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Brown v. Vanguard Group Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 30, 2017



          R. BARCLAY SURRICK, J.

         Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 10.) For the following reasons, the Motion will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In this disability discrimination action, Plaintiff complains that she was disciplined and terminated because of her depression, social anxiety, and agoraphobia. She asserts claims for discrimination, retaliation, and harassment under the ADA, the PHRA, and the FMLA against both her former employer, Vanguard, and her former supervisor. After a review of the voluminous summary judgment record-which reveals a protracted history of performance concerns that began prior to Plaintiff's disclosure of her disabilities-we are satisfied that no reasonable juror would conclude that Plaintiff's discipline and ultimate termination were the result of discriminatory animus based upon Plaintiff's disabilities.

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff worked as an information designer at Vanguard from October 2011 until her termination in August 2014. (Compl. ¶¶ 16, 18, ECF No. 1; Brown Dep. 41, 52, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. A, ECF No. 11.) Plaintiff worked on the “User Interface” or UI Design Team, which designed internal websites and software used by Vanguard employees. (Brown Dep. 52-53.) In this position, Plaintiff dealt with computer programmers and clients, who were internal Vanguard department heads that requested web or software projects. (Id. at 53.) Work done by the UI Design Team requires collaboration both with clients and with teammates. (Id. at 81-82.) When Plaintiff began at Vanguard, her direct supervisor was Marcia Morelli. (Id. at 52.) In March or April of 2013, Morelli was transferred to another department within Vanguard, and Srinath Chigullapalli became Plaintiff's supervisor. (Morelli Dep. 19, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. E; Chigullapalli Dep. 8, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. C; Brown Dep. 52, 215.)

         1. Plaintiff's Work at Vanguard Under Morelli as Supervisor

         Plaintiff did “high quality” design work when she began working at Vanguard. (Morelli Dep. 29.) In June 2012, Plaintiff received a Midyear Update from Morelli. (Id. at 52-53.) The evaluation was positive overall. (June 2012 Midyear Update, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. F.) Morelli noted that Plaintiff was “a very skilled and knowledgeable designer, ” who “stays on schedule, and organizes her work well.” (Id.) Morelli also indicated that “[w]orking in such a collaborative environment, with so much feedback coming in was a challenge to [Plaintiff] at first, ” but that she was “starting to adapt and find ways to work effectively with her colleagues, and with our clients.” (Id.)

         Morelli noticed that Plaintiff's performance began to change as time progressed. Plaintiff began to say more negative things during meetings. (Morelli Dep. 30.) Clients complained that Plaintiff had not produced design concepts in time for client meetings, and that she occasionally skipped the meetings. (Id. at 31.) When Morelli confronted Plaintiff with these complaints, Plaintiff made excuses, such as that she was unaware of what was expected of her, or did not know there was a deadline that she had to meet. (Id. at 31-32.) Morelli also noticed that Plaintiff had attendance issues. (Id. at 39.) Plaintiff often arrived at the office later in the day, or did not come into the office at all. She also frequently failed to communicate her whereabouts with her supervisor or her team. (Id. at 39-40.) Morelli testified that these attendance issues “happened pretty consistently, ” starting in the beginning of 2012. (Id. at 40.) Morelli recognized that Vanguard permitted flexible schedules, but as it applied to Plaintiff, “that didn't mean you could just totally come and go as you pleased.” (Id. at 46.)[1] Morelli addressed Plaintiff's attendance issues with her. (Id. at 39.) Morelli also stated that Plaintiff did not like receiving feedback from her teammates or from her clients, even though Morelli had expressed to Plaintiff that receiving feedback was “a core part” of her job. (Id. at 42-44.)

