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Howard University v. Shirelette Wilkins

June 30, 2011

HOWARD UNIVERSITY, APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE,
v.
SHIRELETTE WILKINS, APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT.



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB763-05) (Hon. Thomas J. Motley, Trial Judge) (Hon. Patricia A. Broderick, Motions Judge)

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

Argued September 9, 2010

Before FISHER, Associate Judge, REID,*fn1 Associate Judge, Retired, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

These cross-appeals pertain to claims for retaliation and defamation filed by Shirelette Wilkins, appellee/cross-appellant, against her employer, Howard University ("Howard"), appellant/cross-appellee. A jury rendered a verdict in favor of Ms. Wilkins on her retaliation claim, awarding her $1.00 in compensatory damages. In addition, the jury awarded her $42,677.50 in punitive damages after "find[ing] by clear and convincing evidence that [Howard's] actions in terminating [her] were undertaken recklessly, maliciously, wantonly, and/or in reckless disregard to Ms. Wilkins' rights under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ["the DCHRA"]." Howard appeals the trial court's (the Honorable Thomas J. Motley's) denial of its post-trial renewed motion for judgment and new trial on the ground that the trial court erred by failing to reduce the jury's punitive damages award (Appeal No. 09-CV-318).

Prior to trial, the trial court (the Honorable Patricia A. Broderick) "denied with prejudice" Ms. Wilkins' defamation claim. Ms. Wilkins challenges the trial court's ruling, including its conclusion that Howard was entitled to a qualified privilege with respect to the alleged defamatory statements (Appeal No. 09-CV-319). The trial court (Judge Motley)*fn2 also denied Ms. Wilkins' post-trial motion for equitable relief. Ms. Wilkins contends that the court erred because she was entitled to reinstatement based on the jury's verdict on her retaliation claim (Appeal No. 09-CV-544).

We discern neither trial court error nor trial court abuse of discretion, and thus, we affirm the trial court's judgments for the reasons stated below.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

Ms. Wilkins filed a lawsuit against Howard on January 31, 2005. She alleged two causes of action - defamation and retaliation under the DCHRA. She claimed that Howard retaliated against her by terminating her employment because of her prior sexual harassment claim. She also asserted that Howard defamed her by declaring that she "engaged in 'theft of grant funds' and/or 'serious misconduct.'" She maintained that Howard's "conduct is outrageous, malicious, wanton, reckless, and/or in willful disregard for Plaintiff's rights under law." She sought compensatory and punitive damages, as well as prejudgment interest and reasonable attorneys' fees.

Prior to trial, Howard lodged a motion for summary judgment on July 3, 2006. In response, the trial court (Judge Broderick) "denied with prejudice" Ms. Wilkins' defamation claim. Judge Broderick ruled, in part, that Howard's "statements were . . . qualifiedly privileged," and that "[q]ualified privilege is a defense to what would otherwise constitute defamation, provided that the statements were made in good faith and without malice." In addition, Judge Broderick stated:

Where authorized staff members of the Human Resources Department convened . . . to investigate the stated discrepancies in the Paper Direct invoice, the [c]court finds that these authorized Hospital personnel had a common interest in knowing whether or not [Ms. Wilkins] had, in fact, billed [Howard] for supplies that were directly sent to her home . . . . The [c]court finds that only authorized staff members of [Howard] were privy to the information contained in the investigation and [Ms. Wilkins'] file. No parties outside of [Howard's] authorized staff were privy to the information . .

[T]he [c]court finds that [Howard's] statements were privileged where they were made in apparent good faith[,] [w]ithout reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publication, and in the common interest of the . . . Hospital.

However, the court allowed Ms. Wilkins' retaliation claim to proceed to trial, because of "disputed issues of material fact."

