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Saint-Jean v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 14, 2018

MICA SAINT-JEAN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          AMY BERMAN JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Mica Saint-Jean and Guerline Bourciquot, who worked as a bus driver and a bus attendant for the District of Columbia Department of Transportation ("DOT") brought this action against the District of Columbia under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act ("DC WPA"), D.C. Code § 1-615.51 et seq, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq 2d Am. Compl.[Dkt.# 88] ¶¶154-203.

         After extensive pre-trial proceedings, the case was tried before a jury beginning on May 22, 2017. At the close of plaintiffs' case, the District moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). May 24, 2017 Tr. [Dkt. # 256] at 16-33. The Court deferred ruling on defendant's motion until after the jury returned a verdict. Id. at 33:20-34:20. On May 31, 2017, the jury returned a verdict in favor of both plaintiffs on all three counts. Verdict Form as to Mica Saint-Jean [Dkt. # 245]; Verdict Form as to Guerline Bourciquot [Dkt. # 247]. The question of the availability of back pay or other equitable relief was left for the Court to decide.

         After the verdict was returned, the District renewed its motion under Federal Rule 50(b). DCs Renewed Mot. for J. as a Matter of Law [Dkt. # 253]. In a bench ruling on November 27, 2017, the Court granted the motion in part as to plaintiffs' Title VII claims, and denied it in part as to the WPA and FLSA claims. Nov. 27, 2017 Unofficial Tr. at 11:20-12:1; id. at 30:20-25; id at 49;5-6;[1] Min. Entry (Nov. 27, 2017). In a minute order dated December 22, 2017, the Court noted that "final judgment has not yet been entered[] because the Court was awaiting the outcome of the Rule 50(b) motion and the hearing on equitable relief, and it is correct that it is the entry of judgment that starts the clock ticking for Rule 59 or 60." Min. Order (Dec. 22, 2017).

         The Court then set a date for the hearing on equitable relief, which took place on February 8, 2018. Min. Entry (Feb. 8, 2018). On February 21, 2018, the Court issued its ruling on equitable relief from the bench, and an order entering judgment in favor of plaintiffs was docketed the following day. See Min. Entry (Feb. 21, 2018); Order [Dkt. # 297].[2] Ultimately, the Court entered judgment in favor of plaintiff Saint-Jean in the amount of $226, 948.00, and in favor of plaintiff Bourciquot in the amount of $15, 416.28. Order [Dkt. # 308].

         Pending before the Court is defendant's motion for a new trial, or in the alternative, to alter or amend the judgment, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. See D.C.'s Mot. for New Trial or, in the Alternative, to Alter or Amend J. [Dkt. # 303] ("Def's Mot.").[3] Defendant argues that a new trial, or an amended judgment, is necessary because "the verdict was against the weight of the evidence on all claims" and "to correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice." Id. at 5.

         The District argues that: (1) the jury's finding that an agency relationship existed between David Gilmore and the Department of Transportation was against the weight of the evidence; (2) the Court erred by admitting the Office of Inspector General's report related to the investigation of plaintiffs' allegations because it was hearsay; and (3) there was insufficient evidence of causation and retaliatory intent, and the Court erred by not instructing the jury that temporal proximity alone is insufficient to prove retaliation. See generally Def's Mot.[4]

         But the Court finds that there is no clear error to rectify in this case and that the jury verdict that survived the Rule 50 motion comports with the law and the evidence. Because the District has not made a showing that would warrant a new trial or the amendment of the judgment, the motion will be denied. The proceedings in the trial court in this case have finally come to their conclusion, and the outcome was just.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1)(A), "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). "Such reasons exist (1) where the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, or (2) where 'the trial was not fair, or substantial errors occurred in the admission or rejection of evidence or the giving or refusal of instructions.'" Lee v. District of Columbia, 19 F.Supp.3d 281, 285-86 (D.D.C. 2014), citing Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, 518 U.S. 415, 433 (1996) and quoting Nyman v. FDIC, 967 F.Supp. 1562, 1569 (D.D.C. 1997). "A new trial 'should be granted only where the court is convinced that the jury verdict was a seriously erroneous result and where denial of the motion will result in a clear miscarriage of justice.'" Lee, 19 F.Supp.3d at 286, quoting Martinez v. District of Columbia, 503 F.Supp.2d 353, 355 (D.D.C. 2007). While the "standard for a new trial is less onerous than one applicable to a Rule 50 motion" for judgment as a matter of law, Nyman, 967 F.Supp. at 1569 (citation omitted), the decision to grant a motion for a new trial lies within "the sound discretion of the trial court." Grogan v. Gen. Maint. Serv. Co., 763 F.2d 444, 447 (D.C. Cir. 1985), citing Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 36 (1980).

