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Willingham v. Mabus

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

May 22, 2018

NATHANIEL WILLINGHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
RAY MABUS, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF NAVY Defendant.

          ORDER

          JAMES C. DEVER III Chief United States District Judge

         On January 4, 2016, Nathaniel Willingham ("Willingham" or "plaintiff') sued Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Department of Navy ("Navy" or "defendant") alleging race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended [D.E. 1]. On October 27, 2017, the Navy moved for summary judgment [D.E. 35] and filed a memorandum in support [D.E. 36]. On December 1, 2017, Willingham responded in opposition [D.E. 43]. On December 14, 2017, the Navy replied [D.E. 46]. As explained below, the court grants the Navy's motion for summary judgment.

         I.

         On November 23, 2009, the Camp Lejeune MCCS Human Resources Division ("MCCS HRD") posted a job vacancy for an equal employment opportunity ("EEO") specialist. See Compl. [D.E. 1] ¶ 12. Andrew Ennett, Director of MCCS HRD, and the selecting official for the position, had the option to fill the vacancy through competitive appointment, non-competitive appointment, or reassignment. See [D.E. 38-2] 5-6, 38-47; [D.E. 38-4] 7-8. An employee who is reassigned to a vacant position is excluded from the competitive appointment process, so long as the reassigned employee is moved to "a position with no higher pay potential" than the position currently held by that employee. [D.E. 38-2] 42; see [D.E. 38-4] 5.

         Willingham, an African-American male, and 61 other applicants applied for the EEO specialist position through the competitive appointment process. See Compl. ¶¶ 13-16. A Human Resources Technician ("HRT") in the MCCS HRD reviewed all of the applications. See Id. ¶ 15. The HRT then determined which candidates met the base line eligibility requirements and compiled a list of the "best qualified" applicants. See id.; [D.E. 38-2] 5-6. Willingham was included on the list of "best qualified" applicants along with five other individuals. See Compl. ¶ 16; [D.E. 38-2] 5-6. The HRT also included the name of one applicant who was eligible for a noncompetitive appointment in accordance with Marine Corps policy. See Compl. ¶ 18; [D.E. 38-2] 5-6.

         On December 29, 2009, the HRT forwarded the results of the screening analysis and the applicant list to Ennett. See Compl. ¶¶ 17-18, 30; [D.E. 38-2] 5-6. On January 4, 2010, Ennett organized a rating and ranking panel to interview the "best qualified" applicants. See Compl. ¶ 19; [D.E. 3 8-2] 11-31. Ennett was not required to organize a rating and ranking panel, however, he was permitted to use the panel to assist him concerning the hiring decision. See [D.E. 38-2] 45-46. The rating and ranking panel included Patricia Turner, MCCS HRD Deputy Director, Jose Cabrera, MCCS Director of the Review and Analysis Division, and Gwendolyn Hopkins, Equal Employment Opportunity Supervisor. See [D.E. 37] ¶ 18.

         After the rating and ranking panel interviewed the candidates, the panel recommended John Fuller to Ennett. See [D.E. 38-4] 13-14; Compl. ¶ 20. At me time, me panel had interviewed Fuller over the telephone, but the panel contacted Fuller to arrange a face-to-face interview before making any final recommendation. See [D.E. 45] 66-67. On January 19, 2010, Fuller withdrew his application for personal reasons. See [D.E. 38-4] 16; Compl. ¶ 20. Although Willingham had the second highest score behind Fuller, the panel recommended Theresa Foster, an African-American female, for the position. See [D.E. 3 8-3] 43; [D.E. 3 8-4] 16; Compl. ¶ 20. The panel recommended Foster instead of Willingham because Foster's credentials and interview impressed the panel, and the panel was concerned that Willingham came across as condescending and unapproachable in his interview. See [D.E. 38-4] 16-19, 43, 76. The panel then submitted its recommendation to Ennett.

         Ennett was not excited about hiring any of the candidates that the panel interviewed. See [D.E. 38-4] 57. In accordance with the Marine Corps reassignment policy, Ennett decided to see if Myonsuk (Kathy) Marshall, an Asian female, was interested in the position. See [D.E. 38-3] 46-47. Ennett had known Marshall for about ten years and felt her credentials and her experience made her an ideal candidate for the position. See [D.E. 38-4] 57-59. At the time of the vacancy, Marshall was employed in the Camp Lejeune MCCS Review and Analysis Division (RVAN) as an Inspection/Investigation Manager. See [D.E. 38-2] 34. Marshall initially had submitted an application for the EEO specialist position but withdrew her application because she was involved in a project that she felt she needed to complete. See [D.E. 38-3] 46.

         On January 22, 2010, Turner, on behalf of Ennett, asked Marshall if she was interested in the EEO specialist position. See Id. at 47. Shortly thereafter, Marshall informed Turner that she was interested in the EEO specialist position. See Id. at 48-49. On January 26, 2010, Ennett decided to cancel the EEO specialist position vacancy, non-select all of the referred applicants, and select Marshall for the vacancy. See [D.E. 38-2] 33; [D.E. 38-3] 30. Marine Corps policy allowed Ennett to reassign Marshall because the reassignment did not put Marshall in a position with "higher pay potential." See [D.E. 38-2] 41-42; [D.E. 38-4] 27.

         On May 12, 2010, Willingham filed a complaint with an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") counselor alleging that the Navy did not select him for the EEO specialist position in retaliation for his protected activities. See [D.E. 38-2] 48-52. Willingham's protected activities concern his legal representation of several civilian employees in EEO matters at Camp Lejuene from approximately 1995 until2005. See Compl. ¶44; [D.E. 38-3] 12. Thereafter, Willingham expanded his complaint to allege race discrimination. See [D.E. 38-2] 53.[1] On June 7, 2013, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing concerning Willingham's claims and held that Willingham failed to prove his race discrimination claim or retaliation claim. See [D.E. 18-1]. On January 7, 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") affirmed the ALJ's decision. See [D.E. 18-3]. On October 1, 2015, the EEOC denied Willingham's request for reconsideration. See [D.E. 1] 11-13.

         II.

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and applies well-established principles under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See, e, g,, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Scott v. Harris. 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett. 477 U.S. 317, 325-26 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-55 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-87 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that 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); see Anderson. 477 U.S. at 247-48. The party seeking summary judgment must demonstrate an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 325. Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party then must demonstrate that there exists a genuine issue of material fact for trial. See Matsushita. 475 U.S. at 587. "[T]here is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Anderson. 477 U.S. at 249. Conjectural arguments will not suffice. See Id. at 249-52; Beale v. Hardy. 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1985) ("The nonmoving party.,. cannot create a genuine issue of material fact through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another."). Likewise, a "mere.,. scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmoving party's] position [will not suffice]; there must be evidence on which the [fact finder] could reasonably find for the [nonmoving party]." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; see Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 962 (4th Cir. 1996).

         A.

         Title VII prohibits employers from failing to hire an individual "because of such individual's race." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). A plaintiff may establish such a Title VII violation in two ways. First, a plaintiff may demonstrate through direct evidence that illegal discrimination motivated an employer's adverse employment action. Alternatively, a plaintiff may proceed under the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. 411 U.S. 792 (1973). See generally Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt. Inc.,354 ...


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