         At the end of 2012, Morelli submitted a year-end Appraisal of Plaintiff's performance. (2012 Appraisal, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. G.) Morelli confirmed that Plaintiff was a “skilled and knowledgeable designer, ” who “has great attention to detail.” (Id.) Her overall rating on this Appraisal, however, was “further development needed.” (Id.) At the time of the Appraisal, Vanguard's rating system ranked performance levels, from highest to lowest, as follows: “distinguished”; “fully successful”; “further development needed”; and “does not meet expectations.” (Sabin Decl. ¶ 2, Defs.' Mem. Ex. SS.) Morelli noted that Plaintiff does not always give the project teams “enough awareness of her status.” (2012 Appraisal 6.) Morelli also noted that “others would like to know when she is going to miss a session. This lack of information sometimes gives the impression that she is not as reliable or responsive as others would like.” (Id.) Finally, Morelli noted Plaintiff's continued difficulty in receiving feedback in a collaborative environment, and that she at times appeared “overly defensive or sensitive.” (Id.)

         Within the first three months of her employment at Vanguard, Plaintiff confided in Morelli that she suffers from depression. (Brown Dep. 153.) Morelli understood the conversation to mean that Plaintiff had suffered from depression in the past, but was not at that time suffering from depression. (Morelli Dep. 32.) Plaintiff did not mention any other medical issue or disability to Morelli. (Id. at 33.) Nor did Plaintiff state that any condition interfered with her work. (Id. at 37.) Plaintiff did not request any accommodation or present a doctor's note. (Id. at 34.)

         Prior to transferring departments, Morelli had a “turnover meeting” with Chigullapalli, where they discussed all the employees Chigullapalli would be supervising. (Morelli Dep. 44-46; Chigullapalli Dep. 11.) At the meeting, Morelli expressed concerns she had about Plaintiff's performance. Specifically, Morelli shared that Plaintiff needed to communicate her whereabouts with teammates and clients, and needed to create a more consistent schedule. (Morelli Dep. 46.) Morelli also shared that Plaintiff had been working from home without using the tools necessary to remotely log into the network, as was required by Vanguard. (Id. at 47.)[2] Morelli did not share with Chigullapalli that Plaintiff had confided in her about prior bouts of depression, because she did not believe it was work-related. (Id. at 51.)

         2. Plaintiff's Work at Vanguard Under Chigullapalli as Supervisor

         Shortly after becoming Plaintiff's supervisor, Chigullapalli began to see performance deficiencies. In May 2013, Chigullapalli learned from two managers of the United Way project team that Plaintiff never attends meetings, is very quiet if she calls into meetings by telephone, is not timely with her design deliverables, and is not open to feedback on her project designs. (Chigullapalli Dep. 30.) Chigullapalli shared the managers' feedback with Plaintiff, and Plaintiff denied being untimely with her work. (Id.) Chigullapalli also expressed concerns about Plaintiff's lack of communication with regard to her whereabouts. As her supervisor, he found it difficult to determine Plaintiff's schedule: “Sometimes she came in at noon. Sometimes she came in at nine-thirty. Sometimes she came in the afternoon. Sometimes she just worked from home.” (Id. at 17.) When she would miss meetings, she would not follow up with anybody who attended the meeting. (Id. at 24.)

         In June 2013, Chigullapalli gave Plaintiff a Midyear Update. (2013 Midyear Update, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. H.) In the evaluation, Chigullapalli noted certain strengths in Plaintiff's performance, such as her creativity and design skills. (Id.) Chigullapalli also noted some “developmental areas, ” which were areas where Plaintiff's performance needed improvement. (Id.) In the comments section, Chigullapalli stated that Plaintiff “should keep team members and various stakeholders in her project updated with her availability status including when working from home with appropriate communication.” (Id.) Chigullapalli met with Plaintiff to discuss the Midyear Update. (Chigullapalli Dep. 62.) He reiterated to Plaintiff that she needed to let everybody know when she was working from home, and needed to keep her teammates better informed about the status of projects. (Id.) He also advised Plaintiff about the requirements associated with working from home, such as having tools on her computer that would provide her complete remote access to all Vanguard software, and that would allow her to communicate with her teammates. (Id. at 63.) Chigullapalli instructed her not to work from home until those tools were in place. (Id.) It took Plaintiff at least six to eight weeks before gaining access to the tools; nevertheless, she continued to work from home a couple times per week without complete remote access. (Id.)

