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Washington v. Thurgood Marshall Academy

December 8, 2006

JESSICA WASHINGTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THURGOOD MARSHALL ACADEMY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Jessica Washington's breach of contract action against her former employer, Defendant Thurgood Marshall Academy ("TMA"), is presently proceeding to trial. Currently pending before the Court is Defendant Thurgood Marshall Academy's Motion in Limine to Exclude Evidence and/or Testimony Regarding Defendant's Alleged Violation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (hereinafter "TMA's Motion"), which Plaintiff opposes. On November 1, 2006, this Court concluded that it was unable to properly address TMA's Motion because Plaintiff's Opposition failed to sufficiently explain either (1) the evidence that Plaintiff believed exists to demonstrate that her efforts to ensure Defendant's compliance with the IDEA provided a motivation for her alleged termination; or (2) the manner in which Plaintiff would seek to use such evidence at trial. As a result, the Court ordered Plaintiff to address these questions in further briefing on or before December 1, 2006, and held TMA's Motion in abeyance pending receipt of Plaintiff's additional briefing.

Plaintiff submitted her Supplemental Response to Opposition to Defendant's Motion In Limine (hereinafter "Pl.'s Supp. Resp.") on December 1, 2006. Based upon a searching review of Plaintiff's Supplemental Response, as well as TMA's Motion in Limine, Plaintiff's Opposition, Defendant's Reply to Plaintiff's Opposition, the relevant case law, and the entire record herein, the Court finds that the evidence Plaintiff would seek to introduce is of minimal, if any, probative value, which is greatly outweighed by the prejudicial potential of that evidence. As a result, the Court shall grant TMA's Motion in Limine and shall preclude Plaintiff from introducing at trial evidence of TMA's alleged non-compliance in an attempt to argue that such alleged non-compliance led TMA to ask for Plaintiff's resignation. However, as discussed below, Plaintiff shall be allowed to introduce evidence of her efforts relating to TMA's IDEA compliance, insofar as such evidence is necessary to provide the factual background to Plaintiff's breach of contract claim.

DISCUSSION

A. Background Relevant to TMA's Motion in Limine

The Court shall assume familiarity with the Court's June 19, 2006 Memorandum Opinion granting-in-part and denying-in-part TMA's Motion for Summary Judgment, Washington v. Thurgood Marshall Academy, Civ. A. No. 03-2570, 2006 WL 1722332, *1 (D.D.C. Jun. 19, 2006), which includes an extensive discussion of the facts underlying this action, as well as the Court's November 1, 2006 Memorandum Opinion, Washington v. Thurgood Marshall Academy, Civ. A. No. 03-2570, slip op. at 6 (D.D.C. Nov. 1, 2006) (hereinafter "Slip Op."), from which much of this background is quoted verbatim. Plaintiff Jessica Washington, a special education teacher, brought this action against her former employer, Thurgood Marshall Academy ("TMA"), alleging that TMA misrepresented Plaintiff's job duties and working hours to induce her to sign a one-year employment contract, then fired her for bringing school violations of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA") to TMA's attention, in violation of contract provisions, District of Columbia tort law regarding wrongful discharge, and the D.C. Human Rights Act. Washington, 2006 WL 1722332 at *1.

Following extensive discovery, TMA filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff filed an Opposition to TMA's Motion for Summary Judgment, and TMA filed a Reply. Id. In its June 19, 2006 Memorandum Opinion, the Court granted TMA's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff's Misrepresentation (Count II), Wrongful Discharge (Count III), and D.C. Human Rights Act (Count IV) counts.*fn1 As to Plaintiff's Breach of Contract claim (Count I), the Court granted TMA's Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to Plaintiff's allegations that Defendant unilaterally modified her job duties, but denied TMA's Motion for Summary Judgment insofar as Plaintiff alleged that TMA Director Joshua Kern severed Plaintiff's employment with TMA without cause, violating the agreed-upon term of employment and procedures for termination provided for in her August 1, 2002 Employment Contract. Id. at *7. Thus, after summary judgment, Plaintiff was left with "one remaining triable claim: her contention within Count I that she did not resign employment at TMA, but rather was involuntarily terminated without cause in violation of Paragraph Eight of her employment contract." Id. at *1.*fn2

