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Frazier Caudle, et al v. District of Columbia

August 19, 2011

FRAZIER CAUDLE, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

In June and July of 2010, a three-week jury trial was held in this case. The jury returned a verdict for plaintiffs Frazier Caudle, Nikeith Goins, William James, Sholanda Miller, and Donald Smalls, concluding that the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") had retaliated against plaintiffs in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The District now moves for judgment as a matter of law, a new trial, and remittitur of the jury's award of damages to four of the five plaintiffs [#297]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the Court concludes that the motion must be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

In the summer of 2006, the five plaintiffs were members of the MPD First District Focus Mission Unit ("FMU"), a specialized plainclothes unit composed of "productive" patrol officers who "graduated to" FMU duty. See Trial Tr. 165--66, 169, June 15, 2010 (test. of Capt. Ralph McLean). Goins was part of the FMU's auto theft section; the other plaintiffs were part of its vice unit. After Lieutenant Ronald Wilkins took charge of the FMU, plaintiffs, who are African American, came to feel that they were being treated differently from their Caucasian colleagues. They believed that Wilkins, who is Caucasian, was discriminating against them because of their race. See, e.g., Trial Tr. 111, June 28, 2010. After a failed attempt to meet with the First District Commander, Diane Groomes, about Wilkins's behavior, Caudle, James, Miller, and Smalls enlisted the help of Caudle's fiancee, an attorney, in drafting an anonymous letter to Groomes expressing their concerns about Wilkins. See Trial Tr. 22--23, June 15, 2010; Trial Tr. 124--25, June 30, 2010. The letter was sent to Groomes on June 16, 2006. See Pls.' Opp'n Ex. 20 (unsigned letter to Diane Groomes, June 16, 2006). Goins, who was not involved in the production of the unsigned letter, complained orally to Wilkins about Wilkins's conduct on numerous occasions. Trial Tr. 113, June 28, 2010.

On June 25, Officer Chanel Howard, also a member of the FMU, sent an email to Groomes expressing her belief that Caudle, James, Miller, and Smalls were behind the anonymous letter. Trial Tr. 17--18, June 21, 2010; Trial Tr. 23--24, June 22, 2010. Wilkins likewise speculated that those officers were responsible for the letter. Trial Tr. 28--30, June 24, 2010. Shortly after receiving the letter, Groomes called a meeting of all FMU officers, at which she "explained to them that [she] was in receipt of a letter of complaint and went over parts of what the complaint was." Trial Tr. 19, June 22, 2010. After discussing the complaint, Groomes asked the FMU officers whether "they could work together as a unit." Trial Tr. 21, June 22, 2010. During the meeting, many of the FMU officers spoke; according to plaintiffs, the other officers appeared to know who was behind the unsigned complaint, and many officers "t[ook] shots at" plaintiffs. Trial Tr. 130, June 30, 2010.

Soon thereafter, Groomes decided to require the FMU officers to submit applications to remain in the unit, an apparently unprecedented step that she described as motivated by performance concerns. Trial Tr. 24--25, June 22, 2010. Caudle, James, Smalls, and Goins each submitted an application to remain in the FMU. Trial Tr. 51, June 15, 2010; Trial Tr. 115, June 28, 2010; Trial Tr. 34, 134, June 30, 2010.

Plaintiffs were concerned that the reapplication process was a ruse designed to allow their removal from the unit because of their complaints about Wilkins. While the applications were pending, Caudle, James, Miller, and Smalls, who had for some time patrolled together in an unmarked car, were forced to split up and ride with other officers. Trial Tr. 44--45, June 15, 2010; Trial Tr. 32--33, 131, June 30, 2010. They were also excluded from certain FMU operations. Trial Tr. 42, June 15, 2010; Trial Tr. 131--33, June 30, 2010. Believing these changes to be retaliatory, all five plaintiffs, along with Greg Philpotts, another FMU officer, drafted (and signed) a second written complaint, which they sent to the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice on August 24, 2006. See Pls.' Opp'n Ex. 29 (August 24, 2006 written complaint).

