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Lewis v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 7, 2018




         “[P]ublic employees do not surrender all their [constitutional] rights by reason of their employment.” Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 417 (2006). Rather, the Fourth Amendment still governs public workplaces, protecting most employees against random, suspicionless drug testing while on the job. The District of Columbia nevertheless instituted such a regime for its new Consolidated Forensics Laboratory, a facility that houses several law-enforcement agencies. It gave Plaintiff Patricia Lewis, a human-resources liaison in that office, two choices: submit to testing or be fired. Lewis chose the latter course, and when the District dismissed her, she responded with this lawsuit. The case ultimately proceeded to trial, where a jury resolved all contested facts in her favor and awarded her $802, 800. Unhappy with this result, the District now moves for judgment as a matter of law or, alternatively, asks the Court to either order a new trial or reduce Lewis's damages. The Court will deny the Motion across the board.

         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 recounts the case's procedural history.

         A. Factual History

         For the better part of a decade, Lewis worked as a “Human Resources Advisor, ” “Management Liaison Specialist” in D.C.'s Office of Chief Medical Examiner. See Trial Tr. (Mar. 13, 2018) at 4:1-4, 11-23. OCME's duties include conducting autopsies as well as other forensic and medico-legal investigations. See Trial Tr. (Mar. 12, 2018) at 41:11-13; see also D.C. Code § 5-1401 et seq. From the time she was hired until October 2012, OCME was located in an office building at 1910 Massachusetts Avenue in Southeast Washington. See Tr. (3/13) at 24:16-21.

         At some point, the city developed plans for the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory. See Tr. (3/12) at 58:8-11. This new laboratory would house under one roof a number of city departments, including OCME, the Public Health Laboratory, and the Mobile Crime Unit of the Metropolitan Police Department. Id. at 59:21-24; see also D.C. Council Resolution No. 19-726 § 2(b) (Dec. 4, 2012). On June 18, 2012, Mayor Vincent Gray signed Order 2012-84, providing authority for the Director of the D.C. Department of Human Resources to “identify[] and designat[e] high-risk or sensitive positions” for employees who would have a duty station at the CFL. See Pl. Exh. 4 at 2. Employees so designated would be subject to “background checks, investigations, mandatory criminal background checks, and[/or] test[ing] for controlled substance use.” Id.

         On July 18, 2012, Charles Tucker, the DCHR General Counsel, and other members of the department held a meeting at OCME, see Tr. (3/12) at 67:5-7, 68:7-16, informing the staff that all employees moving to the CFL would be “subject to mandatory criminal background checks and testing for controlled substance use.” Pl. Exh. 6. DCHR also distributed several forms, including an “Individual Notification of Requirements Form for Drug and Alcohol Testing.” Pl. Exh. 7 (Notice and Acknowledgment Form). Citing the Mayor's Order, it stated:

[T]his notice informs you that you have been appointed to, or you currently occupy, either as an employee or volunteer, a covered position that makes you subject to drug and alcohol testing. . . . Thirty (30) days after you acknowledge receipt of this advance written notice, you will be subject to drug and alcohol testing, unless you acknowledge a drug or alcohol problem during the 30-day notification period.

Id. The bottom portion of the notice, titled “Acknowledgement of Receipt, ” required the employee's signature, which would be an admission that she “currently occup[ied] a protections-sensitive position that is subject to drug and alcohol testing.” Id.

         Plaintiff immediately voiced her objections to the policy at the meeting and refused to sign the form. See Tr. (3/13) at 40:21-25; 50:6-10. Although she was not taking illegal drugs or abusing alcohol, id. at 46:4-8, Lewis feared she would need to reveal her prescription medications to explain any positive test results. Id. at 63:2-13. Two days after the meeting, she thus sent a grievance letter to Tucker protesting the policy. See Pl. Exh. 8. In that letter, she maintained that she “was hired into a non-sensitive position that has not been re-classified nor designated as high risk” and would not sign the acknowledgment form until DCHR conducted a “reclassification and risk assessment.” Id. On August 30, 2012, Tucker denied the grievance. See Pl. Exh. 9.

