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Howard University v. Lacy

July 17, 2003

HOWARD UNIVERSITY, APPELLANT,
v.
HAROLD E. LACY, JR., APPELLEE.



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA3012-99) (Hon. Susan R. Winfield, First Trial Judge) (Hon. Mary Ellen Abrecht, Second Trial Judge)

Before Schwelb, Farrell, and Washington, Associate Judges.

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

Argued June 25, 2003

This is an ap peal by Howard University from a judgment in favor of Harold E. Lacy, Jr., for breach of an alleged contract of employment. Lacy was discharged following an incident on April 6, 1996, in which he allegedly placed a student in an illegal chokehold.

The alleged contract on which Lacy's case is based was the 1980 edition of the Howard University Employee (Non-Faculty) Handbook. The Handbook provides in substance that although temporary or probationary employees may be terminated at any time, regular employees may be discharged only for unsatisfactory work performance, neglect of duty, or conduct incompatible with the welfare of the University. The Handbook also sets forth specific disciplinary and grievance procedures. At the same time, it is stated on the first page of the Handbook that "[t]his document is not to be construed as a contract." In the Handbook, the University also reserves to itself the exclusive discretion to exercise traditional management prerogatives, which include the sole authority to "select, hire, promote, demote, suspend [and] terminate . . . employees." *fn1 (Emphasis added.)

The case was tried in two parts before two different judges and two different juries. In October 2001, in a trial over which Judge Susan R. Winfield presided, the jury found that the University had discharged Lacy without good cause, in breach of the alleged employment contract. The jurors were, however, unable to agree on the is sue of damages. A second trial, limited to damages alone, was held in April 2002, with Judge Mary Ellen Abrecht presiding. The jury at the second trial returned a verdict in Lacy's favor in the total amount of $265,000. Judge Abrecht entered judgment in conformity with the verdict.

On appeal, Howard University contends, inter alia, that Judge Winfield erred by ruling as a matter of law that the Handbook constituted an enforceable contract and by precluding the University from arguing the contrary to the jury. *fn2 We agree with the University on the issue of liability .

The University also claims that Judge Abrecht committed reversible error with respect to the award of damages. We conditionally sustain the awards of $121,000 for front pay and $120,000 for back pay, *fn3 but vacate as unduly remote and speculative the award of $24,000 in tuition remission.

I.

Following Lacy's institution of this action, the University filed a motion for summary judgment. The University contended, as a matter of law, that in light of (1) the statement in the Handbook that the document is not a contract, and (2) the University's retention in the Handbook of the authority to terminate employees, the Handbook did not constitute an enforceable employment contract. Consistently with authorities holding that, in similar circumstances, the presence of such disclaimers creates an ambiguity but does not conclusively negate the existence of a contract, see, e.g., Strass v. Kaiser Found. Health Plan of Mid-Atlantic, 744 A.2d 1000, 1011-14 (D.C. 2000); Yesudian, supra, note 1, 332 U.S. App. D.C. at 72-73, 153 F.3d at 747-48, Judge Winfield denied the University's motion.

In advance of trial, Lacy requested the court to rule that, under the doctrine of offensive collateral estoppel, the University should be precluded from contending that the Handbook did not constitute an enforceable contract. Lacy claimed - inaccurately, as we show at page 5, infra, and as his counsel acknowledged at oral argum ent - that juries in three previous cases, namely Law v. Howard Univ., 558 A.2d 355 (D.C. 1989); Howard Univ. v. Baten, 632 A.2d 389 (D.C. 1993); and Yesudian, 332 U.S. App. D.C. at 72-73, 153 F.3d at 747-48, had fo und the Handbook to be a contract.

We have stated that collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion,

renders conclusive in the same or a subsequent action determination of an issue of fact or law when (1) the issue is actually litigated and (2) determined by a valid, final judgment on the merits; (3) after a full and fair opportunity for litigation by the parties or their privies; (4) under circumstances where the determination was essential to the judgment, and not merely dictum.

Davis v. Davis, 663 A.2d 499, 501 (D.C. 1995) (quoting [Washington Med. Ctr., Inc. v. Holle, 573 A.2d 1269, 1283 (D.C. 1990)] (other citations omitted). "Offensive use of collateral estoppel arises when a plaintiff seeks to estop a defendant from relitigating the issues which the defendant previously litigated and lost against another plaintiff." Ali Baba Co. v. WILCO, Inc., 48 ...


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