Van Rossum v. Baltimore County, Maryland

Filing 148

MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge George Jarrod Hazel on 9/11/2017. (kns, Deputy Clerk)

Download PDF
FlLC'lr ._ \ .... r " r IN THE UNITED STATES I)ISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MAI~:YLAND Southern Division lUll SE? \ \ * DIANNE '.. ,,0 40 r- ~I. , ., K. VAN ROSSUM, * Plaintiff, Case No.: G.III-I-t-OI15 * * BALTIMORE COUNTY, MARYLAND, * Defendant. * * * * * * * * * MEMORANDUM Diane K. Van Rossum ("Plaintin'") County. Maryland (the "County" agents. violated provisions amcnded. 42 U.S.c. ** Alternative. * * * OPINION claiming with Disabilitics 12101 el self. I'ollowing on all counts. the Defendant * liIed suit against her fonller employer. or "Defendant"). of the Americans * that the Defendant. Act ("ADA") a jury trial and judgmcnt now submits a Motion for Judgment Baltimore through its of 1990. as in Itlvor of thc Plaintiff as a Mattcr of Law. or. in thc Motion for a New Trial. See ECI' No. 134. The issues havc bccn brieled. Eel' No. 134-1. ECF No. 143. ECF No. 144. and no hcaring is requircd. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2(16). I'or reasons explained I. below. Dcfcndant's motion will be dcnied. BACKGROUND Following ajury trial held from January 23. 20 I 7 through January 30. 2017. the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintilrs ADA regarding physical symptoms See ECF No. 126. Specifically. claim that the Defendant she suffered thcjury violated provisions ofthc from while working in her assigned workspace. found that 1) Dctendant Itliled to provide PlaintilTwith I A full discussion orthe underlying facts of this case can be found in Judge Rrcdar's Memorandum resolving Dcfcndant"s Motion for SUlllmary Judgment. EeF No. 62. Opinion r a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. 2) Defcndant discriminated against PlaintilTbccause of her disability. and 3) Defendant retaliated against PlaintilTbecause of her protected activity of secking accommodation. !d The jury awarded the Plainti IT$250.000 in compensatory damages and $53(>'053 in economic damages. !d Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a)(2). the Defendant moved !()r Judgment as a Matter of Law at the close of Plaintiffs ease. The Court denied the motion on the record. See ECF No. 141 25:1-5. ECI' No. 141 36:<)-12. II. STANDARD OF REVIEW The Defendant renews its Rule 50(a)(2) motion pursuant to Rule 50(b). or in the alternative. moves !()r a new trial pursuant to Rule 59. "In ruling on a motion l()rjudgment as a matter of law. the court is to inquire whether there is any . legally sutlicient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to lind for' the opponent of the motion:' Wei.l'gralll\'. Marley Co.. 528 U.S. 440.453 (2000) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)( I)). In doing so. the Court is to "assume that testimony in favor of the non-moving party is credible. 'unless totally incredible on its lace: and ignore the substantive weight of any evidence supporting the moving party:' Cline \'. Wal-Marl Slm'es. Inc.. 144 F. 3d 294. 301 (4th Cir. 1998) (internal citation omitted). If a party makes a motion lor judgment as a matter of law bef()re the case is submitted to the jury. and the court docs not grant the motion. the court is "considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the co1ll1's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion:' and the moving party may lile a renewed motion within 28 days after the entry of judgment. See red. R. Civ. P. 50(b). In ruling on the Dcfendant's renewed motion. this Court may "( I) allow judgment on the verdict. if the jury returned a verdict: (2) order a new trial: or (3) direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law:' It!. Alternatively. this Court may grant a motion l()r a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) if"(l) the verdict is against the clear weight of 2 the evidencc. or (2) is based upon evidence which is fillse. or (3) will result in a miscarriage of justice. even though there may be substantial evidence which would prevent the direction of a verdict:' Cline. 