         "Motions under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) are disfavored and relief from judgment is granted only when the moving party establishes extraordinary circumstances." Niedermeier v. Office of Max S. Baucus, 153 F.Supp.2d 23, 28 (D.D.C. 2001), citing Anyanwutaku v. Moore, 151 F.3d 1053, 1057 (D.C. Cir. 1998). "A Rule 59(e) motion is discretionary and need not be granted unless the district court finds that there is an intervening change of controlling law, the availability of new evidence, or the need to correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice." Ciralsky v. CIA, 355 F.3d 661, 671 (D.C. Cir. 2004), quating Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d 1205, 1208 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

         A motion to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59(e) "may not be used to relitigate old matters, or to raise arguments or present evidence that could have been raised prior to the entry of judgment." Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 485 n.5 (2008), quoting 11 Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2810.1 (2d ed. 1995). Rather, motions to alter or amend a judgment "are intended to permit the court to correct errors of fact appearing on the face of the record, or errors of law." Hammond v. Kempthorne, 448 F.Supp.2d 114, 118 (D.D.C. 2006), quoting Indep. Petroleum Ass'n of Am. v. Babbit, 178 F.R.D. 323, 324 (D.D.C. 1998).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Agency Relationship

         Defendant argues - once again - that there was insufficient evidence that David Gilmore was the District's agent. But the District has presented nothing new that would change the Court's consistent rulings on this issue.

         The District contends that plaintiffs' only evidence of an agency relationship was the consent decree from the Petties litigation. Def's Mot. at 6. It maintains that language in an agreement "is not conclusive" and is only "properly considered in the overall calculus." Id. Thus, it argues, "[b]y offering the language of the agreement and failing to offer any evidence of the actual working relationship between Gilmore and the District, [p]laintiffs offered insufficient evidence." Id. Second, the District contends that even if the jury could rely on the agreement alone, the agreement alone does not support a jury verdict in their favor. Id. So the verdict is "against the weight of the evidence, and should be overturned." Id.

         Defendant made an almost identical argument in its Rule 50(b) motion, and the Court rejected it for a number of reasons, all of which pertain again.

         A. Plaintiffs' presented, and the jury relied upon, more than just the Petties Consent Order in concluding that Gilmore was the District's agent.

         The issue of Gilmore's status was first raised in a motion to dismiss in which the District argued that "because DOT was under a receivership during the relevant time, the District cannot be held liable - either directly or vicariously - for actions taken by the receiver." Saint-Jean v. District of Columbia, 74 F.Supp.3d 274, 278 (D.D.C. 2014). But the Court then assigned to the matter concluded that "[i]t is not readily apparent from the consent order [appointing Gilmore] . . . that [his] position of Transportation Administrator was intended to be identical to that of a receiver," id. at 279, and it went on to describe, in great detail, all the ways in which Gilmore's appointment as an official of DOT differed from that of a traditional receiver. Id. at 279-80. The Court then suggested that the question would be better addressed by "analyzing whether agency principles justify insulating the District from liability." Id. at 281.

         At the close of discovery, then, the District moved for summary judgment on the grounds that "the District cannot be held vicariously liable for employment measures taken by Transportation Administrator ("TA") David Gilmore ("Gilmore") because he was not the District's agent or employee," and it based that motion on agency principles. D.C.'s Mot. for Summ. J on Counts I, II, III, VI, VII of the Second Am. Compl. [Dkt. # 167] at 1; see Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of D.C.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 167] at 7-12. In denying the motion, the Court laid out the law governing agency relationships, and it noted that under District of Columbia law, "[w]hether an agency relationship exists is a question of fact for which the person asserting it carries the burden of proof." Mem. Op. & Order [Dkt. # 192] at 8, quoting Smith v. Jenkins, 452 A.2d 333, 335 (D.C. 1982). The Court went on:

"First, the court must look for evidence of the parties' consent to establish a principal-agent relationship. Second, the court must look for evidence that the activities of the agent are subject to the principal's control" Henderson v. Charles E. Smith Mgmt., Inc., 567 A.2d 59, 62 (D.C. 1989) (emphasis in original). The factors to be considered in determining whether an agency relationship exists "include '(1) the selection and engagement of the servant, (2) the payment of wages, (3) the power to discharge, (4) the power to control the servant's conduct, (5) and whether the work is part of the regular business of the employer.'" Judah v. Reiner, 744 A.2d 1037, 1040 (D.C. Cir. 2000), quoting LeGrand v. Ins. Co. of N. Am., 241 A.2d 734, 735 (D.C. 1968).

