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Williams v. Johnson

March 18, 2010

CHRISTINA CONYERS WILLIAMS PLAINTIFF,
v.
ROBERT JOHNSON, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, Christina Conyers Williams, brings this action against the District of Columbia, and her supervisors Robert Johnson, individually and as Senior Deputy Director of the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration ("APRA") of the District of Columbia Department of Health ("DOH"), and David Anthony, individually and as Chief of Staff to the Senior Deputy Director of APRA (collectively "Defendants"). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated her rights under the First Amendment and the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act ("WPA"), D.C. Code § 1-615.01 et seq., by retaliating against her for remarks made during testimony before the District of Columbia Council ("D.C. Council") and during a separate meeting with a D.C. Councilmember.

Presently pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants have filed a [68] Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that Plaintiff's remaining claims are without merit because Plaintiff's testimony before the D.C. Council does not constitute protected disclosures and Defendants had no knowledge that Plaintiff privately met with the individual Councilmember. Plaintiff in turn has filed a [72] Motion for Partial Summary judgment, in which she argues that Defendants are bound under the principles of collateral estoppel from relitigating at trial any claim that Plaintiff violated the District of Columbia Residency Preference Act. Upon a searching review of the parties' motions and responsive briefing, the attachments thereto, the relevant statutes and case law, and the record of this case as a whole, the Court GRANTS-IN-PART and DENIES-IN-PART Defendants' [68] Motion for Summary Judgment. Specifically, Defendants' motion is GRANTED with respect to Plaintiff's claims of retaliation in violation of the First Amendment and the WPA to the extent both are based on her private meeting with the D.C. Councilmember, but is DENIED with respect to Plaintiff's WPA claim to the extent it is premised on her testimony before the D.C. Council. As such, only Plaintiff's allegation in Count II of the First Amended Complaint that Defendants impermissibly retaliated against her in violation of the WPA based upon remarks made to the D.C. Council remains viable.*fn1 The Court shall also DENY Plaintiff's [72] Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, for the reasons set forth below. Plaintiff may re-raise any evidentiary issues relating to the charges against Plaintiff and the Office of Personnel's final decision, as may be appropriate, at the motions in limine stage.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

At all times relevant to this action, Plaintiff was employed as Chief of the Center of Research Evaluation and Grants for APRA. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 1, Docket No. [69].*fn2 Defendant Robert Johnson served as Senior Deputy Director of APRA and was Plaintiff's supervisor at DOH. Id. ¶ 2. Defendant David Anthony was Chief of Staff to Senior Deputy Director Johnson. Id. ¶ 3. In April of 2005, Plaintiff was assigned responsibility for the implementation of APRA's Client Information System ("ACIS") software. Id. ¶ 4. The ACIS software was intended to allow "all staff members [to] go online . . . [and] input information or . . . download information" about data collected from APRA's clients. Id. ¶ 4 (quoting Deposition of Christina Conyers Williams, attached as Ex. A to Defs.' Stmt., at 15:18-16:6).

1. Plaintiff's Testimony Before the D.C. Council Committee on Health

On February 14, 2006, Plaintiff and Defendant Johnson attended a routine oversight hearing before the D.C. Council Committee on Health ("Committee"), headed by Councilmember David Catania. Id. ¶ 5 & Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing). In advance of the hearing, APRA was required to submit written responses to a series of questions posed by the Committee, a portion of which focused on ACIS. Id. ¶¶ 6, 7 & Ex. D (DOH-APRA Responses to DOH Questions (FY 2005)). In particular, question number 17 asked for the status of the "installation and implementation"of the ACIS software. Id. ¶ 7 & Ex. D (DOH-APRA Responses to DOH Questions (FY 2005)) at p. 17. APRA's written response indicated in relevant part that ACIS phase 1.0 had been deployed in late June of 2005 and that APRA anticipated that ACIS phase 2.0 would be released in July 2006 with the release of ACIS phases 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 to follow in November of 2006, February of 2007, and May of 2007, respectively. Id. ¶ 8 & Ex. D (DOH-APRA Responses to DOH Questions (FY 2005)) at pp. 17-18. In addition, APRA indicated that it had spent $900,000 on ACIS as of the date of its written responses and that it anticipated spending an additional $1.4 million on the software in FY 2006 as well as another $800,000 in FY 2007. Id. ¶ 8 & Ex. D (DOH-APRA Responses to DOH Questions (FY 2005)) at pp. 17-18.

During the course of the February 14, 2006 hearing, Councilmember Catania asked several questions regarding the ACIS software. Id. ¶ 10 & Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing); see also Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. E (Transcript of selected portions of Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing).*fn3 He began the discussion by commenting that "the clock is ticking and a whole lot of money has been poured into this system [i.e., the ACIS software system] and we still don't have anything to show for it." Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 11. Councilmember Catania then asked Defendant Johnson to address the type of data that the ACIS software was capable of collecting; Defendant Johnson in turn indicated that Plaintiff should approach the witness table and respond to the Councilmember's questions regarding the ACIS software on APRA's behalf. Id. ¶ 12.