144 F.3d at 301. III. DISCUSSION The Defendant claims that the "pretrial rulings by the Court. trial rulings. evidence. jury instructions and answers to questions on the verdict sheet led to a verdict unsupported by law and evidence:' See ECF No. 134-1 at 6.2 Specifically. the Defendant asserts that the evidence docs not support the jury's determination that I) the Plaintiff can both receive an award of Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") from the Social Security Administration ("SSA") and make a successful claim against the Defendant under the ADA. 2) the Delcndant took an adverse employment action against the Plaintiff: and 3) the Plainti ITwas entitled to economic and compensatory damages. Each of these assertions is addressed in turn. A. SSDI Award To bring a claim against an employer for failure to make a reasonable accommodation for a disability under the ADA. Plaintiff must be a "qualified individual." See 42 U.S.c. ~ 121 12(b)(5)(A). The ADA defines qualified individual as "an individual who. with or without reasonable accommodation. can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires:' ~ 12111(8). The Defendant asseI1s that the PlaintifTwas not a qualified individual that could work with a reasonable accommodation because when applying for SSDI benefits. she indicated that she was too disabled to work. See ECF No. 134.1 at 9-10. As previously described by Judge Bredar. the Supreme CouI1. in Clen'/lInd \'. Policy Mllnagelllel1f Syslellls Corp .. 526 U.S. 795. 797-798 (1999) "provided clear guidance with 2 Pin cites to documents tiled on the COllI1"s electronic tiling system (CM/ECF) refer to the page numbers generated by that system. respect to the SSDI/ADA scenario:' ECF No. 62 at 7. Judge Bredar summarized thal guidance. noting: As the Court explained. "when the [SSA] determines whether an individual is disabled j()r SSDI purposes. it does nol take the possibility of 'reasonable accommodation' into account. nor need an applicant refer to the possibility of reasonable accommodation when she applies for SSDI:' Nevertheless. the Court recognized that. in some cases. a prior SSDl e1aim may genuinely contlict with an ADA e1aim: accordingly. the Court held that "an ADA plaintiff cannot simply ignore the apparent contradiction that arises out of the earlier SSDI total disability claim" but must instead "proffer a suflicient explanation" from which a reasonable juror could conclude that-assuming the truth oC or the plaintiffs good-faith belief in. the earlier statement-the plaintif1' could have perl(mned her essential duties with or without a reasonable accommodation. ECF No. 62 at 7-8 (quoting Cleveland. 526 U.S. at 803. 805-(7) (emphasis in original):' The jury's verdict indicated that. in their view. the Plaintiff did in fact 'proffer a suflicient explanation' to this apparent contradiction. Therel()re. this Court must determine if that verdict is supported by the evidence presented at trial. It is. At trial. the Plaintil1'testilied that she was unable to work as of March 26. 20 J O-her last day of work bcfore she was forced to rcturn to the fourth tloor (i.e .. when the Defendant denied her reasonable accommodation). See ECF No. 140 121: 1-3. Furthermore. the Plaintiff provided evidence that she was peri()rming the essential functions of her job when given a reasonable accommodation and that her health deteriorated once the accommodation was removed. See Kenerally ECF No. 143 at 12-14. The Defcndant does not suggest that this evidcnce is i~llse:rather. thc Dcfendant argues that simply becausc the Plaintiffis unable to work I()r purposes ofSSDI. shc is barrcd from bringing a claim undcr thc ADA. See ECF No. 144 at 10 (''It]he Plaintiffs sworn asscrtion in her SSDI application that she is 'unable to work' would appear to negatc an esscntial e1cment of her ADA [claim!"). Under the Defcndant's logic. any plaintiff securing SSDI benelits would be ineligible Contrary to Defendant's assertion that Jud~e Bredar"s Summary Judgment Order. Ecr No. 62, is not relevant to Defendant's motion herein. slle EeF No. 144 at 7. the Order esta~blish~dthe legal standards underpinning the questions of Hlct presented to the jury and is 1110s1 certainly relevant nm\', J 4 to bring a claim under the ADA. an argument that clearly contravenes the Supreme Court's holding in Clewland and will therefore be rejected hcrc. The Defendant also alleges that the Court erroneously excluded two SSA disability determinations from April 2, 2013 and Mareh 21. 