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Knight v. Georgetown University

February 11, 1999


Before Steadman and Reid, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Associate Judge

Notice: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the Atlantic and Maryland Reporters. Users are requested to notify the Clerk of the Court of any formal errors so that corrections may be made before the bound volumes go to press.

Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Stephen G. Milliken, Trial Judge)

Argued May 26, 199

After almost thirty years of employment, Mattie Berna J. Knight, an African American registered nurse, was discharged by Georgetown University Hospital when it closed the blood transfusion service unit which Ms. Knight supervised. She brought suit challenging her discharge on grounds both of race discrimination and promissory estoppel. A jury found in Georgetown's favor on Ms. Knight's race discrimination claim, but awarded her $90,000 on the promissory estoppel theory. Both parties appealed to this court.

Ms. Knight challenges several evidentiary rulings by the trial court, principally asserting that the court erroneously prevented her from fully presenting the evidence necessary to rebut two of Georgetown's stated nondiscriminatory reasons for her termination. She also asserts errors in the trial court's instructions and in the award of costs. Georgetown in its cross-appeal argues that the trial court, rather than the jury, should have decided the promissory estoppel claim and that the award of $90,000 was excessive. We find error in the trial court's award of costs and remand for a redetermination of that award. In all other respects, we affirm the judgment.

I. Facts.

The following basic facts were essentially undisputed. Ms. Knight had been employed as a nurse at Georgetown University Hospital since 1965. In 1980, she was asked to help organize the Transfusion Service Unit in the hospital's Department of Laboratory Medicine, and she remained as the nursing supervisor until the unit was eliminated as part of a reorganization in July 1994. The unit provided certain types of blood transfusions on an out-patient basis and arranged blood collection from donors. Shortly before the unit was eliminated, it consisted of four employees: Ms. Knight, two white registered nurses who worked under Ms. Knight's supervision, and an African American receptionist.

In February 1993, Ms. Knight attended a meeting where the reorganization of the unit was first discussed. Immediately after this meeting, she was assured by Dr. Ronald S. Sacher, the director of the department and formerly her immediate supervisor, that the hospital would continue to provide her with a supervisory nursing position even after the reorganization was complete. *fn1 The hospital proceeded to reorganize the unit in two phases. In early 1994, the hospital transferred all blood-collection activities to contractors from the American Red Cross and laid off two of the unit's employees: the black receptionist and one of the white nurses. Although the nurse found a comparable position elsewhere in the hospital, the receptionist did not.

Ms. Knight and the remaining white nurse continued to provide blood-transfusion services. In June 1994, a hospital official told Ms. Knight that she and the remaining nurse would be laid off when blood-transfusion responsibilities were transferred to another department in the hospital, and spoke with her about other nursing positions she could fill after the unit was eliminated. Ms. Knight testified that she did not apply for certain positions because they were not commensurate to her salary and high level of experience; she did not apply for other positions closer to her experience level because, in many instances, she was not aware of openings, and in any event she believed that Dr. Sacher would find a way to keep her on staff in a supervisory position. The nurse whom she supervised applied for and received one of the less-senior positions that Ms. Knight had declined. On July 15, 1994, Ms. Knight received formal written notice that she would be laid off that day.

Ms. Knight filed a five-count complaint against Georgetown University and two individual defendants, Dr. Sacher and another doctor, S. Ronald Sandler, M.D., who was the Director of Blood Services and her immediate supervisor at the time of her layoff. Count I alleged that Georgetown racially discriminated against Ms. Knight in her employment in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), see D.C. Code § 1-2512 (1992), and Counts II and III alleged that each individual defendant aided or abetted the racial discrimination, see D.C. Code § 1-2526 (1992). *fn2 Counts IV and V alleged common-law claims of breach of contract and promissory estoppel against Georgetown alone, based on Dr. Sacher's representations, in his official capacity, that the hospital would provide Ms. Knight with comparable employment after the Transfusion Service Unit closed. She sought reinstatement as well as compensatory damages of $1,134,000 and punitive damages of $1,500,000.

The basic theory of the DCHRA claim was disparate treatment: Ms. Knight alleged that after the transfusion unit of the Department of Laboratory Medicine was eliminated, Georgetown discriminated against her because of her race by failing to place her in another supervisory nursing position elsewhere in the hospital, as it had done for the two white nurses in the unit. At trial, she testified that of the four employees in the transfusion unit, the two white registered nurses obtained jobs elsewhere in the hospital but the two African American employees, Ms. Knight and the receptionist, did not. Ms. Knight also introduced statistical evidence designed to show that for several years African Americans had been disproportionately affected by layoffs in the entire Department of Laboratory Medicine. This evidence took the form of two stipulated graphs -- one showing changes in the percentages of African Americans, Caucasians, and other groups in the department, and the other showing changes in absolute numbers -- as well as a stipulation that in 1993 twelve of the thirteen employees laid off in the department were African American. Ms. Knight also testified to personal instances of what she perceived as racial bias, including various slights of both a personal and professional nature.

Georgetown defended against the race-discrimination charges by identifying nondiscriminatory reasons for closing Ms. Knight's unit and not placing her in a comparable job. The hospital had been losing money, and, like many teaching hospitals in recent years, felt pressure to cut costs by discontinuing services or contracting out to third-party providers. Additionally, the Red Cross was trusted to provide more efficient blood-collection services than the hospital could provide internally. Georgetown maintained that Ms. Knight had been offered assistance in finding a new job and that she was free to apply for any number of positions, but that she never did, unlike the white nurses who found jobs elsewhere in the hospital. Georgetown argued that it did not breach any contract because Ms. Knight was an at-will employee and, with regard to promissory estoppel, she could not reasonably have relied on any representations that the hospital would find another position for her.

