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Smith v. Strayer University Corporation

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

February 19, 2015

CHERIE D. SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
THE STRAYER UNIVERSITY CORPORATION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES C. CACHERIS, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Cherie D. Smith's Motion to Amend or Alter the Court's January 13, 2015 Judgment as to Count III of the Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [Dkt. 69.] For the following reasons, the Court will deny the motion.

I. Background

Through an Order and an accompanying Memorandum Opinion dated January 13, 2015, the Court granted Defendant The Strayer University Corporation's ("Defendant") Motion for Summary Judgment on Counts Two, Three, and Four of the Amended Complaint. (Mem. Op. [Dkt. 65]; Order [Dkt. 66].) The Clerk of Court entered Judgment for Defendant on Counts Two, Three, and Four on this basis. [Dkt. 67.] The Court denied Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Count One, which still remains pending with a jury trial set for March 3, 2015.

Plaintiff Cherie D. Smith ("Plaintiff") now asks the Court to amend this Judgment as to Count Three, her wrongful termination claim, and "to reinstate this claim for appropriate determination by the jury." (Pl.'s Mem. [Dkt. 70] at 1.) Specifically, Plaintiff challenges the Court's ruling that (1) she failed to make out the prima facie case of wrongful termination under the American's with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and (2) she failed to show that Defendant's reason for her termination - poor performance - was pretext for discrimination on the basis of her alleged disability, vision impairment. (Id. at 2-10.) Plaintiff argues this ruling was clearly erroneous and must be amended to prevent manifest injustice. (Id.)

In short, Plaintiff repeats arguments previously made throughout the extensive summary judgment briefing, raises some new arguments not previously before the Court, and again attempts to raise factual disputes that are not material to the disposition of Count Three. In the event the Court was not clear enough in its previous ruling, let the Court be clear now: there is simply no evidence in the record - when viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiff and when drawing every possible inference in Plaintiff's favor - that would lead a reasonable finder of fact to conclude that Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment because of her alleged disability. For this reason, and those discussed below, the motion to amend must be denied.

II. Legal Standard

Even though Plaintiff initially moved the Court for reconsideration under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (see Pl.'s Mem. at 1-2), the analysis for reconsideration of an interlocutory entry of partial summary judgment is properly governed by Rule 54(b), as Plaintiff subsequently noted in her Reply Brief (Pl.'s Reply [Dkt. 74] at 3-4). See Am. Canoe Ass'n v. Murphy Farms, Inc., 326 F.3d 505, 514-15 (4th Cir. 2013); see also Netscape Commc'ns Corp. v. ValueClick, Inc., 704 F.Supp.2d 544, 546 (E.D. Va. 2010). Reconsideration of an interlocutory order is not "subject to the strict standards" that govern reconsideration of a final judgment. Am. Canoe Ass'n, 326 F.3d at 514. Yet, when analyzing a Rule 54(b) motion for reconsideration of an interlocutory order, the Court is nonetheless guided by the general principles of Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) motions for reconsideration of final judgments. Id. at 514-15; see also Zaklit v. Global Linguist Solutions, LLC, No. 1:14cv314 (JCC/JFA), 2014 WL 4161981, at *2 (E.D. Va. Aug. 19, 2014) (citing cases).

Departing from a previous ruling is within the sole discretion of the district court "(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." Hill v. Braxton, 277 F.3d 701, 708 (4th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). These circumstances "rarely arise and the motion to reconsider should be equally rare." Above the Belt, Inc. v. Mel Bohannan Roofing, Inc., 99 F.R.D. 99, 101 (E.D. Va. 1983). As there is no intervening change in the law or new evidence now before the Court, the Court would only reconsider the previous order to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice. Such motions for reconsideration may not "reargue the facts and law originally argued in the parties' briefs." Projects Mgmt. Co. v. DynCorp Int'l, LLC, 17 F.Supp. 3d 539, 541 (E.D. Va. 2014) (quoting United States v. Smithfield Foods, Inc., 969 F.Supp. 975, 977 (E.D. Va. 1997)) (citing Pacific Ins. Co. v. Am. Nat'l Fire. Ins. Co., 148 F.3d 396, 403 (4th Cir. 1998) ("The Rule 59(e) motion may not be used to relitigate old matters."). Stated differently, it is inappropriate for the court to "reevaluate the basis upon which it made a prior ruling, " especially when it appears the motion "merely seeks to reargue a previous claim." DynCorp Int'l, LLC, 17 F.Supp. 3d at 541 (quoting Smithfield Foods, 969 F.Supp. at 997). Indeed, such a request necessarily requires an "extraordinary remedy which should be used sparingly." DynCorp Int'l, LLC, 17 F.Supp. 3d at 541 (quoting Pacific Ins. Co., 148 F.3d at 403).

III. Analysis

In its prior ruling, the Court found that Plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of wrongful termination as a matter of law because "it is undisputed that Plaintiff was not, at the time of her termination, meeting Defendant's legitimate expectations." (Mem. Op. at 23-26.) Alternatively, the Court held that even if Plaintiff had established a prima facie case, Defendant offered poor performance as a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for her termination. (Id. at 26-27.) The Court found no evidence of pretext in the record. (Id.)

In asking the Court to amend its judgment to correct a clear error of law, Plaintiff argues that there is a factual dispute as to whether she was meeting the legitimate expectations of Defendant at the time of termination, and that the Defendant's explanation for her termination was a pretext for discrimination. (Pl.'s Mem. at 2-10.) However, Plaintiff's memorandum fails to articulate how the Court's ruling was a "clear error of law, " but rather "calls attention to factual quibbles that are not material to the disposition" of the wrongful termination claim. DynCorp Int'l, LLC, 17 F.Supp. 3d at 541. Nonetheless, the Court will address Plaintiff's evaluation of this Court's prior ruling.

A. Prima Facie Case of Wrongful Termination

"Mere disagreement" with the Court's previous application of the law to Plaintiff's claims on summary judgment does not support a motion for reconsideration. Hutchinson v. Staton, 994 F.2d 1076, 1081-82 (4th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). In support of her motion, Plaintiff cites Warch v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co. 435 F.3d 510, 517 (4th Cir. 2005) for the proposition that the McDonnell-Douglas test should not be applied rigidly, and that Plaintiff is free to argue the employer's expectations were not legitimate when that element of the prima facie case is contested. (Pl.'s Mem. at ...


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