2013 that rclied on a September 2010 Social Security Adult Function Report ("AFR") which proves the Plaintiff was unablc to pcrform any past relevant work. See ECF Nos. 134-6,134-7. But even ifthcse two cxhibits are rclevant and probative. as the Defendant suggests. the Defendant does not explain why exclusion of the exhibits warrants ajudgmenl as a matter of law or new trial. For the same reason that Plaintiffs application for SSDI does not prohibit the finding of an ADA violation. Plaintiffs statements in these reports. which do not consider the possibility of reasonable accommodation. would not necessitate a finding of an ADA violation.-l Finally. the Defendant argues that the Court" s jury instruction and verdict f(JrIn were inadequate in that they did not specify or require a special verdict indicating that ..the Plaintiff bore the responsibility to provide la sufficient explanationj"" of the contradiction between obtaining SSDl benelits and her alleged status as a qualified individual under the ADA. See ECF No. 134-1 at 10-11. But again. the Defendant fails to explain how this Court's purportedly inadequate jury instruction and special verdict form necessitates a judgment as a matter of law or new trial. Following the Supreme Court's holding in Cle,'elwul and the Modern Federal Jury Instruction. Sand et al.. Modern Federal./III}' Ins/rue/ions. * 88A-14. the jury was instructed that it "may consider the Plaintiff's statements in the SSDI filing concerning her condition in detennining whether shc was a qualified individual .... [aJnd may but arc not required to infer that the PlaintifTwas not a qualified individual on the basis of the statcments in that liling," Sa ..\In addition. when considering a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the Court must "ignore the substantive weight of allY evidence supporting the moving party:" Sill! Clinf!. 144 F. 3d at 30 I. so the potential clTcet of these exhibits on the jury's finding is irrelevant for the purposes of this motion. 5 Ecr No, 141 104:6-11. A ncw trial is thcrcforc not warrantcd on this basis, See also I/ome ,', Owens-Coming Fiberglas Corp,. 4 FJd 276. 284 (4th Cir. 1993) (the timnulation of vcrdict forms and jury charges is committed to the sound discretion of the trial judge so long as thcy adequately infonn the jury of the issues before it), B. Adverse Employment Counts 2 and 3 ofPlaintiJrs Action complaint-discrimination and retaliation. rcspcctivcly- both require thc Plaintiff to show that the Defcndant took an adverse employment action against her. As explained by the Dcfendant. "[tlypically. an adverse employmcnt action has becn found in cases of 'dischargc. dcmotion. decrease in payor benefits. loss of job title or supcrvisory responsibility. or rcduced opportunities for promotion .... See ECF No. 134-1 at 14 (citing Boone 1'. Goldin. 178 F. 3d 253. 255 (4th Cir. 1999», However. in thc contcxt 01''1 rctaliation elaim . •.thc levcl of'injury or harm' that must result trom any rctaliatory action is that which would cause a 'rcasonablc cmployec' to lind .the challenged actionmatcrially advcrsc. which in this contcxt mcans it wcllmight have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination, ... Smilh \', Board (){Edu('(/Iion o{l'rince George '.\'Counly. GJlI-16206.2016 WI. 4014563 at *3 (D, Md. July 26. 2016) (quoting Burling/on N. & Sanla Fe Ry. ('0. ", While. 548 U,S, 53. 68 (2006), The Defendant incorrcctly statcs that thc Plaintiff"olTered no cvidcncc of any promotional opportunity which shc was dcnicd as a result of the reassignmcnt" and "thcrc is no cvidence that the County madc working conditions so intolerablc that a reasonable person would have resigned'" See ECF No, 144 at 14, Thc PlaintifT prcscntcd tcstimony at trial that her rcassignment to licld inspector duty causcd her to ti)rego a potcntial promotion to Sanitarian IIL see ECF No. 140 88: 15-89:6. and the Defendant constructivelv discharged hcr by threating to tcrminatc hcr if she did not return to her lourth 6 11001' workspacc, See ECF No. 