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Robinson v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 23, 2018

MARK E. ROBINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTIONS FOR INJUNCTIVE RELIEF, BACK PAY, AND ATTORNEYS' FEES

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Mark Robinson, a sergeant in the District of Columbia's (the “District”) Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”), sued the District under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq. (“DCHRA”), alleging that he was denied the opportunity to work in a particular MPD unit because of race discrimination and retaliation. Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Robinson, awarding him $750 in compensatory damages. Having received a favorable jury verdict, Mr. Robinson seeks from the Court injunctive relief, an award of back pay, and attorneys' fees. Upon consideration of the parties' filings, the Court concludes that Mr. Robinson is entitled to all three forms of relief, though not to the extent he requests. Accordingly, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Mr. Robinson's motions.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Mr. Robinson's lawsuit was prompted by his desire to work in the Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit (“ATEU”)-an MPD division created to organize traffic camera photographs, analyze evidence of traffic violations, and issue citations-and his inability to secure that work. See generally Affidavit of Mark E. Robinson (“Robinson Affidavit I”), ECF No. 24-1. Mr. Robinson began working full time in the ATEU in 2008, and he became sufficiently proficient in the unit's functions that he was tasked with training and certifying MPD officers to work in the ATEU Overtime Program, which allowed those officers to supplement their normal workload with ATEU overtime work. See id. ¶¶ 11-16.

         In late-2011, Mr. Robinson was transferred from the ATEU to MPD's Special Events Branch (“SEB”), ostensibly because MPD was “civilianizing” the ATEU.[2] Id. ¶ 18. After Mr. Robinson's transfer to the SEB, while MPD officers could no longer work full time in the ATEU, the ATEU Overtime Program continued. Id. ¶¶ 17-18. During his time in the SEB, Mr. Robinson sought reassignment to the ATEU and the opportunity to participate in the ATEU Overtime Program. Id. ¶¶ 18-23. His requests were denied by his supervisor, Lisa Sutter. Id. ¶¶ 21, 24, 34.

         Mr. Robinson brought this action in 2015, alleging that he was transferred out of the ATEU, denied reassignment to the ATEU, and denied the opportunity to participate in the ATEU Overtime Program between February 2014 and May 2015, all because of his race or in retaliation for complaining about racial discrimination. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1-3. After several rounds of briefing, the case proceeded to trial on Mr. Robinson's claim that he was denied ATEU overtime opportunities because of discrimination or retaliation. See Robinson v. District of Columbia (“Robinson I”), 139 F.Supp.3d 448, 451 (D.D.C. 2015) (dismissing Mr. Robinson's claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981(a)); Robinson II, 275 F.Supp.3d at 104-05 (dismissing Mr. Robinson's claims of retaliation and discrimination arising from his reassignment from the ATEU to the SEB). The Court dismissed Mr. Robinson's retaliation claim at the end of his case, leaving only Mr. Robinson's discrimination claim for the jury's deliberation. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(2); Minute Order, Mar. 13, 2018. On this claim, the jury found that Mr. Robinson's SEB supervisor in 2014 and 2015, Ms. Sutter, discriminated against him by denying him ATEU overtime opportunities, and the jury accordingly awarded Mr. Robinson $750 in damages. See Verdict Form, ECF No. 56.

         Shortly after the trial, Mr. Robinson filed a motion asking the Court to (1) enjoin the District from excluding Mr. Robinson from ATEU overtime opportunities which are not filled by officers actively working within the ATEU; (2) enjoin the District from retaliating against Mr. Robinson; and (3) enjoin the District from discriminating against Mr. Robinson on the basis of his race or color. Mot. Injunctive Relief (“Inj. Mot.”) at 3, ECF No. 64. Mr. Robinson also filed motions for back pay, Mot. Award Back Pay (“Pay Mot.”), ECF No. 70, and attorneys' fees, Mot. Attys' Fees Costs (“Fee Mot.”), ECF No. 63-1.[3]

         Those motions are now ripe for the Court's consideration. The Court concludes that while Mr. Robinson is entitled to all three types of relief, he is not entitled to all injunctive relief sought, nor is he entitled to the full amounts of back pay and attorneys' fees sought. Accordingly, as explained below, the Court grants Mr. Robinson's motions in part.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Equitable Relief

         “[O]ne of the central purposes of Title VII is ‘to make persons whole for injuries suffered on account of unlawful employment discrimination.'” Franks v. Bowman Transp. Co., Inc., 424 U.S. 747, 763 (1976) (quoting Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 418 (1975)).

