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Harris v. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 28, 2016



JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge

The poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “In one drop of water are found all the secrets of the oceans.” In this case, Plaintiff Anthony Harris contends that in sending one or two letters of complaint, he has exposed the secret and improper personnel practices of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, his former employer and the Defendant here. Such disclosure, he believes, precipitated his termination, in violation of both federal and D.C. law - namely, Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act, the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act, and the common law of wrongful discharge.

Plaintiff’s federal claims were dismissed in earlier stages of this litigation, and Defendant now moves for summary judgment on the remaining state causes of action. WASA maintains that Plaintiff was terminated for innocent and legitimate reasons and that he never even took family or medical leave. Agreeing with Defendant on both counts, the Court will grant its Motion and enter judgment on these two causes of action. Only Harris’s wrongful-termination claim stems the tide of WASA’s argument.

I. Background

A. Facts

Although courts consider the facts in the light most favorable to non-movants on motions for summary judgment, here there is no dispute as to the basic underlying events. WASA employed Harris as a Systems Operations Manager at the time our narrative unfolds. See Mot., Attach. 2 (Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute (SMF)), ¶ 1; Pl. Resp. to SMF, ¶ 1. He was responsible for, among other things, managing WASA’s computerized Maintenance Management System, known to agency employees as “Maximo.” See Mot., Attach. 3 (Declaration of Arthur R. Green, Jr.), Exh. 1 (Job Description).

In a January 2009 memo titled “Eliminated Positions, ” WASA identified Plaintiff’s position as one of several that “may be affected” during the upcoming fiscal year “due to technolog[ical] enhancements and realignment of functions.” Green Decl., Exh. 2 (Memorandum of Jan. 30, 2009) at 1. As it turned out, the Systems Operation Manager position was not eliminated that fiscal year, though the agency continued to designate it as a candidate for elimination in intra-agency correspondence concerning “Projected Eliminated Positions [for] Department of Maintenance Service” for fiscal years 2010 and 2011. See Green Decl., Exh. 3 (Memorandum of Jan. 22, 2010), id., Exh. 4 (Memorandum of Jan. 27, 2011). Harris nonetheless remained employed as Systems Operations Manager at the time each of these memoranda was written.

In early 2011, he sent letters to D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and City Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. complaining of fraud, waste, and abuse at WASA. See SMF, ¶ 6; Pl. Resp. to SMF, ¶ 6. In his paragraph-long letter to the Mayor - sent as an email bearing the subject heading “Economic Development” - Harris posed a series of “questions that pertain to jobs for citizens of the District” at WASA. See Opp., Attach. 8 (Jan. 12, 2011, Email from Plaintiff to Mayor Gray). He asked why “there are no DC residents able to participate in the flow of economical [sic] advancement” driven by “[o]ne of the most lucrative and profitable venues in the city . . . the Water and Wastewater facilities.” Id. He also asked why “the current management team at DCWater displaced the current workforce” and suggested that the Mayor “should investigate the activities” of WASA management. Id. Plaintiff later explained that these complaints were based on the statements of other employees and on his own views about WASA’s compensation and hiring practices. See SMF, ¶ 17; Mot., Attach. 4 (Declaration of Jocelyn R. Cuttino), Exh. 7 (Deposition of Anthony Harris) at 72:3-11. Harris was contacted by WASA to schedule a meeting to discuss the issues he raised in his email to the Mayor, but the agency later canceled their appointment and such a meeting never occurred. See Harris Dep. at 24:10-21.

In February 2011, Harris also sent a letter via courier to Councilmember Thomas, complaining that new hires at WASA were underqualified for their positions and that independent contractors were being hired improperly from other states. See Cuttino Decl., Exh. 8 (Letter from Plaintiff to Harry Thomas, Jr.). Rather than posing questions to Thomas, Plaintiff complained directly of “poor employment practices” and “nearly criminal acts that are happening.” Id. at 1. Although the substance of his complaints to Thomas mirrored the concerns raised in his email to the Mayor, Harris stated them with greater clarity in the three-page letter, citing examples of employee terminations he believed were improper and detailing other “irrational moves” WASA management had made. Id. at 1-3.

