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Watkins v. Dist. of Columbia

March 27, 2008

RONALD K. WATKINS, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLEES.



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA8150-02) (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge).

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

Argued October 10, 2006

Before REID and FISHER, Associate Judges, and PRYOR, Senior Judge.

Appellant, Ronald K. Watkins, challenges post-trial orders issued after a jury verdict in his favor. His complaint against the District of Columbia and officers of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections ("DOC") (collectively "the District" or "appellees") alleged a violation of the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act ("WPA), and intentional infliction of emotional distress, with respect to his termination from his position at DOC. He claims on appeal that, following the jury verdict, the trial court improperly rescinded its initial order directing his reinstatement and, instead, issued a second order replacing reinstatement with eighteen months of front pay and with back pay. He also argues that the trial court improperly reduced the amount of his fourth demand for attorneys' fees. In its cross-appeal, the District contends that the trial court erred by ordering it to pay front and back pay, and by failing to consider that Mr. Watkins did not attempt to mitigate his damages. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

The record shows that on February 7, 2003, DOC terminated Mr. Watkins from his position as a Lead Legal Instruments Examiner. Events leading up to his termination apparently began to unfold in 2001. In September 2001, Mr. Watkins sent two memoranda to the Director of DOC protesting the blocking of his access to a computer program which enabled him to fulfill his duty to examine inmate files to ensure proper classification and accurate dates of release. Effective October 14, 2001, DOC detailed Mr. Watkins from his position at the District of Columbia Jail to the Lorton, Virginia Central Facility Records Office, "pending the outcome of an investigation." On October 20, 2001, Mr. Watkins sent the DOC Director a memorandum indicating, in part, that the records of two inmates were "grossly inaccurate" concerning "jail credit," and hence, the inmates were scheduled to be released too early. Mr. Watkins gave copies of his October 30th memorandum to the District's Inspector General's office and to the Office of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.

In November 2001, DOC returned Mr. Watkins to his position at the jail. After a conversation with his assigned supervisor as to whether he had "learned his lesson," DOC placed Mr. Watkins in another temporary assignment at the end of November, this time at the Correctional Treatment Facility. From the end of 2001 to mid-June 2002, Mr. Watkins continued to provide information to DOC regarding inaccurate inmate files. The Inspector General's office launched investigations based on this information.

On June 25, 2002, DOC put Mr. Watkins on administrative leave with pay, based on his arrest for sexual solicitation on March 31, 2000. Subsequently, on July 19, 2002, DOC sent Mr. Watkins an Advance Notice of Proposed Removal based on his March 31, 2000 arrest. Mr. Watkins responded to the notice by claiming retaliation due to his identification of incorrect inmate files. Although a hearing officer found retaliation, DOC's Director nevertheless terminated Mr. Watkins in early February 2003. His termination was based upon his August 8, 2000 conviction on the sexual solicitation charge.

Prior to his termination, Mr. Watkins had filed a complaint against the District on September 17, 2002, alleging violation of the WPA. On October 22, 2003, following trial on his complaint, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Watkins and awarded him damages (for pain and suffering).*fn1 The trial court docketed the judgment, reflecting the jury award in the amount of $35,000, on October 28, 2003. Subsequently, the trial court amended its judgment, in response to Mr. Watkins' motion, by rescinding Mr. Watkins' February 2003 discharge from his position, and ordering the District to reinstate him "to his former position with reinstatement of seniority rights . . . back pay and interest on back pay . . . , retroactive to February 7, 2003."

On May 11, 2004, the trial court docketed an order granting the District's motion to alter or amend the judgment. The order rescinded its previous directive "restoring Plaintiff to his job in the [DOC]," and instead, mandated "eighteen (18) months salary as an award of front pay in lieu of restoration."*fn2 In an order and judgment docketed on August 6, 2004, the trial court reaffirmed the $35,000 jury award (with interest); awarded back pay (with interest) from February 7, 2003 to May 5, 2004, and beginning on May 5, 2004, front pay equivalent to eighteen months salary (with interest); and the order granted Mr. Watkins' second and third motions for attorneys' fees and costs. The order contained two dollar amounts -- $152,882.88 and $6,856.00. The court issued an additional order, docketed on August 12, 2004, awarding Mr. Watkins $9,532.00 in response to his fourth attorneys' fees motion, seeking $17,199.05, for additional fees.

On appeal, Mr. Watkins seeks reversal of the trial court's decision to grant him front and back pay in lieu of reinstatement to his former position. He also requests reversal of the court's order denying him the full amount requested in his fourth motion for attorneys' fees. The District filed a cross-appeal challenging the award of front pay and most of the back pay award on the basis of "after-acquired evidence" of Mr. Watkins' misconduct, and his failure to mitigate his damages by seeking other employment.

ANALYSIS

Mr. Watkins' Appeal

Mr. Watkins contends that "[t]he substitution of 'front pay' for reinstatement in a WPA case is only appropriate in situations in which the prevailing plaintiff/employee has committed a new offense which disqualifies the plaintiff from further employment, [which is] not the case here." He states that the trial court's action in rescinding his ordered reinstatement "is arbitrary and capricious and contrary to the clear intent of the WPA legislation," because "the legislature has made it clear that the remedy for a WPA violation . . . is reinstatement." He claims that the trial court's action not only violated the WPA, but also constituted "a repudiation of the jury verdict" and "the court's previous, correct . . . Order." He complains that "[t]he front pay remedy . . . is considerably less than the 'make whole' remedy provided by the WPA"; and that the rescinding of the trial court's reinstatement order "leave[s] unclear . . . the status of the unlawful termination action." He also argues that the trial court's "substitution ...


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