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Ranowsky v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

August 14, 2018

Kathleen Ranowsky, Appellant
v.
National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Agent of Amtrak, et al., Appellees

          Argued December 11, 2017

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:15-cv-01133)

          Carla D. Brown argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

          Matthew J. Sharbaugh argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were William J. Delany and P. David Larson.

          Before: Garland, Chief Judge, Pillard, Circuit Judge, and Sentelle, Senior Circuit Judge.

          OPINION

          PILLARD, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         In the midst of an extensive restructuring at the Office of the Inspector General for Amtrak, Kathleen Ranowsky was fired from her job as Deputy Counsel. The new Inspector General, Tom Howard, ramped up the restructuring project soon after his appointment; he made changes to several of the Office's departments and dismissed many of its incumbent employees. Ranowsky-a woman in her early sixties who had been a lawyer for the Inspector General for roughly twelve years-was among those Howard fired during the restructuring. Howard also fired Ranowsky's immediate supervisor, the only other employee in the General Counsel's office, the same day. Howard needed no reason to fire Ranowsky, who was an at-will employee, but stated that his lack of confidence in her was the reason for her termination.

         Ranowsky claims that her termination was the product of discrimination based on her age and sex, in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA), D.C. Code § 2-1401 et seq. She also claims that Amtrak later retaliated against her for filing her EEO complaint, and that two of its employees aided and abetted those violations. The district court denied Ranowsky's motion in limine, which sought wholesale evidentiary preclusion as a discovery sanction, then granted summary judgment for the defendants. Because Ranowsky has not pointed to record evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer either age or sex discrimination, and the sanction she sought was unwarranted, we affirm.

         I.

         A.

         The Office of the Inspector General for Amtrak (OIG or Office) is an autonomous entity within Amtrak created in 1989 with the mission of providing "independent, objective oversight of Amtrak's programs and operations." Vision, Mission, and Authority, Amtrak Office of Inspector General, https://www.amtrakoig.gov/about-us (last visited July 31, 2018); Joint App'x (J.A.) 415. An Inspector General heads the Office, aided by a Deputy. The Office has historically been organized into five departments: Audit, Investigation, Evaluations, Administrative Services, and General Counsel. The Office of General Counsel is the smallest of those departments, staffed when Ranowsky worked there only by herself, as Deputy Counsel, and General Counsel, Colin Carriere, to whom she directly reported. The Office of General Counsel is the OIG's lawyer, and the OIG is its only client.[1]

         When a newly-appointed Amtrak Inspector General took charge in 2009, he began a "transformation effort" to change OIG's structure and improve its functionality. That Inspector General hired Tom Howard as his deputy in 2010. Together, Howard testified, they "began an effort to correct problems that [they] saw in the office." J.A. 332. Howard himself was appointed Inspector General in February 2014, after his predecessor's retirement. Howard continued the transformation effort by implementing major structural changes, including the widespread dismissal of employees throughout the Office. "Of the approximately 95 people in place in 2010, less than 30 of them remain[ed] in the OIG" as of 2015. J.A. 416.

         B.

         Appellant Kathleen Ranowsky is one of the dozens of employees dismissed from Amtrak OIG during its restructuring. Ranowsky, who had held her position as Amtrak OIG Deputy Counsel since 2002, was fired from that job in November 2014. In the process of restructuring Amtrak OIG, Howard came to believe "many" of the problems he had identified across the Office "were the result of inaction or inappropriate action on the part of the counsel." J.A. 332. Howard testified that, as soon as he was appointed in February 2014, he began to consider replacing General Counsel Colin Carriere, because Howard "wasn't satisfied with the service that the counsel had been providing." J.A. 331. Around September or October 2014, Howard added, he "began to think about what the ramifications would be of keeping the deputy counsel" if he fired the head counsel, questioning "how effectively [Deputy Counsel Ranowsky] would work with a new [head] counsel." J.A. 334.

         Howard had formed some reservations about Ranowsky's work-particularly her communication style and demeanor- during their shared time at Amtrak OIG. He testified that, in his view, Ranowsky was not responsive to his needs as client. Rather than provide direct answers to his requests for legal advice, Ranowsky would indirectly push back. He recalled, for instance, that Ranowsky "kept raising obstacles" to what Howard "wanted to accomplish"-in one particular case, resisting his efforts to create an appropriately redacted copy of an investigative document a congressional committee had requested without ever "actually tell[ing] [him] that she thought it shouldn't happen." J.A. 357. Howard testified that he found Ranowsky's communication style during the exchange "condescending, belittling, [and] very flippant," pointing in particular to a statement she made via email "'to the effect, any fool could see' the answer to his question." J.A. 267.

         In deciding whether to retain Ranowsky as the OIG's counsel, Howard also sought input from the Assistant Inspectors General who relied on Ranowsky for legal counsel. The Assistant Inspector General for Audits testified: "I told [Howard] that I didn't think the quality of [legal] support was as good as I had experienced in my previous role as an AIG for audit." J.A. 375. In particular, he recounted that when he and Ranowsky were working on a memo together, she circulated the memo without incorporating his final comments; when the AIG asked Ranowsky why she had done so, she responded via email that "next time you've got to get your comments in quicker." J.A. 377. He testified that Ranowsky's "approach was generally to ask questions as opposed to provide solutions or give definitive information." J.A. 380. The AIG for Investigations similarly testified that Ranowsky was "[a]lways apprehensive about providing support in furtherance of what you wanted to do," and instead was more likely to "give you the negative outcomes of anything you asked her." J.A. 385.

         In October 2014, at around the same time that Howard was reviewing Ranowsky's performance with the Assistant Inspectors General, he "signed off" without comment on a positive review that General Counsel Carriere had conducted of Ranowsky's job performance. J.A. 957-58, 961. Carriere awarded Ranowsky an overall rating of "exceeded goals," and concurred with Ranowsky's self-assessment that she was producing helpful work product and communicating effectively. J.A. 648-50. Ranowsky had earned a positive performance review the previous year as well, when based on his own observations and experience working with Ranowsky, Carriere rated her overall as having "exceeded goals and modeled Amtrak OIG values." J.A. 654. Carriere conducted it, but Howard approved that review too, signing it before Ranowsky received it.

         Howard fired Ranowsky just a few weeks after she received her 2014 positive evaluation, on the same day that he fired General Counsel Carriere. Howard cited "lost confidence" in Ranowsky's performance as the reason for her termination. See J.A. 398, 415.

         It is undisputed that Howard alone made the decision to fire Ranowsky. He did, however, "discuss the processes . . . to carry out" her termination with Terry Gilmore, the head of human resources for Amtrak's OIG. While completing the accompanying paperwork, Gilmore listed Ranowsky's departure as the result of a "reduction in force." Howard did not tell Gilmore to designate the firing a reduction in force. See J.A. 633, 836. Gilmore said he did so in order to offer Ranowsky a severance package. See J.A. 451, 453.

         Shortly after her dismissal, Ranowsky filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that her termination was discriminatory on the bases of age and sex. Meanwhile, Howard temporarily detailed Nadine Jbaili, a recent law school graduate then in her twenties who was working in the OIG's Audit department, to the General ...


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