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Jeffries v. Sessions

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 11, 2018

TIMOTHY JEFFRIES, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          BERYL A. HOWELL CHIEF JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Timothy Jeffries, seeks relief from the grant of summary judgment against him and in favor of the defendant, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b)(2) and 62.1(a)(3), on his claims of race and gender employment discrimination and retaliation, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., arising primarily from his non-selection for seven positions for which he applied between 2011 and 2014, within the Bureau of Justice Assistance (“BJA”), a component of DOJ.[1] See Pl.'s Renewed Mot. For Relief From J. (“Pl.'s Renewed Mot.”), ECF No. 25; Jeffries v. Lynch, 217 F.Supp.3d 214, 219-20 (D.D.C. 2016).[2] This motion is predicated on a lengthy email, dated May 10, 2017, from the president of the plaintiff's union to plaintiff's counsel describing disturbing allegations made by an anonymous female BJA employee about long-standing sexual harassment by a male BJA Associate Deputy Director. Pl.'s Mot. For Relief From J. (“Pl.'s 1st Mot.”), Ex. 1, Email, dated May 10, 2017, from Marilyn Moses, President, AFSCME Local 2830 (“Union Email”), ECF No. 21-1. While the anonymous victim of this harassment “never went ‘head-to-head' against [the plaintiff] for any promotional position, ” Union Email at 2; id. at 5, and concededly has no direct knowledge about the plaintiff's non-selections, the plaintiff asserts that the allegations of sexual harassment against the victim, and possibly several other women described in the Union Email, constitutes new evidence, within the meaning of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(2), supporting his claims of race and gender discrimination and retaliation. The Court disagrees.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The factual background underlying the plaintiff's claims is fully set out in the prior Memorandum Opinion explaining the reasons for grant of summary judgment to the defendant and thus will not be repeated here. Jeffries, 217 F.Supp.3d at 220-25. Six months after the issuance of that Memorandum Opinion, while the plaintiff's appeal was pending, the plaintiff's counsel received the Union Email. See Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s 1st Mot. (“Def.'s 1st Opp'n”), at 1, ECF No. 22 (noting that plaintiff's “union representative sent this email on [plaintiff's] behalf, urging settlement, just eight business days after DOJ filed its motion for summary affirmance.”). By this time, according to the Union Email, the plaintiff had been promoted to a GS-14 position “but continues to pursue” his Title VII claims with “hopes that DOJ will settle with him.” Union Email at 1.

         As noted, the Union Email describes in detail serious allegations made anonymously by a current BJA employee, “Ms. A., ” about longstanding sexual harassment she suffered from the conduct of Edison Aponte, the Associate Deputy Director of the BJA Program Division. Id. at 2; Pl.'s 1st Mot. at 4. In addition to Ms. A., the Union Email describes allegations of sexual harassment and rape against Aponte made by a former BJA employee, with the initials S.C., id. at 2, 6; Aponte's “rumored” sexual liaison with another former BJA employee, with the initials A.A., id. at 2; and Aponte's inappropriate comments communicated to Ms. A. about other BJA female employees, including S.C., Esmeralda Womack, Tarasa Yates, and “OJJDP manager [] Kellie Dressler Blue, ” id. at 4, 5 (emphasis in original). These allegations concerning serial sexual harassment by a senior BJA manager were described in the Union Email as “indicia of a discriminatory culture that exists among BJA management with respect to promotions, ” id. at 2, such that “favoritism plays a role in promotional selections, and that managers such as Aponte, have deliberately subverted the merit protection system and its guarantees to serve their own personal agendas, ” id.; see also Id. (“[I]t illuminates that Aponte subverted the promotional process to achieve personal goals via a rigged promotional process.”). The Union Email suggests that Aponte targeted for harassment and preferential treatment, as a quid pro quo for sexual favors, women with the profile of being attractive, “thin and very [] fair-skinned Caucasian.” Id. at 5; id. at 6 (referring again to “Aponte's apparent preferred profile - she is a very attractive fair-skinned Caucasian woman”). Based on these allegations, the Union Email states that “at a minimum, all promotions in which Aponte was involved are in question, ” id. at 2 (emphasis in original), and raises the specter of others who may have been “offered promotions in exchange for sex or other considerations, ” id. at 3.

         Aponte was a member of the first-round interview panel for three of the seven non-selections that the plaintiff claims were discriminatory, and was not a final decision-maker for any of these three selections. Jeffries, 217 F.Supp.3d at 221-23. In 2011, Aponte served with Tammy Reid and Jonathan Faley on the interview panel to fill two Supervisory Grants Program Manager positions. Id. at 221. The plaintiff was not selected, in favor of two women, an African-American woman and Esmeralda Womack, id., about whom Ms. A. alleges Aponte expressed “sexual fantasies, ” Union Email at 4-5. The selecting official for this position was Tracey Trautman, Def.'s Mot. J. on the Pleadings or Summ. J., Ex. 4, Aff. of Tracey Trautman ¶ 7, ECF No. 7-3, who is mentioned in the Union Email only as one of several higher-ups who failed to stop Aponte's behavior, Union Email at 5.

