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Stephens v. County of Sacramento Department of Human Assistance of Northern California Welfare Division

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 10, 2019




         This case was before the court on February 27, 2019 for hearing on the sole defendant County of Sacramento's (hereafter “County”) motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 35) and the court's November 16, 2018 order directing plaintiff to show cause why sanctions should not be imposed for her failure to timely respond to the County's motion (ECF No. 36).[1] Attorney Glen Williams appeared on behalf of the County, and plaintiff appeared pro se. For the following reasons, the order to show cause is discharged and it is recommended that the County's motion be granted.

         I. Order to Show Cause

         The County noticed its motion for summary judgment for hearing on November 28, 2018. ECF No. 35. In violation of Local Rule 230(c), plaintiff failed to timely file an opposition or statement of non-opposition to the motion. Accordingly, the hearing on the motion was continued and plaintiff was ordered to show cause why sanctions should not be imposed for her failure to respond to the motion. ECF No. 36. Plaintiff was also ordered to file an opposition or statement of non-opposition to the pending motion.

         In response, plaintiff explains that she was diligently working on her response to the motion but was unable to finish it before the original deadline. ECF No. 37. Plaintiff also filed a declaration in opposition to the County's motion (but not a formal opposition) and a response to defendant's Statement of Undisputed Facts. ECF Nos. 38, 39. In light of plaintiff's representation and her pro se status, the order to show cause is discharged and no sanctions are imposed.

         II. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgement

         A. Undisputed Facts

         Plaintiff's complaint alleges claims against the County of Sacramento for racial discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). ECF No. 1.

         On December 2, 2013, plaintiff was hired as a Human Services Specialist (“HSS”) at the County of Sacramento Department of Human Assistance. Decl. of Donna Doyle (“Doyle Decl.”) ¶ 4; Decl. of Rehema Stephens (“Stephens Decl.”) ¶ 4. Following her completion of her HSS Induction class on March 10, 2014, plaintiff was assigned to a unit at the Bowling Green Bureau and commenced a twelve-month probationary HSS position. Doyle Decl. ¶ 7; Compl. ¶7. Plaintiff's immediate supervisor was Carmen Espinoza, who reported to Project Manager Donna Doyle. Doyle Decl. ¶ 7.

         On March 17, 2014, Espinoza met with plaintiff to discuss plaintiff's interest in taking the African American Cultural Special Skills Exam. Decl. of Carmen Espinoza (“Espinoza Decl.”) ¶ 9; Stephens Decl. ¶ 13. During the conversation, Ms. Espinoza told plaintiff to do her “due diligence” because “dealing with that particular demographic can be difficult.” Stephens Decl. ¶ 13. When plaintiff asked Ms. Espinoza if she was referring to black people, Ms. Espinoza stated that many people make the mistake of “thinking that because they're of the same race and culture they have an automatic in.” Id. Plaintiff then asked Ms. Espinoza if she was suggesting that plaintiff not take the exam, to which Espinoza replied, “No, I'm just making sure you have all the facts.” Id.

         After this conversation, the working relationship between plaintiff and Ms. Espinoza deteriorated and multiple disputes arose. Stephens Decl. ¶¶ 14-17, 19-22; Espinoza Decl. ¶¶ 10-14. At plaintiff's request, Ms. Doyle held a meeting on April 2, 2014 to discuss the comments Ms. Espinoza made on March 17 and her subsequent interactions with plaintiff. Stephens Decl. ¶¶ 23, 25. At the meeting-which was attended by Ms. Doyle, Ms. Espinoza, plaintiff, and plaintiff's union representative, Mechele Dews-plaintiff requested she be assigned to another unit with a different supervisor. Id. ¶ 25. Ms. Doyle denied that request. Id.

         On May 23, 2014, plaintiff was called into Ms. Doyle's office and given a Notice of Release from Probationary Status. Id. ¶ 27. Ms. Doyle informed plaintiff that her employment was being terminated because she was insubordinate to her direct supervisor, unprofessional with clients, and demonstrated an inability to work well with her coworkers. Id.

         B. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when 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). Summary judgment avoids unnecessary trials in cases in which the parties do not dispute the facts relevant to the determination of the issues in the case, or in which there is insufficient evidence for a jury to determine those facts in favor of the nonmovant. Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 600 (1998); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-50 (1986); Nw. Motorcycle Ass'n v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 18 F.3d 1468, 1471-72 (9th Cir. 1994). At bottom, a summary judgment motion asks whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury.

         The principal purpose of Rule 56 is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses. Celotex Cop. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Thus, the rule functions to “‘pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) advisory committee's note on 1963 amendments). Procedurally, under summary judgment practice, the moving party bears the initial responsibility of presenting the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record, together with affidavits, if any, that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323; Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2001) (en banc). If the moving party meets its burden with a properly supported motion, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to present specific facts that show there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Auvil v. CBS “60 Minutes”, 67 F.3d 816, 819 (9th Cir. 1995).

         A clear focus on where the burden of proof lies as to the factual issue in question is crucial to summary judgment procedures. Depending on which party bears that burden, the party seeking summary judgment does not necessarily need to submit any evidence of its own. When the opposing party would have the burden of proof on a dispositive issue at trial, the moving party need not produce evidence which negates the opponent's claim. See e.g., Lujan v. National Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 885 (1990). Rather, the moving party need only point to matters which demonstrate the absence of a genuine material factual issue. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24 (“[W]here the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial on a dispositive issue, a summary judgment motion may properly be made in reliance solely on the ‘pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file.'”). Indeed, summary judgment should be entered, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See id. at 322. In such a circumstance, summary judgment must be granted, “so long as whatever is before the district court demonstrates that the standard for entry of summary judgment . . . is satisfied.” Id. at 323.

         To defeat summary judgment the opposing party must establish a genuine dispute as to a material issue of fact. This entails two requirements. First, the dispute must be over a fact(s) that is material, i.e., one that makes a difference in the outcome of the case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (“Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.”). Whether a factual dispute is material is determined by the substantive law applicable for the claim in question. Id. If the opposing party is unable to produce evidence sufficient to establish a required element of its claim that party fails in opposing summary judgment. “[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         Second, the dispute must be genuine. In determining whether a factual dispute is genuine the court must again focus on which party bears the burden of proof on the factual issue in question. Where the party opposing summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial on the factual issue in dispute, that party must produce evidence sufficient to support its factual claim. Conclusory allegations, unsupported by evidence are insufficient to defeat the motion. Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir. 1989). Rather, the opposing party must, by affidavit or as otherwise provided by Rule 56, designate specific facts that show there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249; Devereaux, 263 F.3d at 1076. More significantly, to demonstrate a genuine factual dispute the evidence relied on by ...

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