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Luceus v. State

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

March 30, 2018

ERIKA D. LUCEUS, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE OF RHODE ISLAND and RHODE ISLAND DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND TRAINING, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          WILLIAM E. SMITH, CHIEF JUDGE

         The Defendants State of Rhode Island and Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (“DLT” or “Department”) ask the Court to grant them summary judgment (ECF No. 50) on the claims outstanding in Plaintiff Erika D. Luceus's Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”) (ECF No. 24).[1] The Court does so for the reasons that follow.

         I. Background[2]

         Luceus is an employee at DLT, and a black woman. (SAC 3.) After taking a bachelor's degree in political science and master's degrees in public administration and in library and information science, she was hired in February 2009 as a Senior Employment and Training Interviewer (“SETI”) in DLT's Call Center. (Id.) She was still employed in this capacity at the time she filed her complaint. (Id.) As a SETI, Luceus provided customer service to Rhode Island residents seeking unemployment benefits. (Id.)

         As in many workplaces, a hierarchy exists among positions in DLT's Call Center. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Facts in Supp. of Their Mot. for Summ. J. (“DSUF”) 1-2, ECF No. 50-1.) DLT has what it refers to as management positions and union positions. (Id.) All of the management positions are located ahead of all of the union positions in the organizational pecking order. (Pl.'s Obj. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Obj.”), Ex. 10, 1, ECF No. 53-10.) But not all management positions, nor all union positions, are of equal prominence. (See id.) Each management position is located somewhere within the hierarchy of management positions, and likewise for union positions. (See id.) For example, the position of Director is the preeminent management position, whereas Employment and Training Manager is the lowliest. (Id.) On the union side, Benefit Accuracy Monitor is the highest-ranking position, and Support Staff is at the bottom. (Id.)

         SETI, Luceus's position, is second from the bottom on the union side, that is, the second least senior position in all of DLT, ahead of only Support Staff. (Id.) In her time at DLT, Luceus has seen numerous employees with less education and experience than she promoted to positions above SETI in the Call Center. (SAC 3.) Several of these promotions came after Call Center management had appointed a DLT employee to serve in a temporary capacity in an open position until the formal hiring process produced a permanent hire. (Id. at 3-4; Pl.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts in Supp. of Her Obj. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. (“PSUF”) 15, ECF No. 65.)

         These temporary appointments are known within the Department as three-day-rule assignments, after a provision in the relevant collective-bargaining agreement that requires DLT pay a temporarily assigned union employee the amount associated with her temporarily assigned position, if the union employee remains in that position for at least three days. (DSUF 4-5.) While a three-day-rule assignment is not permanent, there is no limit to the time an employee may remain temporarily assigned. (Defs.' Reply Mem. in Supp. of Their Mot. for Summ. J. (“Defs.' Reply”), Ex. 6, 21-22, ECF No. 61-6.) Furthermore, DLT does not conduct a formal application process before making a three-day-rule assignment. (SAC 5.) Rather, Call Center brass exercises its discretion to appoint someone whom it feels has the requisite experience and ability to assume the duties of the open position. (DSUF 8-9.)

         DLT managers made at least a dozen three-day-rule assignments to positions in the Call Center from August 23, 2010, to November 4, 2015. (See PSUF 5-15; Defs.' Reply, Ex. 7, 1-2, ECF No. 61-7.) And at least five of these assignees were able to parlay their temporary appointments into permanent promotions, either to the position to which they were temporarily assigned or to another management position. (See PSUF 5-15; Pl.'s Obj., Ex. 4, 1, 4-8, 11-14, 19-22, 24-25, ECF No. 64-4; Defs.' Reply, Ex. 7, 1-2.) For example, DLT appointed Dyana DiChiro-Bogan acting Employment and Training Manager (the most junior of the management positions) in August 2010 and acting Senior Employment and Training Manager in November 2010. (Pl.'s Obj., Ex. 4, 1, 4.) DiChiro-Bogan was subsequently promoted to permanent Principal Employment and Training Manager in September 2011. (Id. at 7.) Similarly, Jeanne Pezzullo, Janean Frederic, and Garrett Tiernan were all temporarily assigned at one point to acting Employment and Training Manager before becoming permanently hired for that position. (Id. at 13, 20, 22, 24-25.) Jessica Videira became acting Principal Employment and Training Officer in November 2010 (id. at 4), and while the record does not indicate whether she was ever hired permanently for that position, it does show that Videira had been hired permanently to a more-senior position, Chief of Labor and Training Operations, by November 2013 (see id. at 15).

         DLT also afforded select employees new opportunities to gain experience through a noncompetitive transfer process. (See, e.g., PSUF 8.) Unlike three-day-rule assignments, these transfers did not result in movement up the hierarchy, and therefore were not accompanied by increased remuneration. (DSUF 13-15; Defs.' Reply, Ex. 7, 1-2.) Nonetheless, these lateral moves presented employees occasion to learn new skills, making them more competitive for future promotional opportunities with attendant raises. (Pl.'s Obj. 38.)

