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Robinson v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 8, 2019

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

         DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW; DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO ALTER OR AMEND JUDGMENT; GRANTING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S SUPPLEMENTAL MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         After a three day trial, a jury found that Defendant the District of Columbia discriminated against Plaintiff Mark Robinson on the basis of race when it deprived him of certain overtime opportunities within the District's Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”). This discrimination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a). The jury awarded Mr. Robinson $750 in compensatory damages. After a round of post-trial briefing, this Court awarded Mr. Robinson injunctive relief, back pay, and attorneys' fees.

         The District has filed two post-judgment motions. First, the District moves for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that no reasonable jury could conclude that Mr. Robinson suffered an adverse employment action required for Title VII liability. Second, the District moves to alter the Court's order granting Mr. Robinson injunctive relief, back pay, and attorneys' fees, arguing that the relief is “manifestly unjust” in light of the governing law and the evidence presented in this case. The Court concludes that the jury could reasonably find that Mr. Robinson suffered an adverse employment action. The Court also concludes that its post-trial relief is supported by the record and is necessary to fulfill Title VII's mandate. The Court thus denies the District's motions, and grants Mr. Robinson additional attorneys' fees.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The Court's prior memorandum opinions in this case contain detailed background summaries. See Robinson v. District of Columbia, 341 F.Supp.3d 97, 103-05 (D.D.C. 2018); Robinson v. District of Columbia, 275 F.Supp.3d 95, 99-101 (D.D.C. 2017). The Court will briefly recount the relevant background here. Mr. Robinson is a sworn MPD officer. See Trial Tr. 77:23-78:1, Mar. 12, 2018, ECF No. 83 (test. of Mark Robinson). He spent several years in MPD's Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit (“ATEU”), a division created to organize traffic camera photographs, analyze evidence of traffic violations, and issue tickets. See Id. 50:10-22 (test. of Sharion Garner), 81:3-12 (test. of Mark Robinson). Assignment to the ATEU was apparently lucrative; Mr. Robinson earned significant overtime pay while in the division. See Id. 102:4-19 (test. of Mark Robinson).

         In late 2011, Mr. Robinson was transferred from the ATEU to MPD's Special Events Branch (“SEB”), ostensibly because MPD was “civilianizing” the ATEU.[1] See Trial Tr. 8:2-13 (Mar. 13, 2018) (test. of Mark Robinson). At this point, although Mr. Robinson was no longer working full time in the ATEU, he could still earn overtime hours through the ATEU Overtime Program. See Id. 89:13-91:7 (test. of Lisa Sutter). Between February 2014 and May 2015, Mr. Robinson attempted to participate in the Program. See Id. 15:17-16:7 (test. of Mark Robinson). The Program manager, Lisa Sutter, denied his requests. See Id. 38:12-25.

         Believing these denials to be discriminatory, and receiving no recourse through administrative channels, Mr. Robinson brought this case in 2015. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1-3, at 5. He alleged that the District violated Title VII when it transferred him out of the ATEU, denied his request for reassignment to the ATEU, and denied him access to 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 Id. After several rounds of briefing, the case proceeded to trial on Mr. Robinson's claim that he was blocked from the ATEU Overtime Program because of discrimination or retaliation. See Robinson, 275 F.Supp.3d at 104-05. The Court dismissed Mr. Robinson's retaliation claim at the end of his case, leaving only Mr. Robinson's discrimination claim. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(2); Min. Entry (Mar. 13, 2018). On that claim, the jury found that the District discriminated against Mr. Robinson by denying him ATEU overtime opportunities, and it awarded him $750 in damages. See Verdict Form, ECF No. 56.

         The jury's verdict has precipitated contentious post-trial litigation. First, Mr. Robinson filed motions for back pay, injunctive relief, and attorneys' fees, which the Court granted in part. See Robinson, 341 F.Supp.3d at 124. Now, the District has struck back. It has filed motions for judgment as a matter of law, and to alter or amend the post-trial relief. Mr. Robinson opposes these motions and seeks additional attorneys' fees. All three motions are ripe for the Court's consideration. It will address them in order.

         III. MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

         First, the Court considers the District's motion, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b)(3), for judgment as a matter of law. See Def.'s Mot. J. Matter of Law, ECF No. 85. Mr. Robinson contests this motion on the merits, but also raises a procedural challenge. A brief summary of Rule 50 procedure is thus in order. Rule 50(a) allows a party in a jury trial to move for judgment as a matter of law after “a party has been fully heard on an issue” and “before the case is submitted to the jury.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). If the Court finds that “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis” to find for the nonmoving party on that issue, then the Court may grant the motion for judgment as a matter of law on any “claim or defense that, under the controlling law, can be maintained or defeated only with a favorable finding on that issue.” Id. If the Court does not grant the motion, however, the Court “is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b).

