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D.C. Circuit Holds Trial Court Cannot “Divine” Reasons for Summary Judgment Not Offered by Movant

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In a recent case before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Coleman v. District of Columbia, et al., 794 F.3d 49 (D.C. 2015), the Court overturned the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the District of Columbia in a case involving a former Captain of the D.C. Fire Department who claimed her termination was retaliation for whistleblowing. The Court’s opinion, which contains important holdings regarding the standard of proof under the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act, also emphasizes the moving party’s burden at summary judgment to show “no genuine dispute of material fact.”

In reversing, the Coleman Court noted two legal errors by the lower court: (1) it relied in part on reasons not given by the Fire Department, but instead “divined” by the court and deemed to have been “impliedly offered;” and (2) inappropriately shifted the burden of persuasion back to the plaintiff after the Department articulated a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its adverse actions.

Vanessa Coleman’s claim originates from a March 2008 five-alarm fire which destroyed an apartment building. Coleman, who directed an engine company that responded to the fire, ordered her company to inspect the building’s basement, pursuant to the Department’s Standard Operating Guidelines. Coleman’s superior, Battalion Chief John Lee, who served as Incident Commander, ordered Coleman and her company to the third floor before the basement inspection was complete. The Department later determined that the fire began in the basement.

Lee issued a citation to Coleman for her actions during the fire, and the Department later issued a citation to Lee. Coleman challenged her citation and wrote a memorandum to the Department stating that Lee’s order to her violated policy and caused the fire to be improperly handled by the Department. While Coleman awaited adjudication of her challenge, she wrote a series of memoranda to the Department Chief, alleging that her superiors, in an effort to undermine her, refused to endorse and process disciplinary actions she initiated against her subordinates. As Coleman continued to challenge her citation, she wrote a memo detailing what she believed were failures and dangerous practices implemented by Lee at the fire site. Shortly after Coleman wrote this memo, the Department ordered her to undergo a “fitness for duty” psychological evaluation. Coleman refused unless she could stipulate that the evaluation was not voluntary. Ultimately, the Department fired Coleman for insubordination.

Coleman filed suit alleging a § 1983 claim, violations of Title VII, and a violation of the D.C. WPA.  The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Department.

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit held that the District Court erred in finding that the Department had met its burden of proof in articulating the non-retaliatory justification for its actions against Coleman. The Coleman Court found that the District Court improperly credited the Department’s evidence and drew inferences in its favor, which ultimately led the District Court to improperly find that the Department met the “clear and convincing” evidence standard that it would have taken the same actions against Coleman absent her disclosures. More broadly, the D.C. Circuit found that the District Court improperly relied on justifications that the Department itself did not clearly articulate, but that the District Court found “implied” in the Department’s arguments and on its own volition “gleaned from the record.” The D.C. Circuit said plainly: “A trial court may not do the defendant’s summary judgment work for it.”

This case is important because it clarifies that a defendant must meet a heavy burden to avoid a jury in a claim brought under the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act. As importantly, Coleman holds that a trial court may only consider on summary judgment those facts and arguments clearly offered to it by the moving party. A trial court may not offer “post hoc assistance” to a moving party that fails to fully and completely articulate its case for summary judgment.

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