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Jean-Baptiste v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 18, 2013

CARMEN JEAN-BAPTISTE, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For CARMEN JEAN-BAPTISTE, Plaintiff: Abby Morrow Richardson, LEAD ATTORNEY, WIGGINS CHILDS QUINN & PANTAZIS, PLLC, Washington, DC; Timothy B. Fleming, LEAD ATTORNEY, WIGGINS, CHILDS, QUINN PANTAZIS, PLLC, Washington, DC; Daniel E. Arciniegas, Herman N. Johnson, Jr., Jon C. Goldfarb, Robert F. Childs, PRO HAC VICE, WIGGINS, CHILDS, QUINN & PANTAZIS, LLC, Birmingham, AL; Gary T. Brown, GARY T. BROWN & ASSOCIATES, Washington, DC.

For DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant: Alex Karpinski, LEAD ATTORNEY, Denise J. Baker, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL, Washington, DC.

OPINION

Royce C. Lamberth, Chief UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT Judge.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

Following a six-day trial in which the jury returned a verdict on all counts and a $3.5 million compensatory award for plaintiff Carmen Jean-Baptiste, the defendant District of Columbia (" the District" ) filed this Motion [188] for a New Trial, a New Trial on Damages or, in the Alternative, for Remittitur. Upon consideration of the motion, Jean-Baptiste's Opposition [194] thereto, the District's Reply [199], the entire record herein, and the applicable law, the Court will DENY the District's motion with respect to its request for a new trial or a new trial on damages and will GRANT the District's motion with respect to its request for remittitur. Jean-Baptiste will have twenty one days in which to decide whether to accept a reduced award of $350,000, which is the highest amount the jury tolerably could have awarded, or whether to proceed to a new trial on damages.

I. BACKGROUND

In late April or early May 2006, plaintiff Jean-Baptiste was hired as a lifeguard by the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation (" DPR" ). The parties disputed whether she was hired as a seasonal or year-round employee. Jean-Baptiste was assigned to the Takoma Pool and reported to Assistant Pool Manager Rodney Weaver. Jean-Baptiste alleged

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that Weaver sexually harassed her and that, after she reported the conduct, Weaver and the District retaliated against her and ultimately terminated her employment in mid-October 2006.

Jean-Baptiste sued the District alleging a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA), D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq. (Counts 1-2); deliberate indifference to her Fifth Amendment constitutional rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count 3); and retaliation in violation of Title VII, the DCHRA, § 1983, and the D.C. Whistleblower Act (" WPA" ), D.C. Code § § 1-615.51 et seq.) (Counts 4-7). Third Am. Compl. 12-17, July 5, 2007, ECF No. 51. This Court granted summary judgment for the District on the § 1983 claims and denied it with respect to the hostile work environment and retaliation claims under Title VII, the DCHRA, and the WPA. Mem. Op., Aug. 16, 2011, ECF No. 161; Order, Aug. 16, 2011, ECF No. 162. Jean-Baptiste's hostile work environment and retaliation claims proceeded to trial in August 2012.[1]

At trial, the jury heard testimony of a " culture of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination at Takoma," of a " boys-gone-wild culture" in the aquatics department, and, with respect to many of the male supervisors above Jean-Baptiste, " a boys club from the top down." Test. of Stacy Mills, Trial Tr. 42-48, Aug. 7, 2012. They also heard testimony about inadequate policies and practices of the District in responding to sexual harassment complaints.

Jean-Baptiste testified that Weaver started to sexually harass her as soon as she began working at Takoma. Specifically she stated that he told her he was interested in her, asked her to go with him to Atlantic City, and crudely and sexually propositioned her, specifically stating that he " wanted to get some of [her] pussy for [his] birthday." Trial Tr. 28-30, Aug. 6, 2012. He would also call her out of the pool while she was swimming and then stand before her with an erection, staring at her body and her vaginal area and licking his lips. Id. Finally, she stated that he would touch her hair. Id. Jean-Baptiste testified that she told him his conduct made her uncomfortable and asked him to stop, but that the conduct persisted, though for how long is unclear. Compare Test. of Carmen Jean-Baptiste, Trial Tr. 29-32, Aug. 6, 2012 (stating that the harassment occurred " daily" and " never stopped" ) with Test. of Carmen Jean-Baptiste, Trial Tr. 154-58, Aug. 6, 2012 (stating that the " earliest date of harm is May 1st, what I said and when he started, and the latest date of harm is June 2006" ) and Def.'s Ex. 88 (stating the same).