Id. The Court denied defendant's motion because there was a genuine dispute over the extent of Gilmore's independence and authority under the Petties Consent Order. Id. at 11.

         The District sought reconsideration of the Court's decision, see Mot. for Recons. of Ct.'s Sept. 12, 2016 Order Den. Summ. J. in Def's Favor [Dkt. # 194], but that motion was also denied. Mem. Op. & Order [Dkt. # 199]. In concluding that "a question remain[ed] with regard to the extent of Gilmore's authority and independence under the Petties Consent Order that precludes the Court from making a finding on the agency question as a matter of law," the Court observed:

Gilmore's role as Transportation Administrator was a unique, specialized, and somewhat hybrid position that was neither the same as a receiver or a special master, who is the agent of the appointing court. For example, the record reflects that Gilmore was appointed specifically to "avert[ ] the substantial possibility that the [c]ourt would grant plaintiffs' motion to put DOT into receivership," which would have "stripp[ed] [D.C. Public Schools] entirely of its authority to manage the transportation function." Saint-Jean, 74 F.Supp.3d at 279, quoting Petties v. District of Columbia, No. 95-0148 (PLF), 2006 WL 1046943 at *5 (D.D.C. Apr 21, 2006). Gilmore's appointment was designed so that he "was not granted complete authority or control over DOT," and instead, his power and authority was subject to "consultation with the Superintendent." Id; see also Petties Consent Order at 6. The Petties Consent Order also provided that Gilmore's appointment was designed to meet the dual purposes of "resolv[ing] the issues raised in [the Petties plaintiffs'] Motion to Appoint a Receiver while permitting the government of the District of Columbia to remain intimately involved and responsible for its obligations under the Orders in this case and other requirements of law." Petties Consent Order at 1-2 (emphasis added).

Mem. Op. & Order [Dkt. #199] at 6-7.

         The question of whether Gilmore was the District's agent was put to the jury with the following instruction:

Plaintiffs claim that David Gilmore was an agent of the District of Columbia-that is, that he was acting on the District's behalf - when plaintiffs' employment was terminated at the Department of Transportation. The District maintains that he was not its agent. This issue is being submitted to you to decide, and you will be asked for your answer on the verdict form.
Plaintiffs must establish the existence of an agency relationship and that Mr. Gilmore acted within the scope of that relationship if and when he took any materially adverse action that is the basis for plaintiffs' retaliation claims. Plaintiffs have the burden of proving those facts by a preponderance of the evidence.
The question to be decided is whether Mr. Gilmore was an agent of the District of Columbia in connection with the termination of DCPS DOT employees; you need not decide if he was an agent for all purposes.
Generally, an agency relationship exists when one person or entity authorizes another to act on its behalf, subject to its control, and the other agrees to do so. Control is generally an important factor to consider.
But, whether an agency relationship exists in a given situation, though, depends upon the particular facts of each case. In determining whether each plaintiff has proved that such a relationship exists here, you may consider all of the following factors:
1. The selection and engagement of Mr. Gilmore;
2. The payment of Mr. Gilmore's wages;
3. The power of the District to discharge Mr. Gilmore;
4. The power of the District to control Mr. Gilmore's conduct; and
5. Whether Mr. Gilmore's work was part of the regular business of the District.
In analyzing the right to control, you may consider the actual relationship between the parties and the language of any agreement between them.

Jury Instrs. [Dkt. # 249] at 38-40. The jury was asked to respond to a special interrogatory on the subject, and it found that Gilmore was the District's agent. See PI. Saint-Jean Verdict Form [Dkt. # 245] at 3; PI. Bourciquot Verdict Form [Dkt. # 247] at 3.

         When the District made its Rule 50 motion at the close of plaintiffs' case, it seemed to be operating under the misimpression that only the testimony of the witnesses could be considered when weighing the sufficiency of the "evidence" on the issue. See May 24, 2017 Tr. [Dkt. # 265] at 120:12-21:8.[5] That was plainly incorrect. Not only does the jury instruction make it clear that both the parties' actual conduct and the language of any agreement may be considered, but the jury received the standard and the unobjectionable instruction that: "[t]he evidence consists of the sworn testimony of witnesses, exhibits admitted into evidence, and facts stipulated by the parties." JuryInstrs.[Dkt.#249]atll.

