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Gulati v. Chao

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 23, 2019

ALOK GULATI, Plaintiff,
v.
ELAINE L. CHAO, Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation, Defendant.

          Hanan M. Isaacs, Esq. HANAN M. ISAACS, P.C. Attorney for Plaintiff

          Craig Carpenito, United States Attorney By: Anne B. Taylor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Alok Gulati (“Plaintiff”) filed this lawsuit against the United States Secretary of Transportation, Elaine L. Chao, (“Defendant”), alleging employment discrimination based on Plaintiff’s race, religion, and national origin and for retaliation and a hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et. seq. (“Title VII”).

         Before the Court is Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on all claims, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. [Docket Item 16.] Plaintiff opposes the motion [Docket Item 21], and Defendant has submitted a reply brief. [Docket Item 30.] For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendant’s motion in part and deny it in part.

         II. BACKROUND[1]

         Plaintiff has worked as an engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), a division of the United States Department of Transportation, since at least June of 1994 in the William J. Hughes Technical Center (“Tech Center”) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Plaintiff self-identifies as an Asian man who was born in India and who practices the Hindu religion. Eduardo Colon-Madera, one of Plaintiff’s coworkers during the times relevant to this suit, self-identifies as a Hispanic, Puerto Rican man and a Catholic. Radame Martinez, who supervised both Plaintiff and Mr. Colon-Madera at the Tech Center during the times relevant to this suit, self-identifies as a white, Hispanic man who was born in Puerto Rico and who is a non-practicing Catholic.[2]

         A. The Level 14 Position Application Process

         On May 20, 2009, the FAA posted two vacancy announcements for a single new position at the Tech Center to oversee a “Voice over Internet Protocol” (“VOIP”) test and evaluation project, which would be paid at the General Schedule Level 14 paygrade (“the Level 14 position”).[3] The vacancy announcements were written by Mr. Martinez, who would serve as the selecting official for the Level 14 position. The vacancy announcements delineated four areas of “Knowledge, Skills and Abilities” (“KSAs”) for which applicants were requested to provide specific information. The four KSAs included for the Level 14 position were:

1. Knowledge of data and voice communication networks;
2. Ability to lead technical projects and teams;
3. Ability to apply FAA approved test and evaluation methodologies to communication networks test programs; and
4. Ability to communicate effectively.

         Applications for the Level 14 position were due on June 17, 2009 and initial review of the application packets was undertaken by the Tech Center’s Human Resources Department (“HR”). On July 6, 2009, HR sent Mr. Martinez a list of those applications that met the minimum requirements of the Level 14 position. Both Plaintiff’s and Mr. Colon-Madera’s applications were included on HR’s list. FAA’s policy regarding promotions at the time of the events in question did not require a selecting official to convene an interview panel or to interview any of the applicants as part of the decision-making process. Mr. Martinez did not convene such a panel or conduct any interviews of the applicants. After evaluating the applications remaining after HR’s initial review, Mr. Martinez reviewed each applicant’s responses to each KSA listed in the vacancy announcements and assigned each KSA in each application an evaluation of “superior, ” “satisfactory, ” or “barely acceptable” and included a brief written rationale therefor. Mr. Martinez assigned an evaluation of “satisfactory” for all four KSAs in Plaintiff’s application. Mr. Martinez assigned Mr. Colon-Madera evaluations of “superior” for KSAs 1 and 2 and “satisfactory” for KSAs 3 and 4. After scoring the applications, Mr. Martinez determined that Mr. Colon-Madera had the highest score and recommended him for the position. A senior official at FAA headquarters then approved Mr. Colon-Madera’s promotion, which became effective on August 25, 2009. Plaintiff learned that he was not selected for the Level 14 position on or about August 27, 2009.

