UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
July 2, 2012
CHRISTINA CONYERS WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
ROBERT JOHNSON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge
(July 2, 2012)
Following a three-day trial, a jury in this Court found that Defendant, the District of Columbia, retaliated against Plaintiff Christina Conyers Williams in violation of the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act (the "DC-WPA") and awarded Plaintiff $300,000 in damages. Defendant responded by filing a  Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, in the Alternative, for a New Trial ("Motion for Judgment"), contending that it is entitled to relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) because the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support the jury's findings that Plaintiff (1) made a protected disclosure and (2) was constructively discharged. Upon a searching review of the parties' submissions, the relevant authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court concludes that the evidence was legally sufficient to sustain the jury's verdict.*fn1 Accordingly, Defendant's Motion for Judgment shall be DENIED. The Court shall allow judgment on the verdict.
The Court assumes familiarity with its prior opinions in this action, which set forth in detail the history of the case.*fn2 In addition, although the pending motion is contested, the parties' disagreement over the factual support for the jury's verdict is confined to discrete pockets, obviating in large part the need for specific references to the record. The Court will therefore reference the record primarily when highlighting particularly pertinent evidence that a reasonable jury could credit, but it shall do so largely when addressing the merits of the parties' arguments. See infra Part III.
Plaintiff was formerly employed as Chief of the Center of Research Evaluation and Grants for the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration (the "APRA"), a component of the District of Columbia Department of Health. In April 2005, Plaintiff was assigned responsibility for the implementation of the APRA's Client Information System ("ACIS") software, which was intended to allow staff members to access and track information about the APRA's clients. On February 14, 2006, Plaintiff and Robert Johnson ("Johnson")-the Senior Deputy Director of the APRA and Plaintiff's supervisor-attended a routine oversight hearing before the District of Columbia Council ("Council") Committee on Health. During the course of the hearing, Councilmember David A. Catania posed several questions regarding the as a Matter of Law or, in the Alternative, for a New Trial, ECF No.  ("Def.'s Reply"). In an exercise of its discretion, the Court finds that hearing oral argument on Defendant's motion would not be of assistance in rendering a decision. See LCvR 7(f). implementation of the ACIS software. Johnson beckoned Plaintiff to approach the witness table and respond to Councilmember Catania's questions, whereupon Plaintiff provided approximately ten minutes of videotaped testimony about the implementation of the ACIS software. See generally Pl.'s Trial Ex. 13 (Excerpts of Tr. of Hr'g Before Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Health), ECF No. [204-3] ("2/14/06 Hr'g Tr.").
By Plaintiff's account, a concerted campaign of harassment and retaliation against her began immediately on the heels of her testimony before the Council. At trial, she testified that Johnson and his Chief of Staff, David Anthony ("Anthony"), subjected her to a series of adverse actions, including, but not limited to: repeatedly threatening to terminate her employment; orchestrating an administrative investigation into her residency status; subjecting her to false accusations, impossible demands, and open hostility; and stripping her of responsibilities, staff, and resources. See, e.g.,Tr. of Jury Trial Before the Hon. Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, U.S.D.J. (Nov. 17, 2011), ECF No.  ("11/17/11 Tr."), at 16-23, 38-42, 46-55, 58-61, 64, 110-11; see also infra Part III.B. Plaintiff resigned in June 2007 after accepting a position with the United States Public Health Service.