         In 2012, for the Senior Policy Advisor for Evidence Integration position, Aponte served on the interview panel with two women, Jeffries, 217 F.Supp.3d at 222, neither of whom are mentioned as targets of Aponte's sexual harassment in the Union Email. One of the panelists, Kristina Rose, conducted the plaintiff's interview and “was not aware of the plaintiff's prior protected activity at the time of the interview.” Id. The plaintiff was not selected, in favor of an African-American male. Id. The selecting official for this position was Kristen Mahoney, Pl.'s Opp'n Def.'s Mot. J. on the Pleadings or Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Opp'n”), Ex. 38, Selection Recommendation Letter from Kristen Mahoney to Denise O'Donnell, ECF No. 9-14, who was not mentioned in the Union Email.

         The last of the three challenged non-selections involving Aponte occurred in 2013, when the plaintiff applied for the position of Supervisory Grants Program Manager. Jeffries, 217 F.Supp.3d at 223. Aponte served on the interview panel with another man, and a non-BJA employee, Kellie Dressler Blue, id., about whom Ms. A. alleges Aponte also expressed “sexual fantasies, ” Union Email at 5. A second round of interviews was conducted by selecting officials Tracey Trautman, who as noted above is briefly mentioned in the Union Email, and Denise O'Donnell, who is not mentioned in the Union Email, and both found the selectees “highly qualified.” Jeffries, 217 F.Supp.3d at 239; Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 48, Aff. of Tracey Trautman ¶ 17, ECF No. 9-16. The plaintiff was not selected in favor of an African-American male and Brenda Worthington, Jeffries, 217 F.Supp.3d at 238, who is not mentioned as a target of Aponte's sexual harassment in the Union Email.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “Rule 60(b) allows a party to seek relief from a final judgment, and request reopening of his case, under a limited set of circumstances including fraud, mistake, and newly discovered evidence.” Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524, 528 (2005). Such a motion “must be made ‘within a reasonable time' and ‘no more than a year after the entry of the judgment or order or the date of the proceeding.'” In re Hope 7 Monroe St. Ltd. P'ship (7 Monroe St.), 743 F.3d 867, 873 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(c)(1)). The party seeking relief under Rule 60(b) bears the burden of proof to show that he is entitled to the relief. Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk Cnty. Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 383-84 (1992); Manhattan Ctr. Studios, Inc. v. NLRB, 452 F.3d 813, 817 n.6 (D.C. Cir. 2006); see also Norris v. Salazar, 277 F.R.D. 22, 25 (D.D.C. 2011). A “threshold requirement for obtaining [such] relief” is the demonstration of “a meritorious claim or defense to the motion upon which the district court dismissed the complaint.” Murray v. District of Columbia, 52 F.3d 353, 355 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Thomas v. Holder, 750 F.3d 899, 903 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (“The requirement that parties seeking Rule 60(b) relief show some prospect of succeeding on the merits flows from the basic principle that courts should revive previously-dismissed claims only if they have some reason to believe that doing so will not ultimately waste judicial resources.”); FG Hemisphere Assocs. v. Democratic Republic of Congo, 447 F.3d 835, 842 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (noting “that a potentially meritorious defense is a precondition for Rule 60(b) relief”). This “established . . . precondition” assures that “vacating [a] judgment will not be an empty exercise or a futile gesture.” Murray, 52 F.3d at 355; see also Norman v. United States, 377 F.Supp.2d 96, 98 (D.D.C. 2005) (denying plaintiff's Rule 60(b) motion where “the Court [was] persuaded that reinstatement would ultimately be futile”).

         The D.C. Circuit has made clear that “[a] meritorious defense is not measured by ‘[l]ikelihood of success, ' but by whether it ‘contain[s] even a hint of a suggestion which, proven at trial, would constitute a complete defense.'” Marino v. DEA, 685 F.3d 1076, 1080 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (quoting Keegel v. Key West & Caribbean Trading Co., 627 F.2d 372, 374 (D.C. Cir. 1980) (alterations in original; some internal quotation marks omitted); see also Thomas v. Holder, 750 F.3d at 902 (noting that Rule 60 movants “need not meet a particularly high bar to satisfy this threshold requirement, but they must provide at least a hint of a suggestion that they might prevail”) (internal quotation marks omitted).[3] Since “a genuine dispute over material facts defeats a motion for summary judgment, ” a meritorious defense may be established “with only a hint of a suggestion that key facts in the record aren't yet entirely clear.” Marino, 685 F.3d at 1080.

         “[T]he decision to grant or deny a rule 60(b) motion is committed to the discretion of the District Court.” United Mine Workers of Am. 1974 Pension v. Pittston Co., 984 F.2d 469, 476 (D.C. Cir. 1993). In exercising this discretion, the district court “must strike a delicate balance between the sanctity of final judgments . . . and the incessant command of a court's conscience that justice be done in light of all the facts.” Bain v. MJJ Prods., 751 F.3d 642, 646 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (quoting Twelve John Does v. District of Columbia, 841 F.2d 1133, 1138 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (alteration in original; internal quotation marks omitted)); see also Summers v. Howard Univ., 374 F.3d 1188, 1193 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (noting that courts “must balance the interest in justice with the interest in protecting the finality of judgments”).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The allegations of sexual harassment described in the Union Email, troubling as they are, are insufficient to justify relief under Rule 60 from the grant of summary judgment against the plaintiff on his claims of discriminatory non-selection or to warrant the extended period of 120 days of discovery that he requests. Even if admissible evidence supporting these allegations against Aponte could be discovered, these allegations are sufficiently attenuated from the non-selections at issue that such evidence would not change ...


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