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Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County v. Ridley

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

September 7, 2017

METROPOLITAN TRANSIT AUTHORITY OF HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS, Appellant
v.
ZELMA RIDLEY, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 152nd District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2014-39332

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack and Justices Keyes and Massengale.

          OPINION

          Sherry Radack Chief Justice.

         Plaintiff-appellee Zelma Ridley was an employee of defendant-appellant Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro). Ridley sued Metro, alleging disparate-treatment discrimination and retaliatory conduct leading to constructive discharge. The trial court denied Metro's Plea to the Jurisdiction, and Metro brought this interlocutory appeal. Because Ridley did not establish a prima facie case on either of her claims, the trial court lacked jurisdiction over her claims. Accordingly, we vacate the trial court's order and dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

         A. Plaintiff's Allegations[1]

         Ridley is an African American female who was 65 years old when she filed the underlying lawsuit in 2015.

         2008 - 2011

         Metro hired Ridley in May 2008 as its Director of Transportation Service Delivery, a newly created position. She was hired on the recommendation of the Senior Director of Transportation, T. Mobley, also an African American female.

         Less than a month later, Ridley was put on a list to be terminated as part of a "reduction in force." Mobley intervened, in light of the fact Ridley had just been hired into a new position. Ridley alleges that, although she was able to keep her job, "she has been subjected to continuing harassment since that time."

         From 2008 through May 2010, F. Wilson was Metro's CEO. During that time period, A. Skabowski was elevated from his position as a supervisor in the quality control department to Executive Vice President of Metro. Ridley's petition alleges that Skabowski "has had numerous complaints filed against him for both racial and gender discrimination." It also alleges that Skabowski regularly engaged in discriminatory conduct towards Ridley until May 2010, when there was a reprieve. The change was brought about by Wilson's resigning as CEO in May 2010 on the heels of a grand jury investigation into document destruction and violation of "Buy America" laws.

         G. Greanias replaced Wilson as CEO in May 2010, and Ridley alleges that, for a time, Skabowski's discriminatory conduct towards her was contained while Greanias held that position.

         2011 Office Relocation

         In 2011, Ridley's department relocated offices. All other Directors and Senior Directors were given offices on the second floor. After the move, all the other Directors' and Senior Directors' offices were set up for them, i.e., boxes unpacked, files placed in file cabinets, etc. In contrast, Ridley was given a small office on the first floor that was not large enough to accommodate her office furniture. Her items were left on her desk for her to unpack without assistance. For the next two years, Ridley endured, and complained about, her office being "stifling hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter with no solution" offered. In 2013, it was discovered that the duct work to her office had never been connected.

         Ridley alleges that her office placement was part of a course of harassment against her. The person in charge of the office relocation program was a white male who had been considered for the position of Director of Transportation, but was passed over when Ridley was selected instead.

         2012 - 2013

         In December 2012, Greanias resigned as CEO, and Skabowski immediately resumed his discriminatory actions toward Ridley. For example, in early 2013, Skabowski asked for someone to confirm Sylvester Turner's plans for an event. Because Ridley had handled Turner's events in previous years, she called Turner's office and sent an email asking for details. According to Ridley's petition, "Skabowski subsequently said that there had been a complaint from Turner's office that [Ridley] had been contacting them excessively; however, when [Ridley] checked with Turner's office administrator she confirmed that there has been no such complaint from Turner's office."

         In April 2013, Skabowski told Mobley that (1) Mobley could no longer delegate her authority to Ridley when absent, (2) Ridley should be placed on a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP) for "communication issues, " and (3) Mobley was not to tell Ridley about Skabowski's criticisms of Ridley. Mobley reported to the Vice President of Human Resources, K. Kaufman, Mobley's "belief that Skabowski's criticisms of Ridley were because of Ridley's race and gender, " and she sought guidance about how she was supposed to place Ridley on a PIP without being able to disclose Skabowski's criticisms or how to improve.

         Mobley and Ridley met with Kaufman and M. Moore (another HR representative) to implement Ridley's PIP plan. According to Ridley's petition, the plan had "no objectives instead it consisted of a '360' which is a subjective review by other managers." Ridley voiced her objection to participation because "all of the other senior managers are white and influenced by Skabowski."

         Shortly thereafter, Skabowski terminated Mobley's employment. Ridley, as Director of Transportation Service Delivery, alleges that she would normally be appointed as interim Senior Director of Transportation Service Delivery. Instead, Skabowski appointed R. Augustine, a white male who was Ridley's subordinate. Ridley asserts that Augustine had previously sued Metro, alleging he was not treated as well as African American employees.

         Immediately after becoming Senior Director, Augustine began undermining Ridley's authority by meeting with employees under Ridley's supervision without notifying her.

