In re Wootten, CASE NO. 6:14-CV-00013

Decision Date30 December 2016
Docket NumberCASE NO. 6:14-CV-00013
CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
PartiesANASTASIA V. WOOTTEN, Plaintiff, v. COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, et al., Defendants.
OPINION

By: Norman K. Moon United States District Judge

This discrimination and civil rights case is before the Court on Plaintiff's motion for equitable relief. The claims in this case were narrowed during litigation to a single count under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of procedural due process. The Court granted Plaintiff judgment on liability for the failure of remaining Defendants Richard Holcomb, Joseph Hill, and Jeannie Thorpe to provide post-termination process regarding her police officer position with the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Dkts. 140, 147). A jury convened to assess damages and awarded $183,483.76 in back pay, having found the denial of due process was causally connected to the loss of her job—i.e., a post-termination hearing would have resulted in Plaintiff's reinstatement. (Dkt. 209).

The primary issue now in dispute is whether the Court should order reinstatement or front pay. The Court has received evidence and argument from the parties. Considering the fraught history between the parties and the special nature of law enforcement, the Court will award front pay for 2.5 years in lieu of reinstatement. The Court will also enter an injunction regarding expungement of certain records pertaining to Plaintiff's termination. Other incidental forms of relief—such as recoupment of retirement and insurance benefits, recertification training, and the calculation of interest—are also addressed below.

I. REINSTATEMENT IS ILL-ADVISED IN THIS CASE.

Plaintiff wishes to be reinstated to her position as a senior special agent in DMV's Lynchburg office. Although she cites a passage in Duke v. Uniroyal Inc., 928 F.2d 1413, 1423 (4th Cir. 1991), emphasizing "the strong preference in favor of reinstatement," that case recognizes that an alternative remedy is often acceptable. For instance, "reinstatement has not been ordered when the employer has demonstrated such extreme hostility that, as a practical matter, a productive and amicable working relationship would be impossible . . . [or] when the litigation itself created such animosity between the parties that any potential employer-employee relationship was irreparably damaged; . . . or when there was no comparable position available." Id. at 1423. Courts should account for "intervening historical circumstances" that might make reinstatement "impossible or inappropriate." Id. In sum, the Court undertakes "an analysis of all the circumstances existing at the time of trial for the purpose of tailoring a blend of remedies that is most likely to make the plaintiff whole." Id.

Plaintiff identifies out-of-Circuit cases stating that mere "mutual dislike" or routine acrimony stemming from typical litigation tensions are not sufficient to overcome the presumption favoring reinstatement. See Hicks v. Forest Pres. Dist. of Cook Cty., 677 F.3d 781, 792 (7th Cir. 2012); Squires v. Bonser, 54 F.3d 168, 175 (3d Cir. 1995) ("more than the ordinary tensions accompanying an unconstitutional discharge lawsuit must be present"). She contends that the "chief source of friction and acrimony" in the office was Jennifer Dawson, who now works from home. Dawson, of course, was the co-worker with whom Plaintiff had a physical altercation and had arrested. At trial, testimony established that Plaintiff had Dawson arrested on a Friday night (September 14, 2012) at her home, making the arrest as uncomfortable and embarrassing as possible.

Plaintiff argues that the only continuing "ill-will" comes from DMV Commissioner Holcomb's trial testimony that he did not want Plaintiff back in the office and that he believed she was an unfit officer. The Commissioner—according to Plaintiff"would have no reason to work closely with" Plaintiff (dkt. 217 at 5), and because she herself is not a supervisor, any concerns about reinstatement are mitigated. See Bruso v. United Airlines, Inc., 239 F.3d 848, 862 (7th Cir. 2001). Still, the fact remains that Plaintiff would ultimately answer to "the same individuals who discriminated against [her] in the first place." Id. Moreover, although Dawson no longer physically works in the office, she apparently still has duties there that can be performed remotely and might require cooperating with Plaintiff, a tall order given their history. These facts cut against reinstatement.

Regardless, the central reason the Court will not order reinstatement is the toxic relationship between the parties, both pre- and post-initiation of this case.1 Having overseen the case for more than two and a half years, the Court observes that this litigation has been unusually contentious. Indeed, the case is really the third in a trilogy involving the parties. First, Plaintiff filed suit in Richmond Circuit Court to disqualify DMV's counsel from administrative proceedings. The effort was unsuccessful, as was Plaintiff's appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. Second, she asked the Roanoke Circuit Court to compel a hearing under state law, an effort which she abandoned.