Jean-Baptiste verbally complained to Weaver's supervisors, and named six supervisors to whom she had brought her concerns. Id. at 35. Each supervisor said that he or she would look into the matter. Id. at 35-51. Jean-Baptiste testified that one supervisor, Solomon Robinson, required her to present her complaint in a meeting with Rodney Weaver, such that she had to confront her harasser. Test. of Carmen Jean-Baptiste, Trial Tr. 42-45, Aug. 6, 2012. Jean-Baptiste stated that, during this meeting, Weaver did not deny he had harassed her. Test. of Carmen

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Jean-Baptiste, Trial Tr. 45, Aug. 6, 2012 (" Rodney didn't say anything, and Solomon in return said, '[S]ince you didn't respond . . . everything she's telling me now is the truth.'" ); Test. of Solomon Robinson, Trial Tr. 129, Aug. 7, 2012 (" Rodney [said] 'Carmen, you know we play around.'" ). However, Mr. Robinson never investigated the complaint further or referred it to higher level supervisors or the EEO office. See id. at 129 (" You don't know DPR very much if you think the policy means [the sexual harassment complaint] goes up [the chain of command]. . . . You give the immediate supervisor an opportunity to address the issues." ); cf. Pl.'s Ex. 70 (" All managers and supervisors are responsible for . . . ensuring that complaints of [sexual harassment and retaliation] are promptly forwarded to the EEO Officer or Chief of Human Resources." ); Test. of Sean Link, Trial Tr. 107, Aug. 8, 2012 (responding affirmatively when asked whether, " [w]hen a supervisor receives a complaint, according to this, they're supposed to forward the complaint on to higher levels and also EEO, correct?" ). Instead, Mr. Robinson " left it in the hands of" Sean Link, Weaver's direct supervisor. Id. at 125. Sean Link, however, denied having been aware of the matter and does not appear to have investigated either. Test. of Sean Link, Trial Tr. 88, Aug. 8, 2012 (answering in the affirmative when asked whether it was his testimony that " during Ms. Baptiste's employment [he] never even heard of any complaint of sexual harassment against Rodney Weaver that she had made during her entire summer employment, correct?" ).

At least two individuals complained to management on Jean-Baptiste's behalf. Stacy Mills, a volunteer who was regularly at the Takoma pool, testified that she complained about sexual harassment by both Rodney Weaver and Robert Ford, another manager at the pool. She stated that Weaver sexually harassed staff and that she complained to Sylvia Gwathmey, the chief shop steward with the union, to deputy director Roslyn Johnson, to an executive of the mayor's office, and to a female attorney in the D.C. Attorney General's office. Trial Tr. 37-45, Aug. 6, 2012.

Additionally, after Jean-Baptiste complained to Margarita Cruz, an assistant manager at the pool, the two had a meeting with Rodney Weaver. Cruz testified that during the meeting, Weaver stroked Jean-Baptiste's hair and told Jean-Baptiste she was beautiful. Trial Tr. 40, Aug. 8, 2012. Later, during a meeting between Cruz, Weaver, Sean Link, and Robert Ford, Cruz reported that Jean-Baptiste had made a sexual harassment complaint to her against Weaver. Cruz testified that Robert Ford said he would not do anything about the complaint. After the men asked Cruz to leave the meeting, she overheard Robert Ford and Rodney Weaver joking about which one of them would " fuck" Jean-Baptiste first. Trial Tr., Aug. 8, 2012 at 43-46.[2]

Jean-Baptiste's was not the only complaint of sexual harassment at the Takoma pool during this period. Weaver had been accused of sexual harassment just one year before Jean-Baptiste was hired, and Jean-Baptiste presented evidence that the District conducted only a superficial " investigation" into the complaint. See Test. of Terrence Reddick, Trial Tr. 58-73, Aug. 7,

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2012. In describing that investigation, former EEO Officer Terrence Reddick testified that he never asked anyone at the pool whether they had witnessed sexual harassment, he simply collected written statements from employees and concluded that there was no evidence of sexual harassment. Id. at 71-72 (in responding to questions about whether he had asked employees if they witnessed sexual harassment, Mr. Reddick responded, " it's not my role . . . to investigate to that level" ). In fact, according to Margarita Cruz, Weaver and Robert Ford " coerced" her into writing a statement for that investigation in which she exaggerated complaints about the victim's work performance. Test. of Margarita Cruz, Trial Tr. 31-35, 53, Aug. 8, 2012.

To make matters worse, Margarita Cruz testified that she had been sexually harassed by Robert Ford. Test. of Margarita Cruz, Trial Tr. 27-31. Thus, one of the supervisors to whom Jean-Baptiste complained about sexual harassment had allegedly sexually harassed another supervisor to whom she also complained.

After Jean-Baptiste notified supervisors that Weaver was harassing her, she said that Weaver began to criticize her job performance, and to force her to sit in the lifeguard's chair for two and a half hours at a time, instead of the fifteen minutes recommended by the Red Cross. Id. at 42-49. She also stated that Weaver and Robert Ford threatened to have her transferred or fired if she didn't " listen to what [they] said." Id. at 52.

