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Williams v. Giant Eagle Markets Inc.

filed: August 28, 1989.

RACHELLE WILLIAMS, APPELLANT
v.
GIANT EAGLE MARKETS, INC., A CORPORATION; RACHELLE WILLIAMS V. GIANT EAGLE MARKETS, INC., A CORPORATION. RACHELLE WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF, AND HER COUNSEL, CONRAD A. JOHNSON, ESQUIRE AND THE LAW FIRM, LAW OFFICE OF BYRD R. BROWN, APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), D.C. Civil Action No. 85-2065.

Author: Higginbotham

A. LEON HIGGINBOTHAM, JR., Circuit Judge

This is an appeal from the final judgment of the district court finding against Appellant's claims of racial and sexual discrimination. This is also an appeal from an order of the district court granting the Defendant's motion for the imposition of attorneys' fees as a sanction against the Appellant and her counsel. We will affirm the district court's judgment on the merits of the case. We will reverse, however, the court's order awarding attorneys' fees.

I.

The following facts are based on the district court's findings and are not seriously in contention. The Appellant, Rachelle Williams ("Williams"),*fn1 a black woman, was employed by Giant Eagle Markets, Inc. ("Giant Eagle") from June 19, 1978 until the effective date of her discharge on May 6, 1984. Williams began at Giant Eagle as a bagger, but was later promoted by seniority to the position of cashier on December 17, 1978. As a cashier, Williams performed her job in a capable and competent manner.

On May 6, 1984, Williams was on duty at Giant Eagle when an argument arose between a white customer and another cashier, Laura Hendrix ("Hendrix") During the dispute, the customer began shouting racial epithets at Hendrix, at which point she called for the assistance of William Lichius ("Lichius"), Giant Eagle's store manager. Lichius came out of his office and, in an effort to defuse the situation, placed his hand over Hendrix's mouth to muffle her remarks to the customer.

After the customer had left Giant Eagle, Williams made the comment that cashiers did not have to take such abuse from either customers or Lichius, to which he responded that if Williams did not approve of Giant Eagle's policy or his actions, "she knew where the door was." This exchange led to a heated and boisterous argument between Williams and Lichius. When Lichius requested that they talk privately, Williams refused to discuss the matter without a representative of her union being present.

After repeatedly refusing to talk to Lichius, Williams was told to punch out on her time card and leave the store, but she ignored these directions. Thereafter, Williams received a telephone call from Raymond Huber, a Vice-President of Giant Eagle, telling her to follow Lichius's orders. When Williams also ignored Huber's directive, Lichius marked the time as 3:30 PM on her card and removed her from the work schedule. At this point, Williams left the store but remained outside until 4:59 when she came back in and punched out.

Subsequently, Williams filed a grievance pursuant to her union's established procedure. After exhausting all avenues of the grievance procedure available to her,*fn2 Williams then proceeded to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that she was discharged from employment on the basis of her race and sex. She also alleged in her charge that Giant Eagle's justification for her discharge was pretextual because white and male employees who had engaged in similar acts of insubordination had not been terminated.

Following the EEOC's issuance of a right to sue letter on June 13, 1985, Williams commenced this action on September 6, 1985, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, claiming that she was unlawfully terminated from her employment with Giant Eagle on the basis of her race and sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1982) ("Title VII"), and the Civil Rights Act of 1870, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (1982) ("§ 1981").

A non-jury trial was held before the Honorable Robert E. DeMascio,*fn3 on August 1, 1988. On the following day, August 2, the district court issued its findings of fact and concluded that Williams was not discharged as a result of any racial or sexual discrimination, but was properly terminated for insubordination. Thereafter, on September 27, 1988, the district court granted Giant Eagle's motion for attorney fees pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927 ("§ 1927"), finding that Williams and her counsel, Conrad A. Johnson ("Johnson"), had pursued her claim in bad faith since they knew or should have known that insubordination caused her discharge.*fn4 On October 26, Williams filed appeal No. 88-3716 from that judgment. After the district court issued its final order on October 31, 1988, directing that judgment be entered with prejudice in favor of Giant Eagle, Williams filed appeal No. 88-3792 on November 29, 1988.

We remanded appeal No. 88-3716 since the district court had failed to set forth its judgment on a separate document,*fn5 as mandated by Fed.R.Civ.P. 58. The court accordingly entered a proper judgment order on June 6, 1989, awarding Giant Eagle $4,118.75 in attorneys' fees, to be paid by Williams and Johnson, jointly and severally, pursuant to § 1927. On June 12, 1989, Williams and Johnson filed appeal No. 89-3394 from that judgment. We have consolidated appeal No. 88-3792, which was held curia advisari vult, with appeal No. 89-3394 for disposition*fn6 Our jurisdictional predicate is 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1982).

II.

With respect to the appeal from the district court's judgment on the merits, Williams argues that the district court committed trial errors that substantially prejudiced her case. Her first contention is that the district court improperly used the findings of fact in another case in its determination of the merits of her claim. Her second contention is that the district court impermissibly limited the scope of Johnson's cross-examination of Giant Eagle's witnesses. We review the district court's evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion. Stich v. United States, 730 F.2d 115, 117 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 917, 83 L. Ed. 2d 229, 105 S. Ct. 294 (1984).

A.

As to Williams' first contention, she claims that the district court abused its discretion by improperly relying upon the findings of fact in a separate case, Robinson v. Giant Eagle Markets Inc., No. 85-1082, slip op. (W.D.Pa. May 19, 1988), aff'd, 866 F.2d 1412 (3d Cir. 1988). In that case, Williams had been a witness on behalf of the plaintiff, Barbara Robinson, at a trial conducted by the Honorable William Standish. Judge Standish had found that Williams had been removed from her work schedule on May 6, 1984 for refusing to follow a directive of her supervisor. Williams contends that the district court used the findings of the Robinson case in reaching its conclusion that her termination resulted from her insubordination. Our review of the record in this case, however, indicates that the district court was not influenced by the findings of the Robinson case.

At the start of trial, Johnson objected to the filing of Giant Eagle's motion for attorneys' fees out of concern that Judge Standish's findings in Robinson, as discussed in Giant Eagle's brief in support of the motion, might prejudice the court against his client. The court specifically addressed Johnson's concern:

THE COURT: I assure you that the motion for Attorneys' Fees does not influence the Court one way or another. I do not intend to look at it or read it until the conclusion of this case and then in that event, I will decide whether costs are warranted.

MR. JOHNSON: Thank You, Your Honor.

Trial Transcript at 6, reprinted in Appellee's Supplemental Appendix at 33 We find nothing in the record before us to suggest that the district court reneged on its promise not to consider the Robinson findings in deciding the merits of this case. Indeed, Williams concedes in her brief that the district court's only consideration of the Robinson findings is found in its discussion of attorneys' fees. See Brief for Appellant at 15.

B.

Williams' second contention is equally without merit. She first argues that the district court improperly limited the scope of Johnson's cross-examination of Hendrix, who was ironically a critical witness for Giant Eagle,*fn7 by denying Johnson the right to impeach Hendrix's credibility. The following cross-examination occurred at trial:

Q. Were you ultimately fired from Giant Eagle?

A. No, I resigned to collect unemployment and get work reference ...


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