         B. Plaintiff’s EEO Complaint

         On October 5, 2009, Plaintiff contacted a Department of Transportation Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) counselor. On February 4, 2010, Plaintiff filed a two-count formal EEO complaint, alleging the following:

1. [Plaintiff] alleges that the [Department of Transportation] discriminated against him on the bases of race (Asian), national origin (India), and religion (Hindu) when, on either August 27, 2009, or August 28, 2009, the [Department of Transportation] nonselected [Plaintiff] for [the Level 14 position].
2. [Plaintiff] alleges that the [Department of Transportation] discriminated against him on the bases of race (Asian), national origin (India), and religion (Hindu) (and for the incidents after September 11, 2009, reprisal for prior protected EEO activity) when, on a continuing basis from July 2007 through to the present, the [Department of Transportation] subjected [Plaintiff] to a hostile work environment, including--but not limited to--the following exemplary incidents:
a. Between July and September 2007, Radame Martinez ([Plaintiff’s] 1st level supervisor) denied [Plaintiff’s] requests to attend management staff meetings while permitting a coworker to attend.
b. In August 2007, Mr. Martinez denied [Plaintiff’s request to attend Executive Leadership (ELP) training while permitting a coworker to attend.
c. In March 2008, Mr. Martinez failed to provide precise schedule information for a meeting, then reprimanded [Plaintiff] for missing the meeting, accusing [Plaintiff] without substantiation of being absent from work.
d. In June 2008, Mr. Martinez accused [Plaintiff] without substantiation of being absent from work, and declared to [Plaintiff], “you will never change, this is why I don’t trust you and don’t want you in my group!”
e. In February 2009, Eduardo Madera (a team lead on certain projects on which [Plaintiff] works) initially denied [Plaintiff’s] request to attend and participate in a VOIP test demo, only finally permitting him to attend when a scheduled attendee was injured at the last minute;
f. In April 2009, Mr. Martinez only permitted [Plaintiff] to attend Interconnecting Cisco Network Devises training through commuting from his residence to King of Prussia, PA every day for a 5-day training, while permitting coworkers to attend the same class that same year in Atlanta, GA and New York City, NY with full lodging and other per diem benefits;
g. On June 17, 2009, Mr. Martinez told [Plaintiff], “Aren’t all you Indians doctors, lawyers, motel & gas station owners?”
h. Mr. Martinez excluded [Plaintiff] from formally participating as a presenter in a July 2009 high-level briefing on VOIP issues with [Tech Center] Director Wilson Felder;
i. In September or October 2009, Mr. Martinez excluded [Plaintiff] from the VHF/UHF Radio Specifications Workshop Meeting;
j. In August 2009, Mr. Martinez and/or Mr. Madera refused to act on [Plaintiff’s] request to attend ISO Project Management Training;
k. On October 2, 2009, Mr. Martinez falsely accused [Plaintiff] of being late, forcing [Plaintiff] to expend an hour of annual leave under express threat of being held AWOL, yelling at [Plaintiff] in the process; and
l. On October 19, 2009, Mr. Martinez issued [Plaintiff] a performance evaluation for FY 2009 which contained unsubstantiated derogatory comments regarding [Plaintiff’s] performance during FY 2009.

         Plaintiff later amended his EEO complaint to include the following additional allegations:

m. On numerous occasions-including but not limited to June 25, 2009, April 27, 2010, and July 1, 2010- your supervisor sent e-mail correspondence in a restricted format, barring copying, forwarding and responses.
n. On or about March 2008, your supervisor denied your request to serve as VoIP team leader.
o. From 2005 to present, your supervisor denied you cash awards and/or time-off awards while granting such awards to others similarly situated to you.
p. On May 7, 2009, you were again accused of being absent from work.
q. On or around July 2009, your supervisor denied you the opportunity to serve as ISO team lead.
r. On or around July 2009, your supervisor denied you the opportunity to serve as Process Improvement Coordinator (“PIC”).
s. On or before May 2010, your supervisor denied you the opportunity to participate in the ISO effort.
t. On July 8, 2010, you received derogatory comments from your supervisor on your application for the Executive Leadership Program training, comments apparently calculated ...

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