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Ellis v. Harrisburg Area Community College

February 6, 2007

DARLA ELLIS, PLAINTIFF
v.
HARRISBURG AREA COMMUNITY COLLEGE; THOMAS DICK; MEREDITH TULLY; BARBARA L. HUTCHINSON, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is an employment discrimination action by Plaintiff, who alleges that Defendants violated her rights under Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA") by retaliating against her for engaging in protected activity, specifically for making complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC") and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Defendants have filed an amended motion in limine seeking to exclude certain evidence and testimony during trial. (Doc. No. 29.) The motion was also the subject of discussion between the Court and counsel for both parties during the pretrial conference held in chambers on January, 23, 2007. At the Court's request, the parties submitted supplemental letter briefs addressing, inter alia, questions relating to the motion that were raised during the pretrial conference. (Doc. Nos. 34 & 36.) For the reasons that follow, the motion in limine will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, an African-American female, was previously employed with Defendant Harrisburg Area Community College ("HACC") as an accounting clerk in the Student Accounts Office from 1998 until her employment was terminated on August 25, 2003. In this position, she was responsible for maintaining the student loan deferred payment plan for students at all of HACC's campuses. Plaintiff also indicates that her job included handling short term loans, bad debts, and repayment schedules, answering general student accounts receivable questions, providing training, assisting with student account mailings, as well as assisting other employees with their workload. In addition to being employed by HACC, Plaintiff was a student enrolled in various courses at the college.

On or about January 15, 2003, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC"), which was cross-filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that HACC had discriminated against her on the basis of her race. The PHRC issued a finding of no probable cause concerning the allegations of the complaint on May 21, 2003. All Defendants knew of the PHRC complaint, and after its filing, Plaintiff's professional relationship with Defendant Dick allegedly soured.

On or about October 2002, Defendants Dick and Hutchinson and other HACC officials began to engage in discussions about "decentralizing" the student loan deferred payment program which was being administered exclusively by the Student Accounts Office in the Harrisburg HACC campus. One goal of this plan was to improve efficiency and customer service for the students by having each of HACC's campuses assume responsibility for processing the deferred student loan program for and on behalf of its own students.

A formal decentralization plan was presented to the Human Resources Department by Defendants Dick and Hutchinson in June 2003. In this plan, Defendants Dick and Hutchinson recommended that Plaintiff's position be eliminated, a suggestion that was eventually implemented. Plaintiff received a letter from Defendant Tulli dated July 29, 2003, confirming that Plaintiff's position was being eliminated effective October 3, 2003. In part because of a verbal altercation between Plaintiff and Defendant Dick at the end of August, Plaintiff was offered a data entry task in another department until October 3, 2003. Plaintiff declined and was presented with a separation agreement indicating that HACC would pay her through October 3, 2003, if she agreed to sign a release of any and all legal claims against the college. Plaintiff did not sign the release, and her termination was effective August 25, 2003.

Defendants represent that the decision to eliminate the position was based upon the fact that Plaintiff's position exclusively handled the payment plan; however, Plaintiff contends that this reason is pretexual. She argues that the plan had been in the making for about a year prior to any reference to the elimination of her position, contends that there was sufficient work to maintain her position, and highlights that her position was the only position eliminated from the finance department in a considerable period of time. Plaintiff also points out that, around the same time the decentralization plan was being discussed, the finance department conducted a comprehensive reclassification of employee job descriptions, and she highlights that there was no indication that her position was to be eliminated during this reclassification process.

During the period after Plaintiff was informed her position was being eliminated, another employee in the Student Accounts Office, Tep Suttivreeson, began taking greater responsibility over the deferred loan program. Mr. Suttivreeson became the primary person responsible for the deferred loan program once Plaintiff no longer worked at HACC.

II. DISCUSSION

Defendants seek to exclude the following: (1) certain exhibits; (2) evidence and testimony pertaining to Cheri Houston and the grade/reclassification of her position; (3) testimony related to allegations that allegedly fall outside of the scope of Plaintiff's prior PHRC complaints; (4) evidence and testimony pertaining to the release agreement offered to Plaintiff by Meredith Tulli; and (5) evidence relating to punitive damages.

A. Exclusion of Exhibits and Certain Witness Testimony

Evidence is admissible at trial only if it is relevant, "except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States, by Act of Congress, by these, rules, or by other rules prescribed by the Supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority." Fed. R. Evid. 402. Evidence is considered relevant if it has "any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Fed. R. Evid. 401. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has noted that "Rule 401 does not raise a high standard" for determining that evidence is relevant. Hurley v. Atlantic City Police Dep't, 174 F.3d 95, 109-10 (3d Cir. 1999.) Even if evidence is deemed relevant, it may nevertheless "be excluded if its probative value is substantially ...


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