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Stephen H. Graves v. District of Columbia

November 29, 2011

STEPHEN H. GRAVES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Stephen H. Graves ("Graves") brings this employment discrimination action against Defendant, the District of Columbia (the "District"), under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), and § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Section 1981"), claiming that he was subjected to a racially hostile work environment during the course of his two-decade career with the District's Fire and Emergency Services Department. The action is now in the pretrial stage of litigation and there is a single motion before the Court: the District's [38] Motion in Limine. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, the relevant authorities, and the record as a whole, the motion shall be GRANTED-IN-PART and HELD-IN-ABEYANCE-IN-PART.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

Graves, who self-identifies as an individual of "mixed race," was formerly employed by the District's Fire and Emergency Services Department. Over the course of his two-decade career, which extended from September 5, 1985 through February 12, 2006, he held a variety of positions and worked at a number of locations. In this action, Graves contends that he was subjected to a racially hostile work environment throughout his career.

During the course of discovery, Graves identified a total of eighty-one separate incidents as the component acts comprising the alleged hostile work environment at issue. See Pl.'s Resps. to Interrogs., ECF No. [24-1], ¶ 12; Pl.'s Suppl. Resps. to Interrogs., ECF No. [24-2], ¶ 12. According to Graves, the first contributing incident occurred within days of his hiring, on or about September 19, 1985, and the final contributing incident occurred shortly before the termination of his employment, on or about September 18, 2005. The eighty-one incidents he has identified are of a wide variety and cut a broad swath: some involve physical violence; others involve facially discriminatory comments by subordinates, co-workers, and supervisors; and still others involve allegedly punitive assignments or unjustified disciplinary actions. Together, they implicate literally dozens of actors working at various locations.

Graves commenced this action on January 22, 2007. See Compl., ECF No. [1]. Following the conclusion of discovery, the District filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which focused in large part on the timeliness of Graves' suit. See Def. District of Columbia's Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. [20]. The Court denied the District's motion on April 14, 2011. See Graves v. District of Columbia, 777 F. Supp. 2d 109 (D.D.C. 2011). In so doing, the Court highlighted several deficiencies in the District's approach. Most importantly, "nearly all of the arguments tendered by the District in support of its motion [were] premised, at least to some degree, on the erroneous assumption that Graves intend[ed] to pursue individual claims of discrimination for each of the employment-related incidents identified in his Complaint." Id. at 111. However, Graves "made it clear that he only intends to pursue two factually coextensive hostile work environment claims in this action, one arising under Title VII and a second arising under Section 1981, and he expressly disavow[ed] an intention to pursue individual claims of discrimination for each separate incident contributing to the allegedly hostile work environment." Id. "As a result, the vast majority of the District's motion [spoke] to claims that simply are not at issue in this action." Id. Similarly problematic, of the "eighty-one incidents that collectively comprise the hostile work environment allegedly suffered by Graves during his employment, only a handful receive[d] even passing mention in the District's moving papers," which left "altogether unaddressed over seventy [] incidents that Graves identified as part of his hostile work environment claim during the course of discovery." Id. "[H]aving failed to account for all or even a majority of these incidents, the District's motion [did] not speak to the totality of the hostile work environment allegedly suffered by Graves." Id. In short, the District's Motion for Summary Judgment was woefully inadequate to challenge the sufficiency of Graves' hostile work environment claims.

Upon the resolution of the District's Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court and the parties proceeded to the pretrial stage of litigation. In order to "narrow the evidentiary issues at trial," the Court authorized the parties to file motions in limine. Pretrial Scheduling and Procedures Order (Aug. 18, 2011), ECF No. [37], at 6. The District filed the instant Motion in Limine on October 7, 2011. Graves filed his opposition on November 3, 2011. The District filed its reply on November 21, 2011.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Although neither the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor the Federal Rules of Evidence expressly contemplate motions in limine, the practice of allowing such motions has developed over time "pursuant to the district court's inherent authority to manage the course of trials." Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n.4 (1984). Consistent with the historical origins of the practice, motions in limine are "designed to narrow the evidentiary issues for trial and to eliminate unnecessary trial interruptions." Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ., 913 F.2d 1064, 1070 (3d Cir. 1990). Broadly speaking, the Federal Rules of Evidence permit the admission of "relevant evidence"-that is, evidence that "has any tendency to make a fact [of consequence] more or less probable than it would be without the evidence," FED. R. EVID. 401*fn2 -provided it is not otherwise excluded by the Rules, the Constitution of the United States, or an Act of Congress, FED. R. EVID. 402, and its probative value is not "substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence," FED. R. EVID. 403.