         Accordingly, Title VII expressly provides for a wide range of remedies:

If the court finds that the [defendant] has intentionally engaged in . . . an unlawful employment practice charged in the complaint, the court may enjoin the [defendant] from engaging in such unlawful employment practice, and order such affirmative action as may be appropriate, which may include, but is not limited to, reinstatement or hiring of employees, with or without back pay . . . or any other equitable relief as the court deems appropriate.

42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(1).

         In considering what remedy is appropriate, a court “must strive to grant ‘the most complete relief possible.'” Lander v. Lujan, 888 F.2d 153, 156 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (quoting Franks, 424 U.S. at 764). In other words, the court's goal is to restore the prevailing plaintiffs, as nearly as possible, to the circumstances they “would have occupied if the wrong had not been committed.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Albemarle Paper, 422 U.S. at 418- 19). The court has “considerable discretion” to fashion such a remedy. Lander, 888 F.2d at 156; see also Hayes v. Shalala, 933 F.Supp. 21, 25 (D.D.C. 1996).[4]

         B. Attorneys' Fees

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) requires a party seeking attorneys' fees and “related nontaxable expenses” to file a motion with the court. Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d)(2)(A). The motion must “specify the judgment and the statute, rule, or other grounds entitling the movant to the award.” Id. 54(d)(2)(B). It must also state the amount or provide a fair estimate of the award sought. Id.; see also Craig v. District of Columbia, 197 F.Supp.3d 268, 274 (D.D.C. 2016).

         Under Title VII, the Court is authorized, in its discretion, to award “the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee (including expert fees) as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Generally, “[a] reasonable fee is one that is adequate to attract competent counsel, but that does not produce windfalls to attorneys.” West v. Potter, 717 F.3d 1030, 1033 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 897 (1984)). In awarding appropriate attorneys' fees, a court must conduct a two-step inquiry. Craig, 197 F.Supp.3d at 274-75 (citing Does I, II, III v. District of Columbia., 448 F.Supp.2d 137, 140 (D.D.C. 2006)).

         First, the court must determine whether the plaintiff is the prevailing party. Id. Plaintiffs are considered prevailing parties, entitled to attorneys' fees, “if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Harvey v. Mohammed, 951 F.Supp.2d 47, 53 (D.D.C. 2013) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). A litigant need not succeed at every step of the litigation in order to be a prevailing party under Title VII; indeed, “a litigant who is unsuccessful at a stage of litigation that was a necessary step to her ultimate victory is entitled to attorney's fees even for the unsuccessful stage.” Craig, 197 F.Supp.3d at 275 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of Fr. in the U.S., 189 F.Supp.3d 48, 54-55 (D.D.C. 2016)).

         Second, the court must determine whether the plaintiff's fee request is reasonable. Does I, II, III, 448 F.Supp.2d at 140. In calculating a reasonable fee award, a district court must determine: (1) the reasonable hourly rate (or “lodestar”) for the services rendered by the plaintiff's attorney, (2) the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation, and (3) whether the plaintiff has offered specific evidence demonstrating that this is one of the rare cases where a lodestar enhancement or multiplier is appropriate. See Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995); Heller v. District of Columbia, 832 F.Supp.2d 32, 38 (D.D.C. 2011). “The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. With respect to the number of hours expended, the court must exclude hours that are “excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Craig, 197 F.Supp.3d at 275 (quoting Does I, II, III, 448 F.Supp.2d at 140). Along the same lines, if a plaintiff “achieved only partial or limited success, ” the court may conclude that “the product of hours reasonably expended on the litigation as a whole times a reasonable hourly rate may be an excessive amount, ” and it may accordingly reduce the award. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436.

         Ultimately, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing both his entitlement to attorneys' fees and the reasonableness of the fees he seeks. See Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107; Turner v. D.C. Bd. of Elections & Ethics, 354 F.3d 890, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2004). A plaintiff can satisfy this burden by submitting evidence of: “the attorneys' billing practices; the attorneys' skill, experience, and reputation; and the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107. Once the plaintiff has provided such information, a presumption arises that the hours billed are reasonable, and the burden shifts to the defendant to rebut the plaintiff's showing. Id. at 1109-10.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         As described above, the jury concluded that Mr. Robinson's supervisor, Ms. Sutter, withheld ATEU Overtime opportunities from Mr. Robinson because of his race. Mr. Robinson's rights having been vindicated at trial, he now seeks injunctive relief, back pay, and attorneys' fees. The Court will address each form of relief in turn, concluding that Mr. Robinson is entitled to a portion of the injunctive relief sought, a portion of the back pay sought, and a portion of the attorneys' fees sought. Accordingly, it grants each of Mr. Robinson's motions in part.

