United States District Court, District of Columbia
SUSAN M. MORRIS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW WHEELER, in his official capacity as Acting Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Defendant.
E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Plaintiff Susan Morris prevailed in a jury trial, this Court
issued an Opinion granting her a substantial award of
attorney fees and costs but denying her other equitable
relief. Dissatisfied with that result, Morris asks the Court
to reverse itself and grant her the relief denied during the
last round. Defendant, the Environmental Protection Agency,
has now chimed in as well, seeking an order striking the
jury’s compensatory-damages award. Because neither
party raises any issue that could not have been raised - or
was not in fact raised - previously, and because such
arguments in any event lack merit, the Court will not disturb
its prior Opinion.
ink has been spilled recounting the facts and circumstances
of this litigation. See, e.g., Morris v.
Wheeler, 2018 WL 6308785 (D.D.C. Dec. 3, 2018);
Morris v. Pruitt, 308 F. Supp. 3d 153 (D.D.C. 2018).
The Court thus offers just a few words to set the stage.
a longtime E P A employee, was suspended and later fired over
allegations of misconduct. She subsequently sued the
Government claiming that her suspension and termination were
racially discriminatory. See ECF No. 4 (Am. Compl.).
The case went to trial on just the suspension claim, and the
jury found for Plaintiff in the amount of $25,000.
See ECF No. 73 (Clerk’s Judgment). She then
moved for various forms of equitable relief, including
expungement and backpay as to the suspension, reinstatement
and backpay as to the subsequent termination, and attorney
fees and costs. See ECF No. 95 (Mot. Equitable
Relief). The Court granted her attorney fees but denied her
other requests. See Morris, 2018 WL 6308785, at *1.
It explained that, when the defendant shows that it would
have taken the same employment action in the absence of
discrimination - what courts have called the “same
action” defense - Title VII precludes a court from
awarding certain categories of equitable relief, like backpay
and reinstatement. Id. at *3 (discussing 42 U.S.C.
§ 2000e-5(g)(2)(B)). Finding that the Government had
indeed shown that it would have suspended Plaintiff absent
racial considerations, the Court thus denied her backpay and
expungement of the suspension. Id. at *3–6.
(Relief related to the termination was denied because it
depended on the success of her claim for relief on the
suspension and for independent reasons not relevant here.)
this conclusion, Morris has filed a Motion to Alter and Amend
the Judgment. See ECF No. 106 (Mot.). The Government
has opposed and cross-moved to strike the jury’s award
of compensatory damages. See ECF No. 108
(Cross-Mot.). No. one seeks reconsideration of the fees
Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) permits the filing of a motion
to alter or amend a judgment when such motion is filed within
28 days after the judgment’s entry. The Court must
apply a “stringent” standard when evaluating Rule
59(e) motions. See Ciralsky v. CIA, 355 F.3d 661,
673 (D.C. Cir. 2004). “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.” Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d
1205, 1208 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks and
citation omitted). Critically, Rule 59(e) “is not a
vehicle to present a new legal theory that was available
prior to judgment.” Patton Boggs LLP v. Chevron
Corp., 683 F.3d 397, 403 (D.C. Cir. 2012).
Court begins with Plaintiffs Motion before turning to the
Morris’s Motion to Alter and Amend
offers three related reasons why the Court should alter and
amend its Judgment: (1) Defendant waived the “same
action” defense; (2) the Court’s “same
action” finding conflicts with the way the parties have
litigated this case; and (3) its “same action”
finding is inconsistent with the jury’s determination.
Each is addressed in turn.
Morris’s first objection is framed as one about waiver,
it is more properly considered a forfeiture argument. See
United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 733 (1993)
(“Whereas forfeiture is the failure to make the timely
assertion of a right, waiver is the ‘intentional
relinquishment or abandonment of a known
right.’”) (quoting Johnson v. Zerbst,
304 U.S. 458, 464 (1938)). She says, in short, that the
Government never properly asserted the “same
action” defense, so the Court’s prior decision
applying the defense was erroneous. See Mot. at 1-2.
This argument holds little water. For starters, Defendant
clearly asserted the defense in its opposition to the motion
for equitable relief. It explained that, because the Court
had instructed the jury that it could find for Plaintiff if
discrimination was “a motivating factor in the
suspension,” the jury’s $25,000 verdict for
Morris did not necessarily mean she should receive the
equitable relief of voiding the suspension. See ECF
No. 97 (Opp. to Mot. Equitable Relief) at 6. Citing the Court
of Appeals’s decision ...