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Boles v. City of Philadelphia Water Dep't

May 21, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dalzell, J.


Plaintiff Laureen Boles sues her employer, defendant City of Philadelphia Water Department*fn1 ("the City"), for employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.*fn2 Specifically, Boles asserts a claim of disparate treatment discrimination based on race.

The City has moved for summary judgment, Boles responded, and the City replied. The City contends that Boles cannot establish a prima facie case for her claims, and that it had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for demoting her and denying her request for tuition reimbursement. Boles argues that the City's reasons for demoting her and denying her tuition reimbursement request are pretextual.

For the reasons we discuss in detail below, we will grant the City's motion and dismiss Boles's complaint.

I. Factual Background

Laureen Boles is an African-American woman who has worked for the City since 1986. Compl. at ¶ 4; Def.'s Ex. B-1. In 1987, she was promoted to Civil Engineer, and in 1992 was promoted to Water Transport Engineer. Def.'s Ex. B-1. In 2000, the City transferred her to the newly-created Office of Watersheds ("OOW") and in 2001 she was promoted to Sanitary Engineer III. Id.

The City has a tuition reimbursement program for employees pursuing graduate studies. Def.'s Ex. B-2. The employee handbook provides that the "program cannot be considered a right of employment." Id. The City's policy is that the employee may only use paid or unpaid leave for graduate studies, with supervisory approval. Def.'s Ex. B-3, B-4, B-5, B-6. In April of 2002, Boles requested permission from Howard Neukrug, Director of the OOW, to pursue a master's degree in City and Regional Planning. Def.'s Ex. C, Affidavit of Howard Neukrug; Howard Neukrug Dep., Def.'s Ex. A-5 ("Neukrug Dep.") at 8-9. Neukrug approved her request, but hand-wrote on her approval, "I am concerned over classes during working hours, and this will be addressed on a case-by-case basis with your supervisor." Def.'s Ex. C-1.

On May 19, 2003, Boles stopped showing up for work, eventually reporting that she was sick. Def.'s Ex. B at ¶ 9; Def.'s Ex. B-7. Neukrug, concerned about Boles's work performance, wrote a special performance report in which he rated her performance "unacceptable" overall. May 20, 2003 Special Performance Report, Def.'s Ex. A-8. Neukrug never gave Boles the report because she left on paid sick leave before he could --although he tried to give it to her (without success) while she was absent. Neukrug Dep. at 9:1-20. For over a year, Boles was absent from work. Def.'s Ex. B at ¶ 9. She returned to the OOW in June of 2004. Id.

Unbeknownst to the City, while Boles was ostensibly too sick to go to work,*fn3 she was also a full-time student in a masters degree program at the University of Pennsylvania. Def.'s Ex. B at ¶¶ 11-12; Def.'s Ex. B-9. When Boles returned to work on June 28, 2004, she submitted vouchers seeking reimbursement for tuition expenses that she incurred while out on paid leave. Def.'s Ex. B at ¶¶ 11-12; Def.'s Ex. B-9. It does not appear that she was ever officially informed that her tuition reimbursement request had been denied. Over two years later (on August 11, 2006), however, Bernard Brunwasser, the Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner, sent Boles a letter informing her that her use of paid sick leave to attend a rigorous masters program "constituted an improper use of the sick leave privilege," and that she would have to return the money that the City had paid her while she was out on paid sick leave. Pl.'s Ex. 13.

Upon her return to work, Dr. Christopher Crockett, a Sanitary Engineer IV, became Boles's supervisor. Crockett Dep. at 16:8-11; Def.'s Ex. A-9 ("Crockett Dep."). At that time, Neukrug did not discuss with Crockett the performance report he authored, but never gave, to Boles. Def. Ex. A-5 at 36:7-15; Def. Ex. A-9 at 35:20-36:21. At some point (Boles does not allege exactly when) during a discussion with Neukrug, he allegedly advised her that "he had difficulty communicating with her because she is from the Savannah, Georgia area." Compl. at ¶ 8. In his deposition, Neukrug denies ever telling Boles this. Neukrug Dep. at 40-41. Boles submitted no evidence to support her claim that this conversation ever happened. Boles also claims that Neukrug "ranted and raved" about receiving an email about the promotion of a book signing event by African-American authors. Pl.'s Resp. at 8. Neukrug claimed in his deposition that he had been complaining about receiving mass emails, not about African-American author book signings. Neukrug Dep. at 26. Boles submitted no evidence to contradict the City's evidence on this point.

Boles is the only African-American among the twelve Sanitary Engineers in the OOW, and the only African-American that Crockett has ever supervised. Crockett Dep. at 98-99. Crockett assigned Boles to several projects, the most significant among them was the Watershed Technology Center project (the "Project"). Def.'s Ex. A-9 at 17:6-14. On June 29, 2004, Crockett sent Boles an email outlining certain tasks for the Project, including interviewing staff members. Roughly one month later, Crockett met with Boles to discuss how the project was progressing and discovered that she had not completed any staff interviews.

Pl.'s Resp. at ¶ 24. Crockett and Boles met again in August, but Boles still had not interviewed any staff members and had produced no new work on the Project in the intervening month. On August 20, 2004, Crockett issued a special performance report for Boles rating her work performance "unacceptable" for failing to (1) meet critical deadlines, (2) communicate with her supervisor, and (3) follow City policies and procedures "despite warnings." Def.'s Ex. A-10.

On August 26, 2004, Neukrug met with Boles to discuss Crockett's special performance report. Plaintiff told him that she thought her work was "good" and that she was busy working on a report. When Neukrug asked her for a copy of the report, she told him that she was too busy to make him a copy. Defendant's Memorandum of Law in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s MSJ") at ¶ 28; Pl.'s Resp. at ¶ 28. Crockett set new, intermediary deadlines for the Project. Crockett Dep. at 48:13-19. On September 17, 2004, Crockett issued Boles a written reprimand because she had failed to improve her performance and was becoming increasingly disruptive and insubordinate. Def. Ex. A-12. Crockett and another manager, Brian Marengo, met with Boles to try to salvage the Project. At that meeting, Boles gave them the same material she had provided Crockett in August, but in a larger font. Def.'s Mot. S.J. at ¶ 34; Pl.'s Resp. at ¶ 34.

On October 6, 2004, Boles was reassigned to another manager, Joanne Dahme, a Sanitary Engineer IV. The City removed Boles from the Project and then assigned a consultant with a professional background similar to hers to finish it. Def's MSJ at ¶ 36; Pl.'s Resp. at ¶ 36. Boles admits that she spent ...

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