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Meriano v. Barr

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

December 17, 2019

JULIE MERIANO, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAM BARR, [1] ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES, Defendant.

          ORDER

          STEPHEN R. BOUGH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant William Barr's (“FBI”)[2] Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. #42). For the following reasons the motion is GRANTED.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) requires a court to grant a motion for summary judgment if 1) the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute of material fact” and 2) the moving party is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” A nonmoving party survives a summary judgment motion if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Stuart C. Irby Co. v. Tipton, 796 F.3d 918, 922 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). The purpose of summary judgment “is not to cut litigants off from their right of trial by jury if they really have issues to try.” Hughes v. Am. Jawa, Ltd., 529 F.2d 21, 23 (8th Cir. 1976) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Poller v. Columbia Broadcasting Sys., Inc., 368 U.S. 464, 467 (1962)).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Julie Meriano (“Meriano”), a former Special Agent for the Kansas City Division of the FBI, seeks relief from alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Considering the parties' factual positions in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the Court finds the relevant facts to be as follows. Meriano transferred into the FBI's Kansas City field office in July 2009, where she was assigned to a ten-agent covert surveillance unit. Shortly after, Meriano became involved in a sexual relationship with an agent assigned to the surveillance unit, Special Agent Sean Edwards (“Edwards”), a relationship which eventually came to include Edwards' wife. The relationship ended badly during the summer of 2010, and Edwards and his wife soon began subjecting Meriano to various types of harassing conduct. Relevant here are Meriano's claims that Edwards spread false and negative rumors about her, including attributing her professional success to her promiscuity, stating she was “overly emotional and histrionic about minor things, ” and accusing her of creating a fake online-dating profile for him. (Doc. #46, p. 18).

         The FBI transferred Edwards out of the surveillance unit in 2011. Meriano decided not to pursue an Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) hostile work environment complaint related to Edwards' conduct at that time, in part because she believed the matter would be reported to the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility. Following Edwards' transfer, Meriano no longer saw or interacted with him. However, Meriano alleges that Edwards' harassment continued after his transfer, namely in the form of damaging and negative rumors he periodically communicated to third parties.

         Meriano was, by all accounts, an effective FBI agent. She received strong performance ratings from her supervisors, and in 2014 she was assessed as “outstanding” by her immediate supervisor. She additionally received two performance awards in March and April 2015. At some point in 2015, Meriano was designated as the team leader for the surveillance squad. While this designation does not result in increased pay or benefits, according to Meriano it is a position of prestige that carries with it additional time commitments.

         Edwards initiated his own EEO complaint and eventually filed a lawsuit alleging, inter alia, that his transfer was discriminatory and Meriano had received preferential treatment from the FBI. See Edwards v. Lynch, No. 13-0729-CV-ODS, 111 F.Supp.3d 989 (W.D. Mo. May 22, 2015). The bench trial of Edwards' discrimination case took place in May 2015, and Meriano testified in court on behalf of the FBI on May 7, 2015. While the nature and scope of Meriano's preoccupation with the Edwards trial is disputed, Meriano did offer at one point to step down as team leader due to the upcoming trial. Meriano feared that Edwards might react toward her in a violent and retaliatory way if he lost his case, and she expressed those concerns in writing to FBI management prior to the trial. At one point, Meriano also met with members of Legal Aid and the Kansas City Police Department regarding her safety concerns. After her testimony at Edwards' trial but prior to the verdict, Meriano requested a meeting with Special Agent-in-Charge Jackson (“Jackson”) and communicated her plan to take open-ended leave once the verdict in Edwards' case was announced. Jackson scheduled that meeting for May 29, 2015. Subsequently, the Honorable Ortrie Smith issued a written decision on May 22, 2015, finding in favor of the FBI on all of Edwards' employment discrimination claims.

         Meriano and Jackson met as scheduled on May 29, 2015, at the FBI offices. Certain aspects of this meeting are highly disputed. Meriano admits she had not slept the night before the meeting and states she was frightened about meeting in a building where Edwards might also be located. During that meeting, Jackson informed Meriano that he had received complaints about her preoccupation with the Edwards trial, including her diminished performance and effectiveness as team leader. Meriano claims Jackson verbally reprimanded her, berated her, and threatened to transfer her to a different division and confiscate her weapon. Jackson did not ultimately act on his threats. Jackson also asked if she had received any contact from Edwards in the four years since he had been transferred to a different unit. Meriano responded that she had not, but Meriano claims that when she attempted to explain her concerns, Jackson acted dismissively, “put his hand in her face, ” and did not allow her to explain further. At one point during the meeting, Meriano began to cry. Jackson proceeded to remove Meriano as team leader of the surveillance squad, though whether that removal was permanent or temporary is disputed. Jackson also instructed Meriano to go on leave from work, though the nature of that instruction and the type of leave she was supposed to take is disputed. Jackson also referred Meriano to the FBI's Employee Assistance Program (“EAP”) due to her emotional state and visible signs of excessive stress.

         Meriano and Jackson met again on June 9, 2015. During that meeting, Jackson told Meriano he would consider the recommendations of the EAP counselor in determining how to best move forward. Meriano claims she was also directed to not discuss with anyone her harassment or reprisal concerns regarding Edwards. Following a physical examination in June 2015 that declared her able to return to work, Meriano's supervisor(s) asked her to return to work on July 1, 2015. Meriano declined to do so. For the first time, Meriano also reported her concerns of workplace retaliation and a hostile work environment to an EEO counselor on July 1, 2015.

         The nature and circumstances of Meriano's continued leave is disputed, though between June 29, 2015, and January 28, 2016, Meriano used 480 hours of FMLA and Leave Without Pay (“LWOP”), 342 hours of discretionary LWOP, 10 hours of compensatory time-off for travel, 268.25 hours of annual leave, and 109.75 hours of sick leave. On January 29, 2016, the FBI declared Meriano to be absent without leave (“AWOL”). Following ongoing consultations with medical providers, Meriano's physician issued a letter concluding Meriano was unable to return to work for the FBI in any capacity on March 8, 2016. On April 4, 2016, Jackson proposed that Meriano be removed from employment with the FBI, and her employment was ultimately terminated on August 4, 2016. At that time, Meriano acknowledged that she was no longer medically able to perform her duties as a special agent for the FBI.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In her complaint, Meriano alleges she suffered unlawful sex discrimination and retaliation during her tenure at the FBI. Meriano seeks recovery for: (1) Count I: Discrimination Based on Sex; (2) Count II: Sexual Harassment/Hostile Work Environment; and (3) Count III: Retaliation. The FBI moves for summary judgment on all Counts. The Court first addresses Meriano's hostile work environment claim under Count II, followed by her sex discrimination and retaliation claims raised under Counts I & III.

         A. Count II: Sexual ...


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