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Brown v. National Academy of Sciences

March 11, 2004


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-5111-95) (Hon. Judith E. Retchin, Trial Judge) (Hon. Herbert B. Dixon, Jr., Trial Judge)

Before Ruiz and Glickman, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Belson, Senior Judge

Argued September 11, 2003

Appellant, Ms. Katie M. Brown filed suit against her former *fn1 employer, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), alleging that NAS had terminated her from her employment there and subsequently failed to offer her any of eight other positions at NAS for which she applied there, in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA), D.C. Code § 1-2501 et seq. (1998). Ms. Brown's complaint and the pre-trial order stated that the alleged retaliatory termination and retaliatory failures to hire were all consequences of her having filed an internal equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaint with NAS asserting that she had been denied the vacation period of her choice because of her age, race, gender and national origin (Nicaraguan). The parties, however, tried the case as one in which plaintiff claimed that her termination and each of the eight failures to hire were the result of retaliation or, alternatively, the result of discrimination on one or more of the four above-stated bases.

At the first of two trials, Judge Judith A. Retchin granted the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) on all counts other than retaliatory termination, and one of the eight counts of discriminatory failure to hire ( specifically for a travel services assistant position) prior to submitting the case to the jury. The jury found in Ms. Brown's favor on *fn2 the retaliatory termination count, and on it awarded damages in the amount of $110,000. The jury also found in her favor on discriminatory failure to hire for a travel services assistant position on the basis of her age, but not on the bases of gender, race, or national origin, and awarded no damages on that count. After trial, the judge granted NAS judgment as a matter of law on the discriminatory failure to hire count, and a new trial on the retaliatory termination count. A second trial, before Judge Herbert B. Dixon, Jr., resulted in judgment as a matter of law in favor of NAS on the retaliatory termination count as well. Before this court, appellant argues primarily that the JMOLs were erroneously entered in light of the evidence presented, and that the first trial judge committed abuses of discretion that require reversal. We affirm.


On June 1, 1967, the National Research Council, a branch of NAS, hired Ms. Brown as a keypunch trainee. From that day forward, Ms. Brown was employed continuously by NAS until her termination in July 1994. On May 2, 1994, NAS advised Ms. Brown that she was being terminated because her position was being abolished. The effective date of the termination was July 1, 1994.

During May 1993, Ms. Brown had made a request for five days of annual leave, to be taken from July 19 until July 23, 1993. In response to this leave request, Ms. Brown's immediate supervisor, Montra Newton, informed her that the particular week she requested was not suitable because the department was already going to be "short-staffed" that week. Ms. Newton suggested that Ms. Brown take leave during a different week.

On July 20, 1993, Ms. Brown sent a letter to the supervisor of her unit, Tim Roddy, alleging that her leave request had been denied because of her age, race, gender and national origin. She sent copies of this letter to five persons at NAS who held administrative or *fn3 supervisory positions, including Charles Starliper, NAS director of personnel, and Michael Biela, NAS comptroller. Mr. Roddy responded in writing to the letter, explaining that shortly after Ms. Brown made her leave request, her supervisor, Ms. Newton, informed her that the particular period of leave she had asked for was not workable because one employee in her department had already requested leave during that week, two employees had recently been transferred from the office, and the department was moving to a different floor that week. Mr. Roddy's letter also stated that Ms. Brown had been told that either the week immediately before or the week immediately after the week that she requested, or any week in August, would be a much better time for her to take leave. Mr. Roddy informed Ms. Brown that if she wished to pursue a discrimination claim, she should take it up with Christine McShane, NAS's equal employment opportunity ("EEO") officer.

Subsequently, Ms. Brown met with Ms. McShane and reiterated the allegations made in her letter. Ms. McShane informed Ms. Brown that she would investigate the matter. Three weeks later, on September 1, 1993, Ms. McShane sent Ms. Brown a letter indicating that her investigation did not reveal any evidence of discrimination, and concluding that the leave request had been handled in the proper manner.

On February 9, 1994, the NAS directors circulated a memo to all "unit heads" requesting budget submissions for the following fiscal year that reflected a ten-to-fifteen percent reduction in costs. In response to this directive, Shirley Roebuck and Tim Roddy, the supervisors of the Accounts Payable/Treasury Office of NAS (the department where Ms. Brown worked), submitted a memo dated April 26, 1994, which recommended compressing *fn4 the functions of five jobs in the department into four. The memo concluded that Ms. Brown *fn5 did not posses a requisite skill set that would qualify her for any of the positions that would result from the reorganization of the department. Accordingly, the memo recommended that her employment be terminated.

On May 2, 1994, Ms. Brown was called into a meeting with Shirley Roebuck and Tim Roddy. At the meeting, she was given her termination letter, signed by Michael Biela, which stated that her employment was terminated, effective July 1, 1994. The letter also *fn6 mentioned the possibility of Ms. Brown's applying for other positions at NAS. Ms. Brown subsequently applied for eight different positions at NAS between July 1994 to January 1995. She was not hired for any of those jobs.

On June 27, 1995, Ms. Brown filed a complaint against NAS in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, alleging numerous violations of the DCHRA. At the first trial, she contended that her termination at NAS was both retaliatory and discriminatory, and that each failure to hire her was likewise both retaliatory and discriminatory.


We will discuss first Ms. Brown's allegation that the termination of her employment at NAS was an act of discrimination taken against her because of her age, gender, race and national origin. At the close of the plaintiff's case at the first trial, the defendant moved for JMOL on all counts. The court granted JMOL against the plaintiff on the discriminatory (but not the retaliatory) termination claim, ruling that the claim had been filed outside the statute of limitations. A claim for employment discrimination filed under the DCHRA must be filed within one year after the date of the adverse employment action, or within one year after the time that the plaintiff knew or should have known that the employment action was undertaken for an unlawful purpose, D.C. Code § 1-2544 (a) (1981), recodified as D.C. Code § 2-1403.16 (a) (2001). We have strictly construed this one year limitation. "The [DCHRA] provides specific timetables . . . for filing a claim of discrimination: within one year of the alleged unlawful discriminatory practice or its discovery . . . a complainant, seeking damages or other appropriate relief, may file a complaint either with [the office of Human Rights] . . . or in any court of competent jurisdiction." Brown v. Capital Hill Club, 425 A.2d 1309, 1311 (D.C.1981).

"[W]e review the grant of a [judgment as a matter of law] de novo, applying the same standards as the trial court." Doe v. Medlantic Health Care Group, Inc., 814 A.2d 939, 946 (D.C. 2003), accord Breezevale Ltd. v. Dickinson, 759 A.2d 627, 633 (D.C. 2000), op. adopted, 783 A.2d 573 (D.C.2001) (en banc); accord Durphy v. Kaiser Found. Health Plan of Mid-Atlantic States, Inc., 698 A.2d 459, 465 (D.C. 1997). Judgment as a matter of law may be granted only if, when the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party, there is "no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find" for the non-moving party. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 (a). This is an exacting standard, and "it is only in the unusual case, in which only one conclusion could reasonably be drawn from the evidence, that the court may properly grant judgment [as a matter of law]." Homan v. Goyal, 711 A.2d 812, 817 (D.C. 1998).

Our review of the record of the first trial reveals the following facts which are relevant to the issue of limitations regarding discriminatory termination.

1. On May 2, 1994 Ms. Brown was handed a termination letter, signed by Michael Biela, the comptroller of NAS, which stated that her employment at NAS was to terminate on July 1, 1994.

2. The termination letter stated that Ms. Brown was being terminated because of a reduction in force (RIF) which was ...

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