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Morris v. Jackson

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 13, 2019

SUSAN M. MORRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW WHEELER, in his official capacity as Acting Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         After 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.

         I. Background

         Much 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.

         Morris, 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.)

         Challenging 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 issue.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal 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).

         III. Analysis

         The Court begins with Plaintiffs Motion before turning to the Government’s.

         A. Morris’s Motion to Alter and Amend

         Plaintiff 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.

         1. Forfeiture

         While 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 ...


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