When the reapplication process was complete, each plaintiff's application was denied, and each was replaced by an officer from the patrol unit. Trial Tr. 41, 139--40, June 30, 2010. Plaintiffs, who had been praised by their supervising sergeants as effective and capable officers, see, e.g., Trial Tr. 206--09, June 24, 2010, were devastated. See, e.g., Trial Tr. 120, June 28, 2010. Caudle, who had previously been named FMU Officer of the Year, was sent back to the patrol unit, which he found "embarrassing and humiliating." Trial Tr. 41, June 30, 2010. James, Smalls, and Goins were assigned to a newly created "Intel" unit, of which they were the only members. Trial Tr. 143--44, June 30, 2010. The Intel unit was eventually dissolved, and James, Smalls, and Goins were returned to patrol positions. Trial Tr. 92, June 15, 2010. Miller, who had previously requested a transfer to the patrol day shift to allow her to care for her child, Trial Tr. 44, June 21, 2010, was instead assigned to the patrol evening shift. Trial Tr. 74, June 21, 2010; Trial Tr. 121, June 22, 2010.

Believing all of these events to constitute retaliation for their complaints of discrimination, plaintiffs filed this action against the District in February 2008. In June and July of 2010, a jury heard eleven days of testimony. The jury found for plaintiffs, awarding Caudle and Goins $200,000 each, James and Smalls $250,000 each, and Miller no damages.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law Under Rule 50

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, "[i]f a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue, the court may . . . grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against the party." FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a)(1)(B). Because, however, "a judgment as a matter of law intrudes upon the rightful province of the jury, it is highly disfavored." Boodoo v. Cary, 21 F.3d 1157, 1161 (D.C. Cir. 1994); accord Breeden v. Novartis Pharm. Corp., 2011 WL 2652432, at *8 (D.C. Cir. July 8, 2011). Accordingly, the Court's task in ruling on such a motion "is limited to evaluating whether [the non-movant] proffered 'sufficient evidence upon which a jury could properly base a verdict' for" the non-movant. Boodoo, 21 F.3d at 1161 (quoting Richardson v. Richardson-Merrell, Inc., 857 F.2d 823, 828 (D.C. Cir. 1988)) (emphasis omitted). The Court "neither assesses witness credibility nor weighs evidence." Id. (citing Coburn v. Pan Am. World Airways, Inc., 711 F.2d 339, 342 (D.C. Cir. 1983)). If a reasonable jury could have found for the non-movant, the motion must be denied. See Breeden, 2011 WL 2652432, at *8 (citing Conseil Alain Aboudaram, S.A. v. de Groote, 460 F.3d 46, 50 (D.C. Cir. 2006)).

B. Motion for a New Trial Under Rule 59

Rule 59 provides that, after a jury trial, "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." FED. R. CIV. P. 59(a)(1)(A). Under this standard, "[t]he decision to grant or deny such a motion lies within the sound discretion of the court." In re Lorazepam & Clorazepate Antitrust Litig., 467 F. Supp. 2d 74, 87 (D.D.C. 2006) (citing Grogan v. Gen. Maint. Co., 763 F.2d 444, 448 (D.C. Cir. 1985); Machesney v. Larry Bruni, M.D., P.C., 905 F. Supp. 1122, 1130 (D.D.C. 1995)). And, to protect the province of the jury, "such a motion should be granted only when the court is convinced that the jury verdict was a 'seriously erroneous result' and where denial of the motion will result in a 'clear miscarriage of justice.'" Id. (quoting Warren v. Thompson, 224 F.R.D. 236, 239 (D.D.C. 2004)). "[M]inor evidentiary errors" will not warrant a new trial. See id.

C. Motion for Remittitur

"In reviewing the actual amount of a jury's award, [the Court's] task is limited and a reluctance to interfere is [its] touchstone." Carter v. Duncan-Huggins, Ltd., 727 F.2d 1225, 1238 (D.C. Cir. 1984). Therefore, a jury's award will be reduced only where "(1) the verdict is beyond all reason, so as to shock the conscience, or (2) the verdict is so inordinately large as to obviously exceed the maximum limit of a reasonable range within which the jury may properly operate."

Peyton v. DiMario, 287 F.3d 1121, 1126 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (citing Jeffries v. Potomac Dev. Corp., 822 F.2d 87, 96 (D.C. Cir. 1987); Williams v. Steuart Motor Co., 494 F.2d 1074, 1085 (D.C. Cir. 1974)). And "[a] court must be especially hesitant to disturb a jury's determination of damages in cases involving intangible and non-economic injuries." Langevine v. District of Columbia, 106 F.3d 1018, 1024 (D.C. Cir. 1997)(citing Ruiz v. Gonzalez Caraballo, 929 F.2d 31, 34 (1st Cir. 1991)). The burden of establishing that the jury's award was excessive rests with the party challenging it. See Carter, 727 F.2d at 1239.

