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Gaskin v. Science Applications International, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

April 1, 2019

GAYLA A. GASKIN, Plaintiff,



         Before this Court is Defendant Science Applications International, Inc.'s (“Defendant” or “SAIC”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 23). Plaintiff has responded (Doc. 24); Defendant has replied (Doc. 25); and the matter is fully briefed and at issue. For the reasons stated herein, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion.

         I. Background

         The Court views the factual record and all reasonable inferences drawn from it in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the non-movant. See Banner Bank v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 916 F.3d 1323, 1325 (10th Cir. 2019).

         Defendant contracts with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to train air traffic controller candidates at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Doc. 23, at 5. Beginning on September 9, 2015, Plaintiff began working for Defendant as an Instructor II at the FAA Academy. Doc. 13, at 2; Doc. 23, at 6. To hold an Instructor II position, one must be certified by the FAA. Doc. 23, at 6; see also Doc. 23-2, at 4; Doc. 23-3, at 4 (“Personnel in these [Instructor II] positions require FAA certification.”). Moreover, as terms of their employment, Instructor IIs were required to comply with the SAIC Code of Conduct, the SAIC Workplace Behavior policy, the FAA Academy Lab Rules, and the FAA Guidance on Maintaining Professional Relationships. Doc. 23, at 6. These various guidance documents prohibit employees from fraternizing or behaving inappropriately with or around students. See id. at 6-8; see also Doc. 23-5, at 12 (outlining harassment policy and noting that “[h]arassment . . . will not be tolerated”); Doc. 23-6, at 2, 4 (defining “Prohibited Conduct” and stating that, “[i]f SAIC determines that an employee has engaged in Prohibited Conduct . . . appropriate disciplinary action will be taken . . . including termination”); Doc. 23-7, at 1 (barring “All Academy Controller Training Contract ‘CTC' employees” from fraternizing with students); Doc. 23-8 (FAA guidance document further explicating bar on instructor-student fraternization).

         Beginning in 2016, Plaintiff began receiving warnings about misconduct. On February 17, 2016, Plaintiff received a letter from her supervisor detailing “four specific comments” submitted in end-of-course reviews from students Plaintiff instructed. Doc. 23, at 8; Doc. 23-2, at 7-8; Doc. 23-9. According to Plaintiff's supervisor, these students complained that Plaintiff distracted them during their lab work. See Doc. 23-9. Plaintiff denied the accusations, but she was instructed to change her behavior and act in a more professional manner. Id.

         On March 2, 2016, Plaintiff was counseled by Dan Morgan, her supervisor, in relation to another anonymous end-of-year critique from one of her students, who accused her of criticizing the assigned curriculum. Doc. 23, at 8; Doc. 23-2 at 8-9; Doc. 23-10; Doc. 23-11. During the counseling, Plaintiff was asked to “[d]ispense with . . . unacceptable lab conduct” and told that “[f]uture occurrences of this type could lead to a determination of unstability for employment with SAIC-CTC.” Doc. 23-10, at 2.

         On March 15, 2016, Plaintiff received a warning memorandum from Mr. Morgan “outlin[ing] the performance that is required from . . . a[n] SAIC-CTC Tower Instructor.” Doc. 23-12, at 1; see also Doc. 23-2, at 10. Plaintiff was told she was not meeting the requirements of her position-specifically, because she “ma[de] disparaging remarks concerning the courseware and customer required practices”; “engag[ed] in non-course related dialogue with students during labs”; and did “not remain[] professional, concise, and non-distracting in all situations.” Doc. 23-12, at 1. The memorandum detailed ways in which Plaintiff was expected to improve her conduct and conform to SAIC and FAA guidelines. Id. at 2. The memorandum also informed Plaintiff that failure to improve her conduct “may result in disciplinary action . . . including termination . . . .” Id.

         The alleged misconduct resulting in Plaintiffs termination occurred in late 2016 in one of Plaintiffs courses. Plaintiff taught eighteen students in Class 102897 from December 8, 2016, to February 1, 2017. Doc. 23, at 8. On January 30, 2017, Mr. Morgan received an email from FAA Section Manager Andy Taylor, in which Mr. Taylor requested that Mr. Morgan speak to Plaintiff about allegations made by her students in their end-of-course critiques. Id. at 9; Doc. 23-14, at 1-2. Among the student comments were the following:

. “[Plaintiff] hit on my classmates a lot.”
. “[Plaintiff] was very inappropriate as an instructor. She made me feel pretty uncomfortable at times”
. “[Plaintiff] . . . made a lot of noises into the headset that made me miss a number of call signs.”
. “I even had [Plaintiff] talk through my entire skill check to another instructor about how bad I was doing in my run. That whole run was ruined for me because she was talking into the headset.”

