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Williams v. Johnson

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

January 16, 2015


Argued September 22, 2014

Page 866

Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 1:06-cv-02076).


Holly M. Johnson, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, argued the cause for appellants. With her on the briefs were Irvin B. Nathan, Attorney General, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, and Donna M. Murasky, Deputy Solicitor General, at the time the briefs were filed. Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General, and Sarah L. Knapp, Assistant Attorney General, entered appearances.

V. David Zvenyach argued the cause for intervenor David Catania. With him on the brief was John Hoellen.

John F. Karl Jr. argued the cause for appellee/cross-appellant. With him on the briefs was Kristen Grim Hughes. Brian K. Flowers entered an appearance.

Les Alderman and Alan R. Kabat were on the brief for amicus curiae Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association in support of appellee/cross-appellant.

Before: KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judge, and EDWARDS and GINSBURG, Senior Circuit Judges.


Page 867

Ginsburg, Senior Circuit Judge.

When Christina Conyers Williams, an employee in the D.C. Department of Health, Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration (APRA), testified before the D.C. Council, she revealed that her department's new software program to keep track of client data was not currently useful and that its roll out was behind schedule. She knowingly contradicted the overly optimistic answers her supervisors had submitted to the Council in advance of the hearing. Immediately following this incident and for some months thereafter, Williams was harassed by her supervisors, causing her to sue the District of Columbia for retaliation under the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA)[*] and, eventually, to resign. At trial, the jury saw a video of the 2006 Council meeting and heard evidence about the way Williams's supervisors treated her afterward. They returned a verdict finding that Williams's Council testimony exposed information serious enough to warrant protection under the WPA and awarded her $300,000 in damages, in part for the salary cut she took when she resigned her position with APRA and took a new position with the federal government.

The District asks us to overturn the jury's verdict, arguing both that Williams's disclosures are not serious enough to warrant protection under the WPA and that the evidence does not support a finding that her working conditions were so oppressive as to give her no choice but to resign. The District additionally argues Williams's claim for back and front pay is barred because she failed to give the District timely notice that she would argue her resignation was a constructive discharge, which notice was required by statute when she resigned but not when she amended her complaint to include claims for back and front pay.

We conclude the jury's verdict finds adequate support in the record and we affirm the district court's holding that the notice provision is a procedural requirement that, having been made inapplicable to the WPA, does not limit the claims a plaintiff may bring against the District under that statute, regardless whether the underlying conduct occurred while the notice provision was in effect.

I. Background

In April 2005 Williams was tasked by APRA with overseeing the implementation of ACIS, a new client information system being developed by a software contractor that was supposed to capture demographic and client assessment data, similar to a system of electronic medical records. Phase 1, in which the program was installed at a single hospital and collected client demographic information, was completed in June 2005, but there was no subsequent progress toward Phase 2, which was supposed to include bringing more hospitals and other facilities online, adding client medical assessments, and measuring them against national outcome standards. The deadline set for Phase 2 was August 2005. The third and final phase was to be completed and the contract closed out by November 2006.

Page 868

In February 2006, APRA was going to have to answer for its progress, or lack thereof, on the project at a routine oversight hearing before the D.C. Council's Committee on Health, chaired by Councilman David Catania. In preparation, Williams drafted written answers to the Council's questions and submitted them to her supervisor, Robert Johnson. According to Williams's trial testimony, the answers ultimately submitted to the Council were not as she had drafted them and were materially misleading. Although she had written that ACIS at that time could collect only demographic data, the answers that APRA submitted to the Council indicated it could collect client assessment data to be measured against national outcome standards; similarly, although she had written that the system would not be fully rolled out until November 2006, the submitted answers stated that would happen in July 2006.

At the hearing, when Chairman Catania asked Johnson about ACIS, Johnson deferred to Williams, putting the altered answers in front of her and saying " go for it." According to Williams's trial testimony, she saw for the first time when she sat down to testify that her answers had been changed but she understood Johnson wanted her to stick to the script, so to speak. Williams instead testified truthfully, telling the Council that ACIS had not yet been implemented at all the planned facilities and could collect only demographic data. Chairman Catania expressed frustration with these responses, concluding that the system was essentially useless and that without assessment data " we're just burning money." Williams also testified that the expected date for collecting assessment data was November 2006, and although Catania noted the discrepancy with the official estimate of July 2006, he approved the extension. Finally, noting the program was way over budget, the Chairman warned " this smells," and threatened a False Claims Act investigation into " what looks like a competitively bid contract," insinuating wrongdoing, perhaps on the part of APRA in awarding the contract. At trial the jury saw a videotape of this entire exchange.

The day after the hearing, Johnson held a staff meeting at APRA in which he expressed concern over the threatened investigation and blamed it on Williams's testimony; according to Williams, Johnson said she had " made APRA look like 'crooks,' and made it appear the agency was doing something wrong." According to trial testimony by both Williams and other witnesses, Johnson and his chief of staff harassed Williams from this time forward by, among other things, treating her with open hostility, subjecting her to impossible demands, and threatening to terminate her. In March 2006, one month after the hearing, Williams met privately with Councilman Catania to discuss the problems with ACIS and the harassment she was experiencing. After this meeting, Williams testified, the harassment " took on a different spin; " eventually Johnson stripped her of all responsibilities, staff, and resources.

Beginning in August 2006, Williams sent the D.C. Office of Risk Management several letters alleging harassment. In October she began looking for a new job. At the beginning of December, she filed this lawsuit, alleging retaliation for her disclosures both at the Council hearing and at her private meeting with Councilman Catania. The trial court granted the District's motion for summary judgment with regard to her claims concerning the private meeting for want of evidence that Williams's supervisors were aware of that meeting. Williams v. Johnson, 701 F.Supp.2d 1, 16-19 (D.D.C. 2010).

At the end of December 2006, Williams was informed that Johnson would not be returning in the ...

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