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King v. Steinberg

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

December 19, 2017

LETHEA KING, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Lethea King, a former project manager for the Bureau of Computing Services (“BCS”) within the Wisconsin Department of Justice (“DOJ”), has sued her former superiors, defendants Susan Schneider, Igor Steinberg and Bonnie Cyganek, alleging that they discriminated against her based on race, created a hostile work environment, and retaliated against her in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and 28 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] Pending before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment on all claims (dkt. #16), which the court will now grant because plaintiff has failed to meet her burden to produce sufficient evidence to establish her claims.


         A. Background

         King, an African American woman, was hired by the Wisconsin DOJ's BCS as a project manager in October 2012. King is a certified project management professional with degrees as a Cobol Programmer, as well as technical and project management experience at American Family Insurance. DOJ hired King to implement project management methodology.

         King's first performance evaluation was completed by her initial supervisor, David Wolfe, in January 2013; her second was completed by defendant Bonnie Cyganek in April 2013. King was provided copies of these evaluations and had the opportunity to review each with the evaluator.[3]

         Cyganek served as the Administrator for the DOJ's Division of Management Services (“DMS”) beginning in March 2012. She was appointed by the state attorney general to oversee the operations of the Bureau of Budget and Finance and the BCS Bureau of Human Resources. Cyganek did not, however, supervise King's daily activities. Instead, Wolfe initially acted as King's direct supervisor, a responsibility assumed by defendant Susan Schneider when she became the Deputy IT Director for the DOJ on September 30, 2013, to manage and oversee BCS generally. In turn, defendant Igor Steinberg was Schneider's immediate supervisor and the Director of BCS.

         When Steinberg began working for the DOJ in August 2013, he met with BCS staff to introduce himself and outline his expectations. Among other expectations, he told BCS staff that they needed to own and be accountable for their work, to admit mistakes, to solve problems collaboratively, to trust their colleagues and to be team players.

         B. Employment Issues

         DOJ personnel complaint investigations generally mark the beginning of any disciplinary action and involve at least one supervisor and one human resources professional. These investigations look into formal complaints received by supervisors or human resources. During the investigation, the employee accused of violating work rules receives a notice of the investigation, which would tell the employee to participate in an investigatory interview. Nevertheless, the parties devote a lot of their submissions to detailing criticisms of King that did not result in disciplinary action, so the discussion of King's employment issues will begin with those matters before turning to more formal disciplinary actions.

         1. Non-Disciplinary Actions

         a) General complaints and alleged inappropriate tone

         Defendants assert that over the course of 2013, King's first full year of employment by DOJ, DMS Administrator Cyganek heard that King was hard to work with, although no formal complaints had been made. For example, former defendant BCS project manager Dave Tolmie avers that in the summer of 2013, King berated a co-worker named Yanbing, giving him the impression that King “had verbally destroyed [Yanbing].” (Tolmie Decl. (dkt. #18) ¶ 6.) Plaintiff denies “berating” or “verbally destroying” anyone.

         On August 6, 2013, King emailed the director of special operations, Jody Wormet, in an attempt to schedule a meeting. After Wormet replied that he was unavailable at the time King selected, she asked him to “ensure that [his] calendar is up to date -- as it showed you as being available.” King went on to obverse, “For this project to succeed we will need to meet and it will be difficult to do so, if I'm scheduling meetings for when you are here and in essence you aren't.” (Aug. 6, 2013 Email (dkt. #22-2) 1.) Wormet forwarded a different email from King, asserting that his “schedule is up to date, ” and continuing “I don't know what she is talking about and I am getting irritated with her tone and persistence on the issue.” (Id. at 3.)

         Defendants further contend that defendant Schneider, as Director of IT and King's direct report, personally became aware of complaints about her behavior from BCS employee Tom Gries during a transition meeting in October 2013. Gries reportedly told Schneider that “it's not working, she has taken on authority, she doesn't seek to understand, doesn't take criticism well, alienates people and he didn't like her style.” (Schneider Decl. (dkt. #23) ¶ 6.) On November 26, 2013, King then emailed a colleague with a copy to Schneider, stating

What concerns me right now is this, I don't understand why you are just now alerting me to this as you have had the disk in your possession since November 4th or thereabouts. When you provide dates and duration for completing a task in the plan, that means you will provide your deliverable on that date. You[r] inquiry below lets me know that those agreed upon dates were never achievable. Please know that from a project management perspective that is unacceptable.

