United States District Court, W.D. Texas
C. Lamberth, United States District Judge.
Research Institute fired Mary Ellen Johnson after she
complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
(EEOC) about receiving less tuition reimbursement than her
male colleagues. So Johnson sued, claiming her termination
violated Title VII's protections against sex
discrimination and retaliation. A jury agreed, awarding her
$550, 914.94 in damages (plus interest) and forcing Southwest
Research to withdraw an incident report it filed with the
Defense Department's Defense Security Service (DSS)
reporting her termination and labeling her a security risk.
Southwest Research moves for judgment notwithstanding the
verdict, or alternatively to amend the judgment, raising
jurisdictional, evidentiary, and constitutional claims. But
Southwest Research neither undermines the factual record nor
identifies a legal error.
same time, Johnson moves for attorneys' fees and costs
under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Because she won complete
relief, her attorneys can recover their reasonable fees and
out-of-pocket expenses. So the Court will deny Southwest
Research's motions but grant Johnson's.
Southwest Research's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of
Research's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law
begins by re-attacking the record's sufficiency. It
continues by re-challenging the Court's jurisdiction
under Department of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 529
(1988). And it concludes by re-attempting to invoke Title
VII's national-security exception, § 2000e-2(g).
These are uphill arguments, steepened by the fact that every
judge to consider the issues has already rejected them.
See ECF Nos. 84, 90, 149. They fail again here:
though Southwest Research spends fourteen pages reciting
evidentiary conflicts, it never blunts the evidence
supporting the jury's verdict and damage award. And its
Egan and § 2000e-2(g) arguments fall short
since the record shows Southwest Research's termination
decision focused solely on Johnson's general suitability
as an employee, not her specific suitability to hold a
security clearance or to comply with national security
Research's sufficiency argument is particularly daunting:
as long as "there is an[y] evidentiary basis upon which
the verdict can be supported, the jury's determinations
will be left undisturbed, even where there is substantial
contradictory evidence that could have supported an opposite
verdict." Gibraltar Sav. v. LD Brinkman Corp.,
860 F.2d 1275, 1297 (5th Cir. 1988); see also West v.
Nabors Drilling USA, Inc., 330 F.3d 379, 384 (5th Cir.
2003) (noting a court deciding a posttrial motion for
judgment as a matter of law "must draw all reasonable
inferences in favor of the nonmoving party and not make
credibility determinations or weigh the evidence" since
both functions fall "within the province of the jury and
its decision should be given deference if the record contains
any competent evidence to support its findings"
(internal quotation marks omitted)). Here, evidence abounds
supporting the jury's retaliation verdict, its
sex-discrimination verdict, and its damage award.
VII requires three things to show retaliation: that a
claimant "participated in an activity protected by Title
VII," that "her employer took an adverse employment
action against her," and that "a causal connection
exists between the protected activity and the materially
adverse action." Aryain v. Wal-Mart Stores Tex.
LP, 534 F.3d 473, 484 (5th Cir. 2008). Here, both sides
agree that Johnson participated in a protected activity by
complaining to the EEOC, and that Southwest Research took an
adverse employment action against Johnson by firing her.
See also Walker y. Thompson, 214 F.3d 615, 629 (5th
Cir. 2000). So the question is whether the former caused the
evidence shows Johnson's EEOC complaint caused her
termination. Although Southwest Research claims it fired
Johnson for repeatedly violating "timekeeping operating
policies and procedures," Def.'s Ex. 66, five pieces
of evidence support concluding this explanation was
more-than-likely pretextual. First, Johnson's
supervisor testified other employees made more frequent and
more substantial timesheet errors but kept their jobs.
See 4/3/19 Tr. 35:24-45:21; see also 4/2/19
Tr. 123:4-14 (noting employees submitted incorrect timesheets
so often Southwest Research developed a form simplifying ex
post corrections). Second, the same supervisor did
not think Johnson's timesheet errors constituted fraud,
and neither wanted nor expected executives to fire her.