TMA's Motion in Limine arises out of the Court's grant of summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff's claim under the D.C. Human Rights Act (Count IV). Specifically, TMA asserts that, in granting TMA summary judgment with respect to that claim, "the court found, as a matter of law, that plaintiff was not terminated because of her purported complaints regarding TMA's noncompliance with the IDEA." TMA's Mot. at 3. Indeed, as TMA notes, the Court's June 19, 2006 Memorandum Opinion concluded "that there is simply not even a scintilla of evidence to support [Plaintiff's] claim that TMA terminated her employment in retaliation for her alleged assertion that TMA was not in compliance with the IDEA." Washington, 2006 WL 1722332 at *17; Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Opp'n. at 3 n.3 (hereinafter "Def.'s Reply"). For her part, Plaintiff asserts that TMA's Motion "directly interferes with [Plaintiff's] ability to obtain due process in the prosecution and presentation of her breach of contract claim," and that granting TMA's Motion would "be tantamount to a full dismissal of [Plaintiff's] Breach of Contract Claim." Pl.'s Opp'n. and Mem. in Opp'n. to Def.'s Mot. in Limine (hereinafter "Pl.'s Opp'n.") at 1-2. Plaintiff further asserts that a "motion for summary judgment is not a substitute for a trial" and does not "adjudicate on the merits a claim." Id. at 2. Finally, Plaintiff argues that "evidence concerning her allegations against [sic] TMA's noncompliance with the IDEA, her complaints of its noncompliance . . . are deeply rooted and intertwined in her breach of contract claim" and thus that "IDEA evidence is key to deciding whether TMA had any motive or intent to discharge [Plaintiff]." Id. at 6.

The Court preliminarily considered TMA's Motion in its November 1, 2006 Memorandum Opinion; nevertheless, in the interest of conclusively resolving TMA's Motion, the Court shall reiterate a number of issues discussed in that Opinion. As an initial matter, it should be noted that the Court's June 19, 2006 Memorandum Opinion regarding TMA's Motion for Summary Judgment only addressed Plaintiff's allegations of TMA's non-compliance with the IDEA, her efforts to ensure compliance, and the link between those actions and her alleged termination by TMA in the context of Plaintiff's claim under the D.C. Human Rights Act, and did not consider those allegations in the context of Plaintiff's breach of contract claim. In contrast, Plaintiff's Opposition to TMA's Motion in Limine asserts that evidence regarding TMA's alleged non-compliance with the IDEA and Plaintiff's activities in that respect is "key to deciding whether TMA had any motive or intent to discharge [her]." Pl.'s Opp'n. at 6. Thus, the pertinent consideration is whether Plaintiff's purported evidence of TMA's alleged non- compliance is relevant to her breach of contract claim -- a consideration which the Court notes is governed by a different legal framework than that which Plaintiff faced at summary judgment.

B. Evidence Before the Court At the Time of Its November 1, 2006 Memorandum Opinion

At the time of the Court's November 1, 2006 Memorandum Opinion, the following evidence was already before the Court:

Plaintiff was hired by, and began teaching at, TMA in August 2002. Washington, 2006 WL 1722332 at * 2-4. It is undisputed that one aspect of Plaintiff's job was ensuring TMA's compliance with the IDEA and performing IDEA-related functions. Washington, 2006 WL 1722332 at *16 (citing Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 6 (undated "Expectations of TMA Special Education Coordinator for SY 2002-2003 (draft) by J. Feldman); Ex. 7 (8/2/02 "Special Education Responsibilities and Duties Evaluation Criteria Checklist" by J. Washington). After beginning her employment with TMA, Plaintiff identified a number of special education students with records who had not been receiving special education. Id at *4.

Plaintiff then met with TMA officials during the fall of 2002 and "discussed with TMA that it was not complying with the requirements under IDEA." Id. (citing Compl. ¶ 25; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 172:9-173:3). Specifically, on November 1, 2002, Plaintiff had a discussion with TMA Executive Joshua Kern about IDEA compliance, in which she informed him that the students were suffering, that the school was not in compliance, and that she had identified several additional students in need of special education. Id. Also at this meeting, Plaintiff raised, for the first time, the issue of the alleged inadequacy of her salary, id. (citing Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 189:3-17), and informed TMA "that she had been contacted by another school about a possible position and to let her know whether or not TMA would increase her salary," id. On November 22, 2002, Plaintiff again met with Kern, who advised Plaintiff that he needed more time to look into the issues they had discussed at their previous meeting. Id. at *5 (citing Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 210:20-211:12).

Also during November 2002, Plaintiff received two memoranda from TMA Principal Joseph Feldman regarding her informal evaluation of November 5, 2002. See Pl.'s Opp'n., Ex. 23 (11/18/02 Memorandum from J. Feldman to J. Washington re: Informal Evaluation); Ex. 25 (11/21/02 Memorandum from J. Feldman to J. Washington re: Informal Evaluation). Each memorandum noted a number of areas in which Plaintiff's job performance could be improved, but also noted areas in which Plaintiff was succeeding at her job, which specifically included IDEA-related activities. Id. In addition, each memorandum expressed Feldman's hope that the evaluation process would allow Plaintiff to be successful in her job by the end of the school's semester. Id. According to Plaintiff, she "just continued" doing her job for several weeks, until December 20, 2002, when she again asked Kern whether he "had come up with anything" regarding the issues they had previously discussed. Id. (citing Def.'s Mot. for ...


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