United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division
RUBY C. MEEKS, Plaintiff,
BRUNSWICK HOUSING AUTHORITY, Defendant.
LISA GODBEY WOOD, Chief Judge.
Based on the alleged conduct of her former employer, the Brunswick Housing Authority ("BHA"), Plaintiff Ruby C. Meeks filed a complaint in this Court on January 14, 2013, alleging age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 621-634, disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 12101-12213, and retaliation. See Dkt. No. 1. Meeks was permitted to amend her complaint in order to add a race discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1974, as amended, 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et. seq., and the parties have now had the opportunity to file motions and briefs relating to that additional claim. Before the Court today are Defendant BHA's Motions for Summary Judgment. Dkt. Nos. 28, 53. BHA's Motions for Summary Judgment are GRANTED.
Defendant BHA manages public housing and "Section 8" housing programs in Brunswick, Georgia. Dkt. No. 31 ("Strickland Decl."), ¶ 6. Section 8, also known as the housing choice voucher ("HCV") program, is a federal government assistance program that supplies subsidies for low-income families living in private housing. Id . According to BHA Executive Director, Angela Strickland, BHA had lost staff over time as a result of budget cuts and was consequently dealing with a backlog of work in the Section 8 department. Id. at ¶¶ 3, 10. In looking to fill an HCV Specialist position, Strickland was hoping to employ a "self-starter" to help reduce the backlog of work. Id . Among other duties, this person would accept and process new HCV applications and conduct re-examinations (or re-certifications) to determine continued participant eligibility for the program. Dkt. No. 33.
In 2012, Meeks applied for the HCV Specialist position. She was interviewed by Strickland and Ruthie Knox, who was Director of Operations for the BHA Central Office. Id. at ¶ 8. Meeks presented herself as having significant experience in the housing industry, including with subsidized housing. Id. at ¶ 9. Strickland, who makes all of the hiring decisions for BHA, decided to hire Meeks. Dkt. No. 31-3 ("Strickland Dep."), 11:8-24. Meeks began working for BHA on July 5, 2012. Dkt. No. 49-3 ("Meeks Dep."),  63:10-11. Meeks understood that there was a six-month probationary period and that she was an at-will employee. Meeks Dep. 74:16-22. Jewel Small was the Director of Operations for the Section 8 program and Meeks' supervisor in the HCV Specialist position. Dkt. Nos. 32-1, 32-2 ("Small Dep."), 6:9-11, 22:20-23. At the time Meeks started working for BHA, there were only two other people working in the Section 8 department: Rick Bassett, a housing inspector, and Small. Dkt. No. 37, ¶ 13; Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶ 13. Although Meeks acknowledges she does not know what input Small had in hiring her, Meeks had the impression that Small did not want her to have the job. Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶ 12; Meeks Dep. 118:24-119:9.
On the first day when Meeks met Small, Meeks said, "Call me Ruby", and Small responded, "Oh, I couldn't." When Meeks asked why not, Knox answered that it was out of respect for Meeks. Small called Meeks "Miss Ruby", which Meeks interpreted as a way of emphasizing how much older Meeks was than the other employees. Meeks Dep. 185-86.
Meeks testified that she received "practically no" new hire training at BHA. Meeks Dep. 74:23-25. On Meeks' first day, in her first few hours at BHA, Brian Collins, an IT employee, came in to show Meeks the different computer programs and what they did. Meeks said that it was "a lot to absorb in a very short time. But for the preliminary [sic] it was okay." Id. at 75:1-14. Meeks expressed that while Collins showed her the BHA computer programs, he did not show her how to input information to the system, which was necessary for vouchers and re-certifications ("recerts"). Meeks Dep. 76:20-77:1. That was Small's job. Id.
Because of the overwhelming workload in the Section 8 department, Strickland attempted to have Hope Morris, Director of Public Housing at BHA, train Meeks in the HCV Specialist position. This would have allowed Small to continue working through the backlog of work without having to train a new employee. However, Morris worked alone in a satellite office with her assistant, and her assistant had taken medical leave just before Meeks' arrival. Morris could not leave her office unattended, so Small provided Meeks with the instruction that she did receive. Dkt. No. 37, ¶¶ 19-23.
Meeks took great issue with the quantity and quality of training that she was provided. Still, she did describe some training on the computer systems from Small. Meeks was seated next to Small in Small's office. Meeks was supposed to be taking notes while Small showed her what to do on the computer. Meeks Dep. 75:15-76:4. Meeks had difficulty seeing with her bifocals, hearing Small speak, and simultaneously watching the computer and taking notes. Id. at 78:14-21. Meeks told Small that she could not see the screen and could not hear her. According to Meeks, Small then lowered her voice, which Meeks felt was intentional. Id. at 117:9-118:23. For a brief period, Small had Meeks sit at Small's computer while Small told Meeks what to click on. Id. at 94-95.