         In denying the District's Rule 50(b) motion, the Court reviewed all of the evidence in the record that related to the five factors, and some of that evidence included:

. The Petties Order, which supplied evidence that (1) the District, because it wanted to avoid the appointment of a receiver, specifically consented to the appointment of Gilmore to run its agency; (2) Gilmore was acting on the District's behalf when he hired and fired employees, which the District specifically granted him authority and paid him to do; and (3) there was supposed to be some level of control in the form of continuing involvement and oversight by District personnel.
. Bourciquot's recommendation for suspension (Exhibit 4); Bourciquot's recommendation for termination (Exhibit 5); proposed termination letter to Bourciquot (Exhibit 7); letter notifying Bourciquot of termination (Exhibit 9); proposed termination letter to Saint-Jean (Exhibit 10); and Bourciquot's suspension paperwork (Exhibit 56), all of which were printed on letterhead containing the District of Columbia Public School seal and the phrase "Division of Transportation/Office of Transportation Administration," and the Penn Center address on the bottom of the page.
. "Request for Employment Action" paperwork that terminated Bourciquot's employment and stopped her paychecks (Exhibit 62), which was signed by the Assistant Transportation Administrator and the Transportation Administrator (Gilmore), as well as the Budget Director and Chief Operations Officer. This form says D.C. Public Schools on the upper left hand corner, and Office of Human Resources in the upper right hand comer.

         The District takes the position now that plaintiffs' only evidence of an agency relationship was the consent decree from the Petties litigation. Def's Mot. at 6. Just based on a review of the above-cited evidence alone, it is clear that defendant's renewed argument has no merit. Contrary to defendant's contentions, plaintiff did not merely rely on the Petties Order; there were a number of exhibits. Moreover, the jurors heard testimony from Gilmore himself:

. Gilmore testified that DOT operated out of Penn Center before he got there and that his office was located there. May 25, 2017 Tr. [Dkt. # 266] at 40:15-41:11.
. Gilmore testified that he oversaw the DOT; he "was totally responsible for the personnel, hiring, firing, supervising, assigning them to bus routes, and so on and so forth"; he was the "final authority"; that "whoever did the payroll for DCPS" was who stopped paying employees when they were terminated. May 25, 2017 Tr. [Dkt.# 266] at 20:20-25;id. at 56:12-17; id. at 30:22-31:1.

         All of this was put to the jury to consider. As the Court already stated in its ruling on the District's Rule 50(b) motion, the jury was presented with evidence - some of which the Court has not discussed again, and some of which did indeed favor the District's position - and it was up to the jury to resolve disputed questions of fact and to weigh witness credibility. Based on the evidence presented to the jury, which consisted of far more than merely the Petties Order, the Court cannot find that the jury's decision was "seriously erroneous." Lee, 19 F.Supp.3d at 286.

         In its reply brief, the District raised two more arguments that fare no better.[6] First, the District argues that at trial, "the Court severely limited evidence about the purpose for which a federal judge appointed Gilmore and foreclosed testimony related to his understanding of the Petties* Consent Order or, its similarities with other remedial orders he had helped the courts implement, despite the fact that the consent order was plaintiffs key evidence." Def's Reply at 9. Second, defendant maintains that the Court "exacerbated this error when it refused to instruct the jury that 'control' was a key factor and 'the decisive test' for determining the principal-agent relationship." Id.

         B. The Court did not improperly limit evidence related to the Petties Consent Order.

         In making its argument that the Court improperly limited evidence about the Petties Consent Order, the District points to one small section of testimony elicited by the defense in its case in chief from its witness, Michael Zuerblis, on May 23, 2017. The witness testified about his role at DOT under Gilmore, as well as his general understanding of the Petties Order and why the department was under court supervision. See May 23, 2017 Tr. [Dkt. # 261] at 194:24-96:11.

         But when Zuerblis began testifying about how disabled students could be negatively affected by late buses, the Court stopped his testimony and called counsel to the bench. May 23, 2017 Tr. [Dkt. # 261] at 195:13-96:13. After a lengthy discussion with defense counsel, the Court precluded Zuerblis from giving any sort of expert opinion on the topic of the consent decree, as well as from giving his opinion about the impact an employee's absence without official leave could have on the students riding the buses. May 23, 2017 Tr. [Dkt. # 261] at 196:15-200:11. The Court explained the basis for its ruling: there was no allegation that plaintiffs were fired for being AWOL, and Zuerblis had no personal knowledge of why plaintiffs were fired. Id. at 198:18-99:8. When the Court made that point, defense counsel said, "That's true." Id. at 200:4.

         The Court then said to defense counsel: "I think you've laid enough background. Now you need to go to something that leads to this case directly, that he has personal knowledge about, otherwise he doesn't have anything to say. He's not an expert." May 23, 2017 Tr. [Dkt. # 261] at 200:5-9. Defense counsel "agree[d] with that," id. at 200:10-11, and moved on without noting any objection for the record. So there is a serious ...


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