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Darlene Melton v. United States Social Security Administration

September 5, 2012


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


Defendant the United States Social Security Administration (the "SSA") has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment in this action in which Plaintiff Darlene Melton, an SSA employee, asserts Title VII claims for retaliation, including a retaliation claim predicated on a hostile work environment. For the following reasons, we grant the Motion and enter judgment in the SSA's favor.


A. Factual Background

The record facts are as follows. Plaintiff Darlene Melton joined the SSA in 1978. (Def.'s Stmt of Undisputed Material Facts ("Def. Stmt"), at ¶ 1.)*fn1 She is currently a Disability Processing Specialist in the SSA's regional office on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia, a position she has held since February 2009. (Id. ¶ 2.) From 1992 until her transfer to her current position, with the exception of a one-year period from July 2006 to July 2007, Melton was a Claims Representative in the SSA's Northeast Philadelphia District Office. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 9.) During the one-year period, Melton was in a special SSA program, called PREDP, that permits employees to rotate through different SSA offices and positions. (Id. ¶ 7.) Melton's first line supervisor during the bulk of her time as a Claims Representative at the Northeast office was Susan Tonik. (Id. ¶ 10.) Robert Mannion was the District Manager of the Northeast District Office from 1988 until 2009, during which time he was Melton's second or third line supervisor. (Id. ¶ 12.)

Melton was advised on June 25, 2007, that she would be a witness at an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") hearing to address claims brought by a former SSA employee named Reuben Hoggard. (Id. ¶ 17.) The hearing was originally scheduled for July 19, 2007, but was postponed because the judge was ill. (Id. ¶ 15.) Eventually, the hearing took place on September 25, 2007, and the judge issued a bench decision on September 28, 2007, dismissing Hoggard's claims. (Id. ¶ 16).

Less than one week later, on October 4, 2007, Melton experienced breathing problems at work and left the office to seek medical attention. (Melton Dep. at 171-72, attached as Ex. 1 to Pl's Opp. to Summ. Judg. Mot.) Based on medical documentation that Melton initially submitted, Melton's sick leave was approved until October 29, 2007. (See Ex. 25 to Def.'s Summ. Judg. Mot.) After that, however, the SSA required that she submit additional up-to-date medical documentation in order to extend her leave until November 19, 2007.*fn2 (Id.) Tonik specifically advised Melton that her leave would be recorded as AWOL, that is, Absent Without Leave, if proper documentation was not submitted. (Melton Decl. ¶ 33, attached as Ex. 11 to Pl.'s Opp to Summ. Judg. Mot.; Ex. 26 to Def.'s Summ. Judg. Mot.) Ultimately, Melton submitted additional documentation from her physician, as well as a formal extended leave request, and the SSA approved her medical leave through November 19, 2007. (Exs. 23(m), (o) to Def.'s Summ. Judg. Mot.) Melton returned to work on November 20, 2007. (Melton Decl. ¶ 36)

In January 2008, an SSA assistant manager, Kathy Tannery, was looking for some documentation that an SSA client had submitted to the agency. (Tonik Dep. at 60, 66, attached as Ex. 3 to Pl.'s Opp. to Summ. Judg. Mot.) She looked on Melton's desk and, in the process of doing so, she rearranged some of Melton's papers. (Id. at 61.) Thereafter, Melton was advised to organize the piles of documents on her desk by priority rather than filing date. (Id. at 68-69.) Melton was very upset that Tannery had disturbed the papers on her desk. (Id. at 61; see also Melton Dep. at 404-05.)

In February 2008, Melton attempted to "protest . . . the appointment of a representative payee for [her] father's monthly Social Security checks," apparently because a stranger was receiving her father's social security benefits. (Melton Decl. ¶ 44.) When she did not get the relief she desired from her local office, she sought the help of management at the Northeast office. (Id.) However, management at the Northeast Office refused to get involved. (Id.) Melton states, without any record support, that the refusal was "against agency policy since as an employee [she is] to handle family related matters through management." (Id.) The SSA has submitted undisputed evidence that it is, in fact, "acceptable" for employees to conduct routine business regarding personal social security benefits in the office in which they work. (Tannery Decl. at ¶ 5, attached as Ex. 30 to Def.'s Summ. Judg. Mot.) However, the SSA also has policies against employees using their public office for private gain and must always guard against the appearance of impropriety or favoritism. (McFeeley Decl. at ¶¶ 5-7, attached as Ex. 31 to Def.'s Summ. Judg. Mot.) Given those policies, the Acting Team Leader for Labor and Employee Relations at the SSA states that it would have been inappropriate for the Northeast Office to intervene in the contested representative payee issue after Melton received an unfavorable decision from her local office. (Id. ¶¶ 8-12.)

Two months later, on or about April 16, 2008, Tonik approached Melton about returning late from her fifteen-minute morning break. (Melton Decl. ¶ 37.) The record contains conflicting evidence as to when Melton left for break and when she returned, and whether, as Tonik claimed, she could have determined the time that Melton returned based on office scanners that record certain information when employees use their access key cards. However, the record is undisputed that the SSA has an established break policy that permits a 15-minute morning break, a 30-minute lunch break, and a 15-minute afternoon break. (Id. ¶ 38.) The record is also undisputed that this was the first and only time that Tonik ever confronted Melton about lateness, and that Melton was neither disciplined nor docked any pay as a result of this incident, and that no file memo was ever written about the incident. (Def. Stmt ¶¶ 124-25; Tonik Dep. at 83; Melton Dep. at 260 (admitting that "nothing negative happened to [her] at work" as a result of this incident).)