         For example, DLT selected a number of employees to be part of the Consortium Project, whose goal was to modernize the State's unemployment insurance system, including aspects of the Call Center. (DSUF 15.) Appointment to the Consortium Project was highly sought after by DLT employees, notwithstanding the fact that it did not entail an increase in pay or movement up the formal hierarchy. (DSUF 16; Pl.'s Obj., Ex. 6, Cedroni Aff., 4 (ECF No. 64-6) (“I was selected to work in the Consortium. This was a coveted assignment.”)) At least one Call Center Employee, Beth Gordon, secured a permanent promotion after working on the Consortium Project. (Defs.' Reply, Ex. 7, 1-2.)

         Luceus has received neither a promotion nor a sought-after lateral transfer at DLT, despite her more than seven years of experience at the Department and her bachelor's and master's degrees. (SAC 3.) According to Edward Salabert, an employee who had worked at DLT for 36 years, Luceus's resume indicated that she was “qualified to be a manager, ” and that “[h]er education experience surely merits her being seriously considered for a management position.” (Pl.'s Obj., Ex. 6, Edward Salabert Aff., 11-12.) Luceus admittedly lacked managerial experience at DLT, but so did employees like DiChiro-Bogan, Alyssa Alvardo, and Jason Bliss-Wohlers, who nevertheless secured management positions. (Pl.'s Obj. 17-20.)

         Even though Luceus merited serious consideration for advancement, she was not always up for employee-of-the-month. As Luceus became disenchanted by what she felt was a rigged promotional system, she grew alienated from and frustrated with some of her co-workers. (DSUF 21-39.) In 2011, for example, Luceus became involved in a boisterous argument with a colleague, an argument that required a third-party to physically separate the combatants. (Id. at 22.) She also refused work assignments and quit on assignments she had accepted. (Id. at 24-26.)

         In 2015, Luceus protested the promotional system by posting provocative signs in her cubicle. One such sign read “Screw Up and Move Up, ” in reference to Luceus's conviction that less-than- qualified DLT employees regularly received promotions. (DSUF 23.) Rose Lemoine, a senior manager at DLT, testified that this behavior was the reason Luceus failed to secure a promotion. (Lemoine Dep. 156, ECF No. 50-14 (Luceus “wasn't considered [for a management position] after a certain period of time because of her behavior and her attitude towards the department and her actions as an employee of the Call Center.”).)

         At times disruptive, Luceus's discontent was far from idiosyncratic. Various DLT employees complained of and even resigned over what they considered a racist, nepotistic promotional system. Monique Perkins, a black former DLT employee, voluntarily resigned after four-and-a-half years “because [she] observed that promotions continued to be given primarily to white individuals who had been selected for acting positions, and based on factors not related to merit, ” and because she did not “believe there was equal opportunity for individuals of color to be promoted.” (Pl.'s Obj., Ex. 6, Perkins Aff., 1-2.)

         Other former employees - including Steven Cedroni, Doryane Carter, Sareth Chea, Victoria Alves Salabert, and Margarita Antuna - all echoed Perkins's sentiment that DLT's promotional practices denied black employees an equal opportunity to advance in the Department. (See, e.g., id., Antuna Aff., 13-14 (“DLT has a pattern of creating acting/temporary positions and filling them with white family and friends of upper management); id., Victoria Alves Salabert Aff., 9-10 (“I have been employed by the [DLT] since 2001. . . . I am still in the same entry-level position I was in when I started. . . . I had to train acting managers hired after me.”).) Cedroni, a white man and ex-employee at DLT who voluntarily resigned in 2014, described DLT as “a political cesspool, ” where “nepotism is rampant” and where “acting and temporary positions [were] created and filled with Caucasians who were selected by management.” (Id., Cedroni Aff., 4-5.)

         This feeling, not uncommon, that the Department's promotional system was fixed led to a climate of mutual suspicion between minority and white DLT employees. (See id., Chea Aff., 7 (“On numerous occasions, when I or an employee of color entered a room in the workplace in which managers were conversing, I observed the managers immediately cease speaking.”).) Worse, employees who complained about the promotional system, including Luceus, were punished for doing so. For example, DLT management excessively surveilled and scrutinized Luceus, and even dissuaded co-workers from interacting with her, after she complained about the Department's promotional practices. (Pl.'s Obj. 59-62.) DLT management treated Perkins similarly: “It was [her] experience at DLT that managers were vindictive and retaliatory, and that they applied heighted scrutiny towards minority employees . . . who complained about unfair promotional practices.” (Pl.'s Obj., Ex. 6, Perkins Aff., 1-2.) Some even claimed DLT management sabotaged ...


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