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Morris v. Pruitt

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 3, 2018

SUSAN M. MORRIS, Plaintiff,
SCOTT PRUITT, in his official capacity as Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Defendant.



         Although this case has spanned nearly seven years, its genesis lasted only seven days. That was the length of the insubordination suspension that Plaintiff Susan Morris claimed was discriminatorily imposed on her. Morris, who is white, worked as a manager in the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Civil Rights for almost a decade. Her supervisor was Director Karen Higginbotham, who in turn reported to Ray Spears, the agency's Deputy Chief of Staff, both of whom are black. While Morris received several awards for leadership and service during her time at EPA, her career was sidetracked in 2008, when Higginbotham proposed (and Spears approved) her week-long suspension. Morris attributes that discipline to her race.

         Judge Rosemary Collyer, to whom the case was previously assigned, granted summary judgment in the Government's favor on this question, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “a reasonable jury could find that Morris's suspension was motivated by racial discrimination.” Morris v. McCarthy, 825 F.3d 658, 663 (D.C. Cir. 2016). When the case finally went to trial, a jury did so find and awarded Morris $25, 000 in damages. The Government now seeks to upset that verdict, moving both for judgment as a matter of law and a new trial. It does not succeed.

         I. Background

         The Court begins with the facts that emerged at trial, resolving, as it must given the verdict, all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff's favor. It then briefly recounts the case's procedural history.

         A. Factual Background

         Morris spent 32 years in government service and was a ten-year veteran of the EPA. See Trial Tr. (10/30/17 AM) at 91:15-21. In 2004, she became a supervisory program manager at the agency's Office of Civil Rights (OCR), where she oversaw the Affirmative Employment and Diversity staff. Id. at 96-101. During her tenure, she received several leadership awards, including the prestigious Distinguished Public Service Award from National Image, Inc., a nonprofit Hispanic organization. See Trial Tr. (10/30/17 PM) at 44-45. Additionally, her staff nominated her for the EPA Administrator's Manager-of-the Year award for three consecutive cycles. Id. at 43:18-21. At trial, her employees testified that she was a “very fair” and “very supportive manager, ” Trial Tr. (10/31/17 AM) at 97:21-22, with one going so far as to deem her “the best supervisor [he] ever had within the government for the last 40 years.” Id. at 80:17-81:19.

         This upward trajectory was arrested, however, after a fateful conference call with fellow EPA employee Nancy Tommelleo in August 2007. See Trial Tr. (10/30/17 PM) at 52-54. During that conversation, the two discussed the agency's new advisory group for gay and lesbian employees, disagreeing about the proper name for it. Id. at 61-62. Morris thought the call had gone innocently enough, id. at 67, and Higginbotham, who was also on the line, similarly found Morris “forceful” but not “disrespectful” during the conversation. See Trial Tr. (10/31/17 PM) at 96:14-17 (quoting Higginbotham's deposition). Tommelleo, however, immediately penned a memo to her supervisor, Mary J. Wilkes, complaining that Morris had launched a “highly inappropriate” “verbal assault” against her. See Trial Tr. (10/30/2017 PM) at 78:1-2; 79:4-7. On September 21, 2007, Wilkes forwarded this memo to Higginbotham, Spears, and other senior EPA officials, along with her own memo objecting to Morris's conduct. Id. at 74-75.

         Higginbotham told Morris about the memo shortly after receiving it, and Morris was understandably shaken by the allegations against her. Despite Plaintiff's repeated requests, however, Higginbotham refused to provide her with a copy until three months later. Id. at 67-70. At that point, she advised: “Do not respond to this memo. I will prepare the response and you will be copied on my reply.” Id. at 74:6-8 (emphasis in original). But when Higginbotham had failed to respond by February 2008, id. at 83:21-84:8, Morris took matters into her own hands, emailing a document that she called an “Issue Paper” to Higginbotham, Spears, and the members of the agency's Human Resources Council. Id. at 86-89. That Issue Paper principally complained about broader office policies and dynamics. Id. at 91:10-19, 93:18-20. It also cited various personal attacks on Morris's own reputation - including Tommelleo's memo, Wilkes's accompanying memo, and Higginbotham's failure to respond as promised, as well as her refusal to allow Morris to reply. Id. at 94-96. In her “Background” section, Morris also directly quoted passages from the Tommelleo and Wilkes memos. Id.

