420 F.3d 287 (3rd Cir. 2005), 04-1808, Morris v. Rumsfeld

Docket Nº:04-1808.
Citation:420 F.3d 287
Party Name:William D. MORRIS v. Donald H. RUMSFELD, Secretary of Defense, Appellant.
Case Date:August 22, 2005
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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420 F.3d 287 (3rd Cir. 2005)

William D. MORRIS


Donald H. RUMSFELD, Secretary of Defense, Appellant.

No. 04-1808.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit.

August 22, 2005

Argued May 9, 2005.

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania D.C. Civil Action No. 01-cv-01729 (Honorable Christopher C. Conner)

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PETER D. KEISLER Assistant Attorney General THOMAS A. MARINO United States Attorney MARLEIGH D. DOVER JONATHAN H. LEVY (argued) Attorneys, Appellate Staff, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

RALPH B. PINSKEY (argued) Pinskey & Foster, Harrisburg, PA, for Appellee.

Before: SLOVITER and FISHER, Circuit Judges, and POLLAK, [*] District Judge.


POLLAK, District Judge:

This appeal arises out of efforts by appellee William D. Morris ("Morris"), a former employee of the federal Defense Logistics Agency ("DLA"), to recover damages for alleged disability discrimination in the workplace. Morris obtained a favorable award from the EEOC, after extensive administrative proceedings, but now seeks to recover increased compensatory damages in this federal action under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c). We must decide whether, in that context, the District Court may properly accept the EEOC's finding of liability as binding, while providing a de novo trial as to the amount of damages - that figure having been determined not by the EEOC, but by the DLA. For the reasons stated herein, we find such a partial de novo trial inappropriate.


At the time this dispute arose, Morris worked for the DLA, an agency of the United States Department of Defense, as a warehouse fork-lift operator.1 Morris is disabled due to arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and hypertension. In January and February of 1992, Morris gave the DLA letters from his doctor stating that Morris needed reasonable accommodation of his disability, and should be permanently reassigned to an office job. On February

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27, 1992, a DLA doctor confirmed this need for reassignment.

Despite the doctors' recommendations, Morris was not reassigned, but remained at work in his warehouse position. On April 11, 1992, he injured his back in the course of his duties there. Morris was unable to work or care for himself for roughly two months after the injury, and he continues to suffer from its effects.

Morris filed a complaint with the EEOC on August 25, 1992. On November 27, 1995, after a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") at the EEOC issued a recommended decision. The ALJ found that Morris was a "qualified individual with a disability" and that the DLA had "intentionally discriminated" against him between February 27, 1992, and April 11, 1992, by failing, in spite of his repeated requests, to make any attempt to accommodate his medical restrictions. The ALJ found that the DLA had not discriminated against Morris after April 11, 1992. She recommended, among other remedies, that the DLA provide compensatory damages to Morris for his injury.

On February 5, 1996, the DLA issued a decision that rejected the ALJ's recommended finding of discrimination before April 11, 1992, but accepted her finding of no discrimination after that date. Morris appealed this finding of no discrimination to the EEOC.

In October 1998, the EEOC issued a decision restoring the ALJ's recommended finding that the DLA had discriminated against Morris between February 27 and April 11, 1992. The EEOC awarded some relief directly, but remanded the matter to the DLA for a determination of the appropriate compensatory damages amount. The DLA sought reconsideration of the EEOC's liability decision, which the EEOC denied in September 2000.

In June 2001, the DLA issued a decision awarding Morris compensatory damages of $12,500.00 for his April 1992 injury. This decision could have been appealed either to the EEOC or to a federal district court.

Morris did not appeal the DLA's compensatory damages decision to the EEOC. Instead, he filed this action in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, seeking a jury trial to determine the amount of compensatory damages that he should receive. The DLA has paid the $12,500 that it determined was due to Morris, and complied with the other forms of relief awarded by the EEOC, but Morris seeks a higher damages award.


In the District Court, Morris moved for partial summary judgment as to liability, contending that the DLA was bound by the EEOC's finding of intentional discrimination. The District Court granted Morris's motion on September 9, 2003, finding that because two separate administrative orders had been issued regarding Morris's claim - the EEOC determination of liability, and the DLA determination of damages - Morris could appeal the second, without permitting the court to re-examine the first.