See 4/3/19 Tr. 161:9-13, 189:12-23. Third,
Southwest Research began disciplining Johnson for timekeeping
issues only after she complained about receiving less tuition
reimbursement than her male colleagues. See 4/2/19
Tr. 115:15-17. Fourth, Southwest Research offered
Johnson an unusual-and generous-severance package conditioned
on her dropping the EEOC complaint. See 4/2/19 Tr.
105:17-22; Def.'s Ex. 66 at 2. Fifth, and most
damningly, Southwest Research executives openly discussed
Johnson's EEOC complaint while debating her termination.
See 4/3/19 Tr. 154:4-19. Since this constituted
"adequate evidence to permit a reasonable finding of
pretext," the jury reasonably concluded Southwest
Research fired Johnson in retaliation for her EEOC complaint.
West, 330 F.3d at 387-88.
VII sex-discrimination plaintiff claiming she was
impermissibly denied a benefit must show that her employer
denied her a benefit extended to similarly situated male
employees because of her sex. See Nasti v. CIBA Specialty
Chems. Corp., 492 F.3d 589, 593 (5th Cir. 2007). All
agree that employees in Johnson's division could obtain
at least some tuition reimbursement, and that Johnson only
received partial reimbursement but her male colleagues
received full reimbursement. See, e.g., 4/2/19 Tr.
92:10-93:20. The rub, again, is the causal chain.
Southwest Research offered several nondiscriminatory
explanations for the reimbursement disparity, the jury
reasonably saw through each one. At first, Southwest Regional
executive Bill Ryan claimed the company's general policy
forbade full tuition reimbursement. See 4/2/19 Tr.
223:1-225:5. But even so, Ryan couldn't explain why
Southwest Research granted exceptions for male employees but
not for Johnson. See Id. at 225:17-228:18. Next, he
cast Johnson's tuition as too expensive, but had no
answer to why men receiving full reimbursement attended even
more expensive schools. See 4/2/19 Tr. 216:4-7. His
argument that Johnson's school wasn't good enough
didn't get much farther, since he acknowledged routinely
hiring graduates from that institution. See Id. at
216:11-13. Finally, although initially claiming Johnson's
degree fell too far afield from her career path to add value,
Ryan eventually admitted her degree perfectly fit her
position. See Id. at 216:17-217:5. And without any
other legitimate explanation, the jury could reasonably infer
denying Johnson full tuition reimbursement more than likely
amounted to sex discrimination.
Southwest Research questions the evidence underpinning the
jury's $260, 000 emotional damages award. But
"compensatory damages for emotional distress" need
only "be supported by competent evidence"
establishing the "nature and extent of the harm."
Brady v. Fort Bend Cty., 145 F.3d 691, 718 (5th Cir.
1998) (internal quotation marks omitted). Although the
evidence must "refer to [a] specific manifestation of
emotional harm"-"vague[ly]" and
"conclusory[il]y" claiming "hurt feelings,
anger [or] frustration" will not do-a
"plaintiff's testimony alone may be sufficient proof
of mental damages" as long as "it speaks to the
[harm's] nature, extent, and duration." Id.
at 718-20 (internal quotation marks omitted).
cleared that hurdle. Her husband explained the termination
"sent her into a deep depression," necessitating
antidepressant medication as well as frequent doctor visits,
and triggering emotional breakdowns whenever she would run
into someone connected to Southwest Research in public.
4/4/19 Tr. 99:21-101:23. He specifically discussed an episode
where Johnson began uncontrollably sobbing in a Whataburger,
and another where Johnson couldn't bear to stay at a
friend's funeral after encountering some former
colleagues also in attendance. Id. A former
colleague further described how Johnson's termination
"devastated" her. See Id. at 91:10-11.
This evidence gave the jury an "adequate basis from
which to ...