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DeAngelis v. City of Bridgeport

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 15, 2018

CARLA DeANGELIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF BRIDGEPORT, et al., Defendants.

          RULING ON MOTIONS IN LIMINE

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Carla DeAngelis worked for the City of Bridgeport as a “telecommunicator” to answer emergency phone calls. She has filed this lawsuit against the City and three of her former supervisors (Dorie Price, Anthony D'Onofrio, and Debra Deida). She claims that they discriminated against her on the basis of her gender, that they retaliated against her, and that they inflicted emotional distress. The factual background of this case has been described in detail in the Court's ruling on defendants' motion for summary judgment. See DeAngelis v. City of Bridgeport, 2017 WL 3880762 (D. Conn. 2017). This ruling addresses most of the parties' pending motions in limine for trial that is slated to begin before me this week.

         Motions In Limine re “Me Too” Evidence from Nonparty Employees

         Defendants have moved in limine to preclude certain aspects of anticipated testimony by four different women who worked with plaintiff at the Bridgeport call center. As a general matter, one of the ways that a plaintiff in an employment discrimination case may try to prove that she has been the subject of discrimination is by introducing evidence that the employer has engaged in similar discrimination against other employees. This type of evidence is often called “me too” evidence. Common sense tells us that if an employer has discriminated against other employees on grounds that are similar to the grounds that plaintiff herself claims, it is somewhat more likely that the employer may have discriminated on the same grounds against the plaintiff employee. Similar acts of discrimination may likewise support a discriminatory hostile work environment claim. See Cruz v. Coach Stores, Inc., 202 F.3d 560, 570 (2d Cir. 2000). In other words, depending on the degree of similarity, “me too” evidence may be relevant and highly probative under Fed.R.Evid. 401 for a discrimination claim.

         On the other hand, “me too” evidence raises a concern about unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, and undue delay under Fed.R.Evid. 403. A case brought in the name of a single plaintiff for discrimination may end up devolving into a prolonged trial about an employer's alleged discrimination against many other employees who are not parties to the case. Moreover, “me too” evidence raises a separate concern under Fed.R.Evid. 404(b) that a jury may draw an impermissible “character” inference against an employer because of evidence about the employer's alleged mistreatment of others.

         In light of these competing concerns, the Supreme Court has instructed that the admissibility of “me too” evidence should be subject to a careful, case-by-case, and fact-intensive determination that accounts for the likely probative value of the “me too” evidence as against its potential for unfair prejudice. See Sprint/United Mgmt. Co. v. Mendelsohn, 552 U.S. 379 (2008); see also Dindinger v. Allsteel, Inc., 853 F.3d 414, 425 (8th Cir. 2017). Once an employer raises an objection to “me too” evidence, the burden falls on the plaintiff employee to justify its proper admissibility at trial. See Henry v. Wyeth Pharm., Inc., 616 F.3d 134, 152 (2d Cir. 2010).

         There are at least three factors that are important to deciding how relevant and probative a plaintiff's “me too” evidence may be at trial. The first factor is how similar the “me too” acts of alleged discrimination are to the alleged acts of discrimination against the plaintiff. The second factor is whether any of the same individuals were involved with perpetrating the alleged “me too” acts of discrimination as those individuals who the plaintiff alleges discriminated against her. And the third factor is what kind of temporal nexus exists between the alleged “me too” acts of discrimination and the alleged acts of discrimination against the plaintiff. See, e.g., Schneider v. Regency Heights of Windham, LLC, 2016 WL 7256675, at *12 (D. Conn. 2016) (listing somewhat similar factors).

         Of course, relevance is but one concern, while the potential for unfair prejudice from “me too” evidence is another. The reality is that our workplaces are often rife with conflict. Sometimes there are “good” employees who labor under “bad” bosses. Sometimes there are “good” bosses who must make do with “bad” employees. And sometimes there's blame enough to heap on all sides.

         Regardless, Congress did not enact Title VII to be “a general civility code for the American workplace.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68 (2006). So when a court evaluates the admissibility of “me too” evidence, it should be vigilant to the risk that a plaintiff-by seeking to inject a trial with evidence of wrongful acts against others-may effectively seek to put an employer or supervisors on trial for presiding over a generally toxic or dysfunctional workplace, rather than on trial for acts of illegal discrimination or retaliation that actually come within the scope of Title VII and similar laws.

         Courts should likewise be wary of a plaintiff whose only real claim of similarity for “me too” evidence is that the other employee is from the same protected class as plaintiff. If this single common denominator were enough of itself to justify admission of “me too” evidence, then the floodgates would fly open for every discrimination plaintiff to leverage his or her claim by putting the employer on trial for every workplace gripe, slight, or misunderstanding involving perhaps multitudes of employees who happen to be from the same protected class. And for those cases where an employer is guilty of no more than a dysfunctional-rather than discriminatory- work environment, the employer's only defense might be to make matters worse for itself by introducing evidence that equal numbers of employees from a non-protected class had similar complaints about working conditions and relationships (“we treated all the men just as badly as the women”). At the end of the day, a jury-perhaps exhausted by so many tales of workplace woe not even involving the plaintiff-might well render a verdict against an employer or supervisors on “rough justice” grounds having little to do with actual discrimination or retaliation against plaintiff or others.

         Courts have a role to ensure the responsible presentation of evidence that is appropriate to the lawful scope of a plaintiff's claim. I will now turn to consideration of several aspects of “me too” evidence that are contested by defendants.[1]

         A. Wanda Givens

         Defendants move to preclude the testimony of plaintiff's former co-employee Wanda Givens regarding three matters: (1) a 2012 incident in which Givens handled a difficult suicide call and defendant Price ordered her to return to work several days after handling the call; (2) an incident in which the City of Bridgeport sought to terminate Givens while she was a probationary employee; and (3) testimony regarding defendant D'Onofrio's insensitive behavior in relation to the 2012 suicide call. Doc. #82 at 1, 4, 5.

         Defendants convincingly argue that there is nothing about these incidents that raises an inference of gender bias. Indeed, Givens filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) regarding her treatment by Price, but claimed that her treatment was race-based, not gender-based. Doc. #82 at 21-23.[2] And she later dropped the claim. Nor did she file a gender discrimination claim against D'Onofrio; instead, she filed a grievance alleging simply that he was ...


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