On December 23, 2003, the District Court granted the DLA's motion to certify the summary judgment decision for interlocutory appeal. In March 2004 this court granted permission for the interlocutory appeal. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b).


This appeal presents a question of first impression in this court: whether, when pursuing an employment discrimination claim in federal court, a federal employee

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may elect to enforce only the liability determination of an EEOC ruling, while seeking a de novo jury trial on the question of damages. In reviewing an interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), this court exercises plenary review over the question certified. Pub. Interest Research Group of N.J., Inc. v. Hercules, Inc., 50 F.3d 1239, 1246 (3d Cir. 1995).

A. The District Court's Decision

As a federal employee, Morris brought his disability discrimination claim under the Rehabilitation Act, which provides federal employees protection from discrimination similar to that available to private sector employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act. See 29 U.S.C. § 791(g) (Rehabilitation Act anti-discrimination standard); 42 U.S.C. § 12112 (ADA standard).

Although the Rehabilitation Act provides essentially the same relief as the ADA, the administrative process is more complex under the Rehabilitation Act. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 1614.101 et seq. a federal employee must first bring a claim of discrimination on grounds of disability to an internal complaints process within the employing agency. 29 C.F.R. § 1614.106. If dissatisfied with the agency's resolution, the employee may then bring the claim to the EEOC, which will investigate the claim, conduct a hearing if the employee so requests, 2 and issue a recommended decision. Id. ; 29 C.F.R. § 1614.109. The agency then reviews the EEOC recommendation, and issues another decision. 29 C.F.R. § 1614.110. The employee may again appeal to the EEOC, as Morris did here. The EEOC's second decision may complete the administrative adjudicatory process, or may, as happened here, lead to remand of some aspect of the matter to the agency, so that the agency's decision on remand at last concludes the administrative adjudicatory process. Id.

On conclusion of the administrative proceeding, a district court may provide two distinct forms of relief. First, a federal employee who prevails in the administrative process may sue in federal court to enforce an administrative decision with which an agency has failed to comply. Such an enforcement action does not trigger de novo review of the merits of the employee's claims. See, e.g., Moore v. Devine, 780 F.2d 1559, 1563 (11th Cir. 1986); Haskins v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 808 F.2d 1192, 1199 (6th Cir. 1987). Alternatively, a federal employee unhappy with the administrative decision may bring his or her claims to a district court, under Section 505(a) of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794a(a), and receive the same de novo consideration that a private sector employee enjoys in a Title VII action, under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c).3 Chandler v. Roudebush, 425 U.S. 840, 863 (1976) (finding that 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c) provides a trial de novo).

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As the District Court recognized, this case does not involve an enforcement action.4 Rather, the basis for Morris's claims is 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c)'s provision for de novo consideration of discrimination claims in the federal courts, 5] as it applies to disability discrimination claims under Section 505(a) of the Rehabilitation Act. Citing Black's Law Dictionary, the District Court observed that as a general matter de novo consideration means "a new trial on the entire case - that is, on both questions of fact and issues of law -conducted as if there had been no trial in the first instance," noting that "[s]everal federal courts have determined that a plaintiff who seeks de novo review of a damage award must also re-litigate the merits of the underlying discrimination claim." However, the District Court decided to "limit its de novo review . . . to the issue of compensatory damages," because the EEOC finding of liability and the DLA compensatory damages award had been issued in separate administrative decisions. The District Court based its approach on the route followed by the district court in Malcolm v. Reno, 129 F.Supp.2d 1 (D.D.C. 2000). In that case, plaintiff Malcolm had claimed disability discrimination after the FBI retracted a job offer on discovering that he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Id. at 2. as in this case, the administrative decision of Malcolm's claim was made in two parts: an administrative determination of liability and some remedies, which Malcolm did not appeal, followed by a decision on compensatory damages, which he sought to challenge in the district court without upsetting the earlier liability ruling. Malcolm also sought to enforce the earlier administrative ruling's requirement that he be allowed to participate in the next scheduled session of special agent training.6 The FBI had refused to comply with this requirement.

The Malcolm ...

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