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Ames v. Nielsen

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 2, 2018

HARRIETT A. AMES, Plaintiff,
v.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, Secretary of Homeland Security, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          AMIT P. MEHTA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         After a four-day trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendants Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the Secretary of DHS on Plaintiff Harriett Ames's discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Plaintiff is the former Chief of the Personnel Security Branch within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”), a component of DHS. Plaintiff brought this action under Title VII, alleging, among other things, that FEMA discriminated against her on the basis of sex and race and retaliated against her for engaging in prior protected activity by reassigning her to the position of Chief of the Training Unit.[1]

         Before the court is Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, in the Alternative, for a New Trial, ECF No. 149. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion is denied.

         II. PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

         The court begins with-and quickly dismisses-Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b). Under Rule 50, a court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law after a jury trial if it finds that “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the [nonmoving] party on th[e] issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). To determine whether this standard is met, the court “should review all of the evidence in the record” and “must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). “In doing so, however, the court . . . may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Id.

         Here, Plaintiff acknowledges that credibility determinations are off-limits in evaluating a party's Rule 50 motion. See Pl.'s Mot. for J. as Matter of Law or, in the Alternative, for New Trial, ECF No. 149, Pl.'s Mem. of P. & A., ECF No. 149-1 [hereinafter Pl.'s Mem.], at 6-7. Nevertheless, Plaintiff asks the court to grant her Rule 50 motion because Defendants “failed to rebut [her] prima facie case at trial by offering credible admissible evidence that there was a legitimate business reason for the actions taken against [her].” Id. at 8 (emphasis added). Indeed, her entire argument is premised on the credibility of various players involved in her reassignment. Id. at 8; see Id. at 3-4 (describing testimony of witnesses Cantu, Salazar, and Oliver as “inconsistent” and/or “false”). True, there were some inconsistencies in the testimony regarding the reasons for Plaintiff's reassignment and who made the decision to reassign her. See Id. at 3- 4. But it was within the province of the jury to assess the credibility of the witnesses in light of those inconsistencies and to determine how much weight, if any, to give their testimony. See Williams v. Johnson, 870 F.Supp.2d 158, 162 (D.D.C. 2012) (“[B]ecause the fundamental function of the jury is ‘to select, from among conflicting inferences and conclusions, that which it finds most reasonable,' ‘the court cannot substitute its view for that of the jury, and can assess neither the credibility nor weight of the evidence.'”) (first quoting Metrocare v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 679 F.2d 922, 924 (D.C. Cir. 1982); then quoting Scott v. District of Columbia, 101 F.3d 748, 752 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). Thus, for the same reasons stated at trial, Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law is denied. See Jury Trial Tr., ECF No. 145, at 840-41 (denying Plaintiff's Rule 50(a) motion for same reasons court denied Defendants' Rule 50(a) motion); see also Id. at 839-40 (denying Defendants' Rule 50(a) motion); Jury Trial Tr., ECF No. 142, at 361- 64 (same). Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Defendants, a reasonable jury could have credited the non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons offered for Plaintiff's reassignment. See Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for J. as Matter of Law or, in the Alternative, for New Trial, ECF No. 152, at 3-5 (summarizing evidence presented at trial); see also Williams, 870 F.Supp.2d at 162 (“The jury's verdict must stand ‘unless the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are so one-sided that reasonable men and women could not disagree.'”) (quoting Scott, 101 F.3d at 752).

         III. PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

         Having concluded that Plaintiff is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50, the court turns to Plaintiff's alternative argument that a new trial is warranted under Rule 59. Rule 59 allows a court to grant a new trial after a jury verdict “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). “The authority to grant a new trial . . . is confided almost entirely to the exercise of discretion on the part of the trial court.” Queen v. Schultz, 310 F.R.D. 10, 21 (D.D.C. 2015) (alteration in original) (quoting Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 36 (1980)). While the trial court is entrusted with the exercise of discretion, “[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 v. District of Columbia, 19 F.Supp.3d 281, 286 (D.D.C. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Plaintiff offers five reasons why she is entitled to a new trial under Rule 59. As discussed below, none of these reasons warrant upsetting the jury's verdict.