         A. Injunctive Relief

         First, the Court addresses Mr. Robinson's motion for injunctive relief. Under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(1), the Court may grant “equitable relief” that “the court deems appropriate” to restore Mr. Robinson, as nearly as possible, to the circumstances he “would have occupied if the wrong had not been committed.” Lander, 888 F.2d at 156. As noted, Mr. Robinson asks the Court to (1) enjoin the District from excluding Mr. Robinson from ATEU overtime opportunities which are not filled by officers actively working within the ATEU; (2) enjoin the District from retaliating against Mr. Robinson; and (3) enjoin the District from discriminating against Mr. Robinson because of his race. Inj. Mot. at 3. As explained below, the Court will enjoin the District from excluding Mr. Robinson from the ATEU Overtime Program because of his race, but it will not enjoin the District from discriminating or retaliating against Mr. Robinson going forward, because Mr. Robinson has not demonstrated that such relief is necessary.

         1. Access to Overtime Opportunities

          In response to the jury's finding that he was deprived of ATEU overtime opportunities because of his race, Mr. Robinson argues that the District should be enjoined from excluding him “from consideration from overtime opportunities offered in” the ATEU going forward. Inj. Mot. at 3. The District, on the other hand, argues that this relief would be overbroad because it “contemplates generic overtime opportunities offered in the ATEU, ” while the jury found that Mr. Robinson was discriminated against with respect to only a subset of those opportunities; those offered in the ATEU Overtime Program. Def.'s Opp'n Pl.'s Mot. Injunctive Relief (“Inj. Opp'n”) at 2, ECF No. 66. The District argues that this program was discontinued “in or about May 2015, ” Mr. Robinson's assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. Id. at 3. The District also notes that Mr. Robinson's motion “makes no mention of racial discrimination, ” which suggests that Mr. Robinson's requested relief would prevent the District from excluding Mr. Robinson from consideration for ATEU overtime opportunities even for non-discriminatory reasons. Id. at 2.

         The Court declines to determine whether the ATEU Overtime Program is still in operation, and it instead grants Mr. Robinson's requested relief more narrowly than it is framed in his motion. “When fashioning remedies under Title VII, courts attempt not to ‘interfere with the policymaking and personnel decisions that rightly belong to public servants.'” Caudle v. District of Columbia, 825 F.Supp.2d 73, 80 (D.D.C. 2011) (quoting Jones v. Rivers, 732 F.Supp. 176, 178 (D.D.C. 1990)). Although that goal is ultimately secondary to Title VII's core purpose of making a plaintiff whole, see Lander, 888 F.2d at 156, it is nevertheless a factor to be considered. Accordingly, the Court will not require the District to consider Mr. Robinson for all overtime opportunities offered in the ATEU. Rather, it enjoins the District from excluding Mr.

         Robinson, because of his race, from overtime opportunities in the ATEU Overtime Program, to the extent the Program is still operational and such opportunities are available to officers outside the ATEU unit.

         2. Retaliation

         Mr. Robinson also argues that the District should be enjoined from retaliating against him because of his successful lawsuit. Inj. Mot. at 3. He claims that he is particularly “vulnerable” to retaliation because one of his current supervisors, Captain Robert Glover, testified for the District during the trial about SEB overtime opportunities. Id. at 2. Mr. Robinson asserts that Captain “Glover and the [MPD] command staff must be embarrassed and greatly displeased with a verdict that impliedly finds them derelict in their duties, ” and are likely to seek retribution. Pl.'s Reply Inj. Opp'n at 2, ECF No. 71. The District first counters that this relief “would be entirely disconnected from the [jury's] verdict, ” which contemplated discrimination but not retaliation. Inj. Opp'n at 3. The District next counters that “Plaintiff has offered no evidence suggesting that he is at risk of retaliation.” Id. On this point, the District has the stronger argument.

         Absent more specific evidence that Mr. Robinson is likely to face retaliation, forbidding retaliation-which is already forbidden by Title VII-is not necessary for the Court to address Mr. Robinson's harm. Ms. Sutter, the individual who discriminated against Mr. Robinson, no longer works for the District. Mr. Robinson's conclusory assertion that “Ms. Sutter may now or in the future be employed by [the District]” does not convince the Court that Ms. Sutter is reasonably likely to ever be in a position to retaliate against Mr. Robinson. Inj. Mot. at 2. Moreover, without additional evidence, the mere fact that Mr. Robinson's current supervisor testified for the District is not enough to show that the supervisor is likely to retaliate against Mr.

