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Johnson v. Southwest Research Institute

United States District Court, W.D. Texas

August 23, 2019

MARY ELLEN JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTHWEST RESEARCH INSTITUTE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge.

         Southwest 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.

         Now, 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.

         At the 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.

         I. Southwest Research's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Southwest 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 regulations.

         A

         Southwest 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.

         1

         Title 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 latter.

         Sufficient 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.

         A Title 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.

         Although 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.

         Finally, 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).

         Johnson 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 ...


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