Melton received her 2008 "Final Performance Review" from Tonik on October 27, 2008. (See Ex. 17 to Def.'s Summ. Judg. Mot.) Melton was reviewed in four categories -- Interpersonal Skills, Participation, Achieves Business Results, and Demonstrates Job Knowledge. (See id.) In each category, employees are rated Level 1 (Not Successful), Level 3 (Successful Contribution) or Level 5 (Outstanding Contribution). (Def. Stmt ¶ 35.) Tonik gave Melton Level 3 ratings in each of the four categories. (Id. ¶ 44.) According to SSA policy, the Level 3 rating indicated that Melton was "making a valuable contribution to the mission of the agency." (Id. ¶ 38.) There were also numerous positive comments in Melton's October 2008 appraisal, including "You continue to perform your job with integrity and honesty" and "You demonstrate sound analytical reasoning in applying policy, procedures and instructions." (Ex. 17 to Def.'s Summ. Judg. Mot.) With respect to Plaintiff's Interpersonal Skills, Tonik wrote the following comment:

You treat the public with courtesy and respect and maintain a positive and productive relationship with your claimants. You need to consistently display the same skills when dealing with your fellow employees and members of management, pacticularly [sic] when you are in a stressful situation. (Id.) Melton disagreed with this comment. (See, e.g., Pl.'s Suppl. Stmt at ¶¶ 42, 47.) At her deposition, Tonik identified several individuals, both co-workers and members of management, who had complained that it was difficult to communicate with Melton, that she had rambling speech patterns that were sometimes incoherent, and that she periodically became impatient. (Tonik Dep. at 79-81.) According to Tonik, her comment regarding Melton's interpersonal skills in connection with fellow employees and managers was the result of these complaints. (Id.)

B. Procedural Background

In very early November, 2008, Melton contacted her local Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") office. In February 2009, she filed an EEO charge, alleging retaliation based on her testimony at the Hoggard hearing. (See Exs. A and B to Def.'s Mot. for Partial Summ. Judg. ("Partial SJ Mot.").) Specifically, Melton alleged that she had been subjected to non-sexual harassment, as well as a retaliatory performance appraisal. (See id.) The SSA thereafter investigated Melton's claims that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment and harassment in retaliation for her testimony at the Hoggard hearing. (Ex. G to Partial SJ Mot.) Specifically, it investigated four allegations of harassment and retaliation that Plaintiff had raised in her EEO charge: (1) that some of her boxed supplies were lost during an office move in 2006, (2) that she was threatened with an AWOL charge when she was out on medical leave in early 2008, (3) that she was accused of returning late from lunch in April 2008, and (4) that she was warned that she could be sent home for wearing jeans in August of 2008.*fn3 (Ex. I to Partial SJ Mot.) On March 8, 2010, after completion of its investigation, the SSA issued a final decision, finding that Melton had not been discriminated against based on reprisal. (Id.) Plaintiff appealed the SSA's decision to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on April 5, 2010, and the EEOC affirmed the SSA's decision on September 14, 2010. (See Ex. J to Partial SJ Mot.)

In her Complaint in the instant action, Melton alleged that the SSA had violated Title VII by engaging in race discrimination, gender discrimination, and retaliation. She asserted that she had been subjected to discriminatory discipline, a discriminatory performance review, a hostile work environment, and a discriminatory failure to promote. On April 13, 2011, the SSA filed a motion for partial summary judgment in which it sought judgment in its favor on Melton's Title VII claims insofar as they rested on allegations of race and/or gender discrimination and any failure to promote, contending that Melton had not exhausted her administrative remedies with respect to these claims.We granted the SSA's motion and granted judgment in the SSA's favor on the claims of race and gender discrimination, as well as on her claims grounded on any failure to promote, finding that Melton had, in fact, failed to exhaust her administrative remedies with respect to those claims. See Melton v. United States Soc. Sec. Admin., Civ. A. No. 10-7217, 2011 WL 3652513, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 18, 2011). As we explained, Plaintiff had not raised claims of race discrimination, gender discrimination or discriminatory failure to promote before the EEOC, and no investigation of such claims could be reasonably expected to grow out of the EEOC charge that she filed. See id. at *5-6.

The SSA has now moved for summary judgment on Melton's remaining claims. Upon reviewing Melton's response to that Motion, we were uncertain as to the precise claims that Melton was now pursuing. As a result, we issued an Order, requiring Melton to file a brief statement of her claims, setting forth a single paragraph for each claim and specifying the workplace action on which each claim was based. Melton filed that statement on July 25, 2012, and identified four Title VII claims: (1) retaliation based on the SSA's failure to promote her to a Program Analyst; (2) retaliation based on the SSA's failure to promote her to a Supervisory Contact Administrator; (3) retaliation based on her ...

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