Eight months later, on October 6, 2011, Plaintiff took a few days’ leave, designating it as “annual leave” on his leave request form. See SMF, ¶ 10; Pl. Resp. to SMF, ¶ 10. On October 13, while Harris was still on leave, WASA sent him a notice informing him that his position was being abolished through a reduction in force (RIF) and that he would be terminated effective November 14. See Green Decl., Exh. 6 (RIF Notice). Harris was, indeed, terminated on that date. See Pl. SMF, ¶ 106.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed this suit in September of 2012, raising claims of common-law wrongful termination, as well as violations of the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act, Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act. See ECF No. 1 (Complaint). Shortly thereafter, Defendant moved to dismiss the Complaint. See ECF No. 6. In what became a recurrent practice of missed deadlines throughout this litigation, Harris failed to timely file an opposition to that motion to dismiss, so the Court granted the motion as conceded; later, after Harris explained his failure to file, the Court granted his motion for reconsideration. See ECF Nos. 8, 9, 12. Once it was fully briefed, the Court again granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss, this time on the merits. See ECF No. 16 (MTD Order). The Court ruled that Plaintiff had not sufficiently pled causation under Title VII or Section 1981, and it declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his remaining state-law claims. See ECF No. 17 (MTD Opinion) at 1. Harris appealed, and the D.C. Circuit reversed, holding that Plaintiff’s allegations could meet the causation requirements of his federal claims. See Harris v. D.C. Water and Sewer Auth., 791 F.3d 65 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

On remand, the parties informed the Court that parallel litigation on Harris’s state-law claims had been ongoing in the D.C. Superior Court, and that substantial discovery had been completed there. (Harris never explained why he had filed essentially the same case in both federal and state court.) As a result, the Court held the state-law claims in abeyance pending the parties’ decision on how to proceed in the Superior Court litigation. See Minute Order of September 2, 2015. WASA then moved for summary judgment on the Title VII and Section 1981 claims only. See ECF No. 24. When Harris once more failed to oppose Defendant’s motion, despite an extension of time, the Court granted it as conceded and entered judgment for WASA on the federal claims. See Minute Order of November 16, 2015.

Next, at a status conference, the parties agreed that they would like to proceed on the state-law claims before this Court. The Court acquiesced and permitted deposition testimony, affidavits, and declarations from the related Superior Court proceedings to be submitted as evidence in the parties’ briefing here. See Minute Order of November 30, 2015. WASA then moved for summary judgment on the remaining state-law claims, and Harris actually filed an opposition this time.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment may be granted if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006). A fact is “material” if it is capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895. A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007); Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895. “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion” by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

When a motion for summary judgment is under consideration, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255; see also Mastro v. PEPCO, 447 F.3d 843, 850 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Aka v. Wash. Hosp. Ctr., 156 F.3d 1284, 1288 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (en banc). On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must “eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363 (D.C. Cir. 2007). The nonmoving party’s opposition, however, must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits, declarations, or other competent evidence, setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). The nonmovant is required to provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find in its favor. See Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1242 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

III. Analysis

Before proceeding to the merits of the remaining state-law claims, the Court must first address two preliminary matters: whether it may exercise supplemental jurisdiction over those claims, and what is to become of the sole state-law cause of action not mentioned in either party’s briefs here. After passing through those antechambers, the Court then enters the main hall of the parties’ briefing - viz, the disputes over the D.C. WPA and FMLA claims.

A. Supplemental Jurisdiction

As previously explained, although Plaintiff originally sought relief for violations of both federal and state law, the former have since been dismissed, leaving only common-law wrongful discharge and violations of D.C.’s WPA and FMLA. See Compl., ¶¶ 35, 41. While this would typically divest the Court of jurisdiction, it may nevertheless exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law causes of action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

Federal district courts are given supplemental (or “pendent”) jurisdiction over state claims that “form part of the same case or controversy” as federal claims over which they have original jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a); see also Atchinson v. District of Columbia, 73 F.3d 418, 424 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (“The federal statute providing for supplemental jurisdiction over state-law claims allows a federal district court to retain supplemental jurisdiction over state-law claims even after dismissing all claims over which it has original jurisdiction.”). By the same token, federal courts “may decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over [such] claim[s] . . . if . . . the district court has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3). The decision of whether to exercise supplemental jurisdiction where a court has dismissed all federal claims is left to the court’s discretion as “pendent jurisdiction is a doctrine of discretion, not a plaintiff’s right.” United Mine Workers of America v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 726 (1966), quoted in Shekoyan v. Sibley Int’l, 409 F.3d 414, 423 (D.C. Cir. 2005). When deciding whether to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state claims, federal courts should consider “judicial economy, convenience, fairness, and comity.” Shekoyan, 409 F.3d at 424.

Here, these factors weigh in favor of retention of the case. First, the suit was filed in 2012, and during the intervening years, the Court has developed significant familiarity with the facts and legal issues presented. See Schuler v. PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP, 595 F.3d 370, 378 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (finding that district court appropriately retained pendent jurisdiction over state claims where it had “invested time and resources” in case). Second, the remaining state-law claims do not involve “unsettled issues of state law” or legal questions “that have never been addressed by the District of Columbia courts.” Fin. Gen. Bankshares, Inc. v. Metzger, 680 F.2d 768, 776-77 (D.C. Cir. 1982). Rather, they involve well-settled standards and statutes well known to this Court. Finally, the parties themselves assented to the Court’s exercise of pendent jurisdiction over the state causes of action at a status conference. See ECF No. 28 (Order of Nov. 30, 2015). As the Court ...

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