III. ANALYSIS

A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

The District first moves for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that plaintiffs failed to present evidence sufficient to establish any of the three elements of a Title VII retaliation claim: protected activity, materially adverse action, and a causal connection between the two. Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for J. as a Matter of Law, New Trial, and Remittitur ("Def.'s Mem.") at 10; see Wiley v. Glassman, 511 F.3d 151, 155 (D.C. Cir. 2007); Hussain v. Nicholson, 435 F.3d 359, 366 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Stewart v. Evans, 275 F.3d 1126, 1134 (D.C. Cir. 2002). The Court will consider each element in turn.

1. Protected Activity

Title VII protects two types of activity: opposition activity (opposing "any practice made an unlawful employment practice by" Title VII) and participation activity (making a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII). 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a); see also Crawford v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson Cnty., 555 U.S. 271, -, 129 S. Ct. 846, 850 (2009). Here, plaintiffs contend that their trial evidence established at least four different protected activities: "(a) complaining of discrimination by the June 16, 2006 letter complaint; (b) orally complaining of race-based disparate treatment; (c) submitting [the] August 24, 2006 written complaint of discrimination and retaliation; and (d) filing formal charges of discrimination in the fall of 2006." Pls.' Opp'n at 10.

To begin with, the unsigned June 16 letter sent to Groomes by Caudle, James, Smalls, and Miller clearly constituted protected activity: the letter expressly complained of racially motivated disparate treatment, see Pls.' Opp'n Ex. 20 (unsigned letter to Diane Groomes, June 16, 2006), and "Title VII protects informal complaints such as letters." Mansfield v. Billington, 432 F. Supp. 2d 64, 73 n.3 (D.D.C. 2006). The District contends that the letter cannot be protected because Groomes never learned who wrote it, Def.'s Mem. at 13, but an employer's knowledge of an employee's protected activity does not impact whether that activity is protected; rather, employer knowledge is properly considered as part of the causal-connection inquiry. See, e.g., Mazloum v. District of Columbia, 442 F. Supp. 2d 1, 13 (D.D.C. 2006). Thus, the Court will address this argument below, when it discusses the causal-connection element. See infra section III.A.3.a.*fn1

Likewise, the jury had a sufficient evidentiary basis to conclude that Goins (who was not involved in the drafting of the June 16 letter) engaged in protected activity. Goins testified at trial that he complained regularly about Wilkins's "unfair treatment" directly to Wilkins. See Trial Tr. 113, June 28, 2010 ("Whenever I felt unfair treatment, I would speak up all the time."). The District points out that, although Goins complained of "unfair treatment," he never referred expressly to racial bias while doing so. See Trial Tr. 38--39, June 29, 2010. And the District rightly observes that, to be protected by Title VII, a "complaint must in some way allege unlawful discrimination." Broderick v. Donaldson, 437 F.3d 1226, 1232 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (emphasis added). But no "magic words" are required, id.; rather, "the communication of a complaint of unlawful discrimination . . . may be inferred or implied from the surrounding facts." Mazloum, 442 F. Supp. 2d at 13 (quoting Carter-Obayuwana v. Howard Univ., 764 A.2d 779, 790 (D.C. 2001)) (omission in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, Goins testified repeatedly that the context and content of his complaints made their nature clear. See, e.g., Trial Tr. 38, June 29, 2010 ("I complained to the lieutenant. I mean, I made it well known. I might not have said to my race [sic], but, believe me, . . . it was clear in what I was saying."). The jury could have credited this testimony and concluded that Wilkins was aware of the nature of Goins's complaints.*fn2 Moreover, it is undisputed that Goins joined the other four plaintiffs in submitting the August 24 written complaint to the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice. See Pls.' Opp'n Ex. 29 (August 24, 2006 written complaint) at 8. And it is clear that the August 24 complaint was protected by Title VII.*fn3 Accordingly, the jury's conclusion that Goins, like the other plaintiffs, engaged in protected activity is supported by the record.*fn4

2. Materially Adverse Action

The second element of a Title VII retaliation claim is materially adverse action. A materially adverse action is one that "well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68 (2006) (quoting Rochon v. Gonzales, 438 F.3d 1211, 1219 (D.C. Cir. 2006)) (internal quotation mark omitted). This standard requires the Court, or a juror, to ask "whether the objective 'reasonable worker' would have been dissuaded from making [or supporting] a discrimination complaint." Baloch v. Kempthorne, 550 F.3d 1191, 1199 n.5 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Burlington N., 548 U.S. at 68). Whether any given act would have that effect "will often depend upon the particular circumstances. Context matters." Burlington N., 548 U.S. at 69. For that reason, the Court will consider the reorganization of the FMU (and the denial of Caudle's, James's, Smalls's, and Goins's applications) separately from the denial of Miller's transfer request.