The trial in this case began on November 16, 2011. By then, Johnson and Anthony were sued only in their official capacities, leaving the District of Columbia, for all practical purposes, as the sole defendant. Plaintiff proceeded to trial on eleven claims under the DC-WPA, ten based on discrete acts of alleged retaliation, including Plaintiff's alleged constructive discharge, and the eleventh based on an alleged retaliatory hostile work environment. See Pl.'s Am. Stmt. of Claims, ECF No. . After Plaintiff rested her case, Defendant made an oral motion for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). See 11/17/11 Tr. at 199-208. At that point, the Court dismissed one claim, which concerned Plaintiff's allegation that she was denied a parking lot access card, and took the remainder of Defendant's motion under advisement. See id. at 207-08; see also Min. Order (Nov. 18, 2011). Defendant orally renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of all the evidence. See Tr. of Jury Trial Before the Hon. Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, U.S.D.J. (Nov. 21, 2011), ECF No. , at 10. The Court again took the motion under advisement, see id., and the ten remaining claims were submitted to the jury. On November 21, 2011, the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff's favor on all ten claims and awarded her damages in the amount of $300,000. See Verdict Form, ECF No. . Defendant's pending motion for relief under Rule 50(b) followed.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) provides that, once a jury has rendered its verdict, the verdict loser "may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial." FED. R. CIV. P. 50(b). Relief under Rule 50(b) is "highly disfavored," Boodoo v. Cary, 21 F.3d 1157, 1161 (D.C. Cir. 1994), and appropriate only "if the court finds that the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain the verdict," Ortiz v. Jordan, __ U.S. __, 131 S. Ct. 884, 891-92 (2011). If the court finds the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain the jury's verdict, then it may "direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law" in favor of the verdict loser or "order a new trial." FED. R. CIV. P. 50(b)(2), (b)(3). If, however, the district court finds that the evidence was legally sufficient to sustain the jury's verdict, then it must "allow judgment on the verdict." FED. R. CIV. P. 50(b)(1).
In this context, the central question "is whether there was sufficient evidence upon which the jury could base a verdict in [the prevailing party's] favor." Scott v. District of Columbia, 101 F.3d 748, 752 (D.C. Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1231 (1997).
The evidence in support of the verdict must "be more than merely colorable; it must [be] significantly probative." Richardson by Richardson v. Richardson-Merrell, Inc., 857 F.2d 823, 829 (D.C. Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 882 (1989). However, because the fundamental function of the jury is "to select, from among conflicting inferences and conclusions, that which it finds most reasonable," Metrocare v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., 679 F.2d 922, 924 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (citation omitted), "the court cannot substitute its view for that of the jury, and can assess neither the credibility nor weight of the evidence," Scott, 101 F.3d at 753. The jury's verdict must stand "unless the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are so one-sided that reasonable men and women could not disagree." Id. at 752.
Invoking Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), Defendant asserts that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law or a new trial because the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support the jury's findings that Plaintiff (1) made a protected disclosure and (2) was constructively discharged. Because the Court concludes that the evidence was legally sufficient to sustain the jury's findings on both accounts, the Court shall allow judgment on the verdict.
A. Sufficient Evidence Supported the Jury's Finding that Plaintiff Made a Protected Disclosure
The DC-WPA prohibits retaliation based on an employee's "protected disclosure," D.C. CODE § 1-615.53(a),*fn3 a term that is statutorily defined as:
[A]ny disclosure of information, not specifically prohibited by statute, by an employee to a supervisor or a public body that the employee reasonably believes evidences:
(A) Gross mismanagement;
(B) Gross misuse or waste of public resources or funds;
(C) Abuse of authority in connection with the administration of a public program or the execution of a public contract;
(D) A violation of a federal, state, or local law, rule, or regulation, or of a term of contract between the District government and a District government contractor which is not of a merely technical or minimal nature; or
(E) A substantial and specific danger to the public health and safety.
Id. § 1-615.52(a)(6). In this regard, the question for the fact-finder is whether a "disinterested observer with knowledge of the essential facts known to and readily ascertainable by the employee [could] reasonably conclude that the actions of the government evidence" the circumstances delineated in D.C. CODE § 1-615.52(a)(6)(A)-(E). Zirkle v. District of Columbia, 830 A.2d 1250, 1259-60 (D.C. 2003) (citation omitted). Before trial, the parties agreed to jury instructions tracking this language, see Revised Proposed Jury Instructions, ECF No. , at 5, 8, and the Court charged the jury accordingly.*fn4 In addition, the verdict form included the following special interrogatory: "Do you find that Plaintiff's testimony before the District of Columbia Council in February 2006 included or constituted a protected disclosure?" Verdict Form at 1. The jury answered the question in the affirmative. Id.