In light of their limited purpose, motions in limine "should not be used to resolve factual disputes," which remains the "function of a motion for summary judgment, with its accompanying and crucial procedural safeguards." C & E Servs., Inc. v. Ashland Inc., 539 F. Supp. 2d 316, 323 (D.D.C. 2008); see also Dunn ex rel. Albery v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 264 F.R.D. 266, 274 (E.D. Mich. 2009) ("[M]otions in limine are meant to deal with discrete evidentiary issues related to trial, and are not another excuse to file dispositive motions disguised as motions in limine.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In other words, "[f]actual questions should not be resolved through motions in limine," Goldman v. Healthcare Mgmt. Sys., Inc., 559 F. Supp. 2d 853, 871 (W.D. Mich. 2008) (citation omitted), nor is a motion in limine a "vehicle for a party to ask the Court to weigh the sufficiency of the evidence," Bowers v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 563 F. Supp. 2d 508, 532 (D.N.J. 2008). Rather, parties should target their arguments to demonstrating why certain items or categories of evidence should (or should not) be introduced at trial, and direct the trial judge to specific evidence in the record that would favor or disfavor the introduction of those particular items or categories of evidence. U.S. ex rel. El-Amin v. George Washington Univ., 533 F. Supp. 2d 12, 19 (D.D.C. 2008). In short, motions in limine are a means for arguing why "evidence should or should not, for evidentiary reasons, be introduced at trial." Williams v. Johnson, 747 F. Supp. 2d 10, 18 (D.D.C. 2010) (emphasis in original).

In deference to their familiarity with the details of the case and greater experience in evidentiary matters, trial judges are afforded broad discretion in rendering evidentiary rulings, a discretion which extends to assessing the probative value of the proffered evidence and weighing any factors against admissibility. Sprint/United Mgmt. Co. v. Mendelsohn, 552 U.S. 379, 384 (2008). The trial judge's discretion extends not only to the substantive evidentiary ruling, but also to the threshold question of whether a motion in limine presents an evidentiary issue that is appropriate for ruling in advance of trial. United States v. Valencia, 826 F.2d 169, 172 (2d Cir. 1987); accord Rosemann v. Roto-Die, Inc., 377 F.3d 897, 902 (8th Cir. 2004); United States v. Layton, 720 F.2d 548, 553 (9th Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1069 (1984), and overruled on other grounds by United States v. W.R. Grace, 526 F.3d 499 (9th Cir. 2008). The trial judge has the "discretion to rule in limine or to await developments at trial before ruling." Stephen A. Saltzburg et al., FEDERAL RULES OF EVIDENCE MANUAL § 103.02[13] (9th ed. 2006). "[I]n some instances it is best to defer rulings until trial, [when] decisions can be better informed by the context, foundation, and relevance of the contested evidence within the framework of the trial as a whole." Casares v. Bernal, 790 F. Supp. 2d 769, 775 (N.D. Ill. 2011) (citation omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Through its [38] Motion in Limine, the District asks the Court to preclude Graves from introducing evidence at trial concerning a total of forty-four of the eighty-one component acts that he originally identified as supporting his hostile work environment claims in the course of discovery. Of these forty-four acts, Graves represents that he will not seek to introduce evidence concerning a total of twenty-eight. See infra Part III.A. As for the sixteen acts that still remain at issue, the Court shall require Graves to make an offer of proof demonstrating that there is a factual basis for the trier of fact to infer that the incidents were motivated by a discriminatory animus and are part of the same hostile work environment. See infra Part III.B.

A. Graves Has Conceded the District's Motion as to Twenty-Eight Component Acts

The District's Motion in Limine asks the Court to preclude Graves from introducing evidence at trial concerning a total of forty-four component acts that he originally identified as supporting his hostile work environment claims in the course of discovery. See Def.'s Mem. at 5-9. In opposition, Graves represents that he will not introduce evidence as to twenty-eight of the acts challenged by the District. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 2-3. Based on this explicit concession, the Court shall GRANT the District's [38] Motion in Limine as conceded with respect to the following twenty-eight acts:*fn3

(1) Incident No. 9 - March 1, 1987;

(2) Incident No. 15 - Approx. 1988;

(3) Incident No. 17 - Nov. 1989-2005;

(4) Incident No. 23 - May 5, 1991;

(5) Incident No. 24 - July 4, 1992;

(6) Incident No. 25 - July 7, 1993;

(7) Incident No. 27 - Mar. 2, 1994;

(8) Incident No. 29 - May 19, 1994;

(9) Incident No. 30 - Feb. 12, 1995;

(10) Incident No. 31 - Approx. 1995;

(11) Incident No. 32 - Apr. 2, 1995;

(12) Incident No. 33 - Dec. 31, 1995;

(13) Incident No. 36 - July 12, 1997;

(14) Incident No. 38 - Jan. 7, 1998;

(15) Incident No. 40 - Feb. 7, 1998;

(16) Incident No. 41 - May 24, 1998;

(17) Incident No. 42 - Nov. 7, 1998;

(18) Incident No. 44 - June 1, 1999;

(19) Incident No. 45 - Sept. 10, 1999;

(20) Incident No. 51 - Aug. 2000;

(21) Incident No. 53 - Apr. ...


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