Only after those two cases failed did Plaintiff initiate this action, in which she sued nearly a dozen members of DMV's leadership for far-reaching claims of gender and national origindiscrimination, retaliation, and deprivation of constitutional rights. In essence, Plaintiff accused the entire DMV chain of command of gross malfeasance and abuse of power. Her complaint alleged that: Defendants subjected her to "repeated interrogations" and fired her because she was a woman and of Russian origin; she was terminated in retaliation for opposing supposedly unlawful transfers of coworkers; her right to free speech was violated by Defendants when she was fired after contacted elected officials; and Defendant Hill unlawfully disclosed restricted personal information about Plaintiff to Richmond Capitol Police. (See dkt. 1). But none of these serious allegations against public employees and high-ranking DMV officials were substantiated, and the claims undergirding them were dismissed. As for Defendants, since 2013 they have aggressively, consistently, and publicly maintained that Plaintiff is unfit to serve as a police officer, abused her position to further a personal quarrel, failed to follow direct orders from DMV leadership not to have Dawson arrested, and did not forthrightly describe the incident with Dawson. In sum, while a fruitful working relationship between the parties may have once existed, cross-volleys of accusations crippled their cooperation some time ago.

The case itself has been aggressively litigated on both the law and the facts: Including motions for reconsideration of summary judgment, the parties filed eight dispositive motions before trial (dkts. 16, 86, 88, 110, 130, 152, 163, 166), which generated six substantial memorandum opinions. (Dkts. 46, 124, 140, 146, 161, 173). This is in addition to several discovery disputes addressed by Magistrate Judge Ballou, as well as Defendants' failed request for certification of an interlocutory appeal, which also drew an opinion. (Dkts. 60, 76). And all of this postdated DMV's extensive internal investigation conducted by Tom Penny, which subjected Plaintiff to multiple interviews and intense questioning.

Simply put, this litigation (really, series of litigations) between the parties has beenunusually contentious and hard-fought. It would be too much to expect the parties to set aside the animus engendered by the intense disputes and dueling allegations of misconduct underlying this case, which have now lingered over four years after the Dawson incident. See Ford v. Cmty. Cash Stores, Inc., 14 F.3d 594, 1994 WL 14842, at *5 (4th Cir. 1994) (unpublished disposition) ("intervening circumstances," including "lapse of time since the firing" and "likelihood of animosity," supported award of front pay in lieu of reinstatement).

The parties' irreparable relationship is particularly salient in the context of law enforcement. Officers execute critical public functions: They conduct investigations, make arrests, and deal with the public daily, all while using their training and judgment. But they also must exercise those duties within the framework of direct orders from and broader goals set by leadership. Police units are "paramilitary" organizations where "discipline is demanded." Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 300 (4th Cir. 1992). The Fourth Circuit recently reaffirmed that this structure justifies a measure of "deference [that] applies with special force to police departments . . . ." Liverman v. City of Petersburg, -- F.3d --, No. 15-2207, 2016 WL 7240179, at *4 (4th Cir. Dec. 15, 2016) (quoting Maciariello); see also Kelley v. Johnson, 425 U.S. 238, 247 (1976) (according deference to police force in organizing its ranks on account of its unique purposes).

In other words, respect for the chain of command and one's superiors is paramount, as is the fair treatment of subordinates by supervisors. Public safety, to say nothing of other legitimate aims like efficiency and esprit de corps, requires it. Given all that has transpired between the parties, reinstating Plaintiff would not yield a productive working relationship, but a destructive and inefficient one that would likely invite more litigation. To mandate that relationship in a field as delicate as law enforcement would be ill-advised, a point bolstered byJoseph Hill's testimony at the evidentiary hearing that Plaintiff's position does not lend itself to close supervision.2

In sum, the Court finds that, notwithstanding the preference for it, reinstatement in this case is inappropriate and unjustified. Front pay will be awarded instead.

II. CALCULATION OF FRONT PAY

"[F]ront pay is simply money awarded for lost compensation during the period between judgment and reinstatement or in lieu of reinstatement."...

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