Defendant contends that no reasonable juror could conclude that
Plaintiff made a protected disclosure through her testimony before the
Council on February 14, 2006. See Def.'s Mem. at 8-12. However,
evidence that a reasonable jury could credit showed that: (i) by the
time Plaintiff testified before the Council, implementation of the
ACIS software was already several months behind schedule despite
significant financial expenditures; (ii) Plaintiff testified that the
ACIS software was nonetheless at the time largely limited to
collecting basic demographic data,
could not collect meaningful assessment data about the APRA's clients,
did not implement the National Outcome Measures called for by the
federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and
would not be accessible to certain external providers until November
2006; and (iii) at least some of the information conveyed by Plaintiff
to the Council either contradicted, or was omitted from, the APRA's
official written responses to the Council's questions.*fn5
See, e.g., 2/14/06 Hr'g Tr. at 9-10, 19; Pl.'s Trial Ex. 26
(FY 05 Department of Health Oversight Questions & Resps.), ECF No.
[204-5] ("2/14/06 Hr'g Resps."), at 14-15, 18. Whether a disinterested
observer could reasonably conclude that the facts described by
Plaintiff before the Council evidenced gross mismanagement, gross
misuse of public funds, an abuse of authority in the administration of
a public program, etc., see D.C. CODE §
1-615.52(a)(6)(A)-(D), presents the sort of reasonableness inquiry
typically entrusted to the jury. Cf. Act-Up!/Portland
v. Bagley, 988 F.2d 868, 874 (9th Cir. 1993) ("[O]ur common law
tradition . . . since time immemorial has considered the
reasonableness of human conduct to be a quintessential jury
question.") (Norris, J., dissenting); Buettner v. Arch Coal Sales,
Co., Inc., 216 F.3d 707, 714 (8th Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 531 U.S.
1077 (2001). Considering Plaintiff's testimony before the Council in
its context and entirety, and affording Plaintiff the benefit of all
reasonable inferences, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to
conclude that Plaintiff reasonably believed that the information she
conveyed to the Council evidenced one or more of the circumstances
delineated in D.C. CODE §
Defendant faults Plaintiff because her "description at trial of her protected disclosure [purportedly] d[id] not match what she actually disclosed." Def.'s Mem. at 8. At trial, Plaintiff testified on direct examination as follows:
Q. . . . . [W]ith respect to the testimony before the council, what was the point of the disclosure that you were making to the council?
A. What I was making to the council was that Softscape could not do the job that it was set out to do. The high plans for this particular company to come in and put a technology system in did not meet the standards of what was expected. And when I got it online in June of 2005 -- up until June of 2005 to February [of 2006] where the council hearing -- we could get nothing but basic demographics. And that was a lot of money poured into a company that didn't do anything.