         In October 2012, DCHR Director Shawn Stokes sent Lewis a follow-up notice, requesting that she sign and return the notice-and-acknowledgment forms, but Plaintiff refused to do so. See Pl. Exh. 10; see Tr. (3/13) at 64:21-23. Later that month, a second notice further advised that “corrective and/or adverse action” could result if she did not “comply with this process” by November 8, 2012. See Pl. Exh. 3. At the same time, OCME began the move to the CFL. See Tr. (3/13) at 65:5-8. On October 23, Lewis attempted to transport some of her files - apparently with her supervisor's acquiescence - into the new building but was escorted out of the facility. Id. at 70:16-76:1. While the rest of the OCME staff completed its move to the CFL, Lewis remained alone at 1910 Massachusetts Avenue, in an aging building with no working heat, elevators, or phones. Id. at 77:4-7, 82:4-83:8.

         Plaintiff nonetheless continued to work there until she received an Advance Written Notice of Proposed Removal on January 3, 2013, when she was placed on administrative leave. See Pl. Exh. 11. The letter charged her with “neglect of duty and insubordination” on three occasions: (1) refusing to sign the notice-and-acknowledgment forms on July 18; (2) refusing to sign the forms after the October follow-up letters; and (3) attempting to move into the CFL without being cleared. Id. at 1-2. On April 9, 2013, the District officially terminated Lewis based on the same charges. See Pl. Exh. 12. She has not worked since, either for the city or anywhere else. See Tr. (3/13) at 112:8-12.

         B. Procedural History

         Nearly two years after her termination, Lewis filed this suit against the District (along with several individual Defendants, all of whom were later dismissed). She brought a host of claims, but only two survived summary judgment: (1) a count for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and (2) a count for violation of the Fourth Amendment. See Lewis v. Gov't of Dist. of Columbia, 282 F.Supp.3d 169, 190 (D.D.C. 2017).

         This latter count is the “heart” of Plaintiff's suit and alleges “that the [District's] testing policy constituted an unreasonable search.” Id. at 184. As the Court explained previously, “[D]rug and alcohol tests are ‘searches' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and random, suspicionless drug tests are ‘inherently suspect.'” Id. (quoting Knox Cty. Educ. Ass'n v. Knox Cty. Bd. of Educ., 158 F.3d 361, 373 (6th Cir. 1998)). When such searches “serve[] special governmental needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, it is necessary to balance the individual's privacy expectations against the Government's interests to determine” whether they are reasonable. See Nat'l Treasury Emps. Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656, 665 (1989).

         The question of whether a “drug testing program . . . comport[s] with the Constitution” is “a matter of law.” Boyd v. Coleman, 906 F.2d 783, 783 & n.3 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (per curiam) (unpublished). At summary judgment, the Court thus undertook “a context-specific inquiry, examining closely the competing private and public interests advanced by the parties.” Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305, 314 (1997). On the one hand, it concluded that Lewis had “‘a serious and legitimate privacy interest in not being subject to' random drug tests.” Lewis, 282 F.Supp.3d at 184 (quoting Stigile v. Clinton, 110 F.3d 801, 804 (D.C. Cir. 1997)). The public interest, however, was more equivocal. Defendants contended that “[P]laintiff's position [at the CFL] would have provided her access to secure areas . . ., including the mortuary, toxicology, and investigation divisions of OCME.” Id. at 186 (citation omitted). Lewis, meanwhile, “vehemently denie[d] that she would have had access to anything other than confidential personnel files.” Id.

         In light of that “material disputed fact, ” the Court held that the scales did not “clearly tip to either side.” Id. at 188. It made manifest, however, that if “Plaintiff could obtain only confidential HR files (to which she already had access in the old building), but not enter other key areas of the lab, the city's interest in preventing corruption does not outweigh her privacy interest.” Id. at 186. By contrast, a “finding . . . that she would have been able to freely enter all or many departments could well outweigh her privacy interest, ” assuming, of course, that alternative arrangements were not otherwise practical. Id.; see also Nat'l Fed'n of Fed. Emps.-IAM v. Vilsack, 681 F.3d 483, 490 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (“[E]ven where the government asserts important interests, it must still demonstrate an immediate threat to those interests that could not practically be addressed through a suspicion-based approach in order to justify a suspicionless search under the Fourth Amendment.”).

         This case thus proceeded to trial, where the Court employed a special-verdict form precisely tailored to those questions. For her Fourth Amendment count, it asked the jury whether Lewis had proven by a preponderance of evidence that either:

(1) “[U]pon moving to the new CFL, she would not have had access to confidential and sensitive information within OCME (beyond the personnel and employment files ...

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