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Date: 09-27-2022

Case Style:

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Magali Villalobos v. Ryan's Pointe Houston, LLC and Advantage Property Management, LLC

Case Number: 19-20656

Judge: Richmoand

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on appeal from the Southern District of Texas (Harris County)

Plaintiff's Attorney:

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Defendant's Attorney: Thomas Michael Pickford, Jr.

Description: Houston, Texas civil rights lawyers represented Plaintiffs, who sued defendant on a job discrimination theory.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against
Ryan’s Pointe Houston, L.L.C. and Advantage Property Management,
L.L.C., alleging the companies had engaged in national origin and sex-based
discrimination. Magali Villalobos, the subject of the adverse employment
action at issue, intervened. The district court granted summary judgment in
favor of the defendants.

Magali Villalobos is a United States citizen originally from Mexico.
Villalobos previously served as a property manager for Ryan’s Pointe
Houston (Ryan’s Pointe), the owners of a 280-unit apartment complex
managed by Advantage Property Management (Advantage). She was fired
from that position on March 21, 2012. Villalobos subsequently alleged that
this adverse employment action was the result of national origin and sex-
based discrimination.

Villalobos was originally hired as a leasing agent at the complex in May
of 2011. Tawana Rowghani, who was then serving as the complex’s property
manager, interviewed Villalobos for that position. Rowghani had worked
with Villalobos previously and was excited at the prospect of the two working
together again. At the time Villalobos was hired, the complex was owned and
operated by CNC Management. Villalobos was subsequently promoted to
assistant manager.

During Villalobos’s tenure as assistant manager, Ryan’s Pointe took
ownership of the apartment complex. Ryan’s Pointe’s owners, including
Robert Hayman, Michael Treiman, and Julian Blum, had purchased the
property in order to renovate it and resell it for a profit. Initially, Blum
oversaw the day-to-day management of the property. Accordingly,
Villalobos reported to Rowghani who, in turn, reported to Blum.

Rowghani’s role began to expand almost immediately after Ryan’s
Pointe took ownership of the complex. Specifically, Rowghani became a
regional director, responsible for overseeing several apartment complexes
owned by Ryan’s Pointe. To backfill her previous position, Rowghani
eventually decided to interview Villalobos for the property manager position.
Blum also interviewed Villalobos before she was hired as the complex’s
property manager on January 1, 2012.

Around the time Villalobos began serving as property manager, a
series of management changes occurred at Ryan’s Pointe. Hayman fired
Rowghani, and Blum ceased overseeing the day-to-day management of the
complex. A belief that the property was underperforming prompted both
personnel changes. Hayman and Treiman then formed Advantage in order
to manage the apartment complex. On February 9, 2012, Advantage hired
Bobbie Dusek to serve as regional supervisor. Dusek then began a thirty-day
review of each of her subordinates, one of whom was Villalobos.

As part of this review, Dusek immediately came to question
Villalobos’s job performance. According to her deposition testimony, Dusek
grew concerned with at least three aspects of Villalobos’s job performance.
First, Villalobos was allegedly failing to prepare vacant units for rental in a
timely manner. Second, Villalobos was allegedly failing to submit invoices in
a timely fashion. Lastly, Villalobos was supposedly doing a poor job of
managing the complex’s delinquencies—the outstanding receivables that
result when tenants fail to pay rent on time. The January and February
delinquency reports, for example, showed $11,567.63 and $7,128.40 in
delinquencies, respectively. According to Dusek, the complex’s
delinquencies should not have exceeded $2,000. In an effort to correct these
deficiencies, Dusek allegedly provided Villalobos with oral and written
warnings that her job performance fell below standards.

On February 28, 2012, well within her thirty-day review period, Dusek
hired a headhunter to find a replacement for Villalobos. The headhunter was
instructed to keep the inquiry “super confidential.” Shortly thereafter,
Dusek interviewed Rebecca Johnson for the position. Johnson, who appears
white, was ultimately hired as the complex’s property manager on March 9th.
Dusek then fired Villalobos on March 21st. According to Dusek, her decision
was based entirely on Villalobos’s poor job performance.

