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Christina Conyers Williams v. Robert Johnson

July 2, 2012

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

(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 [204] 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.

I. BACKGROUND

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. [208] ("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. [210] ("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. [147]. 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. [212], 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. [194]. 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.

III. DISCUSSION

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 ...


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