         Higginbotham immediately emailed Morris to say that she believed the Issue Paper directly violated her order not to respond to Tommelleo's memo, and that she would consider disciplinary action as a result. See Trial Tr. (10/31/PM) at 54:7-23. In reply, Morris maintained that she had not, in fact, responded, and Higginbotham thus had no basis for discipline. Id. at 54:24-25, 55:1-4. A month later, Higginbotham proposed to Spears that Morris be suspended without pay for seven days. Id. at 86:23-25, 87:1. Spears approved the suspension in April 2008. See Trial Tr. (11/1/17 AM) at 22:19-21.

         B. Procedural Background

         Morris brought suit in district court on April 8, 2011, alleging principally that both this 2008 suspension - as well as her subsequent 2010 termination (which was not at issue at trial) - violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Judge Collyer, who originally presided over the case until it was transferred to this Court on September 27, 2017, see ECF No. 59, dismissed the termination claim for failure to exhaust. See Morris v. Jackson, 842 F.Supp.2d 171, 178 (D.D.C. 2012), aff'd, 825 F.3d at 667. The suspension claim has taken a more circuitous route. While Judge Collyer initially granted summary judgment on it, see ECF No. 42, the D.C. Circuit reversed, holding that a reasonable jury could find that Morris's suspension was motivated by racial discrimination. See Morris, 825 F.3d at 669.

         Once this Court inherited the case, it shortly thereafter proceeded to trial. Four days of testimony later, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff, awarding her $25, 000 in damages for both lost pay and non-economic damages. See ECF No. 73. Unhappy with this result, the Government now moves for judgment as a matter of law or, alternatively, for a new trial.

         II. Legal Standard

         The Government first moves under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), which provides that “[i]f a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue, ” the trial court may enter judgment as a matter of law on that issue. In evaluating such a motion, the court cannot “lightly disturb a jury verdict. Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only if the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are so one-sided that reasonable men and women could not have reached a verdict in plaintiff's favor.” Muldrow v. Re-Direct, Inc., 493 F.3d 160, 165 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). This Court “cannot substitute its view for that of the jury, and can assess neither the credibility nor weight of the evidence.” Scott v. District of Columbia, 101 F.3d 748, 753 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1)(A), meanwhile, states that after a jury trial, “[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . . for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Although this articulation may be less than helpful, courts outside our Circuit have expanded on its meaning. See, e.g., EEOC v. New Breed Logistics, 783 F.3d 1057, 1066 (6th Cir. 2015) (“The language of Rule 59(a) has been interpreted to mean that a new trial is warranted when a jury has reached a seriously erroneous result as evidenced by . . . the verdict being against the weight of the evidence . . . or the trial being unfair to the moving party in some fashion.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Venson v. Altamirano, 749 F.3d 641, 656 (7th Cir. 2014) (“A new trial is appropriate if the jury's verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence or if the trial was in some way unfair to the moving party.”).