Ms. Knight responded to Georgetown's defense by trying to show that its stated nondiscriminatory reasons were pretextual. She did so in two ways. First, as to the hospital's reasons for closing the unit, she questioned the magnitude of the hospital's recent $4 million loss in light of its net revenues and assets, as well as those of the university as a whole. She also attempted to question the safety of Red Cross blood-collection procedures, although the trial court precluded her from doing so. Second, with regard to her failure to apply for other jobs in the hospital, as noted above, Ms. Knight testified that she did not apply for these positions because she did not feel they were commensurate to her experience and salary history, and she trusted Dr. Sacher to make good on what she perceived as his promise to find her another supervisory nursing position. After her lay-off, she did not reapply for any positions at Georgetown primarily because she felt too embarrassed and humiliated by her experience to return.

After a six-day trial and four days of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict for Georgetown and the individual defendants on the racial discrimination counts. However, the jury found for Ms. Knight on her claim of promissory estoppel and awarded compensatory damages of $90,000. *fn3

We address in turn each of the issues raised by the parties on appeal.

II. Evidentiary Rulings.

A. Demonstrating Pretext.

Ms. Knight contends that the trial court improperly restricted her ability to question hospital witnesses about their reasons for eliminating her unit. As noted above, Georgetown maintained that it eliminated the unit because of financial pressures at the hospital and the prospect that the Red Cross would provide superior blood-collection services. Ms. Knight wanted to show that the second of these reasons was pretextual by questioning Dr. Sandler about the Red Cross's safety record in the Washington area. As for the first reason, she wanted to question a witness about the hospital's relationship with other components of Georgetown University to show that its financial troubles were far less significant than it claimed in light of the university's overall financial situation.

1. Legal Standards.

As a general principle, the trial court is entrusted with "broad discretion" in regulating "the substance, form, and quantum of evidence which is to be presented to a jury." Hawkins v. United States, 461 A.2d 1025, 1033 (D.C. 1983) (quoting (William T.) Johnson v. United States, 452 A.2d 959, 960 (D.C. 1982) (per curiam)). Likewise, as we recently observed, "the evaluation and weighing of evidence for relevance and potential prejudice is quintessentially a discretionary function of the trial court, and we owe a great degree of deference to its decision." (William A.) Johnson v. United States, 683 A.2d 1087, 1095 (D.C. 1996) (en banc), cert. denied, 117 S. Ct. 1323 (1997); see also Roundtree v. United States, 581 A.2d 315, 328 (D.C. 1990) (evidentiary rulings on relevancy will be overturned only upon a showing of "grave abuse").

We must apply these general principles in the specific context of an employment-discrimination case, which involves a three-part allocation of proof. First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination. See St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506 (1993) (citing, inter alia, McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)); Arthur Young & Co. v. Sutherland, 631 A.2d 354, 361 (D.C. 1993). *fn4 "Once that has been done, a rebuttable presumption arises that the employer's conduct amounted to unlawful discrimination." Arthur Young, supra, 631 A.2d at 361. Second, the employer bears the burden of rebutting this presumption "'by articulating some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action at issue.'" Id. (quoting Atlantic Richfield Co. v. District of Columbia Comm'n on Human Rights, 515 A.2d 1095, 1099 (D.C. 1986)); see also St. Mary's, supra, 509 U.S. at 506-07. Third, once the employer offers a nondiscriminatory reason, it becomes the employee's burden to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the reason is pretextual. See Arthur Young, 631 A.2d at 361; see also St. Mary's, supra, 509 U.S. at 507-08. The employee must be afforded what has been termed a "full and fair opportunity" to show that the employer's stated nondiscriminatory reason for treating her as it did was actually a pretext for unlawful discrimination. See St. Mary's, supra, 509 U.S. at 507; Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256 (1981); McDonnell Douglas, supra, 411 U.S. at 805. "Although the burden of production may shift from the employee to the employer and back to the employee, the employee retains the ultimate burden of persuading the finder-of-fact that the employer acted with discriminatory animus." Blackman, supra note 4, 694 A.2d at 868. *fn5 The issue before us concerns the third step, that the plaintiff show the employer's stated reasons for the adverse action to be pretextual.

2. Red Cross Blood-Collection Procedures.

Dr. Sandler, who arranged the contracting of the hospital's blood-collection services to the Red Cross, was called by Ms. Knight in her case in chief and asked about a consent decree which mandated changes in the way the Red Cross collected and processed blood. Dr. Sandler acknowledged that he was aware of a consent decree, but before Ms. Knight could ask specific questions about it counsel for the defendants objected and, at a bench conference, requested a proffer of relevance. Ms. Knight represented that the consent decree arose from litigation over the quality and safety of the Red Cross's Washington-area blood-collection procedures, and maintained that this information was relevant to the hospital's explanation that transferring her unit's responsibilities to the Red Cross would improve the efficiency and quality of patient care. The trial court precluded questioning on the consent decree "as remote and vastly outweighed by the distraction and the road down which we have to go to find out all about Red Cross blood ...

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