         After the jury renders its verdict, Rule 50(b) allows the moving party, “[n]o later than 28 days after the entry of judgment, ” to renew its motion for judgment as a matter of law. Id. “Because the Rule 50(b) motion is only a renewal of the preverdict motion, it can be granted only on grounds advanced in the preverdict motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50 Advisory Committee Note to 2006 Amendment; accord Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 485 n.5 (2008) (“A motion under Rule 50(b) is not allowed unless the movant sought relief on similar grounds under Rule 50(a) before the case was submitted to the jury.”).

         In ruling on a Rule 50(b) motion, the Court “do[es] not . . . lightly disturb a jury verdict.” Radtke v. Lifecare Mgmt. Partners, 795 F.3d 159, 163 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (ellipsis in original) (quoting Muldrow v. Re-Direct, Inc., 493 F.3d 160, 165 (D.C. Cir. 2007)); see also Breeden v. Novartis Pharm. Corp., 646 F.3d 43, 53 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (“[J]udgment as a matter of law is ‘highly disfavored' because it ‘intrudes upon the rightful province of the jury'” (quoting Boodoo v. Cary, 21 F.3d 1157, 1161 (D.C. Cir. 1994))). The Court must resolve all reasonable inferences in the nonmovant's favor. See Breeden, 646 F.3d at 53. The Court cannot substitute its view for the jury's view, assess witnesses' credibility, or weigh the evidence. See Scott v. District of Columbia, 101 F.3d 748, 753 (D.C. Cir. 1996). And “[e]ven if the Court finds the evidence that led to the jury verdict unpersuasive, or that it would have reached a different result if it were sitting as the fact-finder, that is not a basis for overturning the jury's verdict and granting judgment as a matter of law.” Pitt v. District of Columbia, 558 F.Supp.2d 11, 15-16 (D.D.C. 2008) (citing 9 Moore's Federal Practice § 50.60[1] at 50-87 (3d ed. 2002)). The jury's verdict will stand if the evidence in support is “‘significantly probative' and ‘more than merely colorable.'” Scott, 101 F.3d at 753 (quoting Ferguson v. F.R. Winkler GMBH & Co. KG, 79 F.3d 1221, 1224 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). In other words, “[j]udgment as a matter of law is appropriate only if the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are so one-sided that reasonable men and women could not have reached a verdict in plaintiff's favor.” Muldrow, 493 F.3d at 165 (quoting McGill v. Muñoz, 203 F.3d 843, 845 (D.C. Cir. 2000)).

         Here, the jury found that the District discriminated against Mr. Robinson by denying him the opportunity to participate in the ATEU Overtime Program. Under Title VII, “the two essential elements of a discrimination claim are that (i) the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action (ii) because of the plaintiff's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability.” Baloch v. Kempthorne, 550 F.3d 1191, 1196 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a)). The District does not challenge the jury's finding on the second element; that Mr. Robinson was deprived of access to the ATEU Overtime Program because of his race. Rather, the District focuses on the first element. It argues that no reasonable jury could have found that Mr. Robinson suffered an adverse employment action. See Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. J. Matter of Law (“Def.'s Rule 50 Mem.”) at 1, ECF No. 85.

         “An adverse employment action is ‘a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing significant change in benefits.'” Jones v. Castro, 168 F.Supp.3d 169, 174 (D.D.C. 2016) (quoting Douglas v. Donovan, 559 F.3d 549, 552 (D.C. Cir. 2009)). “For employment actions that do not obviously result in a significant change in employment status . . . an employee must go the further step of demonstrating how the decision nonetheless caused . . . an objectively tangible harm.” Id. (quoting Douglas, 559 F.3d at 553). In such a case, the court must determine “whether the alleged harm is unduly speculative.” Douglas, 559 F.3d at 553. “Showing that harm is not speculative need not be a difficult task, and it often is not.” Id.