In addition to the training in Small's office, Meeks acknowledged several communications in which Small did seem to provide Meeks with templates needed for her job. Id. at 98. Meeks expressed that Small, through "rude treatment", made it obvious she did not want to be interrupted and did not want Meeks asking her questions. Id. at 111:8-17. Meeks started emailing all of her questions to Small. Id. at 109:10-21. Though she may have been exaggerating, Meeks once stated that she sent Small fifty emails a day. Id. at 109:4-9. Although Meeks described that she sent "many, many, many, many" emails to Small that received no response, Meeks acknowledged several emails that Small responded to and questions that Small answered. See id. at 98-109. Other BHA employees, such as Bassett, Sherry Herrin, and Glenda Wainright, helped Meeks with her job-related questions. Dkt. No. 37, ¶ 30; Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶ 30.
Despite her dissatisfaction with her training, Meeks testified that she was able to perform the tasks that she already knew how to do, such as processing applications, working on annual re-certifications, and taking phone calls from applicants. Meeks Dep. 66:3-25. Meeks testified that she "begged to be trained for more so that [she] could do more, because [she] knew [Small]... had a lot on her plate, but [she] kept being told that [Small] didn't have time to train [her]." Id. at 66:3-11. Meeks contends that she told Small she "[would] work as hard as anybody ever worked for [her] if [Small would] just train [her] enough to do [her] job." Id. at 116:7-13. Meeks also said that it would take time to train her. Id . Meeks alleged that Small spent four days training a temporary worker, Betty Johnson. Meeks Dep. 112.
At some point, Meeks told Knox that she could not hear Small very well and was not getting adequate training from Small. Meeks said that she was looking into getting a hearing aid and asked for time off to attend related appointments. Knox granted Meeks' request for time off. She asked Meeks if Small was the only person she had trouble hearing, and Meeks answered, "Yes." Dkt. No. 37, ¶¶ 31-33; Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶¶ 31-33. Knox spoke with Small and told her that Meeks was having trouble hearing her, and Small agreed to speak louder. Dkt. No. 37, ¶ 34. Meeks had her hearing tested on August 7, 2012, and the audiologist determined that she had "mild to moderate sensorineural loss." Dkt. No. 37, ¶¶ 81-82; Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶¶ 81-82. Meeks emailed Knox regarding her doctor's appointment on August 20, 2012. Dkt. No. 35-5. She wrote, "the doctor found a slight hearing loss in low tones - not enough that I normally have a problem but since I am having some difficulty, she recommended a hearing aid that would pick up those sounds without lots of background noise." Id.
Meeks maintains that her hearing problem rises to the level of a disability when she is not using a hearing aid and only for low tones; she can hear normal conversations. Meeks Dep. 203-04. However, Meeks also testified that there is nothing she cannot do as a result of her hearing loss. Id. at 206:17-19. Bassett also had hearing problems and wore hearing aids in each ear; he did not have any problems hearing or communicating with Small. Dkt. No. 32-6 ("Bassett Decl."), ¶¶ 4, 9.
According to BHA, Meeks was not catching on to the Elite system, used for maintaining tenant information, was not effectively reducing the Section 8 workload, and was not the "self-starter" that BHA needed in the HCV Specialist position. Dkt. No. 37, ¶¶ 35-36. Meeks denies these allegations but provides no record citations or evidence to support the denial. Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶¶ 35-36. In an affidavit, Meeks stated that she found documents on her computer created by the previous person that held the Section 8 HCV Specialist position and began training herself with them. Dkt. No. 49-2 ("Meeks Aff."), ¶¶ 12-13. Meeks completed a re-certification for Small to review, and Small found "few if any errors." Small did not check the next six re-certifications Meeks gave her to review. Id. at ¶¶ 15-18. Meeks expressed that her problem was with inputting information into the system used by BHA, which she resolved by studying the documents she found on the computer. Id. at ¶¶ 21-22. Small confirmed that Meeks would do the work for the re-certifications, but she would not complete those re-certifications by putting them into the system. Small Dep. 25-29. Small felt that Meeks had a confidence issue and was nervous about making mistakes. Id.
Meeks, to dispute the contention that she was not performing adequately, outlined her extensive experience with using computers and stated that she never had any problems previously with learning how to operate computers. Meeks Aff. ¶¶ 23-27. She thought that she would have reached an effective performance level sooner if she had been given appropriate training. Meeks expressed that no one at BHA ever told her she was not performing adequately. Id. at ¶¶ 19, 6.
Small told Strickland that Meeks was not picking up the work in the HCV Specialist position, and Small did not know what else to do to train Meeks. Small also thought that Meeks had a personal problem with her. Strickland Decl. ¶ 22. Strickland observed that Meeks had "disdain" for Small and stated that "no matter what happened, it was always [Small's] fault." Strickland Dep. 37. Strickland stated that Meeks "was not able to perform to our standards in the HCV specialist position. She was not catching on to the computer system. There was constant conflict between her and Jewel that hampered the work flow." Strickland Dep. 20:21-25. Knox testified, "we needed someone in there that could... pick up the pace and keep going, and that wasn't happening." Knox Dep. 23:20-23.