         That demanding standard reflects the principle that “Rule 59 is not a vehicle for relitigating old issues, presenting the case under new theories, [or] securing a rehearing on the merits.” Sequa Corp. v. GBJ Corp., 156 F.3d 136, 144 (2d Cir. 1998). “Although parties may certainly request a new trial or amended findings where clear errors or manifest injustice threaten, in the absence of such corruption of the judicial processes, where litigants have once battled for the court's decision, they should neither be required, nor without good reason permitted, to battle for it again.” Int'l Ore. & Fertilizer Corp. v. SGS Control Servs., Inc., 38 F.3d 1279, 1287 (2d Cir. 1994) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         III. Analysis

         After four days of trial and two of deliberations, a jury attributed Morris's suspension to racial discrimination. The Government now wants another bite at the apple, asking this Court to either reverse that verdict outright or at least permit a replay. But in law, as in life, there are rarely do-overs. Not prone to “lightly disturb a jury's verdict, ” McGill v. Munoz, 203 F.3d 843, 845 (D.C. Cir. 2000), the Court will deny the Motion in both respects after separately examining each defense position.

         A. Judgment as Matter of Law

         The Government first seeks judgment as a matter of law, arguing that “the evidence firmly established that Plaintiff had been insubordinate and no reasonable jury could find otherwise.” JMOL Mot. at 2. This stance, however, is little more than déjà vu all over again. Defendant adopted the same position at summary judgment and indeed convinced the trial judge to concur. But on appeal, the Court of Appeals held flatly: “[A] reasonable jury could find that Morris's suspension was motivated by racial discrimination, ” rather than insubordination. See Morris, 825 F.3d at 663 (emphasis added). The Government thus faces an uphill battle, needing to show that evidence at trial deviated in some significant respect from that promised to the D.C. Circuit.

         To refresh, Morris's essential claim was that her direct supervisor, Karen Higginbotham, harbored racial animus against her. Although it was Ray Spears who ultimately issued the suspension, the Court of Appeals allowed the case to proceed to trial “[u]nder a cat's paw theory of discrimination, ” which allows liability for “discriminatory acts by a direct supervisor - even where that supervisor is not the final decisionmaker.” Id. at 668. To prevail, a plaintiff must show that “[1] [the] supervisor performs an act motivated by [discriminatory] animus [2] that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and . . . [3] that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action.” Id. (alterations in original) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Staub v. Proctor Hosp., 562 U.S. 411, 422 (2011)).

         The D.C. Circuit concluded that a reasonable jury could find all three prongs satisfied. Specifically, it held that “Staub's second prong is easily met: Higginbotham's recommendation that Morris be suspended for insubordination was clearly intended to cause such a suspension.” Id. The first and third prongs, by contrast, at least “warrant[ed] discussion” by the panel. Id. Following its lead, the Court picks up there.

         1. Suspension Motivated by Racial Animus

         Under the first prong, the Circuit held that “a reasonable jury could find that the insubordination charge was pretextual and that Higginbotham was motivated by discriminatory animus when she recommended suspending Morris.” Id. at 669. It based that conclusion on two grounds: (a) “evidence that Higginbotham harbored bias toward white employees, ” and (b) “weaknesses Morris identifies in EPA's explanation for the suspension.” Id. The evidence at trial unfolded along those lines as well.

         a. Evidence of racial bias

         A jury may infer discrimination from, among other things, “evidence of discriminatory statements or attitudes on the part of the employer.” Aka v. Wash. Hosp. Ctr., 156 F.3d 1284, 1289 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (en banc). In that vein, the Court of Appeals deemed Plaintiff's “strongest evidence” of racial animus statements that Higginbotham had made in the workplace:

An EPA employee supervised by Morris, Alease Wright, recalled that around 2005 or 2006, Higginbotham said of Morris, “[T]he little white woman better stand in line . . . . [T]his is EPA[;] we can whip her into shape.” Wright also testified that “Higginbotham told me that John Newton, an African-American, could not get a promotion from a white woman, so she told Ray Spears to send him down to [Higginbotham's] office and she would give him a [promotion to pay-scale level] GS-15.” Similarly, Morris attested that Higginbotham once said, “[I]f the white woman up there won't promote [Newton], I will.” Morris further testified that on one occasion Higginbotham referred to a group of young men working at EPA as “nasty little white boys.” Another time, at a ...

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