from others. Id. (Brady Dep. 37:20–22). But, because Sagar did not do so, the Project Manager, Walter Kirkland, needed to ask Sagar "numerous times" when the Plan would be completed, and Kirkland eventually "asked other team members, including Matthew Sikowitz, the only other GS–15 [Technology] Specialist in PTC[,] [to assist] in completing the ... Plan." Dkt. 104–21 at 2–3 (Def.'s SUMF ¶¶ 6, 8). Moreover, the Department adds, Sagar once "called a meeting to discuss the ... Plan, but[,] because he was not prepared to go forward, [Brady was forced to] cancel[ ] the meeting." Id. (Def.'s SUMF ¶ 7). Sagar, again, paints a very different picture. He alleges that, even though "[t]he project requirements were changing," he successfully completed the Requirements Plan in a timely fashion. Dkt. 101–20 at 7 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶ 29); see id. at 7–8 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶¶ 30–32); Dkt. 101 at 27 ("Sagar['s] three commitments ... were completed [on] time, [and his] performance exceeded [the relevant standards]."); id. at 31 ("[E]vidence ... show[s] that [Sagar] performed at an outstanding/exceptional level ...."). He further asserts—albeit in arguably contradictory terms—that he did so without assistance from others. Dkt. 56–17 at 3 ("With team input, the [Plan] was completed by me from start to finish."). As to the meeting that Brady claims to have adjourned prematurely, Sagar contends that the meeting was scheduled to last for "one hour" and that the meeting, in fact, "lasted an hour." Oral Arg. Tr. (Rough at 12:12–13).

In September 2011, Brady turned his attention to whether Sagar's employment with the Department should be terminated before the end of his probationary period. According to Brady, he was not only concerned about Sagar's performance, but had personally observed a number of "ongoing behavioral issues" involving "antagonistic" interactions with "other team members." Dkt. 64–6 at 34; see id. at 33–35 (Brady's narrative explanation, which was submitted to the Labor Relations Department, for why he recommended Sagar's dismissal). Brady noted, for example, that "[w]hen someone wished to speak[,] [Sagar] would hold up his hand and instruct [the person] in a firm voice not to interrupt him and" would admonish that person for "being rude," and that, as a result, "many of his team members [would] not speak while in a meeting with him due to intimidation and fear of being shut down." Dkt. 64–6 at 34. On other occasions, according to Brady, when "confronted with" a disagreement, Sagar would "say angrily[,] ‘I'll shut up now,’ and [would then] stop talking and ... [would stop] provid[ing] input to the team."Id. Around this time, Brady asked other PTC staff whether they had had difficulties working with Sagar, and Lin showed Brady the notes that he had kept regarding Sagar's behavior. Dkt. 104–8 at 3 (Brady Dep. 33:14–19); Dkt. 104–6 at 7 (Lin Dep. 43:10–44:3).

Toward the end of September, Brady completed Sagar's annual evaluation, which referred to these conduct issues.

Brady wrote, for example, that Sagar needed "to work more cooperatively with peers to promote a team environment;" that he "should ... provide input even when there are disagreements with team members and [should] not shut down as [he has done] in meetings;" and that his demeanor at meetings "contribute[d] to a hostile environment." Dkt. 104–9 at 7. The evaluation also raised performance issues, noting that, "[a]s a senior technical staff member, [Sagar] should be able to complete assigned tasks without the intervention of the manager and project manager[,] as was the case for completing the Requirements Plan," and that a "meeting had to be shut[ ]down by the manager" because Sagar's presentation "was not ready to be reviewed." Id. Based on these stated concerns, the review rated Sagar's performance as "[m]inimally [s]atisfactory." Id. at 9.

On September 29, 2011, Brady met with Sagar to present the evaluation. Dkt. 104–1 at 3–4 (Brady Decl. ¶ 7). Although the exact timeline is not crystal clear, at some point, Sagar "informed" Brady and Gianakos that the evaluation "was not consistent and was not true." Dkt. 101–3 at 5. In addition, Sagar asserts that he met...

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