Aware of the strained relationship between Meeks and Small and the backlog of work in the Section 8 department, Strickland decided to transfer Meeks to a receptionist position that was previously eliminated due to budget cuts. Strickland Decl. ¶ 23; Dkt. No. 37, ¶¶ 39-40. Since the position was eliminated, various employees had been handling the receptionist duties on a rotating basis. Id . Strickland received approval from the BHA Board of Directors to re-open the position, and she informed Meeks of the transfer in mid-September of 2012. Strickland Decl. ¶ 25. Strickland told Meeks that she was reassigning her because the work was getting behind. Meeks reminded Strickland that she did not receive proper training, and Strickland said there was no time to train Meeks. Meeks Aff. ¶¶ 8-10. Meeks asked Strickland if the transfer was a "derogatory action", and Strickland said it was not. Meeks told Strickland that she would have a problem if it was because she was formerly an EEOC counselor. Meeks Dep. 134. The transfer did not result in a pay cut, a change in eligibility for benefits, or an extension of the introductory period. Dkt. No. 37, ¶ 44; Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶ 44.
Small was no longer Meeks' supervisor in the new position; rather, Meeks was to report to Knox, which Meeks did not realize until about a week after the transfer. Meeks Dep. 135-37. Though Strickland and Knox both stated that Leslie Bautista trained Meeks for the receptionist position, Meeks only admits that she asked "[w]hoever was close" questions regarding the receptionist position. Dkt. No. 37, ¶¶ 46-47; Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶¶ 46-47. Meeks also stated that Linda Gibson was helpful to her in the receptionist position. Meeks Dep. 123:24-124:2. On September 20, 2012, in an email to Small, Meeks noted that she was not yet adept with working the calendar system. Dkt. No. 34.
Strickland hired Aliya Belton for the HCV Specialist position pursuant to a recommendation from a colleague of Strickland's who worked for Goodwill. Strickland Dep. 42:17-24. Belton and Small did not know each other before Belton came to work for BHA. Dkt. No. 37, ¶ 75. Belton is an African American female who was 32-years-old at the time of her deposition. Dkt. No. 35 ("Belton Dep."), 7:1-6. Although Morris had been unable to provide additional training for Meeks because her assistant was out when Meeks started, Morris had sufficient staff in her office by the time Belton was hired for Morris to help train Belton. Dkt. No. 33-1 ("Morris Dep."), 20:22-25, 23:1-7. Belton testified that Morris trained her for about four or five days. Belton Dep. 9:24-25. Belton also testified that although Small was her supervisor, Small was not responsible for her training. Rather, Belton felt personally responsible for ensuring that she understood everything needed to perform her job. Id. at 11:7-22. For example, Belton participated in "self-directed" training that she discovered by consulting the administrative policy and guidebook. Id. at 18:23-24, 19:1-4.
On September 26, 2012, there was a meeting between Strickland, Knox, and Meeks to check in with Meeks regarding the receptionist position. Dkt. No. 37, ¶ 55-56; Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶ 55-56. At some point during the meeting, Strickland asked Small to join. Id. at ¶ 57. Meeks expressed that she was frustrated about the fact that she never received the training that Belton, the new HCV Specialist, was receiving. Meeks Dep. 166-67. After the meeting, Strickland emailed Meeks to ask what training she felt she still needed to be able to perform in the receptionist position. Meeks responded with several items she felt she needed training on, including the calendar and kiosk systems. Strickland asked Knox to follow up with Meeks regarding the training Meeks requested. Id. at ¶ 58-60. Collins testified that he retrained Meeks on the Outlook calendar system and the Lobby Central kiosk program. Dkt. No. 37, ¶ 61.
Small and Knox both testified about having received complaints from customers that Meeks was rude to them. Strickland was made aware of those complaints. Dkt. No. 37, ¶¶ 61-63. Even when Meeks was in the receptionist position, she was still in the introductory period of her employment, and Strickland testified that BHA does not typically "write people up" during that period. Strickland Dep. 21:6-15.
According to Strickland,
Ms. Meeks was coming up on her three-month portion of her introductory period. There were issues even after her transfer with her catching on to our systems. There was still conflicts with [Small] in the office, because even though she did not work for [Small], she worked with [her]... There were client complaints that she was rude to them in the lobby and on the phone. So at that time, we just decided if this is how things are going in the introductory period, we didn't see a reason it would change.
Id. at 36:11-22. Strickland terminated Meeks' employment on October 3, 2012. Dkt. No. 37, ¶ 66; Dkt. No. 49-4, ¶ 66. BHA then hired Susan Bratton, a 48-year-old white woman, as a receptionist. Strickland Decl. ¶ 35.
Meeks filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on October 11, 2012. Dkt. No. 28-1. In the area of the form labeled "Discrimination Based On", Meeks checked the boxes for race, age, and disability. She did not check the box for retaliation. Id . In the description area, Meeks expressed that she met the standards for the position but "was not provided with the proper tools to be ...