         3. Open Channel Message and Vanguard Response

         In October 2013, Plaintiff sent an anonymous message through Vanguard's Open Channel communication system. (Open Channel Message, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. I.) Open Channel is an electronic communication system that permits Vanguard employees to write anonymous messages to senior management. (Sabin Dep. 61, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. L.) Open Channel is meant to be a vehicle for employees to express concerns or suggestions, and is intended to be completely anonymous. (Id. at 61.)

         In Plaintiff's Open Channel Message, which spanned three-and-a-half pages, single-spaced, Plaintiff complained about her experience at Vanguard, including her teammates and supervisors, and shared some of the medical conditions from which she suffered. (Open Channel Message.) She stated that she felt bullied or ignored by members of her team, and not supported by her supervisors. She acknowledged that her supervisor-Chigullapalli at the time-expressed concerns about her availability. (Id. at 1 (“I am constantly told that I am not available to answer my co-workers questions.”).) Plaintiff denied being unavailable and stated that her work is great. (Id.) She complained that she was frustrated, was not treated like an adult professional, felt like she was “at a breaking point, ” and that “all of these workplace factors have caused me to have a very serious depression.” (Id. at 2.) In addition to depression, she indicated that she suffers from severe social anxiety and a mild case of Asperger's Syndrome, which complicates her ability to communicate with others. (Id.) Plaintiff further stated that she “is not yet suicidal” but “is angry” because “[i]t's not right to treat a human being this way.” (Id.) Plaintiff requested a flexible schedule because she “is not so good with 9-5 because of [her] depression.” (Id.)

         Kathy Gubanich, the Managing Director of Human Resources, sent Plaintiff a response to her Open Channel Message. (Id. at 3.) Gubanich shared various Vanguard resources available to Plaintiff, including the Crew Assistance Program (“CAP”), which provides external counseling services free-of-charge to handle work-life issues, wellness matters, and life management support. (Id.) Gubanich also suggested that Plaintiff contact Mike Sabin, who is a member of the Human Resources Department, and a Crew Relations Specialist supporting the IT Department. (Id.)[3]

         On October 18, 2013, Sabin met with Plaintiff about her Open Channel message. (Sabin Dep. 63; Crew Relations Session 69434, Defs.' Mem. Ex. F.)[4] Plaintiff expressed to Sabin that she was depressed, but was not suicidal. (Sabin Dep. 66.) In response, Sabin told Plaintiff about various Vanguard resources available to her, such as the CAP, short-term disability, and family medical leave. (Id.) Plaintiff told Sabin that she felt bullied by members of her team. (Crew Relations Session 69343.) Specifically, she indicated that Michelle Jones was “snippy” with her on one occasion and questioned her design knowledge, and Ann Gibson “ripped apart” one of Plaintiff's designs. (Id.) When Sabin inquired about Plaintiff's relationship with her supervisor, Plaintiff mentioned that Chigullapalli questioned her availability and threatened to remove her work-from-home privileges. (Id.) Sabin also provided Plaintiff with his personal cell phone number, and told her she could call him anytime. (Sabin Dep. 68-69.) Plaintiff did call Sabin on his cell phone on one occasion. (Id.)