         The denial of overtime opportunities is the type of employment action that typically requires a showing of objectively tangible harm. This is because while overtime comes with “a tangible monetary advantage, ” it “is not universally regarded as desirable.” Bell v. Gonzales, 398 F.Supp.2d 78, 97 (D.D.C. 2005). Thus, a lost opportunity for overtime is considered an adverse action only when it is “associated with a fundamental alteration in the conditions of employment, such as a transfer or reassignment of duties that has a significant adverse impact on overtime opportunities, and the plaintiff demonstrates that ‘[he] in the past sought opportunities for overtime pay or it was otherwise known to defendant that [he] desired such opportunities.'” Caul v. U.S. Capitol Police, No. 15-1243, 2016 WL 2962194, at *9 (D.D.C. May 19, 2016) (quoting Sims v. District of Columbia, 33 F.Supp.3d 1, 7 (D.D.C. 2014)); see also Bell, 398 F.Supp.2d at 97. “The duration and frequency of the denial of overtime opportunities are both significant factors in evaluating the adversity presented by such a discrimination claim.” Id.

         The District concedes that “it is undisputed that [Mr. Robinson] sought overtime opportunities in the ATEU Overtime Program and that the District knew [he] desired these opportunities.” Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. at 9. It puts forth two reasons, however, why a reasonable jury still could not find that Mr. Robinson suffered an adverse employment action. First, the District contends that Mr. Robinson “failed at trial to present any evidence about how many hours he earned in the ATEU Overtime Program before his exclusion in February 2014.” Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. at 9. Second, the District contends that Mr. Robinson “did not establish that he was unable to earn the same amount of overtime hours in the SEB” as he would have through the ATEU, absent discrimination. Id. Without this evidence, according to the District, a reasonable juror could not have concluded that Mr. Robinson “suffered an objectively tangible harm” necessary for Title VII liability. Id.

         As an initial matter, Mr. Robinson argues that the District's motion is “procedurally barred” because it raises arguments not raised in the District's Rule 50(a) trial motions. Pl.'s Opp'n Def.'s Mot. J. Matter of Law (“Rule 50 Opp'n”) at 2, ECF No. 91. It is true that “Rule 50(b) permits only the ‘renewing' of arguments made in prior Rule 50(a) motions.” Campbell v. District of Columbia, 894 F.3d 281, 286 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (citing Fed. R. Riv. P. 50(b); Exxon Shipping, 554 U.S. at 485 n.5). But the District complied with that rule here. The trial record, which Mr. Robinson admits he did not have when drafting his brief, see Rule 50 Opp'n at 4 n.3, bears this out. After Mr. Robinson's case-in-chief, the District argued that Mr. Robinson “failed to prove an adverse employment action” because (1) he put forth minimal evidence “about what overtime that was actually certified operator overtime”-i.e. ATEU Overtime Program hours- “that he worked” before the discrimination period; and (2) “he actually testified that he was never denied overtime shifts in the [SEB].” Trial Tr. 72:22-73:11, Mar. 13, 2018. After the parties rested their cases, the District argued that Mr. Robinson failed to “show an adverse action” because the District's evidence “establishe[d] that he had opportunities to work overtime in the [SEB] that could have been equal to what he claims to have worked when he was in the ATEU.” Trial Tr. 39:6-14, Mar. 14, 2018. Thus, both at trial and in its current motion, the District argued that Mr. Robinson failed to show, more than speculatively, that he was deprived of overtime hours he would have earned but for the District's discrimination. While the District may not have phrased its arguments identically at trial and in its current motion, the District satisfied Rule 50's function, “which is to provide notice of legal arguments and prevent counsel from sandbagging an opposing party by waiting until after entry of the judgment to raise a new argument that requires new evidence to be rebutted.” Campbell, 894 F.3d at 287 (citing Teneyck v. Omni Shoreham Hotel, 365 F.3d 1139, 1149 (D.C. Cir. 2004)). The District's Rule 50(b) arguments were properly preserved.

         Having overcome that procedural challenge, the Court turns to the merits. The District's two core arguments raise one core question: Could a reasonable jury conclude, based on the evidence presented, that the District caused a “significant adverse impact” on Mr. Robinson's overtime opportunities? The answer is yes.

         At trial, Mr. Robinson described the plentiful overtime opportunities available to him through the ATEU Overtime Program. He testified, and the District did not contradict, that ATEU Overtime Program shifts were readily available twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. See Trial Tr. 23:9-14, Mar. 13, 2018 (test. of Mark Robinson). Participating officers could plan their own overtime schedules in advance, see Id. 27:16-23, or sign up electronically for “standby” shifts, without the need for supervisor approval, see Id. 29:24-30:11. Each shift lasted for eight hours. See Id. 47:4-15.

