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Isse v. American University

April 14, 2008

MOHAMMED ISSE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Currently pending before the Court is Defendant American University's [23] Motion for Partial Reconsideration of the Court's February 25, 2008 Order granting-in-part and denying-in-part the University's Motion for Summary Judgment. See Isse v. Am. Univ., --- F. Supp. 2d ---, 2008 WL 482356 (D.D.C. Feb. 25, 2008). Pro se Plaintiff, Mohammed Isse, brought this action against his former employer, Defendant American University ("Defendant" or the "University"), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., alleging that the University unlawfully terminated his employment as a shuttle bus driver because of his Muslim religion and Somalian national origin. The Court's February 25, 2008 Memorandum Opinion and Order dismissed Plaintiff's individual claims against his immediate supervisor at the University, Kevin Wyatt, clarified that Plaintiff had abandoned his retaliation claim, and determined that Plaintiff could not pursue his allegations that Defendant failed to reasonably accommodate his religious observance as a separate claim. Id. at *1. The Court concluded, however, that genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment in favor of Defendant on Plaintiff's unlawful termination claim. Id.

Defendant seeks the Court to reconsider its partial denial of summary judgment, arguing that the Court "created a new standard for inferring discriminatory intent and overlooked critical undisputed record evidence with respect to each of the disciplinary decisions at issue." Def.'s Mot. at 1. The Court has thoroughly considered Defendant's Motion for Partial Reconsideration, as well as the relevant statutes and case law, and the entire record herein, and shall DENY [23] Defendant's Motion.

I. BACKGROUND

The Court's February 25, 2008 Memorandum Opinion contains a thorough discussion of Plaintiff's allegations and the factual record in this case. See generally Isse, 2008 WL 482356. The Court therefore repeats herein only the minimal factual background necessary to address Defendant's Motion for Partial Reconsideration. Plaintiff, Mohammed Isse, is a practicing Muslim and a native of Somalia, and worked as a full-time shuttle bus driver in the University's Transportation Services Department from approximately 1990 until his termination on September 16, 2005. Id. at *2. At the time of Plaintiff's termination, his direct supervisor was Kevin Wyatt, the University's Shuttle Operations Coordinator. Id. In turn, Mr. Wyatt reported to Anthony Newman, the University's Director of Risk Management and Transportation Services. Id. The crux of the allegations in Plaintiff's Complaint regarding religious and national origin discrimination are that Mr. Wyatt (along with Mr. Newman's predecessor, Kevin Leathers) refused to accommodate Plaintiff's requests to schedule his lunch breaks on Fridays so that he could attend Muslim prayer sessions, and made anti-Muslim/anti-Somalian comments to Plaintiff on a number of occasions. Id. at *3-5. The Court's February 28, 2005 Memorandum Opinion concluded that, while Mr. Wyatt denied all such allegations, genuine issues of material fact exist regarding those allegations. Id.

Plaintiff's employment with the University was terminated in September 2005, following a series of complaints regarding Plaintiff's driving, which led to two disciplinary warnings. Id. at *5. The first disciplinary warning involved Plaintiff allegedly allowing passengers to disembark while his shuttle bus was stopped at traffic lights where there were no designated shuttle stops, in violation of University policy. Id. at *6. The second disciplinary warning involved Plaintiff allegedly making a turn without using a turn signal and running a stop sign. Id. at *7. The final incident, which led to Plaintiff's termination, involved Plaintiff allegedly deviating from an approved shuttle route, in violation of University policy, by making a left turn onto Wisconsin Avenue from Grant Road rather than Albemarle Street while returning to the University's main campus from the Tenleytown Metro stop. Id. at *8-9. The Court's February 25, 2008 Memorandum Opinion contains detailed discussions of the allegations and factual evidence regarding each incident. See id. at *5-11. In sum, however, "Plaintiff denies being involved in the incidents for which he received the two disciplinary warnings, and disputes key facts regarding the third incident." Id. at *5. With respect to the first incident, Plaintiff denies driving the bus in question and specifically denies letting passengers off at unauthorized stops. Id. at *6. With respect to the second, Plaintiff admits driving the bus in question, but maintains that he was not driving it at the time that it was observed violating traffic rules. Id. at *7. Finally, with respect to the third incident, Plaintiff admits taking a left turn onto Wisconsin Avenue from Grant Road, rather than Albemarle Street, but denies being aware that doing so constituted a deviation from the approved route. Id. at *9.

Based on the factual disputes surrounding each incident, the Court's February 28, 2005 Memorandum Opinion rejected Defendant's assertion that a reasonable juror would conclude that Plaintiff committed the infractions for which he was disciplined. Id. at *20. The Court then considered Defendant's argument that these factual disputes were immaterial because the record established that Mr. Newman reasonably and in good faith believed that Plaintiff had committed the infractions. Id. at *20 (citing Fishbach v. D.C. Dep't of Corr., 86 F.3d 1180, 1183 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (quoting Milton v. Weinberger, 696 F.2d 94, 100 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). The Court accepted Defendant's argument as to Mr. Newman, noting that Plaintiff did not allege any religious or national origin-based animus on Mr. Newman's part (or on the part of the University officials who affirmed Mr. Newman's decision to terminate Plaintiff) and that no evidence of such animus existed. Id. at *21.