a. FMU Reorganization

Plaintiffs contend that each of the three steps in the FMU reorganization constituted a separate materially adverse action: the reapplication requirement, the denial of plaintiffs' applications, and plaintiffs' subsequent transfers to the patrol and intelligence units. Whether that is true, however, the Court need not determine; a reasonable jury, considering all of these steps together, could have concluded that each plaintiff experienced materially adverse action.

There is ample support in the trial record for the proposition that the FMU was a exceptional, desirable assignment that provided professional opportunities not otherwise available to First District MPD officers. Captain Ralph McLean, who had supervisory authority over the First District FMU, testified that "productive" patrol officers might earn a position with the FMU, where they would generally have more chances to make arrests and go to court than were available in patrol. Trial Tr. 169--70, June 15, 2010. Further, officers had more opportunities in the FMU to earn overtime pay than they did in either patrol or the Intel unit. Trial Tr. 20--21, June 29, 2010. For these reasons, among others, patrol officers aspired to FMU positions. See, e.g., Trial Tr. 8--9, June 30, 2010. Consequently, Caudle, who was removed from the FMU and returned to a patrol position, experienced diminished responsibility, professional opportunities, prestige, and job satisfaction. These changes are sufficient to allow a reasonable juror to conclude that he experienced materially adverse action. See Forkkio v. Powell, 306 F.3d 1127, 1131 (D.C. Cir. 2002) ("'[R]eassignment with significantly different responsibilities . . .' generally indicates an adverse action." (quoting Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998))); cf. Medina v. District of Columbia, 517 F. Supp. 2d 272, 289 (D.D.C. 2007) (holding that "[d]enying an [MPD officer] a transfer back into a specialized division like [the Office of Internal Affairs] in which he has expertise might well dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting his charge of discrimination").*fn5

The same is true as to James, Smalls, and Goins, who were assigned to the newly created Intel unit (of which they were the only members). Trial Tr. 143--44, June 30, 2010. The Intel unit lacked a defined portfolio and was arguably redundant with MPD's central Intelligence Division. Trial Tr. 80--81, June 15, 2010 (test. of William James) (describing the MPD's "citywide Intel" division); Trial Tr. 115, June 22, 2010 (test. of Diane Groomes) (acknowledging that the Intel unit had "no written plan or definition"); Trial Tr. 32, 34, June 28, 2010 (test. of Cmdr. David Kamperin) (acknowledging the concern that the Intel unit "was a duplication of services"). Unlike their FMU counterparts, the Intel officers did not enjoy access to their own department vehicle, and spent the majority of their time at their desks. Trial Tr. 82, June 15, 2010; Trial Tr. 118, June 22, 2010. The Intel officers did not participate in the field activities (observation posts, arrest teams, etc.) that were common during FMU duty. Trial Tr. 85, June 15, 2010. And they had fewer opportunities to earn overtime pay. Trial Tr. 85, June 15, 2010; see Mentzer v. Lanier, 677 F. Supp. 2d 242, 252 (D.D.C. 2010) (holding that a police officer's loss of "opportunities for overtime" can contribute to a finding of material adversity). The jury thus had ample reason to conclude that James, Smalls, and Goins had "significantly diminished responsibilities," Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 365 (D.C. Cir. 2007), after their transfer to the Intel unit. Accordingly, even if that transfer formally constituted a "lateral" reassignment, the jury still had a sufficient basis to conclude that the transfer was materially adverse. See id. at 364 (noting that lateral transfers can constitute adverse action); Stewart v. Ashcroft, 352 F.3d 422, 426 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (same).*fn6

In sum, the cumulative effect of the FMU reorganization was to remove Caudle, James, Smalls, and Goins from an elite unit in which they thrived and place them in positions with less responsibility and fewer opportunities for compensation and advancement. On this record, the jury's determination that plaintiffs experienced materially adverse action was eminently reasonable. See Forkkio, 306 F.3d at 1131; see also Czekalski, 475 F.3d at 365 ("Whether a particular reassignment of duties constitutes an adverse action for purposes of Title VII is generally a jury question. The court may not take that question away from the jury if a reasonable juror could find that the reassignment left the ...


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