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Bennett v. Lew

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 10, 2015

Rosina L. Bennett, Plaintiff,
Jacob J. Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, Defendant.

Stephen M. Thompson and Tammy P. Friederichs, Friederichs & Thompson, P.A., 1120 East 80th Street, Suite 106, Bloomington, Minnesota 55420, for Plaintiff.

Friedrich A. P. Siekert, United States Attorney's Office, 300 South Fourth Street, Suite 600, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55415, for Defendant.




This matter is before the Court on Defendant Jacob J. Lew's[1] Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 18]. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendant's Motion.


This lawsuit stems from Plaintiff Rosina Bennett's employment with the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS"). The IRS hired Bennett, an African-American female, as an entry-level Initial Assistance Representative in the Minneapolis Taxpayer Assistance Center in August 2006. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 1 [Doc. No. 28] at 51; Stevenson Decl. [Doc. No. 20] ¶ 6.) Initial Assistance Representatives are assigned tasks such as greeting taxpayers, handing out forms, determining the type of assistance the taxpayer requires, and answering basic tax questions. (Stevenson Decl. ¶ 4.) Bennett's supervisor at the Minneapolis center was Julie Stevenson. (Id. ¶ 6.)

In the Spring of 2008, Bennett applied for a promotion to Individual Taxpayer Advisory Specialist. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 1 at 53.) Bennett received the promotion in March 2008, with Stevenson's support, although she was transferred to the Bloomington location rather than her preferred choice of either St. Paul or Minneapolis. (Id. at 41-42, 54.) There were only two Specialists, Bennett and Thomas Cartmell, at the Bloomington center, and there were no Initial Assistance Representatives. (Stevenson Decl. ¶ 14.) Therefore, the Specialists were required to perform ministerial tasks such as opening boxes, filing, and maintaining office printers. (E.g., id.; Bennett Dep., Vol. 2 [Doc. No. 29] at 36-39.) Bennett believes she was required to complete more of these tasks than Cartmell because he is White and she is Black. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 2 at 36-39, 43-44.) Although Stevenson's office was located in Minneapolis, she was the manager of the Bloomington Specialists, and Bennett complained to her about having to do this work. (Id. at 39; Stevenson Dep. [Doc. No. 35] at 7, 22-23, 30-31.)

In the Summer of 2008, and again in the Summer of 2009, Stevenson initiated a special project called the "Correspondence Project." (Stevenson Decl. ¶ 19 & Ex. 207.) Stevenson assigned one Specialist at each location to work on the project. (Id. ¶ 19.) Bennett states that she wanted to receive training for the project and expressed her interest to Stevenson. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 2 at 31-32.) However, Stevenson selected Cartmell from the Bloomington center. (Stevenson Decl. ¶ 19.) The employees who were selected to receive training for the correspondence project at the various locations were White, and Bennett believes that she was not selected because she is Black. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 2 at 33-36.) Bennett also believes that she was singled out by the instructor at an unrelated training in January 2009, as an example of "what not to do, " because of her race. (Id. at 17-19.) When Bennett complained to Stevenson, she was reassigned to a different instructor. ( Id., Ex. 24 ¶ 21.)

As Bennett's supervisor, Stevenson completed Bennett's performance reviews. For the period of June 2007 to May 2008, Bennett received a performance rating of "exceeds fully successful" or "outstanding" in the reviewed categories. (Stevenson Decl., Ex. 203 at 1.) In Bennett's mid-year review dated December 31, 2008, Stevenson rated Bennett's performance "outstanding, " "fully successful, " or "met" in each category. ( Id., Ex. 204.) And, for the period of June 2008 to May 2009, Bennett received "fully successful, " "exceeds fully successful, " or "outstanding" in the reviewed categories. (Stevenson Dep., Ex. 111 at 1.) However, Bennett's overall score did not qualify her for a bonus in 2009. (Stevenson Decl., Ex. 205.) She asserts that the lower 2009 score was based on her race. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 4 [Doc. No. 31] at 20).

Bennett also asserts that her co-worker at the Bloomington center, Cartmell, often made offensive comments to her, including racially-offensive comments. (See Bennett Dep., Vol. 2 at 22-26.) For example, Bennett alleges that Cartmell referred to her as "dumb" and "stupid, " as his "slave, " and as "Aunt Jemima." (Id. at 23-24; id., Vol. 4 at 71.) Bennett contends that she complained to Stevenson on multiple occasions about the way Cartmell treated her. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 2 at 21-24; id., Vol. 4 at 16-17.) Stevenson's notes on the matter, which are undated but were apparently written in February 2010, (see Stevenson Dep. at 80-81), confirm that she "had a couple conversations... with Rosina Bennett where [Bennett] has indicated that she believes that she is not being treated equitably, " (id., Ex. 125 at 1). In those notes, Stevenson stated that she "understand[s] that there are some interpersonal issues between [Bennett] and [Cartmell]... which do need to be resolved." (Id.) She also noted that Bennett believed she was doing more than her share of administrative work, assisting more than her share of customers, and receiving insufficient study time and training. (Id.) Bennett claims that, despite her complaints, Stevenson did nothing to remedy the situation. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 2 at 21.)

The culmination of Bennett's interactions with Cartmell occurred on January 5, 2010-the day that Bennett alleges Cartmell threatened her with a knife in her cubicle, causing her to fall backwards onto her desk and hit her head and neck on her computer monitor. (See id. at 44-45, 49-53.) According to Bennett, she placed several phone calls to Stevenson that day to report the incident. (Id. at 67-68.) However, Stevenson did not answer the phone, so Bennett left a message stating that it was very important that they speak. (Id. at 68.) Bennett then contacted a union representative, but she stopped communicating with him after she discovered that he had what she believed to be a conflict of interest. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 3 [Doc. No. 30] at 8-9.)

On January 21, 2010, Bennett met with Steve Soria, who she knew was Stevenson's supervisor at one point, and submitted a document describing her complaints of discrimination and harassment. (Id. at 12, 14-15.) Soria informed Bennett that he was no longer the acting supervisor, but that he would contact the new area manager. (Id. at 14-16.) On January 22, Gloria Dodd, the new acting manager, called Bennett and left a voicemail. (Id. at 17.) Also on January 22, Bennett contacted the EEO counseling office and complained of verbal discrimination by her co-workers, the knife incident, the requirement that she perform additional duties, her lack of training opportunities, and the belittling that occurred at the January 2009 training session. (Bennett Dep., Vol. 1, Ex. 1.)

When Bennett returned Dodd's phone call the following week, Dodd asked Bennett to email her a summary of her complaint and permitted Bennett to use agency time to prepare this statement. (Dodd Decl. [Doc. No. 26] ¶ 6.) Bennett did not work on Tuesday, January 26, but emailed Dodd that afternoon. (Id. ¶ 7.) Her email stated that Cartmell had approached her from behind with a sharp object that looked like a knife, and had made stabbing motions with the object. (Bennett Dep. Vol. 3, Ex. 8.) She alleged that Cartmell stated that he wanted to kill someone and that she felt threatened for her life. (Id.) The email also alleged that Cartmell called Bennett "dumb" and "stupid" in front of a taxpayer, that the IRS made assignment and promotion decisions based on Bennett's race, and that the IRS was retaliating against her because she had complained about the discriminatory ...

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