United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
KAREN M. KIM, Plaintiff,
PATRICK R. DONAHOE,  Postmaster General, United States Postal Service, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LORETTA C. BIGGS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Karen M. Kim ("Ms. Kim") brings this action against her employer, the United States Postal Service ("USPS"), alleging hostile work environment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a) (2012). Before the Court is USPS's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 11.) The Court heard oral argument on April 30, 2015. For the reasons below, the Court will grant summary judgment for USPS on both claims.
Ms. Kim has worked for USPS for nearly forty years, beginning in 1975. From 2004 to 2010, she worked as a Purchasing and Supply Management Specialist under the supervision of Team Leader Peter Nieradka ("Mr. Nieradka") in the Greenboro office. The Greensboro office is a Headquarters-related field unit with a small staff. Starting in 2007, a series of incidents occurred that caused Ms. Kim to feel harassed, bullied, and singled out by her Team Leader, Mr. Nieradka, and at times by a coworker on her team, Pamela Scharffbillig ("Ms. Scharffbillig"). According to Ms. Kim, these incidents created a hostile work environment based on sex. Ms. Kim first complained about her alleged harassment to Mr. Nieradka's supervisor, Ann Mueller ("Ms. Mueller"), in June 2010. Additional conversations between Ms. Kim and Ms. Mueller followed in the next several months. In these meetings, Ms. Kim informed Ms. Mueller that she did not wish to be separated from Mr. Nieradka but rather requested that Ms. Mueller separate Mr. Nieradka and Ms. Scharffbillig, who shared an office at the time. Ms. Mueller denied this request.
Between 2010 and 2013, Ms. Kim filed three formal complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") branch of USPS. Her first formal complaint, filed in November 2010, alleged sex discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation for complaining to Ms. Mueller. (ECF No. 12-6.) This complaint resulted in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's ("EEOC") grant of summary judgment for USPS in September 2013. (ECF No. 12-12.) The second formal complaint, filed in May 2012, alleged retaliation for Ms. Kim's first formal complaint. (ECF No. 12-15.) USPS found no discrimination (ECF No. 12-16), which the EEOC affirmed in June 2013 (ECF No. 12-17.) Ms. Kim filed her final formal complaint in April 2013, alleging further retaliation for her previous EEO complaints. (ECF No. 12-19.) USPS issued a final decision in October 2013, again finding no discrimination. (ECF No. 12-20.) Ms. Kim has exhausted her administrative remedies and timely appeals the decisions of each formal complaint to this Court. USPS moves for summary judgment.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Summary judgment is appropriate when "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the litigation, and a dispute is "genuine" if the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof on an issue, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the nonmoving party "fail[s] to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (noting that a "complete failure of proof" on an essential element of the case renders all other facts immaterial).
The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of "pointing out to the district court... that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325. To defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party must designate "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324. The nonmoving party must support its assertions by citing to particular parts of the record, such as affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.
The role of the court is not "to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter" but rather "to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249. A genuine issue for trial exists only when "there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Id. "If the evidence is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Id. at 249-50 (citations omitted). When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must "resolve all factual disputes and competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable'" to the nonmoving party. Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)).
A. Hostile Work Environment Claim
To defeat summary judgment on a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case by demonstrating that the harassing conduct was (1) unwelcome, (2) because of her sex, (3) "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive atmosphere, " and (4) imputable to her employer. Walker v. Mod-U-Kraf Homes, LLC, 775 F.3d 202, 207-08 (4th Cir. 2014). USPS does not dispute that the harassment Ms. Kim experienced was unwelcome. Thus, the first element of the prima facie case is not at issue. Rather, USPS argues that the Court should grant summary judgment on Ms. Kim's hostile work environment claim because she cannot establish that (1) the conduct she complains of is based on sex, (2) such conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive, or (3) any discriminatory conduct would be imputable to USPS.
Ms. Kim describes several incidents of harassment that occurred between 2007 and 2010, while she was working under the supervision of Mr. Nieradka. The first incident occurred one evening in March 2007, when Mr. Nieradka yelled and swore at Ms. Kim over the phone for supposedly informing another employee that Mr. Nieradka would not attend a business trip. (Kim Dep. 30:23-31:1, ECF No. 13-1; First Investigative Aff. 21, ECF No. 13-2.) Ms. Kim next cites three incidents in 2008. First, in January, Mr. Nieradka sent her an email expressing his disappointment that she had not informed him of information related to a supplier. (First Investigative Aff. 40, ECF No. 13-2.) Second, later in the spring of 2008, Mr. Nieradka gave Ms. Kim permission to skip a teleconference but then reprimanded her and a male employee when they did not attend. (Id. at 23.) Third, in May 2008, Ms. Kim objected to some negative comments on her mid-year performance evaluation. (Id. at 24.) Mr. Nieradka became angry and told Ms. Kim she had "no idea what he could do to [her] if he wanted to." (Id.) When Ms. Kim asked what he meant, he said she did not want to find out. (Id.) More than one year later, in August 2009, Mr. Nieradka emailed Ms. Kim after a teleconference, directing her to copy him on all of her emails. (Id. at 49.) He had become embarrassed during the teleconference when he did not have sufficient knowledge about a particular project, and he felt that Ms. Kim should have kept him informed. (Id.)
In addition to the five incidents outlined above, which spanned from 2007 to 2009, Ms. Kim cites several incidents in 2010. In January, Mr. Nieradka and Ms. Scharffbillig made a weather-related joke during a teleconference that Ms. Kim felt was "obviously directed" at her. (Id. at 52.) In May, Ms. Kim requested to take leave the day before her telecommute day, but Mr. Nieradka denied her request. (See id. at 85.) Instead, he asked her to either work on the day she requested off or come into the office on the day she typically telecommuted. (See id.) In June, Mr. Nieradka told Ms. Kim not to send text messages on her phone before the start of a meeting. (Id. at 28.) Voices were raised, and Ms. Kim became so upset that she left the meeting and left work early. (Id. at 29.) Later in June, Ms. Kim waited for Mr. Nieradka to return from vacation before updating him about a conversation. (Id.) Mr. Nieradka "came unglued and started ranting and raving, " upset she did not inform him sooner. (Id.) In July, on the day of an important audit, Mr. Nieradka required all employees to come to the office but did not come to the office himself. (Id. at 30.) Ms. Kim, who had come to the office on her telecommute day, was upset Mr. Nieradka had taken leave and also postponed a project deadline without informing her. (Id.) ...