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Furline v. Morrison

July 24, 2008

MARK FURLINE AND HOWARD UNIVERSITY, APPELLANTS/CROSS-APPELLEES,
v.
CYNTHIAL. MORRISON, APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT.



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (No. CA 7261-01) (Hon. Neal E. Kravitz, Trial Judge).

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

Argued December 19, 2006

Before GLICKMAN and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges, and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.

The District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA) prohibits employers from taking adverse personnel actions for discriminatory reasons or to retaliate for opposition to unlawful discrimination. The instant appeals require us to consider how these prohibitions apply where human resources personnel or other disinterested officials of an employer, who have no discriminatory or retaliatory ax to grind, decide to discipline an employee for legally permissible reasons on the biased recommendation of a low-level supervisor. We conclude that the issue turns on whether the supervisor's biased participation undermined the autonomy of the ultimate decisionmaking process. Where, as in this case, decisionmakers presented with a possibly biased recommendation conducted their own independent investigation, which included hearing from the employee, and did not rely on the supervisor in any material way, the resulting adverse personnel action cannot be said to have been taken by the employer for a prohibited reason, and therefore does not violate the DCHRA. Our conclusion necessitates reversal of the judgment for the employee that is challenged in this appeal.

I.

Cynthia Morrison, a forty-six-year-old registrar in the Emergency Care Area (ECA) of Howard University Hospital, was suspended without pay for five days in June 2001. The ostensible reason for her suspension was her absence from work without leave or justification after having been counseled and reprimanded for her prior unsatisfactory attendance. The five-day suspension was authorized by the applicable collective bargaining agreement and was imposed after a hearing conducted by the hospital's Office of Human Resources. Aggrieved by this disciplinary action, Morrison filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against Howard University and Mark Furline, one of three supervisors who proposed her suspension. Morrison alleged that she was the victim of employment discrimination in violation of the DCHRA. Her central claim, the focus of these appeals, is that Furline recommended her suspension to retaliate against her for lodging an age discrimination complaint against him, and also because of his discriminatory animus against older employees in his department. In addition, Morrison's complaint asserted a claim of hostile work environment.

The trial court granted partial summary judgment to the defendants on Morrison's age discrimination and hostile work environment claims. Regarding the former claim, the court ruled that Morrison had not made a prima facie showing that her suspension evinced intentional discrimination on the basis of age because she presented no evidence that any similarly situated younger employee was treated differently. As to the hostile work environment claim, the court ruled that the alleged harassment on which Morrison relied was largely unsubstantiated or not linked to age discrimination, and in any event was not severe and pervasive enough to alter the terms or conditions of Morrison's employment.

The court did not grant summary judgment on Morrison's retaliation claim, however, and that claim proceeded to trial. Defense motions for a directed verdict were denied and the jury found in Morrison's favor, awarding her $15,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The defendants' subsequent motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial also were denied.

The appeals of Furline and Howard University raise a number of challenges to the judgment against them on the retaliation claim, while Morrison's cross-appeal attacks only the grant of summary judgment on her age discrimination claim (and not the adverse ruling on her hostile work environment claim). As we find it unnecessary to reach or resolve most of the issues the parties raise, we set forth only those facts, established at trial, that are pertinent to the ground on which we rest our decision.

Morrison's Complaint Against Furline

Morrison started working as an ECA registrar at Howard University Hospital in 1983, but her age discrimination and retaliation claims arose after the hospital hired Mark Furline as an ECA supervisor and some thirteen new registrars in late 2000. Most of the new hires were in their twenties. Morrison and others perceived that Furline, who was one of three ECA supervisors, exhibited favoritism toward the younger registrars and hostility toward the older workers. Further roiling the workplace, rumors spread that the younger workers were being paid more than the older veterans, though in fact that was not so.

On March 16, 2001, a screen saver message was left on a computer in the registrars' work area asking why the younger registrars were (supposedly) better compensated than their older, more experienced colleagues. This message came to Furline's attention and he chose to respond with a screen saver message of his own, which he placed on a computer in a registration booth frequently used by Morrison. Furline wrote that the younger employees were being paid more because "they are younger, dependable, and more productive, that's why!" Witnesses testified that Furline told them he "would like to see the expression on Ms. Morrison's face when she sees this."

Morrison saw Furline's screen saver message the following day. Her facial expression is not reported, but she and other employees complained to Benjamin Zachariah, the hospital's Director of Business Operations. The specifics of Morrison's complaint to Zachariah are not entirely clear, but judging by its verdict, the jury found that she charged Furline and the hospital with age discrimination. Zachariah responded to the complaints by chastising Furline for leaving the screen saver message and directing him to apologize to the entire ECA staff, which Furline did, personally and in writing. There was no direct evidence at trial that Furline was informed of Morrison's complaint; Zachariah denied having told Furline who had complained about him, and Furline denied having learned that Morrison had done so. However, in finding that Furline's subsequent disciplinary actions against Morrison were retaliatory, the jury evidently inferred that he knew (or at least believed) she had ...


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