         (Nov. 26, 2013 Email (dkt. #23-1) 1.) Defendants assert that Schneider was concerned about King's tone in this email, while plaintiff argues there was nothing inappropriate about her tone.

         In December 2013, defendants also aver that Schneider spoke with other project managers, Tolmie and Hampton, about King, and they, too, complained about working and interacting with King. Plaintiff denies this as well.[4] On December 16, 2013, however, Tolmie forwarded an extensive email chain between himself, King, Hampton and others to Schneider. In response to a suggested meeting, the parties agree that plaintiff advised everyone that she had “nothing to discuss, ” and that she was “not sure why this is becoming such a big deal. . . . I'm just amazed at the amount of time this one thing has consumed, when in the big scheme of things it's not that big of a deal.” (Dec. 16, 2013 Email (dkt. #23-4) 1.) According to Schneider, this email exchange reinforced concerns identified by Tolmie and Hampton.

         On March 26, 2014, King emailed another DOJ employee and a Department of Administration (“DOA”) employee with a question. When the DOA employee responded, she addressed her email to Karen VanSchoonhoven, the DOJ employee, who King had included in the “To” field of her email. King then responded “I was the originator of the email below, therefore it is unclear to me -- why your response was to Karen. . . . In the interim, please let me know what else may be required.” (Mar. 26, 2014 Email (dkt. #22-6) 1-2 (emphasis in original).)

         b) Amber Alert project

         As the project manager for the Amber Alert project, King drafted the project plan, with input from team members. She was also responsible for ensuring that the software testing was completed before providing it to the client. The plan specified January 23, 2014, as the target date for a meeting with Dane County 911 operators. During this meeting, program bugs were discovered, leading King in February to ask Dane County 911 to reschedule the meeting. In response, Dane County 911's contact said he was waiting to hear from the liaison to “make sure everyone is on the same page before [he] pull[ed his] entire team together again for this.” (Feb. 26, 2014 Email (dkt. #22-5) 4.) In response, King expressed uncertainty as to why she would need to check with the DOJ liaison since King only “needed the developers to fix the issues that were found, which they have.” (Id. at 3-4.)

         On February 20, 2014, Schneider reports learning of concerns about the Amber Alert website project, as well as King's role in it. Specifically, concerns were again raised that King was abrupt, rude, and resistant to creating a poster for consistent layout, and she did not view the Division of Criminal Investigation (“DCI”) as the customer. To combat some of these concerns, Schneider added Alli Jerger, a business analyst for DCI, to the team.

         After a meeting on March 10, 2014, Jerger informed Schneider that DCI felt like it was not receiving enough support from BCS, that BCS was unwilling to listen to DCI's needs, and that BCS seemed to care more about deadlines than DCI's requirements. (Mar. 11, 2014 Email (dkt. #23-6) 1.) Jerger also complained that King had scheduled a training with Dane County 911 without first showing the product to DCI, resulting in a waste of Dane County 911's time and money, and that DCI had never before “had such an adversarial relationship in a project.” (Id.)

         c) GeneMapper project

         Following the completion of the GeneMapper project, King emailed Schneider a document titled “GeneMapper Lessons Learned Summary” on May 1, 2014. The parties agree that King informed Schneider that she relied on the feedback provided and had not cherry-picked. (Defs.' Resp. Pl.'s PFOF (dkt. #35) ¶ 7.) Still, Schneider was “surprised and disappointed [that the summary contained] no reference to the team effort involved in making this project a success, ” while addressing King's input a number of times. (May 1, 2014 Email (dkt. #23-7) 1, 4-5.) Schneider claims her reaction was due in part to the fact that in March, King and others received an email from William Peterson, who was part of the project team, complementing the work of BCS on the GeneMapper project (May 1, 2014 Email (dkt. #22-8) 2), although the parties disagree whether that email was submitted as part of the “Lessons Learned” process. The parties do agree that the team did very good work on this project, while plaintiff disagrees ...

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