11/17/11 Tr. at 12. Plucking this single statement from the record, Defendant intimates that it somehow reflects a complete and binding description of what Plaintiff claims was her protected disclosure in this case. See Def.'s Mem. at 8-10. But Plaintiff was not asked "point blank what it was that [she] believed she had disclosed during her Council testimony," id. at 9, she was asked to provide the basic "point," or essential thrust, of her testimony. 11/17/11 Tr. at 12. No legal principle required Plaintiff to regurgitate her Council testimony with exactitude at trial. Plaintiff's videotaped testimony was entered into evidence, accompanied by a transcript, putting the jury in a solid position to assess the reasonableness of Plaintiff's belief. Regardless, Plaintiff's description of the "point" of her Council testimony was sufficiently consistent with the actual substance of her testimony to permit a reasonable jury to infer that Plaintiff reasonably believed that the information she conveyed to the Council fell within the ambit of D.C. CODE §
Defendant next contends that Plaintiff's testimony before the Council was tantamount to "no disclosure at all" because "Plaintiff only disclosed facts to the Council that Councilmember Catania already knew." Def.'s Mem. at 10. As this Court has previously observed, there is support for Defendant's position that an employee's statements do not qualify as a protected disclosure "if the statements conveyed only information that was already known to the person to whom the information is reported." Williams v. Johnson, 701 F. Supp. 2d 1, 15 (D.D.C. 2010) (citing Wilburn v. District of Columbia, 957 A.2d 921, 925-26 (D.C. 2008)); see also Williams v. District of Columbia, 9 A.3d 484, 489-90 (D.C. 2010). However, in tendering this argument, Defendant appears to be laboring under the misapprehension that Councilmember Catania's knowledge is controlling, presumably on the basis that Councilmember Catania presided over the hearing and was the most vocal member of the Committee on Health with respect to the ACIS software. But Councilmember Catania was not the only participant in the hearing.*fn6 The question submitted for the jury's consideration was whether Plaintiff's testimony before the Committee on Health as a whole involved a protected disclosure, and in answering this question Councilmember Catania's state of mind cannot be dispositive. But even assuming, arguendo, that it were, the jury could reasonably infer from Councilmember Catania's detailed questioning during the hearing-including a series of specific questions about the current status of the APRA's efforts to implement the ACIS software and the anticipated timeline for its completion-that he was unaware of important aspects of Plaintiff's testimony. See 2/14/06 Hr'g Tr.
Finally, Defendant posits that Plaintiff cannot rely on any discrepancies between her draft responses to the Council's questions and the APRA's official submission because (1) "Plaintiff did not tell the Council that the written responses did not match the drafts she and her staff allegedly had prepared," (2) "Plaintiff did not testify at trial that she believed her protected disclosure included that the written responses did not match the earlier drafts," and (3) "Plaintiff failed to provide sufficient evidence at trial from which a reasonable juror could even have concluded that there were any material changes to the written draft responses that Plaintiff allegedly prepared." Def.'s Mem. at 11-12. The first prong of this argument fails because no legal principle required Plaintiff to literally tell the Council that her written responses had been altered. The second prong of the argument fails for reasons already discussed: Defendant misconstrues Plaintiff's testimony; Plaintiff was not obligated to regurgitate her Council testimony at trial; and Plaintiff's description of the essential thrust of her Council testimony was sufficiently consistent with the actual substance of her testimony. The third prong of the argument fails because there was, in fact, sufficient evidence to permit the jury to conclude that at least some of the information conveyed by Plaintiff to the Council either contradicted, or was omitted from, the APRA's official written responses. See, e.g., 2/14/06 Hr'g Tr. at 9-10, 19; 2/14/06 Hr'g Resps. at 14-15, 18.
Taking into account the totality of the record, there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding that Plaintiff made a protected disclosure to the Council. Because the evidence presented at trial was not "so one-sided that reasonable men and women could not disagree," Scott, 101 F.3d at 752, the jury's verdict must stand.