         Robinson. Because the Court cannot conclude that there is a “reasonable expectation” that retaliation will occur, the Court declines to impose injunctive relief addressing retaliation. Bundy v. Jackson, 641 F.2d 934, 946 n.13 (D.C. Cir. 1981); see also Spencer v. General Elec. Co., 894 F.2d 651, 660 (4th Cir. 1990) (declining to award injunctive relief to Title VII plaintiff where the action involved “an isolated incident of one supervisor run amok, ” and the supervisor was no longer employed by the defendant) abrogated on other grounds by Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 13 (1992).

         3. Discrimination

         Finally, Mr. Robinson argues that the District should be enjoined from further discriminating against him because of his race. Inj. Mot. at 3. Title VII expressly provides that, after a finding of liability, “the court may enjoin the [defendant] from engaging in [the] unlawful employment practice [in question].” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(1). That said, “[a]lthough enjoining a defendant from further acts of discrimination is a typical remedy in Title VII cases, [the D.C. Circuit] has never held that it is a mandatory remedy . . . .” Johnson v. Brock, 810 F.2d 219, 225 (D.C. Cir. 1987). And the Seventh Circuit has reasoned that where “the proscribed discriminatory practice has been terminated and there is little likelihood of recurrence, ” a court need not enjoin the defendant from further acts of discrimination. Williams v. General Foods Corp., 492 F.2d 399, 407 (7th Cir. 1974); see also EEOC v. Goodyear Aerospace Corp., 813 F.2d 1539, 1544 (9th Cir. 1987) (“Generally, a person subjected to employment discrimination is entitled to an injunction against future discrimination unless the employer proves it is unlikely to repeat the practice”).

         Neither party's briefing is particularly convincing regarding this issue. Mr. Robinson argues that “a need persists to protect [him] from further discrimination based on his race or color, ” and he again supports this argument with the conclusory assertion that “Ms. Sutter may now or in the future be employed by the Defendant or she may become a contractor of the [District], or she may currently be or become an employee of a contractor of the [District], ” and in one of those roles have the opportunity to discriminate against Mr. Robinson. Inj. Mot. at 2. The District rightly notes that this assertion is wholly unsupported by the record, and it argues again that a permanent injunction is unnecessary because Mr. Robinson “has offered no evidence suggesting that he is at risk of racial discrimination in the future, ” given that Ms. Sutter-who was responsible for the discrimination here-is no longer employed by the District. Inj. Opp'n at 4. The District again has the stronger argument.

         As noted above, Mr. Robinson has failed to demonstrate that Ms. Sutter is reasonably likely to ever again discriminate against Mr. Robinson or be placed in a position to do so. Because Ms. Sutter is no longer employed by the District, Mr. Robinson can only speculate that she may at some point become a contractor or employee of the District, and that this hypothetical position would involve oversight of Mr. Robinson. Inj. Mot. at 2. Mr. Robinson's speculation, absent any record evidence, does not give the Court “significant concerns that the District could once again fail to respond to harassment of or discrimination against” Mr. Robinson; the degree of concern that typically warrants enjoining future discrimination. Jean-Baptiste v. District of Columbia, 958 F.Supp.2d 37, 51 (D.D.C. 2013); see also Bundy, 641 F.2d at 953 n.13 (holding that an injunction may be appropriate where the defendant “agency has taken no affirmative steps to prevent recurrence of the harassment, and . . . all the harassing employees still work for the agency”); Caudle, 825 F.Supp.2d at 81 (enjoining future retaliation “where both the plaintiffs and the parties responsible for the unlawful action they experienced continue[d] to work for the defendant”); Bass v. Tanoue, No. 00-0115, 2001 WL 1659158, at *7 (D.D.C. Dec. 21, 2001) (enjoining the defendant from committing further discrimination when “one official whose conduct was the subject of this action remain[ed] one of plaintiff's supervisors”)). The Court declines to enjoin future discrimination against Mr. Robinson because Mr. Robinson has failed to demonstrate that such discrimination may occur. See Bruso v. United Airlines, Inc., 239 F.3d 848, 864 (7th Cir. 2001) (holding that the “relevant inquiry” in determining whether to enjoin discrimination “is whether the employer's discriminatory conduct could possibly persist in the future”).

         B. ...


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