         In light of Plaintiff's complaints about bullying, Sabin conducted an investigation. (Sabin Dep. 64-65.) As part of that investigation, Sabin interviewed four of Plaintiff's teammates, as well as her current and former supervisor. (Crew Relations Session 69343.) Sabin testified that Plaintiff's teammates “were frustrated with her” because “she was never around, ” and that she was a “poor performer.” (Sabin Dep. 66, 95.) One teammate told Sabin that Plaintiff gets defensive when receiving feedback, and is often not in the office. (Crew Relations Session 69343.) Another teammate stated that Plaintiff is “passive aggressive and rude” and that the team is frustrated with her because she often doesn't show up for meetings, or calls in and drops the call. (Id.) Another teammate shared that Plaintiff works from home often, is not engaged, and that people cannot find her. (Id.)

         On October 22, 2013, Sabin met with Chigullapalli as part of the investigation. (Investigation Plan, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. K.) Chigullapalli shared with Sabin Plaintiff's various performance issues. (Id.) For example, Plaintiff failed to complete an assignment before leaving for vacation, and Chigullapalli had to pull someone from another project to complete the task on time. (Id.) Chigullapalli received complaints from teammates about Plaintiff's lack of attendance at meetings, her poor communication skills, and the fact that she has worked from home several days a week without updating her team on when she would be out of the office. Some teammates requested that she not attend their meetings in the future. (Id.) Chigullapalli shared that Plaintiff routinely arrived to work between 10:30 and 11:30, missed three status reports despite multiple reminders, worked from home without remote access, and abused her work-from-home privileges. (Id.) Chigullapalli believed Plaintiff had the skills to be successful, but that she lacked initiative. (Id.) It was at this meeting that Chigullapalli first learned from Sabin that Plaintiff suffered from depression and other medical conditions. (Chigullapalli Dep. 9-10.)[5] Sabin learned about the disabilities from the Open Channel Message.

         On October 29, 2013, Sabin again met with Plaintiff to explain Chigullapalli's concerns about her performance, attendance, and availability. (Crew Relations Session 70142, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. R.) For each of Chigullapalli's concerns, Plaintiff “had an excuse or blamed others.” (Id.) She denied working from home three or four days a week, claimed she was unaware of the software requisites to work from home, and stated that she only missed one status report, not three. (Id.)[6]

         On November 6, 2013, Plaintiff met with Sabin and Chigulapalli for one-and-a-half hours to discuss the issues raised in her Open Channel Message, and to outline performance expectations moving forward. (Crew Relations Session 69686, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. T.) Sabin stated that, during the meeting, Plaintiff “took no accountability for her performance, behavior, or lack of availability.” (Id.) As a follow-up to that meeting, Chigullapalli sent Plaintiff an e-mail detailing clear expectations with respect to her presence and availability. (Id.) Plaintiff was told she would have to be at work by 9:30 a.m. every day, and that if she was late, she must let everyone she was working with know, including her supervisor. (Id.) Chigullapalli gave examples of where she fell short of this requirement. (Id.)[7] In addition, Chigullapalli explained his expectations for Plaintiff's submission of weekly status reports. He also offered to be available by phone, email, or text message if she had questions or concerns. (Id.)

         On November 12, 2013, Plaintiff e-mailed Sabin and Chigullapalli concerning a panic attack that she was having at a meeting. (Crew Relations Session 69790, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. U.) Plaintiff was advised that she could go home for the day. (Id.)

         On December 4, 2013, Sabin e-mailed Plaintiff, advising her that he had completed the investigation into allegations of bullying, and that he concluded that no harassment or unfair treatment had occurred. (Crew Relations Session 70192, Defs.' Mem.. Ex. S.) After the investigation, Vanguard decided that Plaintiff would be required to use CAP for counseling in light of her mentioning suicide in her Open Channel Message. (Counselling Session Note 69909.)