Villalobos was immediately concerned that her firing had not, in fact,
been motivated by her performance as the property’s manager. She filed a
complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
alleging she was fired because of her national origin and because she had
recently informed her employers that she was pregnant. The EEOC
subsequently filed suit against Ryan’s Pointe and Advantage under Title VII.
Villalobos intervened on behalf of the plaintiff.

Taken in the light most favorable to the EEOC, resulting discovery in
the case revealed a highly toxic work environment at Ryan’s Pointe and
Advantage.1 According to deposition testimony, Hayman, Blum, and
Treiman expressed a desire to change “the demographics” of the complex,
a term several witnesses testified was often times synonymous in the industry
with the race of the tenants. Testimony also indicated that Hayman referred
to a tenant as “a trashy Mexican” and that Blum referred to a tenant as “a
dumb Mexican.” Some of the owners were likewise alleged to have made
improper comments about the racial makeup of the staff. Hayman, for
instance, expressed dismay at the fact that the office staff were “all
1 See Harville v. City of Houston, 945 F.3d 870, 874 (5th Cir. 2019) (citing
Alkhawaldeh v. Dow Chem. Co., 851 F.3d 422, 425-26 (5th Cir. 2017)) (noting that appellate
courts “review a district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo, viewing all facts and
drawing all inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party”).
Mexicans.” Both Hayman and Treiman likewise expressed a desire to
“change the demographic[s]” of the staff.

Testimony also called into question Dusek’s contention that
Villalobos was fired entirely based on her poor job performance. According
to an affidavit Dusek provided to the EEOC, she was told by Hayman and
Treiman to begin “working toward” Villalobos’s termination when she
started work at Advantage. Importantly, Hayman had also told Dusek to hire
a “higher class of individual with the look of Ken and Barbie,” which Dusek
understood as a hiring preference for those who are “petite, attractive,
young[,] and Caucasian.” Indeed, Hayman’s preference for a “white” staff
was made known on multiple occasions. Evidence likewise seemingly
contradicts Dusek’s assertions that Villalobos received oral and written
warnings concerning her job performance. According to Villalobos, she was
never counseled on her allegedly poor job performance. Furthermore, the
written counseling Dusek allegedly provided Villalobos was never signed and
was provided while Villalobos was on vacation.

Finally, discovery produced evidence suggesting that Villalobos’s
pregnancy may have played a role in her firing. When Blum discovered in
January of 2012 that Villalobos was expecting a child, he became frustrated
and stated that he believed she would take her full Family and Medical Leave
Act (FMLA) entitlement because “all Mexicans do that.” Although Blum
was no longer involved with the day-to-day management of the complex at
the time Villalobos was fired, he remained an investor in the complex and
attended monthly conference calls with the other investors. Evidence
suggests Dusek too was aware of Villalobos’s pregnancy prior to Villalobos’s
termination. Upon learning of the pregnancy, Dusek allegedly told Villalobos
that she should consider getting an abortion because her “job was taking off.”
Dusek would also later tell Hayman and Treiman that Villalobos was
pregnant and allegedly told Johnson that she was instructed to fire Villalobos
because Villalobos “was Hispanic, and [because] she was expecting.”

Following discovery, Ryan’s Pointe and Advantage moved for and
were granted summary judgment on both of the EEOC’s claims. The
district court concluded, inter alia, that Villalobos could not make out a prima
facie case of discrimination because she was not qualified to serve as the
complex’s manager in the first place. The court likewise concluded summary
judgment was appropriate because Villalobos had allegedly been fired
entirely based on her poor job performance. This appeal followed.

* * *

Granting “[s]ummary judgment is appropriate only if, viewing the evidence in the light most
favorable to the non-moving party, the movant shows that there is no genuine
dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.”3 Under these standards, we conclude that the district court
erred in granting summary judgment as to both claims.

Outcome: Reversed and remanded.

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