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Crawford v. District of Columbia

January 19, 2006

GEORGE W. CRAWFORD, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-519-02) Hon. James E. Boasberg, Trial Judge.

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

Argued October 25, 2005

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, KRAMER, Associate Judge, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

The appellant, George W. Crawford, appeals from the trial court's orders denying him declaratory and injunctive relief and attorney's fees and costs following a jury trial on his claim under the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act ("DCWPA" or "the Act"), D.C. Code § 1-615.51 et seq. (2001).*fn1 He asserts that the trial court erred in not awarding him declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as attorney's fees and costs. Concluding that he has misconstrued the statute, we affirm.

I. The Factual Background

The appellant, a former General Counsel of the D.C. Taxicab Commission ("the Commission"), filed a civil law suit against Lee Williams, Chair of the Commission, and the District of Columbia. In the complaint, the appellant alleged that his removal as General Counsel violated the DCWPA. The matter went to trial, and at its conclusion the jury returned a verdict by means of special interrogatories on the verdict form agreed to by both parties. The jury found (1) that the appellant made disclosures protected by the DCWPA; (2) that appellee Williams "took or threatened to take a prohibited personnel action against" the appellant; (3) that the appellant's "protected disclosure" was a "contributing factor" in his removal from the position of General Counsel; and (4) that the appellant's removal "would have occurred for legitimate, independent reasons even if [the appellant] had not made protected disclosures."*fn2 As indicated on the verdict form, given these answers, the jury had no need to address the issue of compensatory damages. The trial court thus entered judgment for the appellees.

Thereafter, the appellant filed post-trial motions with the court, including: (1) Post-Trial Motion to Amend Judgment and for Entry of Judgment for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief Based on Jury Verdict and (2) Motion for Award of Attorney's Fees and Costs. These motions raised essentially the same arguments for relief that the appellant now raises on appeal. The trial court ruled that the appellant was not entitled to relief because the jury found that he would have been dismissed from his employment for legitimate reasons independent of his "protected disclosures." On appeal, the appellant challenges the conclusion of the trial court.

II. The Framework of the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act

In enacting the DCWPA, the Council found that "the public interest is served when employees of the District government are free to report waste, fraud, abuse of authority, violations of law, or threats to public health or safety without fear of retaliation or reprisal." D.C. Code § 1-615.51 (2001).*fn3 To that end, the DCWPA prohibits a supervisor from "threaten[ing] to take or tak[ing] a prohibited personnel action or otherwise retaliat[ing] against an employee because of an employee's protected disclosure or because of an employee's refusal to comply with an illegal order." D.C. Code § 1-615.53. The Act defines a "prohibited personnel action" to include a list of various actions adverse to an employee, such as termination, demotion, or suspension. See D.C. Code § 1-615.52 (5). Here, the allegation was that the appellant's supervisor took a "prohibited personnel action" against him for making a "protected disclosure."

One of several means of redress available to an employee whose supervisor has taken a "prohibited personnel action" is a civil lawsuit, the means that the appellant chose here.*fn4 See D.C. Code § 1-615.54. Section 1-615.54 (a) provides various remedies for an employee who can show that he or she has been harmed due to violation of the DCWPA, including compensatory damages, injunctive relief, reinstatement and reasonable costs and attorney's fees. The Act also provides that "[a]s part of the relief ordered in [a] judicial proceeding," a supervisor "found to have violated § 1-615.53 [by taking a 'prohibited personnel action'] shall be subject to appropriate disciplinary action including dismissal" and "shall be subject to a civil fine not to exceed $1000." D.C. Code § 1-615.55 (a), (b).

Section 1-615.54 (b) of the Act lays out the shifting burden of proof that must be met to prevail in a civil lawsuit. It provides:

In a civil action . . . once it has been demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that an activity proscribed by § 1-615.53*fn5 was a contributing factor in the alleged prohibited personnel action against an employee, the burden of proof shall be on the employing District agency to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the alleged action would have occurred for legitimate, independent reasons even if the employee had not engaged in activities protected by this section.

(emphasis added). Thus, after a plaintiff makes a prima facie case that his "protected disclosure" was a "contributing factor" in his dismissal, the burden shifts to the defendant to show by clear and convincing evidence that the plaintiff's dismissal would have occurred for "legitimate, independent reasons" even if he had not engaged in activities protected under the Act.

The most obvious reading of this provision would appear to be that if the jury finds that those legitimate and independent reasons exist, a plaintiff is barred from relief in the civil action. The appellant, however, argues against that position, interpreting the ...


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