Weaver denied touching Jean-Baptiste's hair, standing before her with an erection, using the word " pussy," or making any other sexual or romantic advances toward Jean-Baptiste. Test. of Rodney Weaver, Trial Tr. 147-80, Aug. 8, 2012. Instead, Weaver complained that Jean-Baptiste would eat and wear sunglasses while in the lifeguard chair and that she would disappear from work. Id. at 147-56. He stated that he made note of Jean-Baptiste's conduct in a DPR log book; however, neither Weaver nor the District was able to produce this book. Test. of Rodney Weaver, Trial Tr. 20-21, Aug. 9, 2012. Finally, although Weaver acknowledged that he may have threatened to write up Jean-Baptiste, he denied threatening to send her home and said he made no formal recommendations to management about whether her employment should continue. He did, however, acknowledge recommending that she be transferred to another pool. Id. at 21-28; Test. of Rodney Weaver, Trial Tr. 167, Aug. 8, 2012.

In late September, Jean-Baptiste discovered that her name was not on a list of year-round DPR employees, despite her understanding that she had been hired for year-round employment. She approached several supervisors about the discrepancy. Test. of Carmen Jean-Baptiste, Trial Tr. 59, Aug. 6, 2012. At this time, she informed supervisor Roslyn Johnson about the sexual harassment and Johnson told her that she needed to put the complaint in writing and that she would be moved to another pool for the next two weeks. Id. at 60-61. Jean-Baptiste testified that she understood that DPR would examine its budget during this two week period, but that they would continue to employ her as a full-time employee afterwards. Id. at 68-69; but see Pl.'s Ex. 33, Email from Harold Houston to Carmen Jean-Baptiste (Sept. 29, 2006) (" At this point, we cannot promise anything in addition to the two week extension as the department is attempting to determine our ability to hire staff for our 2007 fiscal year." ). On October 14, 2006, Jean-Baptiste emailed three DPR supervisors informing them of the sexual harassment by Weaver and stating that she would be taking legal action. Pl.'s Ex. 5.

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On October 17, Jean-Baptiste reported to work and was told, with no reason given, that she no longer worked there. Test. of Carmen Jean-Baptiste, Trial Tr. 90-91, Aug. 6, 2012. The next day, Jean-Baptiste reapplied for a lifeguard position at the Takoma pool and took another lifeguard assessment. Jean-Baptiste failed two parts of the assessment but later expressed concerns about the way the assessment had been conducted. Id at 90-91, 101-02.; Pl.'s Ex. 39. She was not rehired as a lifeguard. No formal investigation of her sexual harassment charges seems to have been conducted prior to her departure. Jean-Baptiste filed an EEOC Charge of discrimination on November 1, 2006. Pl.'s Ex. 11.

Jean-Baptiste testified regarding the " trauma" and " uncertainty" of not having a permanent job after she was let go. She had two sons and went on food stamps, which she said was " not a good feeling" and that it made her feel like " less of a mother." Trial Tr. 125, Aug. 6, 2012. In response to how the sexual harassment and retaliation affected her, she said it " really . . . affected [her] deeply, in the sense [that she] had to go to . . . bed night after night and wake up day after day knowing that [she didn't] have an income or have a job to provide for [her] kids." Id. at 125. She said that it caused " stress and anxiety," that she couldn't sleep, felt sick to her stomach, gained about twenty five pounds, and had some hair loss. Id. at 125-26. " It had really tormented me," she said " that I went for help and I follow all the chain of command . . . and I didn't receive any help at all and no one came to my assistance . . . ." She testified that she felt withdrawn, " less of a woman," distant, and depressed, and said she spent less time with her children and didn't go out as much. Id. at 127. She reported taking up acupuncture at her temple. Id. at 127.

After a six-day trial, the jury returned a $3.5 million verdict for Jean-Baptiste on her hostile work environment and retaliation claims under Title VII and the DCHRA, and on her WPA claim. This verdict was limited to compensatory damages. The jury asked that a recommendation be included in the record and recommended that the District, among other things, " begin an EEO training program for all DPR managers," " rewrite DPR personnel policies to remove ambiguities about the EEO complaint and investigation processes," and " initiate a review of the actions, or lack of action, taken by all DPR employees and managers at the Takoma Pool and Aquatic Program" over the period during and immediately following Jean-Baptiste's employment. Verdict Form at 4, ECF No. 185.

In response, the District filed the instant motion for a new trial, a new trial on damages, or for remittitur. Ms. Baptiste filed a Motion, ECF No. 186, seeking $485,324.90 in attorneys' fees and litigation costs, plus interest. She also filed a Motion for Equitable Relief, ECF No. 187, seeking backpay from the date her discharge to the date of final judgment in this case, reinstatement into the position she would occupy absent retaliation, and other relief.[3] These motions have been stayed pending the Court's ruling on the motion for new trial. See Order, Nov. 8, 2012, ECF No. 196.

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II. DISCUSSION

A. New Trial Not Warranted


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