Plaintiff did so and subsequently provided approximately ten minutes of testimony in response to Councilmember Catania's questions about the ACIS software. See id. ¶¶ 12, 13 & Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:10:20-1:19:20. Plaintiff began her testimony by stating that she was the individual responsible for the ACIS software. Id. ¶ 14. Councilmember Catania then repeated his question about the type of data that was being collected by the ACIS software; Plaintiff testified that, to-date, the software was capable of collecting only "demographic data" - i.e., the gender and race of APRA's clients and the type of drugs that the clients were using. Id. ¶ 15; see also id., Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:13:10-1:13:30; Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. E (Transcript of selected portions of Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 9:17-10:1. Councilmember Catania responded: "I mean, this solicits a giant big whoop, I mean to have a computer system that tells me the gender, sex, and race that has cost taxpayers, let's see, in this fiscal year, $1.4 million and next year another $600,000, to say nothing of what we've invested so far in this system." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 27; see also Defs.' Stmt., Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:13:40-1:14:05.

After several minutes of additional discussion regarding the collection of data and the purpose of the ACIS software, Councilmember Catania asked Plaintiff when the ACIS software would be "up and functioning in every corner of APRA with every vendor that we utilize?" Defs.' Stmt., Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:17:53-1:18:13. Plaintiff responded that ACIS would be fully functional by "November 2006." Id. ¶ 16 & Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:18:13-15. Councilmember Catania responded by stating, "Oh good. That's a short period of time. . . . I hope that you are right because that is a very optimistic deadline." Id. ¶ 17 & Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:18:16-1:18:39. He further continued that if Plaintiff met that deadline, he would "personally recommend [her] promotion to whatever point and place in this government" she requested. Id. Defendants suggest that these comments by Councilmember Catania should be construed literally and taken as evidence that he was pleased with Plaintiff's testimony that the ACIS software would be in place by November 2006. See Defs.' MSJ at 11. Plaintiff disagrees, arguing that "Mr. Catania's tone of voice and body language" demonstrate that "he was not being complementary of plaintiff; he was being sarcastic." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 31. Having reviewed the video recording of the February 14, 2006 hearing, the Court finds that Councilmember Catania's comments are open to interpretation and that, drawing all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff's favor, a reasonable jury could conclude that Councilmember Catania's comments to Plaintiff were sarcastic in nature. Accordingly, in evaluating Defendants' motion for summary judgment, the Court proceeds with the understanding that Councilmember Catania did not intend his statements necessarily to be received in a complimentary nature.

The hearing then shifted to a discussion of another topic. Id. ¶ 17 & Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:18:20. When Councilmember Catania regained the microphone approximately ten minutes later, he once again expressed dissatisfaction with the slow progress being made with respect to the ACIS software implementation, particularly given the large amount of money being spent on the system. Id. ¶ 18 & Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:31:09-1:33:50. Councilmember Catania also noted that the written responses submitted by APRA in advance of the hearing indicated that - in contrast to Plaintiff's testimony - the "expected date of delivery" for a fully functioning ACIS system was July of 2006; in light of Plaintiff's testimony, however, Councilmember Catania stated that "we're going to go and move once again from the July deadline to the November '06 deadline, but then that is it." Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 43; see also Defs.' Stmt., Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:31:32-1:31:52. He concluded by warning that if I don't have a fully functioning ACIS system by November of '06, we're going to investigate how this supposed contract got let. This, what looks like a competitively bid contract, I don't see that being competitive. . . . if anyone is seriously thinking we're going to spend 3 million dollars on what could be an off-the-shelf system, they're nuts. . . . [T]his smells. . . . So I mean it, November '06, it better go nowhere near that 3 million dollar mark because if I find that these vendors have provided us claims that cannot be substantiated, I'll introduce them to the beauty of the False Claims Act. . . . Okay, so unless these vendors are prepared to go out of business, I suggest they get this system up and running and under this trumped up budget and they be quick about it.

Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 44-49; see also Defs.' Stmt., Ex. E (D.C. Office of Cable Television video recording of the Feb. 14, 2006 D.C. Council Committee on Health hearing) at 1:31:53-1:33:50.

2. Alleged Retaliatory Acts Taken by Defendants Immediately Following the D.C. Council Committee on Health Hearing

Plaintiff asserts - and Defendants do not dispute for purposes of this Memorandum Opinion - that "defendants began to harass [Plaintiff]" immediately following her testimony before the D.C. Council. Pl.'s Resp., Ex. D (Pl.'s Supplemented Answer to First Interrogatories) at p. 11; see also Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 19 & n.1 (indicating that although "Defendants dispute plaintiff's allegations that she was retaliated against or harassed, [] this dispute is not material for the purposes of [Defendants'] motion [for summary judgment]"). According to Plaintiff, while she had a "good working relationship" with Defendant Johnson prior to testifying at the February 14, 2006 hearing, "the relationship immediately underwent a complete change" directly following her testimony before the D.C. Council. Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 50-51. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Johnson held an unprecedented "debriefing" session the next day at work, during which he blamed Plaintiff "for doing a poor job of answering [Councilmember] Catania because she said the ACIS contract would not be ready until November 2006" and complained that her "testimony made APRA look like 'crooks' and made it appear [that] the agency was doing something wrong." Id. ¶¶ 53-55. Plaintiff further states that Defendant Johnson "threatened to hold [her] liable for the failures of the contract." Id. ¶ 56. According to Plaintiff, "[f]rom the debriefing forward, [Defendant] Johnson was hostile to plaintiff. He refused to speak with her other than a 'yes' or 'no.' He cancelled or postponed his 'one-on-one' supervisory sessions with her that previously were held regularly, every other week." Id. ¶ 57. In addition, Plaintiff contends that Defendant Johnson engaged in additional retaliatory and harassing conduct in the immediate days following the February 14, 2006 hearing and debriefing - specifically on February 22, 23, 24 and 26, 2006. Id. ¶ 58 ("Johnson aimed additional harassing conduct at plaintiff on February 22, 23, 24 and 26, 2006").

