994 A.2d 411 (Md. 2010), 85, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission v. Phillips

Docket Nº:85, 154.
Citation:994 A.2d 411, 413 Md. 606
Opinion Judge:HARRELL, J.
Party Name:WASHINGTON SUBURBAN SANITARY COMMISSION v. Shaaron PHILLIPS, et al. James K. Sillers v. Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Allen W. Cartwright, Jr. v. Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
Attorney:Timothy F. Maloney (Brian J. Markovitz, Joseph M. Creed, and Koushik Bhattacharya of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, P.A., Greenbelt), on brief, for appellants in No. 154 Sept. Term, 2008. Russel L. Beers (Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission of Laurel), on brief, for appellee in No. 154 Sept. Term...
Judge Panel:Argued and reargued before BELL, C.J., HARRELL, BATTAGLIA, GREENE, MURPHY, ADKINS and BARBERA, JJ.
Case Date:May 10, 2010
Court:Court of Appeals of Maryland
 
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Page 411

994 A.2d 411 (Md. 2010)

413 Md. 606

WASHINGTON SUBURBAN SANITARY COMMISSION

v.

Shaaron PHILLIPS, et al.

James K. Sillers

v.

Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Allen W. Cartwright, Jr.

v.

Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Nos. 85, 154.

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

May 10, 2010

Argued June 5, 2009.

Reargued Feb. 5, 2010.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 413

Timothy F. Maloney (Brian J. Markovitz, Joseph M. Creed, and Koushik Bhattacharya of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, P.A., Greenbelt), on brief, for appellants in No. 154 Sept. Term, 2008.

Russel L. Beers (Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission of Laurel), on brief, for appellee in No. 154 Sept. Term, 2008

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and for petitioner in No. 85 Sept. Term, 2009.

M. Celeste Bruce (Ellen B. Flynn of Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan, and Silver, LLC, Greenbelt), on brief, for respondent in No. 85 Sept. Term, 2009.

Argued and reargued before BELL, C.J., HARRELL, BATTAGLIA, GREENE, MURPHY, ADKINS and BARBERA, JJ.

HARRELL, J.

[413 Md. 610] The three appeals presently before the Court were argued (and are decided) together because of a single legal question they share: whether the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (hereinafter, " WSSC" or " the Commission" ) qualifies as a " person" under Maryland Code, Article 49B, FN1 § 42(a) 2 [413 Md. 611] (hereinafter, § 42(a)), and, therefore, is subject to actions for employment discrimination brought by its employees or ex-employees for violations of anti-discrimination ordinances enacted by Prince George's County. In each case, a former employee of WSSC brought an action in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County against the Commission, pursuant to § 42(a), alleging that WSSC engaged in race-based employment discrimination in violation of Prince George's County Code (" PGCC" ) §§ 2-186 3 and 2-222.4 In response, WSSC maintained that,

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because it is a State agency or instrumentality, it is not considered a " person" for purposes of § 42(a) and, as such, may not be sued for employment discrimination [413 Md. 612] pursuant to that section. For reasons we shall explain, we hold that, for purposes of § 42(a), WSSC is a " person," and, therefore, may be sued for employment discrimination under § 42(a) for violations of the anti-discrimination provisions of the Prince George's County Code.

FACTS

Because the question with which we are confronted in these cases is purely a legal one, we set forth only briefly sufficient factual backgrounds underlying each action to give context.

Shaaron Phillips

In 2003, Shaaron Phillips, an African-American female who served as leader of WSSC's Small, Local, and Minority Business Enterprise Group, approached her general manager " to discuss harassment and racial discrimination she was experiencing at WSSC." After she was unable to have her concerns resolved satisfactorily, Phillips filed, on 16 June 2003, complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ), the Maryland Commission on Human Rights, and the Prince George's County Human Rights Commission. The complaints identified a number of Caucasian WSSC employees who held similar positions to Phillips, but who received higher pay than she did.

After the EEOC denied her claims, Phillips 5 filed in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, on 22 June 2004, a civil action against WSSC alleging various claims of unlawful retaliation and pay discrimination based on race and national origin. Of note to the present appeal, Phillips's complaint charged WSSC with engaging in discriminatory retaliation in violation of § 42(a) and PGCC §§ 2-186 and 2-222 by failing to give Phillips a performance evaluation, and attendant merit pay increase in 2003.6 In response, WSSC filed a motion to [413 Md. 613] dismiss Phillips's complaint, contending, among other things, that the claim asserted by Phillips pursuant to § 42(a) and PGCC §§ 2-186 and 2-222 could not be maintained because the General Assembly's use of the term " person" in § 42(a) demonstrated its intent that § 42(a) not apply to State agencies, a club to which, WSSC argued, it belonged. Pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-322(c), the trial court converted WSSC's motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. On 18 January 2005, in a written order and opinion, the trial court denied WSSC's motion for summary judgment, holding that, although WSSC was a State agency, it nevertheless qualified as a " person" under § 42(a), subject to actions for employment discrimination brought pursuant to § 42(a) for violations of PGCC §§ 2-186 and 2-222.

