Edgewood Mgmt. Corp. v. Jackson

Decision Date30 May 2013
Docket NumberSept. Term, 2012.,No. 76,76
Citation212 Md.App. 177,66 A.3d 1152
PartiesEDGEWOOD MANAGEMENT CORPORATION v. Donna JACKSON.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

212 Md.App. 177
66 A.3d 1152

EDGEWOOD MANAGEMENT CORPORATION
v.
Donna JACKSON.

No. 76, Sept. Term, 2012.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

May 30, 2013.


[66 A.3d 1155]


Yoora Pak, (Katherine M. Barrett, Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, LLP, on the brief), McLean, VA, for Appellant.

Nicholas W. Woodfield, (R. Scott Oswald, The Employment Law Group, PC, on the brief), Washington, D.C., for Appellee.


Panel: DEBORAH S. EYLER, KEHOE, and JAMES A. KENNEY, III, (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

EYLER, DEBORAH S., J.

[212 Md.App. 182]In the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Donna Jackson, the appellee/cross-appellant, brought a retaliation action pursuant to Md.Code (2009 Repl.Vol., 2010 Supp.), section 20–1202 of the State Government Article (“SG”), asserting a violation of section 27–19(c) of the Montgomery County Code (“MCC”) against Edgewood Management Corporation (“Edgewood”), the appellant/cross-appellee, her former employer. Jackson alleged that Edgewood had constructively terminated her employment in retaliation for reporting a sex discrimination complaint made by a subordinate. She sought compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys' fees.

Jackson's case was tried to a jury. On a special verdict form, the jury found in favor of Jackson, awarding her $500,000 in “economic damages” and $150,000 in “compensatory damages.” 1 The court entered judgment in Jackson's favor for $650,000 (“the Judgment”).

Edgewood filed a ten-day motion to amend the Judgment to “conform with the [MCC]” and a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”). Jackson filed a post-judgment memorandum addressing her entitlement to punitive damages.2

The court denied Edgewood's motion for JNOV and granted its motion to amend the Judgment to conform with the MCC. The court entered an amended judgment reducing the verdict [212 Md.App. 183]to $89,195, comprised of back-pay for two years minus the amount of unemployment benefits collected

[66 A.3d 1156]

by Jackson during that time (“the Amended Judgment”).

Edgewood noted an appeal, presenting five questions for our review, which we have condensed and rephrased as two:

I. Was the evidence at trial legally insufficient to sustain Jackson's retaliation claim?

II. Did the trial court err or abuse its discretion in declining to submit Edgewood's proposed special verdict sheet to the jurors?

Jackson noted a cross-appeal, presenting four questions for review, which we have condensed and rephrased as three:

I. Are the remedies for a retaliation action brought pursuant to SG section 20–1202 limited to those set forth in MCC section 27–8?

II. May economic damages for retaliatory discharge be offset by the amount of unemployment benefits the employee collected?

III. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in declining to instruct the jurors on punitive damages?

For the reasons to follow, we answer all the questions in the negative. Accordingly, we shall vacate the Amended Judgment and reinstate and affirm the original Judgment of the circuit court.

FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Except where noted, we present the facts in a light most favorable to Jackson, the prevailing party below.

Edgewood is a property management company headquartered in Germantown. It manages numerous properties throughout Maryland, including Glenview Garden Apartments (“Glenview”) in Glen Burnie. Glenview is a 204–unit, low-income apartment complex subject to regulations by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”). It is owned by Triton Advisors, Inc. (“Triton”), a corporation owned and operated by one Janet Charlton.

[212 Md.App. 184]Triton had purchased Glenview with a “Section 236 loan,” a low-interest loan insured by the federal government under the National Housing Act, 12 U.S.C. § 1715z–1. In the loan agreement, HUD set the income limits for tenants in the property. See U.S. ex rel. K & R Ltd. P'ship v. Mass. Housing Finance Agency, 530 F.3d 980, 981 (D.C.Cir.2008) (discussing Section 236 loans). Only 10% of the units in a Section 236 property can be rented to “market renters,” that is, tenants with incomes above 80% of the area median income, as determined by HUD.

In 2007, Triton began the process of transitioning Glenview from a Section 236 property to a Low Income Housing Tax Credit (“LIHTC”) property. LIHTC is a federal tax-incentive program designed to encourage private development of low income properties. See Carter v. Maryland Mgmt. Co., 377 Md. 596, 603, 835 A.2d 158 (2003). Under this program, a property owner will receive a tax credit if a certain minimum number of residential units in the property are rent-restricted and occupied by people whose incomes do not exceed “sixty percent of the area median income,” as determined by HUD. The property owner then can sell the tax credit to investors to raise capital for improvements to the property.