         September 2013 - Ridley's Formal Discrimination Charge

         On September 16, 2013, Ridley made a formal Charge of Discrimination with Metro's internal EEO office, complaining about race, gender, and age discrimination. Ridley alleges that she took this action in part because Kaufman and Moore failed to take any action on her complaints at their meeting about her PIP.

         Ridley alleges that, in response to her charge, she was interviewed by Metro's outside counsel for several hours; he was not interested in her complaints, but only in convincing her she had not suffered discrimination. Ridley hired an attorney after the interview who requested to be present at any future interview. Nonetheless, Ridley was questioned again by a Metro lawyer D. Richard, the Vice President of Title VI, EEO and Diversity, without Ridley's counsel present.

         November 2013 - Ridley's Annual Performance Review

         On November 12, 2013, Ridley's annual performance review was conducted by Augustine. For the first time ever, she was rated as "not meeting the requirement of the job" in every category. In all past performance reviews at Metro, Ridley had been rated either "meeting" or "exceeding" the job requirements in every category. At the time of the November review, Augustine had only been Ridley's supervisor for three months, but she alleges it was clear to her "based on an earlier email, " that "the comments in the review came from Skabowski."

         Ridley's petition alleges that she had never been disciplined or had any performance issues until she complained of Skabowski's treatment of her.

         November 18, 2013 - EEOC Charge of Discrimination

         In November 2013, Ridley filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission/Texas Workforce Commission-Civil Rights Division. At the time Ridley's underlying petition in this case was filed on July 9, 2014, she alleged that more than 180 days had passed without a final decision from the EEOC.

         2014

         Augustine promoted four individuals to Service Supervisors, a position that had always reported to Ridley as Director of Transportation Service Delivery. These new employees were told instead to report directly to Augustine. Ridley was not involved in the interview process of these four employees.

         Ridley's Medical Leave

         Ridley was on FMLA leave between January 31, 2014 and March 17, 2014. When she returned to work March 17, she was told she needed a formal doctor's release before she could return. She obtained and provided that release to Metro the following day, Wednesday, March 18; the only restrictions placed by the doctor in the release to return to work were for her to wear tennis shoes and "limited walking and standing." While she was working on March 18, the HR department notified her she was being sent home because Augustine would not let her return to work under those restrictions.

         Ridley's petition alleges that she has an office job that does not require walking or standing for any extended period. She contends that her treatment was "clearly retaliation by Augustine, because as managers [Ridley] and Augustine have to deal with employees who have medical restrictions all the time." Ridley alleges that she was only allowed to return to work after her attorney called Metro's in-house attorney to complain about the retaliation.

         Continued Harassment

         Augustine gave Ridley a mid-year, May 1, 2014 Performance Appraisal, the purpose of which is to discuss an employee's progress towards goals and objectives set forth in his or her annual evaluation. Despite a lack of goals or objectives set out in Ridley's earlier annual evaluation, Augustine rated her performance as needing improvement. Ridley was again placed on a PIP, which she alleges was "an obvious attempt to humiliate [her] and to burden her to such an extent that she would quit." In addition to her regular Director duties, the PIP called for her to-on alternating weeks-(1) spend 8 hours on a ride-along with a supervisor and fill out a route training form, and (2) spend an 8-hour shift with a bus-control employee. Ridley was not given direction as to what these tasks were designed to accomplish, and they required her to report to her subordinates.

         The PIP also called for bi-weekly meetings between Ridley and Augustine. Following the May 1, 2014 Performance Appraisal, however, Augustine did not meet with Ridley until June 23, 2014. Ridley alleges that it was clear at this meeting that Augustine had no idea what Ridley had done to comply with the PIP. He had not reviewed the "route training" logs he told her to complete, and he did not realize that Ridley had not been given any kind of log or documentation to complete during her bus control shifts. As described in Ridley's petition,

The items Augustine had required the Plaintiff to perform as part of the PIP had absolutely no relationship to her job description as the Director of Transportation. When Plaintiff pointed that out to Augustine he replied that a new job description was coming. When Plaintiff tasked what was the duration of the PIP (i.e. how long she was going to be required to work extra shifts that had nothing to do with her job) Augustine replied that it was "open ended." Plaintiff had worked as senior management at Metro for six years and had never heard of an "open ended" PIP.

         Medical Concerns and Ridley's Retirement

         In August 2014, Ridley went to the emergency room suspecting a heart attack. Testing revealed heart palpitations and rapid heartbeat that Ridley alleged was brought on "by stress from her work situation." Her doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication and recommended that Ridley take early retirement.

         Ridley's petition asserts that Augustine continued to harass her over the next few months, accusing her of not completing all of her extra ...


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