While the retaliation-grounded suit was pending in the Circuit Court, on 31 January 2005, Phillips's employment was terminated by WSSC.7 Phillips challenged her

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termination in an administrative proceeding, but the Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) of the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings presiding over the appeal found that WSSC's termination of Phillips was justified and denied Phillips relief. Phillips appealed the ALJ's ruling to the Circuit Court, which affirmed the administrative decision. Upon further appeal, the Court [413 Md. 614] of Special Appeals upheld the ALJ's ruling that WSSC's termination of Phillips was justified.

Following the administrative proceedings and subsequent appeals process arising from her termination, Phillips amended her existing retaliation complaint to include claims for unlawful termination, in violation of § 42(a) and the Prince George's County Code, and common law wrongful discharge. Upon WSSC's motion, the termination-based causes of action were dismissed by the Circuit Court prior to trial on the grounds that, because the ALJ ruled that WSSC had lawful cause to terminate Phillips, the doctrine of res judicata barred any further termination-based claims asserted by Phillips. As such, only Phillips's retaliation-based claim remained. After a nine-day trial on that claim in December 2006, the jury returned a verdict of $16, 433.16 in favor of Phillips, finding that WSSC engaged in discriminatory retaliation in violation of § 42(a) and PGCC § § 2-186 and 2-222. In addition, the trial court awarded Phillips attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $60,242.50.

Phillips appealed timely the trial court's dismissal of her termination-based claims to the Court of Special Appeals. WSSC cross-appealed, arguing that § 42(a) does not apply against State agencies and instrumentalities such as WSSC, and, therefore, the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment on Phillips's claim for retaliation premised upon § 42(a).

In its 19 March 2009 unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling on Phillips's termination-based claims, finding that the ALJ's decision established that there were non-discriminatory reasons for Phillips's termination and that the reasons accepted by the ALJ were supported by the evidence. Therefore, the court held, WSSC was entitled to summary judgment on Phillips's termination-based claims.8 Regarding WSSC's cross-appeal, the [413 Md. 615] intermediate appellate court again affirmed the Circuit Court, holding that, based on its view of the statutory scheme of Article 49B as a whole and WSSC's nature as a " unique," albeit a State, agency, the General Assembly intended for § 42(a) to apply to WSSC as a " person."

On 19 May 2009, WSSC filed with this Court a petition for writ of certiorari, which, on 21 August 2009, we granted, 410 Md. 165, 978 A.2d 245 (2009). In our

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grant of certiorari, we directed, in coordination with the related cases then pending before us (and decided in this opinion), that Phillips and WSSC address the following three questions:

(1) Whether the term " person," as it is used in Md.Code, Article 49B, § 42, includes the State of Maryland?

(2) If so, is the WSSC an agency or instrumentality of the State for those purposes?

(3) If not, is the WSSC a unique entity that should be considered a " person," within the meaning of Md.Code, Art. 49B, § 42, even if the State, in general, is not included within the meaning of that term?

James K. Sillers

James K. Sillers, a Caucasian male, was employed by WSSC from 1975 until 2007. Sillers rose through the ranks of the Commission staff, starting as a general laborer and ultimately becoming Group Leader for Wastewater Collections Systems.

According to Sillers, on or around 27 March 2006, he was demoted from his position as Group Leader for Wastewater Collections Systems to a new position as a Program Administrator. In response, Sillers filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that his demotion was the result of " enormous pressure ... to have white employees removed from management positions and replaced with minorities." Sillers elaborated that " WSSC has altered its racial demographics and intentionally forced or encouraged numerous white employees to retire or resign, replacing them with minority employees." On 13 March 2007, the EEOC determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that WSSC had engaged in race-based discrimination [413 Md. 616] against Sillers and, on 20 August 2007, issued Sillers a right to sue letter. Subsequent to the EEOC's issuance of the right to sue letter, Sillers retired from the WSSC because, according to him, " his working conditions and work environment had become intolerable."

Following his retirement from WSSC, Sillers filed suit against the Commission in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, basing his claim upon violations of § 42(a) and PGCC §§ 2-186 and 2-222. In response, WSSC moved to dismiss Sillers's complaint, asserting the same grounds for dismissal as in Phillips,...

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