3. Plaintiff's Private Meeting with D.C. Councilmember Catania on March 8, 2006

Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff's husband arranged for her to have a private meeting with Councilmember Catania to discuss Defendants' alleged retaliation against Plaintiff based upon her testimony at the February 14, 2006 D.C. Council hearing. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 22. The meeting took place on March 8, 2006. See Defs.' Stmt., Ex. A (Excerpts from Dec. 22, 2008 Deposition of Christina Conyers Williams) (hereinafter "Williams Dep.") at 55:6-10 (indicating that meeting took place in "the first week of March"); id., Ex. F (Declaration of Tori Fernandez Whitney) (hereinafter, "Whitney Decl.") ¶ 9 (confirming that meeting took place on March 8, 2006). The only people present at the meeting were Plaintiff and her husband as well as Councilmember Catania and two of his staff members, specifically, Councilmember's special policy advisor Tori Fernandez Whitney and another unidentified member of the Councilmember's staff. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 23; see also Williams Dep. at 56:13-57:10. The parties discussed Defendants' alleged harassment of Plaintiff based on her testimony before the D.C. Council as well as various problems regarding the ACIS software. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 24.

4. Defendants' Knowledge of Plaintiff's March 8, 2006 Private Meeting with Councilmember Catania

Plaintiff admits that she did not tell anyone prior to the March 8, 2006 meeting that she intended to meet privately with Councilmember Catania. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 25; see also Williams Dep. at 56:2-5 ("Q. Did you discuss the fact that you were going to meet with City Councilman Cantania [sic] with anybody other than your husband? A. No."). Plaintiff also admits that neither she nor her husband discussed the meeting with anyone after it took place, explaining that "City Councilman Catania made it very clear . . . that the meeting was closed door and should not be discussed." Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 26; see also Williams Dep. 62:9-18. In particular, Plaintiff concedes that she never spoke with Defendant Johnson or Defendant Anthony about the March 8, 2006 meeting. Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 30. She further admits that no one from APRA was aware that she planned to meet with Councilmember Catania and that she never spoke about the March 8, 2006 meeting with anyone from APRA. See Williams Dep. at 63:7-8, 19-21 ("Q. No one from APRA knew about the meeting? A. No one. . . . . Q. Did anybody at APRA ever speak to you about the meeting? A. No.").

Defendants have also provided the declaration of Councilmember Catania's special policy advisor, Ms. Whitney, who avers that she did not reveal that the March 8, 2006 meeting had taken place to anyone at DOH or APRA nor did she discuss the meeting with anyone at DOH or APRA until after this lawsuit was filed. Defs.' Stmt. ¶¶ 27, 29; see also Whitney Decl. ¶¶ 10, 12. Ms. Whitney further states that she has "no personal knowledge that anyone at APRA was aware of the [March 8, 2006] conversation prior to the filing of this action." Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 29; see also id., Ex. G (Ms. Whitney's responses to Plaintiff's Interrogatories) at 3.*fn4

Finally, both Defendant Johnson and Defendant Anthony aver that they did not learn about the March 8, 2006 meeting until after the instant lawsuit was filed. See Defs.' Stmt. ¶¶ 35-36; see also id., Ex. B (Declaration of Robert Johnson) (hereinafter, "Johnson Decl.") ¶ 6; id., Ex. C (Declaration of David Anthony) (hereinafter, "Anthony Decl.") ¶ 6.

Based on this record, Plaintiff concedes that "she has no direct evidence that anyone at APRA knew about the meeting at the time" it occurred. Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 20. She maintains, however, that she has proffered sufficient "indirect evidence that the fact of the meeting and its agenda leaked from Councilman Catania's office" at some unspecified time after the meeting took place. Id. The Court does not agree. Plaintiff herself testified at deposition that she has no personal knowledge that anyone at APRA - including either Defendant Johnson or Defendant Anthony - knew of the March 8, 2006 meeting at anytime prior to the initiation of this lawsuit:

Q: No one from APRA knew about the meeting?

A: No one.

Q: Did anybody at APRA learn about the meeting?

A: I don't know because I never said anything to anybody and my husband didn't know APRA staff, so he never said anything. I just know on my part I never spoke about it again to nobody else.

Q: You have no reason to believe your ...


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