         4. Year-End Appraisal 2013

         On December 12, 2013, Plaintiff received her 2013 year-end Appraisal from Chigullapalli. (2013 Appraisal, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. V.) Plaintiff received the same rating that she had received from Morelli in her 2012 year-end Appraisal: “further development needed.” (Id.) Chigullapalli noted, among other things, that Plaintiff: “is a very skilled and knowledgeable designer, ” but that she “struggles to understand the roles and responsibilities of each individual assignment.” (Id.) Chigullapalli noted that Plaintiff turned in poor quality designs on one project, which required multiple changes and intervention by her supervisor. (Id.) Chigullapalli stated the following in the Appraisal:

[Plaintiff] received feedback during the mid-year review that she needed to keep everybody working with her updated on the status of her work and to make herself available for communicating during core business hours 9 AM - 4 PM. Despite multiple reminders she was consistently late to work (frequently past noon) and also frequently missed out on communicating her correct availability. She also worked from home multiple times a week despite the feedback about her lack of availability. During midyear she informed me that she did not have remote access to her PC when working from home. I advised her to review the flexibility policy on the prerequisites of working from home - call forwarding, availability at core hours, access to all the tools needed to perform tasks and present via email/crewchat. She had been working from home for almost two years without any of these and I suggested to her to not work from home till the PC remote access issues were resolved as an information designer cannot be productive without access to the tools on the work PC as citix gives access only to emails and none of the design tools. Despite that warning, she continued to work from home multiple times a week for the next six weeks.

(Id.) When Plaintiff did sign in from home with the proper remote access, her availability was “erratic at best.” (Id.) She would often set her status to “in a meeting” even when she did not have meetings scheduled. (Id.)

         Plaintiff was unhappy with the Appraisal. On December 12, 2013, she expressed to Sabin that she believed that Chigullapalli was trying to have her fired. (Crew Relations Session 70384, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. W.) She accused Chigullapalli of basing his evaluation of her performance on “several flat out lies.” (Id.) Plaintiff alleged that she “even showed this review to [her] peers and they agreed that [Chigullapalli's] characterization doesn't sound like [her] at all.” (Id.) In response, Sabin sent Brown the forms to request an accommodation. (Brown Dep. 297; Defs.' Mem. Ex. U.)[8] When she met with Chigullapalli to discuss the review, Plaintiff denied any performance deficiencies. According to Chigullapalli, Plaintiff never agreed to the performance gaps and was not open to feedback from him. (Chigullapalli Dep. 53.) This was surprising to Chigullapalli, since he and Plaintiff “had been constantly in communication” about her performance gaps and areas where she needed to improve. (Id.)

         5. Plaintiff Receives a Written Alert

         After her 2013 year-end Appraisal, Plaintiff's performance issues persisted. During the first week of January 2014, Chigullapalli called Sabin to discuss Plaintiff's continued performance issues. (Crew Relations Session 70893, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. X.) Chigullapalli reported that Plaintiff continued to (1) not submit status reports; (2) arrive to work later than the agreed upon 9:30 a.m. start time; (3) “work from home whenever she wants without prior manager approval”; and (4) not inform the team when she called out of work. (Id.) Based on these continued performance issues, Chigullapalli decided to revoke Plaintiff's work-from-home privileges. (Id.) Chigullapalli testified that he did this because, despite repeated warnings, Plaintiff was simply not being productive while working from home. (Chigullapalli Dep. 17-18.) Sabin asked the IT department to run activity reports to determine Plaintiff's productivity during days she worked from home. (Sabin Dep. 101.) He discovered that when Plaintiff worked from home, she rarely logged in, did not attend meetings, did not produce work, and sent only a few emails during those days, some of which were merely advising her supervisor that she was working from home. (Id. at 101-02.)

