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Eschert v. City of Charlotte

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

September 1, 2017

CRYSTAL ESCHERT, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CHARLOTTE, Defendant.

          ORDER

          FRANK D. WHITNEY CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Motion for Treble Damages (Doc. No. 94), Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees, Interest, and Costs (Doc. No. 99), and Plaintiff's Supplemental Motion for Attorneys' Fees, Interest, and Costs (Doc. No. 109). The motions are fully briefed and are ripe for review. In addition, the Court conducted a hearing on August 23, 2017, to receive argument on certain limited issues, including Plaintiff's Motion for Treble Damages. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Treble Damages is DENIED, and her two Motions for Attorneys' Fees, Interest, and Costs are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In its August 23, 2017, Order, this Court set forth a detailed recitation of the facts of this case. (Doc. No. 124). Therefore, the facts and portion of that Order entitled “Background” are hereby adopted and incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein. In sum, the causes of action centered on Defendant's termination of Plaintiff, a fire investigator for the Charlotte Fire Department (“CFD”). Defendant contended that it terminated Plaintiff because she violated its social media policy by posting two racially inflammatory comments on Facebook (“Facebook Posts”). Plaintiff, on the other hand, claimed that Defendant actually fired her because she complained to her father-in-law and City Councilwoman Claire Fallon about health and safety issues in a new CFD building and about Defendant's mismanagement of money related to that building (“Building Complaints”). A jury awarded Plaintiff $309, 692 on each of her two free speech claims and $464, 538 on each of her two claims under the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (“REDA”). (Doc. No. 86). Essentially, the jury found Defendant wrongfully terminated Plaintiff because of her Building Complaints in violation of the First Amendment, public policy under the North Carolina Constitution, REDA, and North Carolina's public policy expressed in REDA.

         In its August 23, 2017, Order addressing Defendant's post-trial motions, this Court concluded the jury award included a double (or in this case quadruple) recovery, which, if allowed, would result in a miscarriage of justice. (Doc. No. 124). Consequently, the Court granted a new trial nisi remittitur, giving Plaintiff the option of submitting to a new trial on the issue of damages or accepting $464, 538. The Court deferred ruling on Plaintiff's Motion for Treble Damages and her two Motions for Attorneys' Fees, Interest, and Cost until after Plaintiff made her election. On August 30, 2017, Plaintiff notified the Court that she “agrees to remit damages in excess of $464, 538.” (Doc. No. 128). She further requested the Court grant her pending motions for treble and damages and attorneys' fees, interest, and costs. (Id.) Discussion of other background information and evidence is set forth more fully as needed to explain the Court's decision as to each motion below.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Treble Damages

         Pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Plaintiff requests the Court amend the judgment by trebling the jury's award of $464, 538 for her REDA claim. A Rule 59(e) motion to alter, amend, or vacate a prior judgment “may only be granted in three situations: ‘(1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice.'” Mayfield v. Nat'l Ass'n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 674 F.3d 369, 378 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Zinkand v. Brown, 478 F.3d 634, 637 (4th Cir. 2007)). A Rule 59(e) motion “may not be used to relitigate old matters, or to raise arguments or present evidence that could have been raised prior to entry of judgment.” Pac. Ins. Co. v. Am. Nat'l Fire Ins. Co., 148 F.3d 396, 403 (4th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). Furthermore, “it is an extraordinary remedy that should be applied sparingly.” Mayfield, 674 F.3d at 378 (citing EEOC v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 116 F.3d 110, 112 (4th Cir. 1997)).

         REDA allows for the recovery of damages for a retaliatory employment termination. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-243. To succeed on a REDA claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) she engaged in protected activity, (2) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) the alleged retaliatory action was taken because the employee engaged in the protected activity. Wiley v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 594 S.E.2d 809, 811 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2004). Once the plaintiff presents a prima facie case of retaliatory termination, the burden shifts to the defendant to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it “would have taken the same unfavorable action in the absence of the protected activity.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-241(b). An employee may seek, inter alia, “[c]ompensation for lost wages, lost benefits, and other economic losses that were proximately caused by the retaliatory action or discrimination.” Id. § 95-243(c).

         “If . . . the court finds that the employee was injured by a willful violation of [the section prohibiting discriminatory or retaliatory action by an employer], the court shall treble the amount awarded.” Id. A REDA violation is willful if “the employer either knew or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited by [the] statute.” Morris v. Scenera Research, LLC, 788 S.E.2d 154, 160-61 ( N.C. 2016) (“Morris II”). The trial court, rather than the jury, must make the finding of willfulness. Id. at 161.

         Here, Defendant did not willfully violate REDA. Although the jury rejected Defendant's argument that it terminated Plaintiff because of her Facebook Posts and found, instead, that it terminated Plaintiff because of her Building Complaints, the jury “made no statement regarding [Defendant's] belief” that it was entitled to terminate Plaintiff because of the Facebook Posts. Morris v. Scenera Research, LLC, 747 S.E.2d 362, 377 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2013) (“Morris I”) (finding no willful violation of REDA when the defendants offered evidence that the employer “held a good faith belief that it was not in violation of REDA”), aff'd in part, rev'd in part, Morris II, 788 S.E.2d 154 ( N.C. 2016). Defendant offered evidence that it believed Plaintiff's Facebook Posts violated Defendant's social media policy and constituted a valid ground for terminating Plaintiff. Indeed, Plaintiff cites no evidence indicating Defendant fabricated the Facebook Posts or engineered a cover-up. Morris II, 788 S.E.2d at 161 (affirming the lower court's finding of no willful violation of REDA when “[P]laintiff cite[d] no specific evidence indicating the existence of a cover-up, and the record show[ed] none.”).

         The jury's rejection of Defendant's purported reason for terminating Plaintiff does not automatically cause Defendant's REDA violation to be willful, as Plaintiff contends. Under that logic, every violation of REDA would be willful, and every successful Plaintiff would be entitled to treble damages. Because the Court finds Plaintiff failed to establish Defendant either knew or showed reckless disregard as to whether its conduct was prohibited by REDA, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion for treble damages.

         B. Attorneys' Fees and Costs

         Plaintiff requests the Court award attorneys' fees and costs incurred in successfully prosecuting her claims under the First Amendment and REDA. (Doc. Nos. 99, 109). Plaintiff calculates her attorneys' fees to be $561, 166.25 plus ...


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