Doc. 23-14, at 1-2. Mr. Taylor expressed concern about Plaintiff s job performance and concluded that Plaintiffs alleged misconduct did not seem to be “an isolated issue” given that multiple students complained. Id. at 2. Mr. Morgan reached out to Plaintiff following the email, requesting that she respond to the allegations, providing her with a copy of the email, and sending her home on paid leave pending an investigation. Doc. 23, at 9; Doc. 23-2, at 13. On February 1, 2017, Plaintiff submitted a letter from her attorney denying any wrongdoing. Doc. 23, at 10; Doc. 23-2, at 13-14; Doc. 24-2.

         Following the student comments, the FAA conducted its own investigation. Doc. 23, at 10. Two students' comments stood out from the FAA's inquiry. First, Leighton Smith complained that Plaintiff touched him inappropriately and made him uncomfortable. Id.; see also Doc. 23-15. Specifically, Smith accused Plaintiff of the following:

. Plaintiff touched him “on the shoulders or upper arm” during lab work;
. Plaintiff told him, “I'd like to ride you like a rented mule” in the presence of other students;
. Plaintiff shook his hand in a way that made him uncomfortable; and
. Plaintiff told him that he “reminded her of a policeman that she had formerly dated.”

Id. Second, Adam Jaworski complained of similar conduct, alleging that Plaintiff (1) inquired about his personal life and shared details of her personal life, (2) showed him personal pictures on her phone and told him he “need[ed] to come over to [her] house in Yukon and hang out with [her] and [her] dogs, and (3) repeatedly grabbed his arm. Id. Jaworski also claimed that Plaintiff stopped speaking to him after she accused him of getting her in trouble. Doc. 23-15, at 2. Finally, Jaworski corroborated Smith's account. Id. (“[Jaworski] did state that [Plaintiff] ‘ma[de] advances toward Leighton [Smith] and said inappropriate things.'”).[1]

         Having investigated these student comments, the FAA notified SAIC on February 3, 2017, that it was decertifying Plaintiff as an Academy Instructor in light of her “inappropriate behavior.” See Doc. 23, at 11-12; Doc. 23-4. On February 6, 2017, SAIC terminated Plaintiff's employment because she “violat[ed] . . . SAIC's Code of Conduct.” Doc. 23-16; see also Doc. 23, at 12.

         II. Motion for Summary Judgment Standard

         “The court shall grant summary judgment 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). “An issue is ‘genuine' if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. . . . An issue of fact is ‘material' if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “The movant bears the initial burden of making a prima facie demonstration of the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.” Id. at 670-71 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). “If the movant carries this initial burden, the nonmovant that would bear the burden of persuasion at trial may not simply rest upon its pleadings; the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and ‘set forth specific facts' that would be admissible in evidence in the event of trial from which a rational trier of fact could find for the nonmovant.” Id. at 671 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). In short, the Court must inquire “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 251-52.

         While the Court construes all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Macon v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 743 F.3d 708, 712- 13 (10th Cir. 2014), “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the [trier of fact] could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252. At the summary judgment stage, the Court's role is “not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 249.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff asserts one count of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. “To survive summary judgment on a Title VII claim, ” Plaintiff must present either direct or indirect evidence of discrimination. Bekkem v. Wilkie, 915 F.3d 1258, 1267 (10th Cir. 2019). “When a plaintiff relies on circumstantial evidence to prove employment discrimination, [the Court] appl[ies] the three-step burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas and its progeny.” Plotke v. White, 405 F.3d 1092, 1099 (10th Cir. 2005) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 800-07 (1973)).[2] Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, Plaintiff must first “raise a genuine issue of material fact on each element of the prima facie case, as modified to relate to differing factual situations.” Morgan v. Hilti, Inc., 108 F.3d 1319, 1323 (10th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). Plaintiff may establish a prima facie case of wrongful, sex-based ...

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