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Warren v. Federal National Mortgage Association

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 2, 2019

STEPHANIE WARREN, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
FEDERAL NATIONAL MORTGAGE ASSOCIATION, also known as Fannie Mae, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before SMITH, WIENER, and ELROD, Circuit Judges.

          JENNIFER WALKER ELROD, Circuit Judge

         Stephanie Warren challenges the district court's grant of summary judgment on her defamation claim against Fannie Mae and its evidentiary decision to exclude a statement of another Fannie Mae employee. Because the district court did not err in granting summary judgment or abuse its discretion by excluding the statement, we AFFIRM.

         I.

         Fannie Mae is a private, federally chartered corporation that employs sales representatives to manage foreclosed properties that it holds around the country. Warren was one such sales representative. In 2013, Warren was one of four employees fired after an internal investigation concluded that she had violated the company's Code of Conduct and Conflicts of Interest Policy by working with an outside broker who was not approved by Fannie Mae and concealing it from her supervisor.

         After being fired, Warren sued Fannie Mae, raising claims of racial discrimination under Title VII and Texas law, as well as defamation under Texas law. The district court had federal question jurisdiction over the Title VII claim and supplemental jurisdiction over the Texas law claims.[1] See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1367. The district court dismissed the defamation claim on procedural grounds based on the district court's reading of an arbitration policy and granted summary judgment to Fannie Mae on the discrimination claims.

         In the first appeal, we affirmed the district court's summary judgment on the discrimination claims but reversed and remanded the procedural dismissal of the defamation claim. Warren v. Fed. Nat'l Mortg. Ass'n, 733 Fed.Appx. 753, 760-66 (5th Cir. 2018) (unpublished) ("Warren I"). We also affirmed two of the district court's evidentiary rulings, including, as relevant to this appeal, the exclusion of the declaration of Keitha Jefferson (another Fannie Mae employee). Id. at 759-60.

         On remand, the district court granted summary judgment to Fannie Mae on Warren's defamation claim because Warren failed to produce evidence that Fannie Mae had made any defamatory statement related to Warren's receiving kickbacks, and, to the extent that Fannie Mae had made any defamatory statement related to Warren's concealing her actions, Fannie Mae was entitled to a qualified privilege under Texas law. As to receiving kickbacks, the district court held that Warren's allegation that the investigative report defamed her failed because the report, on its face, explicitly concluded that she did not receive kickbacks. As to concealing her actions, the district court held that, to overcome Fannie Mae's qualified privilege, Warren was required, but failed, to adduce evidence that Fannie Mae either acted with malice or distributed the report to persons without a valid interest. Moreover, the district court once again concluded that Jefferson's declaration was inadmissible.

         Warren timely filed a second notice of appeal, challenging the summary judgment and the exclusion of Jefferson's declaration. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1291.

         II.

         We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. DeVoss v. Sw. Airlines Co., 903 F.3d 487, 490 (5th Cir. 2018). Summary judgment is appropriate when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is "material" if it would affect the outcome of the case, and a dispute is "'genuine' if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Renwick v. PNK Lake Charles, L.L.C., 901 F.3d 605, 611 (5th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). Evidence at the summary judgment stage must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and reasonable inferences must be drawn in that party's favor. Fisk Elec. Co. v. DQSI, L.L.C., 894 F.3d 645, 650 (5th Cir. 2018).

         We review a district court's decision to exclude evidence in connection with a summary judgment motion under the abuse of discretion standard. Maurer v. Indep. Town, 870 F.3d 380, 383 (5th Cir. 2017). A district court abuses its discretion when an evidentiary ruling is based on an erroneous view of the law or a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence. Hinojosa v. Butler, 547 F.3d 285, 292 (5th Cir. 2008).

          III.

         In this appeal, Warren challenges: (1) the summary judgment against her on her defamation claim; and (2) the exclusion of Jefferson's ...


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