         A. “False Testimony” of Plaintiff's Supervisors

         Plaintiff first claims that she is entitled to a new trial because “[t]he previous false testimony by Messrs. Cantu, Salazar, and Oliver”-coupled with Defendants' “failure to offer any admissible, credible evidence from these decision-makers to rebut plaintiff's prima facie cases of discrimination and retaliation”-make clear that the jury's verdict in favor of Defendants was a “seriously erroneous result.” Pl.'s Mem. at 9; accord Id. (“Thus, denial of this motion would result in a ‘clear miscarriage of justice.'”). The court need not linger over this first argument, as it is based on the same erroneous premise advanced in support of Plaintiff's motion for judgment as a matter of law: that the court can countermand a jury's credibility determination. Therefore, the court rejects this argument for largely the same reasons stated above. Cf. Vander Zee v. Karabatsos, 589 F.2d 723, 729 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (“The trial court's contrary view of the credibility of the witnesses does not justify the granting of a new trial.”); Hancock v. Wash. Hosp. Ctr., 13 F.Supp.3d 1, 10 (D.D.C. 2014) (holding that weight of evidence did not mandate new trial under Rule 59 where court already found that plaintiff failed to meet Rule 50 standard).

         B. “Continuing Discovery Abuses”

         The court easily disposes of Plaintiff's second argument, too. While Plaintiff contends that Defendants' “continuing discovery violations” warrant a new trial, see Pl.'s Mem. at 9, no such violations occurred. As the court explained in denying Plaintiff's motion in limine to exclude Kimberly Lew's November 2, 2011 email and testimony at trial, Defendants' disclosures were timely, albeit barely, and thus automatic exclusion was not warranted under Rule 37(c)(1). See Pretrial Hr'g Tr., ECF No. 140, at 17-18. Furthermore, to mitigate any prejudice to Plaintiff caused by Defendants' last-minute disclosures, the court ordered Defendants to make Ms. Lew available for a deposition before trial. See Omnibus Pretrial Order, ECF No. 116, ¶ 1.

         To the extent Plaintiff claims that she was prejudiced by the late timing of Ms. Lew's deposition, which took place only four days before trial, see Pl.'s Mem. at 9, it is Plaintiff who waited approximately a year and a half to complain to the court about the lateness of disclosures related to Lew, [2] see Minute Order, Sept. 27, 2016 (setting October 21, 2016 as discovery deadline); Pl.'s First Mot. in Limine, ECF No. 92 (dated April 20, 2018) (seeking to exclude evidence concerning Lew). Rather than raising the issue at the Post-Discovery Conference, see Hr'g Tr. (draft), Oct. 25, 2016, at 2-4, or in her request to reopen discovery pursuant to Rule 56(d), see Pl.'s Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 76, at 32, [3] Plaintiff waited until she filed her first motion in limine to formally raise the issue with the court. Plaintiff cannot now be heard to complain about the timing of Lew's deposition when Plaintiff failed to exercise diligence in trying to obtain her testimony on an earlier date.

         Additionally, in her present motion, Plaintiff fails to identify any concrete way in which the timing of the deposition actually prejudiced her. Instead, she simply states that she was “denied the opportunity of using the surprise Lew admission”-that is, that Ms. Lew “had no personal knowledge” about the reasons she gave, and Defendants adopted, in recommending Plaintiff's reassignment-when “planning her case, issuing discovery requests, taking depositions, and preparing for trial.” Pl.'s Mem. at 9-10. This assertion is perplexing, as Plaintiff cross-examined Ms. Lew at trial about her lack of personal knowledge. Jury Trial Tr., ECF No. 143, at 560-61. In any event, Plaintiff's generic proclamation of harm does little to convince the court that it erred in denying Plaintiff's motion in limine, let alone that such an error resulted in a “clear miscarriage of justice.” See Moore v. Hartman, 102 F.Supp.3d 35, 139 (D.D.C. 2015) (“[T]he standard for granting a new trial is not whether minor evidentiary errors were made but rather whether there was a clear miscarriage of justice.” (internal quotation marks omitted)); cf. Muldrow ex rel. Estate of Muldrow v. Re-Direct, Inc., 493 F.3d 160, 167 (D.C. Cir. 2007) ...


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