Brown et al v. William Penn School District

MEMORANDUM AND OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE CHAD F. KENNEY ON 8/3/20. 8/3/20 ENTERED & E-MAILED.

Eastern District of Pennsylvania, paed-2:2018-cv-03674

Current View

Full Text

5 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA ELIZABETH BROWN & KIM: CIVIL ACTION EVANS-JOHNSON,: Plaintiffs,:: v.:: WILLIAM PENN SCHOOL DISTRICT,: No. 18-03674 Defendant.:: MEMORANDUM I. INTRODUCTION Plaintiffs, Elizabeth Brown ("Brown") and Kim Evans-Johnson ("Evans- Johnson"), (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), brought this civil action for race and gender discrimination against their current employer, Defendant William Penn School District ("WPSD" or "Defendant"). See ECF No. 6 at 1. On March 17, 2020, following a four-day jury trial, and in accordance with the verdict of the jury, the Court issued a Judgment in Favor of the Defendant. See ECF Nos. 84, 85. Currently, before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for a New Trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A) and 60(b)(2) or (3) (ECF No. 89), Defendant's Response in Opposition to the Motion (ECF No. 97), and Plaintiffs' Reply (ECF No. 98). The matter is fully briefed for consideration. II. BACKGROUND 1 5 Plaintiffs' post-trial motion stems from a civil action in which Plaintiffs sued their employer, WPSD, for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for race, gender, and both race and gender discrimination. See ECF No. 6. Trial was held from March 9-13, 2020. The jury returned a defense verdict on all counts and the Court entered judgment accordingly. See ECF No. 85. On April 10, 2020, Plaintiffs filed the instant post-trial motion arguing that Defendant strategically failed to produce evidence, namely the personnel files of Suzanne Murphy, Seamus Smith, Mark Sliwka, Mary Kramer, John Davis, Warren Danenza, Robert Curry, and James Corkery, and that this evidence should serve as the basis for a new trial. See ECF No. 89 at 21-22. Defendant concedes that it produced this evidence in a separate matter in which Plaintiffs' counsel represented Dr. Sydney Denkins, a black female, who filed a complaint with the EEOC that accused WPSD of the same discriminatory hiring and promotional practices that Plaintiffs' alleged here. See ECF No. 97 at 18, 20. On August 27, 2019, the EEOC found that "there was reasonable cause to believe WPSD violated Title VII when it failed to promote/hire Dr. Denkins to a vacant position." See id. at 20. On February 10, 2020, after the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") declined to pursue Dr. Denkins' case, it issued her a notice of right to sue and the EEOC closed its investigation. See ECF No. 89 at 4. Plaintiffs' 2 5 counsel submitted a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") request on March 16, 2020. See id. Nine days later, on March 25, 2020, the EEOC responded and produced 1,133 pages of documents. See id. According to Plaintiff, nearly 900 of those pages related to "the qualifications of white or male WPSD employees who had been promoted or appointed into leadership positions instead of Plaintiffs and Dr. Denkins." Id. at 11. Specifically, these documents contained the aforementioned personnel files of: Susan Murphy (149 pages), Seamus Smith (93 pages), Mark Sliwka (108 pages), Mary Kramer (239 pages), John Davis (101 pages), Warren Danenza (160 pages), Robert Curry (44 pages), and James Corkery (77 pages). See id. at 4-5. At trial, Plaintiffs identified these named individuals as "white or male WPSD employees who were less qualified than Plaintiffs." Id. at 5. Plaintiffs' instant motion seeks a new trial under Fed. R Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A) and 60(b)(2) or (3) on the grounds that "the nearly 900 pages of documents [Defendant] did not produce to Plaintiffs is newly discovered evidence demonstrat[ing] discovery misconduct by [Defendant] or its counsel or both, and is so unfair, unjust and prejudicial to Plaintiffs that a new trial is warranted." Id. at 3. III. DISCUSSION A. Standard of Review Rule 59(a) governs the Court's ability to grant a new trial. This rule allows 3 5 the Court to grant a new trial after a jury trial "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 standard the Court follows depends on the grounds upon which the motion rests. See Klein v. Hollins, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3d Cir. 1993). Rules 59 and 60(b) "share the same standard for granting relief on the basis of newly discovered evidence." Compass Tech., Inc. v. Tseng Labs., Inc., 71 F.3d 1125, 1130 (3rd Cir. 1995). The Court may grant a new trial only where "a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand," the verdict "cries out to be overturned," or where the verdict "shocks [the] conscience." Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1352 (3d Cir. 1991). Rule 60(b) governs the Court's ability to grant relief from a judgment or order. The Court may grant relief under Rule 60(b) only where there are "injustices which … are deemed sufficiently gross to demand a departure from rigid adherence to the doctrine of res judicata." United States v. Beggerly, 524 U.S. 38, 46 (1998) (internal quotations omitted). Rule 60(b)(2) permits the Court to grant relief on the basis of "newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b)." Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(2). A movant under Rule 60(b)(2) "'bears a heavy burden,' which requires 'more than a showing of the potential significance of the new evidence.'" Bohus v. 4 5 Beloff, 950 F.2d 919, 930 (3d Circ. 1991) (quoting Plisco v. Union R. Co., 379 F.2d 15, 17 (3d Cir. 1967), cert. denied, 389 U.S. 1014 (1967)). Rule 60(b)(3) permits the Court to grant relief on the basis of "fraud (whether previously called intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party." Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(3). A movant under Rule 60(b)(3) also bears a heavy burden in establishing by "clear and convincing" evidence "that the adverse party engaged in fraud or other misconduct, and that this misconduct prevented the moving party from fully and fairly presenting his case." Stridiron v. Stridiron, 698 F.2d 204, 206-07 (3rd Cir. 1983); Brown v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co., 282 F.2d 522, 527 (3rd Cir. 1960). Here, "Plaintiffs seek a new trial based on [Fed. R. Civ. P.] 59(a)(1)(A) and 60(b)(2) or (3)." ECF No. 89 at 5. B. Application 1. Rule 59(a)(1)(A) and Rule 60(b)(2) In Compass Tech., Inc. v. Tseng Labs., Inc., the Third Circuit recognized that Rule 60(b)(2) permits the Court to consider "new evidence" as a reason for a new trial under Rule 59(a). 71 F.3d at 1125; see also Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524, 528 (2005). For purposes of Rule 60(b)(2), the term "newly discovered evidence" refers to "evidence of facts in existence at the time of trial of which the aggrieved party 5 5 was excusably ignorant." Bohus, 950 F.2d at 930. The Court may grant a Rule 60(b)(2) motion only where the newly discovered evidence: "(1) [is] material and not merely cumulative [or impeaching], (2) could not have been discovered before trial through the exercise of reasonable diligence, and (3) would probably have changed the outcome of the trial." Id. (citing Stridiron, 698 F.2d at 207). i. Material and not merely cumulative or impeaching To evaluate whether the newly discovered evidence is merely cumulative or impeaching, it is useful to understand the context within which evidence was previously presented. The Third Circuit applies the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) to discrimination claims. A plaintiff bringing an employment discrimination claim bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case by showing: "(1) that she was a member of a protected class, (2) that she was qualified for the [] job to which she applied, and (3) another person, not in the protected class, was treated more favorably." Scheidemantle v. Slippery Rock Univ. State Sys. of Higher Educ., 470 F.3d 535, 539 (3d Cir. 2006). Once the plaintiff has established a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the employer to offer evidence of a "legitimate nondiscriminatory reason" for the "adverse employment decision." Id. at 539, 542. If the employer meets this 6 5 burden, then the plaintiff must show that "the proffered reason is merely a pretext for actual discrimination." Id. Plaintiffs frame the newly discovered evidence as "the nearly 900 pages of documents" regarding "the qualifications of white or male WPSD employees who had been promoted or appointed into leadership positions instead of Plaintiffs." ECF No. 89 at 5, 20. Plaintiffs maintain that this evidence is material because it "goes directly to [the] issues of whether [Defendant] repeatedly passed [Plaintiffs] over for promotions and leadership opportunities and instead hired lesser qualified white or male candidates." Id. at 19. In response, Defendant contends that the evidence is merely "impeaching or cumulative." ECF No. 97 at 31. Specifically, Defendant argues: [A]t trial, Plaintiffs were able to present numerous witnesses and cross- examined defense witnesses relating to the alleged lack of qualifications of persons who had been appointed or promoted to administrative and leadership positions in the WPSD. Taking it witness-by-witness and piece- by-piece, the evidence now offered is merely cumulative or impeaching. Id. Further, Defendant points out that "[l]itigation cannot be unending [and] [t]he concept of finality must be upheld." Id. at 30. The Court agrees with Defendant's evaluation of the cumulative and impeaching nature of the evidence at issue. Plaintiffs' contention that the newly discovered evidence goes directly to the same issues previously litigated reveals one of the fatal flaws in its post-trial motion. At trial, the jury heard evidence on all 7 5 three elements required under the McDonnell Douglas framework. This newly discovered evidence would merely reiterate the same testimony. As such, the evidence is cumulative. Plaintiffs had ample opportunity and were given wide latitude over the course of four days to present their case, which is emphasized by the fact that Plaintiffs did not raise any trial error objections. Testimony from WPSD Superintendent, Jane Harbert ("Superintendent Harbert"), and WPSD Human Resources Director, Joseph Conley demonstrated that Plaintiffs' work behavior was sanctionable, that their qualifications were lacking in leadership and experience, especially in comparison to those chosen for positions ahead of them, and that they interviewed poorly. Particularly, Superintendent Harbert testified that Plaintiff Brown: [H]ad been written up several times for attendance issues, that she had reported late to work on dozens of occasions, and that she had criticized administrative and school board decision making, as well as colleagues. She stated that Brown had not been a team player, having failed to attend professional development, as requested, didn't get along with people, failed to have the best interview responses when she applied for administrative positions, lacked vision for the school district, and had been a guidance counselor, which required a substantial leap in skills and experience to any leadership role. ECF No. 97 at 10. With regard to Plaintiff Evans-Johnson, Superintendent Harbert testified: Ms. Evans-Johnson had not applied for TOSA positions, had received a letter of warning for her attendance issues, was not a team player who worked with colleagues in the classroom or in her department, and had not provided the 'strongest answers' in interviews for administrative positions. 8 5 Ms. Harbert noted that Ms. Evan-Johnson's skills in heading an autism support classroom were not as transferable to a principal position, that she had not articulated a vision to lead buildings, had not gotten along with Dr. Judy Lee (the principal of the high school), and had not gotten along with others in her department. Id. at 10-11. After all of the evidence was presented, th