Jackson has been employed by Edgewood since 1979. From 1990 until her resignation on March 25, 2010, she held the position of community manager for Glenview. At the time of her resignation, she was earning approximately $55,000 annually.

As community manager, Jackson was responsible for the day-to-day operations of Glenview, including collecting rent, handling

[66 A.3d 1157]

resident complaints and maintenance requests, and reviewing and approving rental applications. Jackson supervised one employee, Paula “Drema” Wagner, a leasing specialist at Glenview, whom Jackson hired in 1990. Art Wilcoxen was Glenview's groundskeeper.

Before 2009, Jackson's supervisor was Lisa Davis, an assistant vice-president with Edgewood. During much of that time, Scott Jones was the regional vice-president who supervised[212 Md.App. 185]Davis. He has since become Edgewood's president and chief executive officer. Jackson received uniformly positive performance evaluations from Davis and Jones.

In September of 2009, Arturo “Art” Reyes replaced Davis as Jackson's direct supervisor. Reyes reported to Norman Azouqha, a regional vice-president who, in turn, reported to George Caruso, Edgewood's executive vice-president and chief “knowledge officer.”

On or about December 7, 2009, Larry Davis, a senior vice-president at Edgewood, and Terrance Kelly, an assistant vice-president at Edgewood, called Wagner and offered her a promotion to the position of community manager at an apartment complex in Capital Heights that Edgewood managed. Wagner declined the promotion for several reasons, including the length of the commute and safety concerns. Wagner had been living in Glen Burnie for decades, near Glenview. Capital Heights is in Prince George's County, about 36 miles from Wagner's home, and in a neighborhood with a high crime rate.

On December 10, 2009, Reyes came to Glenview to discuss a tenant complaint with Jackson and to inform Art Wilcoxen, the groundskeeper, that his position was being eliminated.

Reyes met with Jackson in her office, which was located at the back of Glenview's rental office. He advised Jackson that a tenant, one Mary Barnes, had filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations (“MCHR”) alleging that Jackson had discriminated against her on the basis of her race by failing to handle her maintenance requests promptly. Jackson responded by telling Reyes that Barnes was a problem tenant and offering to show Reyes Barnes's lengthy tenant file, which documented frequent complaints made by her and by other tenants about her. Reyes asked to see maintenance requests made by Barnes, took certain of the records, and said he would look into the matter.

Reyes asked Jackson to call Wilcoxen to her office, which she did. In Jackson's office, with the door shut, Reyes informed Wilcoxen that his position was going to be eliminated [212 Md.App. 186]on an uncertain date in the future, for budgetary reasons. Reyes said he had wanted to give Wilcoxen a “heads up.”

Following this conversation, Wilcoxen walked out of Jackson's office and into the front reception area, where Wagner's desk was located. Reyes and Jackson followed him out. Also in the reception area were Rick West, Edgewood's maintenance supervisor; Penny Ingold, another Glenview employee; a tenant; and a new rental applicant.

Wilcoxen walked over to Wagner's desk and told her he had just been laid off. Reyes then approached Wagner's desk. He said, “oh, [I heard] you didn't take the job transfer.” He sat down in front of Wagner's desk and asked her why she had declined the transfer. Wagner replied, giving the reasons discussed above. Reyes told her, “well, due to the fact you didn't take the transfer, we're cutting your pay from [$]18 [per hour] down to [$]13 [per hour].” Wagner asked Reyes why her pay was being cut and when this

[66 A.3d 1158]

change would go into effect. Reyes simply repeated his previous statement that her pay would be cut.

A tenant then walked into Glenview's office. Wagner tried to get Reyes to “stop speaking.” Wagner said, “excuse me,” and began attempting to assist the tenant. Nevertheless, Reyes continued to “repeat[ ] what he [had] said,” announcing to Wagner that it was a “a new day,” and budgets were being cut.

At this point, Wagner was near tears. Jackson, who, like everyone in the vicinity, had overheard Reyes talking to Wagner, approached Reyes and asked if he'd like to use her office to continue his conversation with Wagner. Reyes declined, saying “we're almost finished here.” He then walked into Jackson's office, collected his belongings, and left.

Immediately after Reyes departed, Wagner reported to Jackson that she believed Reyes had discriminated against her on the basis of her gender by speaking privately to a male employee (Wilcoxen) about his job being eliminated but speaking to her about a significant reduction in her pay in front of numerous employees and tenants. Wagner was extremely [212 Md.App. 187]upset. Jackson tried to console her, remarking that she “didn't know why [Reyes] did that.”

Later that day, Wagner sat down with Jackson and...

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