         Overtime in the SEB, on the other hand, came “in spurts, ” “not 24 hours a day, ” and it was “not offered 6 days a week.” Id. at 21:10-20. It was also a combination of mandatory and voluntary overtime, depending on event timing and staffing decisions. See Trial Tr. 19:5-20, Mar. 14, 2019 (test. of Robert Glover). And SEB overtime shifts appear to have lasted for less than eight hours. See Id. at 13:24-14:1 (stating than an SEB officer could earn “six to seven hours of overtime for each presidential movement”). Mr. Robinson testified that within those constraints, he earned SEB overtime “as much as [he] could;” he “worked the overtime that was available.” Trial Tr. 25:17-25, Mar. 13, 2019 (test. of Mark Robinson).

         Yet, according to Mr. Robinson, he would have earned hours in the ATEU Overtime Program “above and beyond” what he earned through the SEB. Id. at 26:9-12. He explained that this was because the ATEU Overtime Program simply provided more overtime opportunities and more flexibility. See Id. at 27:2-23. And this was borne out by the record: Mr. Robinson earned over 1, 000 ATEU overtime hours in 2010, see Pl.'s Mot. Back Pay Ex. 2 at 21, ECF No. 70-2, and only 525.75 SEB overtime hours during the fifteen-month discrimination period, see Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. Ex. 3, ECF No. 85-3.[2] Given this evidence, a reasonable jury could conclude that Mr. Robinson's exclusion from the ATEU Overtime Program materially reduced his overtime opportunities, and thus his compensation.

         The District suggests that to show objectively tangible harm, Mr. Robinson was required to precisely quantify the number of hours he earned in the ATEU Overtime Program before the discrimination period, and compare it to the hours he earned when he could not access the Program. See Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. at 10. True, Mr. Robinson needed to show that the District deprived him of a non-trivial amount of overtime that he would have actually earned. See Anyaso v. U.S. Capitol Police, 39 F.Supp.3d 34, 41 n.2 (D.D.C. 2014) (holding that “[t]he mere conclusory assertion that [the plaintiff] might have had additional opportunities for overtime, ” but for the defendant's action, was not sufficient to show an adverse employment action); Sims, 33 F.Supp.3d at 8 (rejecting an overtime-based discrimination claim where the evidence showed only that the plaintiff “may have lost the opportunity to earn overtime pay while participating in . . . two short-term detail assignments, ” but was otherwise not denied overtime opportunities); Caul, 2016 WL 2962194, at *13 (“A onetime denial of overtime request in the context of the plaintiff's admissions that his requests for overtime were regularly approved, does not cause a significant change in benefits.” (emphasis in original) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)). His allegations could not be “unduly speculative.” Douglas, 559 F.3d at 553.

         But the law does not require the absolute precision advocated by the District. Rather, Mr. Robinson needed only to convince the jury that he would have consistently earned hours in the ATEU Overtime Program, that the District prevented him from doing so, and that the SEB provided significantly inferior overtime opportunities. See Lewis v. City of Chicago, 496 F.3d 645, 654 (7th Cir. 2007) (holding that the plaintiff could have suffered an adverse employment action if she “lost the potential to earn many hours of overtime.”); Bell, 398 F.Supp.2d at 97-98 (allowing the plaintiff's overtime-based retaliation claim to survive summary judgment where he presented evidence “showing that substantially more overtime pay was available . . . on average” to employees in the unit from which he had been reassigned); Caul, 2016 WL 2962194, at *9 (holding that a plaintiff may suffer an adverse employment action when he was denied overtime in a “frequent and recurring” manner). Mr. Robinson's evidence was sufficiently probative that a reasonable jury could have reached that conclusion.[3]

         The District also argues that Mr. Robinson failed to prove that he had fewer opportunities to earn overtime in the SEB than he would have had through the ATEU Overtime Program. The District notes that Mr. Robinson's SEB supervisor, Captain Robert Glover, testified that “[i]t would have been fairly easy [for an SEB officer] to accomplish 20 [overtime] hours in a week.” Trial Tr. 18:5-17, Mar. 14, 2018 (test. of Robert Glover). Captain Glover also described the types of sporadic overtime opportunities available to SEB members. See Id. at 15:1-16:11 (listing parades, sporting events, movie sets, and protests as possible SEB overtime opportunities). But this testimony is no more precise than Mr. Robinson's testimony to the contrary. Captain Glover did not identify any specific opportunities that Mr. Robinson turned down; his testimony was not even specific to Mr. Robinson's SEB shift schedule. See Id. at 17:6-16 (stating that “all three shifts have [overtime] opportunities”). In other words, Mr. Robinson testified rather vaguely that his ...


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