The Court "nevertheless conclude[d] that Mr. Newman's reasonable and good faith belief [did] not preclude Plaintiff from establishing that Defendant's proffered reason for terminating [him] is pretextual, because of the crucial role that Mr. Wyatt played in the decisions to discipline, and ultimately terminate, Plaintiff." Id. The Court noted that a factual dispute existed as to Mr. Wyatt's alleged religious or national-origin based animus, and further noted the D.C. Circuit's holding that "that evidence of a subordinates's bias is relevant where . . . the ultimate decisionmaker is not insulated from the subordinate's influence." Id. (quoting Griffin v. Washington Convention Ctr., 142 F.3d 1308, 1310 (D.C. Cir. 1998); cf. Holbrook v. Reno, 196 F.3d 255, 160-61 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (evidence of supervisor's discriminatory remarks not evidence of discrimination where record did not indicate that supervisor had input in disciplinary decision); Hall v. Giant Food, 174 F.3d 1074, 1079-80 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (evidence of supervisor's discriminatory remarks not probative of discrimination where the decisionmaker "made an independent assessment" of the plaintiff's conduct)). The Court found itself unable to determine, based on the record before it, that Mr. Newman was "insulated" from Mr. Wyatt's influence. Id. at *22.

Defendant's Motion for Partial Reconsideration challenges this conclusion, asserting that in each instance, Mr. Wyatt did not "participate in and influence" Mr. Newman's disciplinary decisions, but rather Mr. Newman "made an independent assessment" of Plaintiff's conduct that broke the causal connection between Mr. Wyatt's input and the disciplinary actions. See generally Def.'s Mot. As a result, Defendant argues, the Court erred in denying Defendant's motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's unlawful termination claim.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Defendant does not extensively discuss the legal grounds for its Motion, including only a brief footnote stating that the Court has "'broad discretion' under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) to hear the University's motion for reconsideration of the Court's interlocutory order." Def.'s Mot. at 1 n.1. Defendant's reliance on Rule 54(b) appears to be correct because the Court's February 25, 2008 Memorandum Opinion and accompanying Order only dismissed Plaintiff's claims as to Mr. Wyatt, and thus constituted an interlocutory--rather than final--decision under Rule 54(b). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b); Larue v. United States, Civ. A. No. 06-61 (CKK), 2007 WL 2071672, at *1 (D.D.C. July 13, 2007) ("without express direction for the entry of judgment on particular claims under [Rule 54(b)], court action which terminates fewer than all claims in a case is considered an interlocutory rather than a final decision and subject to revision at any time . . . .") (emphasis in original) (citing Lewis v. United States, 290 F. Supp. 2d 1, 3 (D.D.C. 2003); Hill v. Henderson, 195 F.3d 671, 672 (D.C. Cir. 1999)).

The Court has broad discretion to hear a motion for reconsideration brought under Rule 54(b): "Unlike Rule 60(b) which contains a reasonableness provision, Rule 54(b) allows a court to reconsider its interlocutory decisions 'at any time' prior to a final judgment." Lewis, 290 F. Supp. 2d at 3 (quoting Rule 54(b)). The standard for determining whether or not to grant a motion to reconsider brought under Rule 54(b) is the "as justice requires" standard espoused in Cobell v. Norton, 355 F. Supp. 2d 531, 539 (D.D.C. 2005), which requires "determining, within the Court's discretion, whether reconsideration is necessary under the relevant circumstances." Id. See also Singh v. George Washington University, 383 F. Supp. 2d 99, 101 (D.D.C. 2005). Considerations a court may take into account under the "as justice requires" standard include whether the court "patently" misunderstood the parties, made a decision beyond the adversarial issues presented, made an error in failing to consider controlling decisions or data, or whether a controlling or significant change in the law has occurred. See Singh, 383 F. Supp. 2dat 101. The party seeking reconsideration bears the burden of proving that some harm would accompany a denial of the motion to reconsider; "[i]n order for justice to require reconsideration, logically, it must be the case that, some sort of 'injustice' will result if reconsideration is refused. That is, the movant must demonstrate that some harm, legal or at least tangible, would flow from a denial of reconsideration." Cobell, 355 F. Supp. 2d at 540.

Cobell also suggests that even if justice does not "require" reconsideration of an interlocutory ruling, a decision to reconsider is nonetheless within the court's discretion: "[E]ven if the appropriate legal standard does not indicate that reconsideration is warranted, the Court may nevertheless elect to grant a motion for reconsideration if there are other good reasons for doing so." Id. However, the efficient administration of justice requires that a court at the very least have good reason to reconsider an issue which has already been litigated by the parties. "The district court's discretion to reconsider a non-final ruling is [] limited by the law of the case doctrine and 'subject to the caveat that where litigants have once battled for the court's decision, they should neither be required, nor without good reason permitted, to battle for it again."' Singh, 383 F. Supp. 2d at 101 (quoting In re Ski Train Fire in Kaprun, Austria, ...


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