The background for Ms. Wilkins' complaint, which we now summarize, is reflected in testimony presented and documents introduced at the trial by both parties. Ms. Wilkins began her employment with Howard in 1990 when she was hired "as a secretary in the department of medicine" at Howard University Hospital ("the Hospital"). In March 2002, Ms. Wilkins fell, suffering injuries to her right hand and arm, as well as other parts of her body. She was treated by a neurosurgeon, Dr. Gary Dennis, and ordered not to work due to a 100 % disability. Dr. Dennis reported that Ms. Wilkins was unable to work from the time of her injury to June 1, 2004, because of "bilateral carpel (sic) tunnel syndrome, which require[d] further treatment and rehabilitation."

About one year before her injury, Ms. Wilkins had filed a February 2001 lawsuit against Howard, alleging a DCHRA sexual harassment violation, due to the alleged actions of her supervisor. Trial on this 2001 lawsuit began in January 2003, and eventually, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Howard.

Six months later, an employee and labor relations specialist at the Hospital, Repunzelle Johnson, sent Ms. Wilkins a letter (July 1, 2003), which stated: "According to our records, there is no documentation supporting your continued need to be out. As such, Management is requesting that you report back to work. Your failure to respond within ten (10) days or contact this office may be taken as a sign of your resignation." Ms. Johnson's letter of July 9, 2003 to Ms. Wilkins, in response to a voice mail message from her, declared that the Hospital expected Ms. Wilkins to return to work on July 15, 2003, and that if she was unable to work, she "must provide medical documentation substantiating that on or before . . . July 15, 2003." Ms. Wilkins' July 14, 2003 letter to Ms. Johnson advised her that she (Ms. Wilkins) had an appointment with Dr. Dennis on July 18, 2003, and that she would obtain an updated medical report from him at that time. She also asserted that she did not intend to resign. Later, Ms. Wilkins provided the Hospital with a disability certificate from Dr. Dennis, dated July 18, 2003, which stated that she was "100% disabled and cannot perform duties."

According to Renee Joy Inman-Turner, director of human resources for the Hospital, and Randall McKinney, then administrative director for Howard's department of medicine,*fn3 Mr. McKinney learned that on June 27, 2003, Ms. Wilkins had ordered items from Paper Direct Company for delivery to her home and the items were "paid for, or invoiced to an account - that is a grant account out of the department of medicine." The amount of the invoice was $168.83 but some of the items were returned, leaving a balance of $88.93 due and owing.*fn4 Mr. McKinney called Paper Direct to make sure the invoice was correct, and contacted the chief of gastroenterology to determine whether purchase of the items had been authorized - they had not. He did not contact Ms. Wilkins about the invoice because she was on medical leave and he "just didn't feel like it was appropriate at that point."*fn5

However, on October 7, 2003, he recommended that Ms. Wilkins be terminated. A personnel recommendation form, dated October 6, 2003, stated: "Ms. Wilkins is being terminated due to theft of grant funds. See attached termination letter."

Although the personnel action form was prepared in October 2003, it was not sent to Ms. Wilkins at that time. Ms. Wilkins received the Personnel Recommendation Form on February 13, 2004, but the termination letter was not attached. Despite her repeated efforts from February to May 2004 to obtain a copy of the termination letter from the department of medicine or from the human resources office,*fn6 and Howard's promises that the letter would be sent to her, Ms. Wilkins never received a copy of the letter. Ms. Turner-Inman could not locate a copy of the termination letter.

In May 2004, Ms. Wilkins visited the University for the purpose of obtaining a copy of her termination letter.*fn7 Ms. Wilkins spoke by phone with Ms. Turner-Inman while she was at the University and asked why her phone calls had not been returned and why she was unable to obtain her termination recommendation letter. Ms. Wilkins claimed that Ms. Turner-Inman responded, "We don't like being sued."*fn8

Ms. Wilkins did not hear from Ms. Turner-Inman in June, July, or August. However, on September 20, 2004, Ms. Turner-Inman sent a letter to Ms. Wilkins informing her that she could not locate the termination letter, but she stated, in part: "[P]lease accept this letter as official notification of termination of employment with the Howard University Hospital, effective October 3, 2003. Your employment was terminated for serious misconduct." Ms. Wilkins responded to the September 20th letter on September 27, 2004. She recounted ...


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