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REED v. A.W. LAWRENCE & CO.

July 3, 1995

JOANN S. REED, Plaintiff, against A.W. LAWRENCE & CO., INC., Defendant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: MCAVOY

 I. BACKGROUND

 Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and New York Human Rights Law claiming that defendant subjected her to sexual harassment and sexual discrimination creating a hostile work environment, and claiming that she was discharged in retaliation for her complaint about a sexually offensive comment made by another employee of A.W. Lawrence & Co., Inc. After the close of discovery and before trial, plaintiff voluntarily discontinued her claims of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and hostile work environment. The case went to trial only on the retaliatory discharge claims. The jury found in plaintiff's favor and awarded her $ 60,000 for lost wages and benefits and $ 5,000 for emotional pain and anguish.

 At the end of plaintiff's proof at trial, which corresponded with the end of all proof because defendant rested without submitting any proof, the defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50. The court reserved on this motion. Plaintiff moved for front pay and attorney's fees and the court reserved on these motions as well. The parties were directed to submit additional briefing on the front pay and attorney's fees issues. Defendant also submitted a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) after the trial.

 II. DISCUSSION

 A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

 Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) states that:

 
whenever a motion for a judgment as a matter of law made at the close of all the evidence is denied or for any reason is not granted, the court is deemed to have submitted the action to the jury subject to a later determination of the legal questions raised by the motion. Such a motion may be renewed by service and filing not later than 10 days after entry of judgment ... If a verdict is returned, the court may, in disposing of the renewed motion, allow the judgment to stand or may reopen the judgment ...

 In this case, the court reserved on the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law and sent all issues to the jury. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Defendant renewed its motion pursuant to Rule 50(b).

 The standard for deciding such a motion is the same whether the motion is made before the case is submitted to the jury or after the jury has returned its verdict. Since judgment as a matter of law deprives the non-moving party of a determination of the facts by a jury, it should be granted "cautiously and sparingly." 9A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2524 (1995). The Second Circuit has elaborated on the standard for granting Rule 50 motions: "simply stated, it is whether the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable [individuals] could have reached. Simblest v. Maynard, 427 F.2d 1, 4 (2d Cir. 1970). In considering such a motion, "the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made and [she] must be given the benefit of all reasonable inferences which may be drawn in [her] favor from that evidence." Id.

 Defendant here asserts that plaintiff failed to prove her prima facie case because she did not show that she was engaged in a protected activity, that she had a reasonable, good-faith belief that her co-worker's comments violated the law, or that there was a causal connection between the alleged protected activity and the decision to terminate her. Defendant also argues that plaintiff did not refute defendant's proffered reason for her termination as pretextual.

 In regard to protected activity, it is clear from the evidence offered at trial that plaintiff discussed her co-worker's comment with Rita Harfield, an executive of an affiliated company who in turn advised Gary Keefus and Carm Roberson about the use of objectionable language. Plaintiff was then interviewed about the incident by Roberson, the Vice President of Personnel for the Lawrence Group. The court finds that from this evidence a reasonable jury could have reached more than one conclusion as to whether her complaint was a protected activity.

 As for plaintiff's reasonable, good-faith belief that her co-worker's comment violated the law, the court also finds that from the trial evidence a reasonable jury could have reached more than one conclusion. As stated in the jury instructions, to prove this element, the plaintiff does not have to prove that her co-worker's actions actually violated the law, just that she had a reasonable, good-faith belief that they did. Defendant's assertion that because plaintiff is "a college-educated career woman with considerable experience in the business world" who had filed a sexual harassment claim against a former employer she knows what conduct is violative of Title VII and what is not is not necessarily true by any means. Plaintiff's education and experience do not necessarily make her proficient in Title VII law.

 As stated in the jury instructions, in regard to the causal connection element of the prima facie case, plaintiff may demonstrate a causal connection by a preponderance of the evidence if she shows that her complaint about her co-worker's comment was followed closely in time by her termination. Thus, if she showed that her termination came soon after her complaint, she has proven this element of her prima facie case. Plaintiff showed at trial that she complained to Harfield on September 17, 1991, was interviewed by Roberson on September 26, 1991, and was terminated on October 1, 1991. Thus, ...


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