B. Sufficient Evidence Supported the Jury's Finding that Plaintiff Was
A constructive discharge occurs when an employer deliberately makes working conditions "intolerable." Arthur Young & Co. v. Sutherland, 631 A.2d 354, 362 (D.C. 1993). Working conditions "rise to the requisite level of intolerableness if they 'would lead a reasonable person to resign.'" Id. (quoting Atl. Richfield Co. v. District of Columbia Comm'n on Human Rights, 515 A.2d 1095, 1101 (D.C. 1986)). Before trial, the parties agreed to a jury instruction tracking this language, see Revised Proposed Jury Instructions at 16, and the Court charged the jury accordingly.*fn7
Defendant contends that no reasonable juror could find that Plaintiff's working conditions were so intolerable that her resignation qualified as a fitting response. See Def.'s Mem. at 12-14. However, evidence that a reasonable jury could credit showed that Plaintiff suffered, inter alia: (i) repeated threats of termination; (ii) an administrative investigation and hearing concerning her residency status; (iii) false accusations, impossible demands, and open hostility; (iv) a marked deterioration in her relationship with her supervisor; (v) the removal of significant job responsibilities; (vi) the reduction of staff and denial of resources; (vii) multiple moves to less desirable offices; (viii) being singled out as "not a team player"; (ix) exclusion from staff meetings and the inaccessibility of supervisors; (x) the foreclosure of her career goals and aspirations; and (xi) one occasion of undesired physical contact. See, e.g., 11/16/11 Tr. at 11; 11/17/11 Tr. at 16-23, 38-42, 46-55, 58-61, 64, 110-11, 141-44. How a reasonable person would have reacted to these conditions presents a quintessential jury question. Cf. Mendoza v. Borden, Inc., 195 F.3d 1238, 1270 (11th Cir. 1999); United States v. Kelly, 748 F.2d 691, 698 (D.C. Cir. 1984). Affording Plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences, there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding that Plaintiff's working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would be led to resign.
Defendant next contends that no reasonable juror could find in Plaintiff's favor on her constructive discharge claim because Plaintiff was offered, and declined, a detail assignment in November 2006. See Def.'s Mem. at 16-17. But evidence that a reasonable jury could credit showed that the detail offered to Plaintiff required a distinct skillset and would have constituted a significant departure from Plaintiff's firmly held career goals and aspirations. See 11/16/11 Tr. at 11; 11/17/11 Tr. at 118-19. There was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Plaintiff's working conditions remained intolerable despite her decision to decline a temporary position for which she had no experience or professional interest.
Finally, Defendant contends that no reasonable juror could find that Plaintiff was constructively discharged when she resigned in June 2007 because the agents behind her purportedly intolerable working conditions-Johnson and Anthony-had left the APRA by January 2007.*fn8 See Def.'s Mem. at 17-19. Despite this temporal gap, a reasonable jury still could have concluded that Plaintiff was constructively discharged when she resigned in June 2007.*fn9 Evidence that a reasonable jury could credit showed that: (i) Plaintiff had reason to believe that her working conditions might improve upon the appointment of her new supervisor-in particular, that her job responsibilities would be restored and the harm caused by Johnson and Anthony remediated; (ii) Plaintiff's new supervisor did not offer a prompt answer as to what Plaintiff's role would be going forward; (iii) Plaintiff, a single mother, was seeking alternative employment as early as October 2006 to no immediate avail; (iv) it was not until April 2007, when Plaintiff's new supervisor informed her that her responsibilities would not be restored and that she would instead be transferred to a different position, that Plaintiff's realization that her working conditions would not improve fully crystallized. See 11/17/11 Tr. at 59, 62-64, 110-11. This was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Plaintiff's "working conditions had not sufficiently changed to preclude a constructive discharge claim," Wallace v. City of San Diego, 479 F.3d 616, 627-28 (9th Cir. 2007), notwithstanding the earlier departures of Johnson and Anthony. Cf. McKelvey v. Sec'y of U.S. Army, 450 F. App'x 532, 536 (6th Cir. 2011).
Considering the record as a whole, there was sufficient evidence for the jury's verdict that Plaintiff was constructively discharged. The evidence presented at trial was not "so one-sided that reasonable men and women could not disagree." Scott, 101 F.3d at 752. Therefore, the jury's verdict must stand.
For the reasons set forth above, the Court concludes that there was a legally sufficient basis for the jury to find that Plaintiff (1) made a protected disclosure and (2) was constructively discharged. Accordingly, Defendant's Motion for Judgment shall be DENIED. The Court shall allow judgment on the verdict.