14091 :21-92:7: see also ECF No. 139 12:19-21 (suggesting that thc PlaintilTs coworkcr would also be unable to return to the fourth noor for fcar of expcricncing similar health problems). Collectively. this testimony provided the jury with a legally sufticient cvidcntiary basis to determine that the Dcfcndant took an adversc employment action sufticicnt to estahlish both her discrimination and rctaliation claims. C. ()llmagcs' < The Defendant argucs that thc Plaintiff failcd to provide evidcncc that shc madc a diligcnt elTort to tind comparablc cmployment alier her retiremcnt in April 2010 and thercliJre I:liled to mitigate any damagcs causcd by thc Dcfcndant. See ECF No. 134-1 at 11. At thc outset. thc Defcndant has thc burdcn to demonstratc that the PlaintilT failed to mitigate her damagcs. See lv/iller \'. AT & T Corp .. 250 F.3d 820. 838 (4th Cir. 2001 ). Thc Dclcndant claims it satisticd this burden bccausc thc PlaintitTtestiticd that she was too sick to look for work immcdiatcly alicr retirement. See ECF No. 144 at 15 (citing ECF No. 140 123: 17-124: 12). But thc Plainti ITalso testitied that following retirement she maintained hcr accrcditation as a Sanitarian. see ECI' No. 14094:3-9. and that no comparablc cmploymcnt was availablc bascd on her agc and specialty. See id. 124:2-12. Such tcstimony provides ample ground for a jury to find that thc Dclcndant failcd to meet its burden on mitigation ofdamagcs. The Delcndant also argucs that the Plaintiffs award ofretircmcnt bcnetits. under the County's Deferred Rctirement Option Program ("DROP"). is crroneous becausc the PlaintilThad no intention or ability to work an additional five ycars alier retircmcnt. But as discusscd abovc. thc Plainti ITprescnted sufficient evidcnce to The Defendant's Rule 50(a)(2) motion for judgment as a matter of law during trial was specific to the merits of the Plaintiffs three ADA claims. The Defendant did not make a similar Illotion for the calculation and a\\'ard of damages. As such. the Defendant's renewed 50(b) motion herein is procedurally barred. and this Court considers it to be a motion for a new trial under Rule 59 only. See U.S. t'x rd. Herndon \', Appalachian Reg '/ 011ly. /lllod 5;'orl, Inc.. 674 F. Supp. 2d 773. 777 (W.O. Va. 2009) (citing Fed. Sm'. & '-oanlm. Corp. \'. liee,'es. 816 F.2d 130. 13738 (4th Cir.1987» ('"A pal1y who neglects to raise an issue in a pre-verdict Rule 50(a) motion waives the opportunity to include that issue in a post-verdict motion:'). The PlaintilTraiseJ this point when briefing this motion. see ECF No. 143 at 9. but the Defendant failed to address il on reply. .5 7 establish that she could have worked alier her retirement date had the Defendant provided her with a reasonable accommodation. Finally. the Defendant argues the record does not support an award of compensatory damages because the "Plaintiff claims to be depressed. but shc is not bcing trcated for depression."' See ECF No. 134-1 at 13. Under thc ADA. compcnsatory damages arc available flJr "future pecuniary losscs. emotional pain. suffcring. inconvcnience. mcntal anguish. loss of enjoymcnt ofli fe. and other nonpccuniary losses."' 42 U.S.c. no law requiring thc Plaintitfto * 1981arb )(3). The Dcfendant citcs incur clinical treatment for dcpression in order to rcceive compensatory damagcs. and testimony at trial described in detail thc Plaintiff's suffering and mental anguish prior to. and following. her retirement. See e.g. ECF No. 14091: 12-20 and 92:9-12. Other than the Defendant's belief that the Plaintiff is not cntitled to (//1)' compensatory damagcs. the Defendant fails to show why the jury's award 01'$250.000. which is withinthc statutory cap. shocks the conscience. See Fox \'. Gel/. Molors Corp .. 247 F.3d 169. 180 (4th Cir. 2001) ("A jury's award of damages stands unless it is grossly cxcessive or shocking to the conscience."'). IV. CONCLUSION For thc foregoing reasons. Defendant's Motion fi.JrJudgment as a Mattcr of Law. or. in the Alternative. Motion lor a New Trial. ECF No. 134. shall be dcnied. A separate Order fi.Jllows. A/~ , Dated: Scptember! ( . 2017 GEORGEJ.HAZEI. United States District Judgc 8

Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.

Why Is My Information Online?