         On January 24, 2014, Plaintiff received a Written Alert due to deficient performance. (Written Alert, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. Y; Chigullapalli Dep. 38.) The Written Alert provided that Plaintiff had sixty days to improve her performance, and set forth in detail the performance gaps that needed improvement. (Written Alert.) In particular, it noted Plaintiff's failure to complete assignments on time, failure to communicate with her peers when asked to, failure to submit status reports, failure to honor the previously agreed-upon availability times, and her poor quality designs. (Id.) The Written Alert also specifically outlined the action steps Plaintiff needed to take to close these performance gaps. (Id.) During the sixty-day period of the Written Alert, Plaintiff was required to meet with her management team weekly to discuss progress on closing the performance gaps. (Id.) Sabin attended many of the meetings with Plaintiff and Chigullapalli. (Sabin Dep. 69-70.) At one meeting, Sabin discussed with Plaintiff that members of the SM Web Team felt uncomfortable after Plaintiff asked them why they provided performance feedback about her to Chigullapalli. Sabin advised Plaintiff that this behavior was unprofessional, and that if it continued, it could result in a Formal Warning. (Crew Relations Session 71415.)

         After receiving the Written Alert, Plaintiff met with Rob Cook, Chigullapalli's direct supervisor, who encouraged Plaintiff to follow through with the action items on the Written Alert. (Brown Dep. 290-91.) Plaintiff told Cook that she felt as though she was being discriminated against. (Id.) Both Cook and Sabin encouraged Plaintiff to submit a request for an accommodation. (Id. at 296-98.)

         6. Request for Accommodation

         Plaintiff submitted a request for an accommodation signed by her doctor, Dr. Alan Keller, on January 27, 2014. (Jan. 2014 Accommodation Request; Sabin Dep. 107.) Dr. Keller stated in the Accommodation Request that Plaintiff “has severe depression which makes her sleep impaired and makes it difficult to get up in the a.m.” (Jan. 2014 Accommodation Request.) Dr. Keller requested that Plaintiff be provided “flexible work hours.” (Id.) With Plaintiff's permission, Sabin contacted Dr. Keller to gain clarity on the accommodation request because he felt that “flexible work hours” was vague. (Sabin Dep. 109.) At the time that Plaintiff submitted the Accommodation Request, her start time was 9:30 a.m. (Id. at 108.) Sabin testified that Dr. Keller was surprised to learn that Plaintiff had already had a 9:30 start time, and that Dr. Keller believed that a 9:30 start time was a reasonable accommodation. (Id. at 111-12.) Vanguard believed that Plaintiff's request for an accommodation was granted because she already had been permitted a 9:30 start time, even though core business hours begin at 8 a.m. (Chigullapalli Dep. 55; Sabin Dep. 95.)

         7. Request for Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) Leave

         Plaintiff continued to meet with Chigullapalli weekly throughout February to discuss progress on closing the performance gaps in the Written Alert. After Plaintiff complained that she believed Chigullapalli scheduled their meetings on Fridays intentionally “to ruin her weekends, ” Sabin requested that Chigullapalli move the meetings to Monday, and he did. (Crew Relations Session 71536.) On February 12, 2014, Plaintiff called out of work because she was not feeling well. (Crew Relations Session 71535, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. FF.) In her e-mail to Chigullapalli and Sabin, she stated, “[j]ust because you scold me, it doesn't make my medical conditions go away.” (Id.) Sabin responded to the e-mail, “I'm sorry you are not feeling well. As we discussed when we met on January 31, 2014, you may apply for intermittent FMLA if you feel that you have a medical condition that limits your ability to come to work.” (Id.) Sabin provided her with contact information for applying for intermittent FMLA. (Id.)

         On March 5, 2014, Plaintiff met with Chigullapalli and Sabin. Plaintiff had just returned from a planned vacation on February 22 through February 28, 2014. (Crew Relations Session 71979, Defs.' Ex. CC.) Chigullapalli provided feedback on her performance under the Written Alert. (Id.) After the meeting, Sabin noted that Plaintiff “argued each point and said his facts were not accurate.” (Id.) Sabin also noted that Plaintiff made inappropriate comments during the meetings, such as: “Talking to you is like talking to the wall”; “I didn't ask for approval to work from home because I don't want to talk to you”; “I don't want to talk to you now”; “I'm not your slave”; ...

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