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BENTLEY v. UNITED REFINING CO. OF PENNSYLVANIA

May 10, 2002

WILLIE BENTLEY, JR., PLAINTIFF VS. UNITED REFINING CO. OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEFENDANT.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles J. Siragusa, United States District Judge.

DECISION and ORDER

This matter is before the Court on an application by defendant, United Refining Co. of Pennsylvania for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). For the reasons stated below, the application is granted.

BACKGROUND

This case involves a claim by plaintiff, Willie Bentley, Jr., an African-American, pursuant to 42 U.S. Code § 1981, that he was denied service in one of defendant's retail stores based upon his race. The matter was tried before a jury from April 8, 2002 through April 11, 2002. At the close of plaintiff's case, defendant, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a), moved for judgment as a matter of law. The Court, after hearing oral argument both in support of and in opposition to the application, reserved decision. At the close of the proof, defendant renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law. The Court continued to reserve pending a determination from the jury.

On April 11, 2002, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding him five thousand dollars ($5,000.00) in compensatory damages and one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000.00) in punitive damages. However, the Court declined to enter judgment at that time, but rather set a briefing schedule and an oral argument date on defendant's pending Rule 50 application.

DISCUSSION

A. Standard

Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) allows a defendant, at any time before a case has been submitted to the jury, to move for judgment as a matter of law. The Circuit has explained the standard applicable to the resolution of a Rule 50(a) application as follows:

The court may grant the motion if the non-moving party has failed to adduce a "legally sufficient evidentiary basis" to support his claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). Piesco v. Koch, 12 F.3d 332, 340 (2d Cir. 1993). Thus, a district court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law where there is such a complete absence of evidence that no reasonable juror could find in favor of the non-moving party. Samuels v. Air Transport Local 504, 992 F.2d 12, 14 (2d Cir. 1993). In evaluating the merits of the motion, "the court must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmovant and grant that party every reasonable inference that the jury might have drawn in its favor."

Wimmer v. Suffolk County Police Department, 176 F.3d 125,134 (2d Cir. 1999)

B. Evidence in A Light Most Favorable to the Plaintiff*fn1

On December 8, 1999 at about 5:30 to 6:00 p.m., plaintiff, an African-American, stopped at defendant's Red Apple Kwik Fill store on Main Street in Mt. Morris, New York. He pumped five dollars ($5.00) worth of gas into his vehicle and then went inside the store to pay for the gas and purchase lottery tickets. Upon entering the store, he got into a line with six or seven people ahead of him. There was only one line. As he waited in that line, he saw other customers making purchases in addition to gas, including lottery tickets. In fact, he observed the customer immediately ahead of him in line pay for gas and buy lottery tickets. The female clerk behind the counter, waiting on the customers, was Charlotte Breemes ("Breemes"). While plaintiff waited in line, a man joined Breemes behind the counter, but he did not wait on any customers. After about fifteen minutes, plaintiff arrived at the head of the line. He then indicated to Breemes that he wanted to pay for gas and purchase three dollars ($3.00) worth of Quik Pick lottery tickets. However, Breemes told plaintiff to get to the back of the line. When plaintiff responded with "excuse me," Breemes asked him, "could you get on the side of the line so I can get the people who are purchasing gas?" Plaintiff said, "no, I'm not getting out of line; I'm purchasing gas." Breemes then stated, "we don't make money off the lottery machine," to which plaintiff responded, "If you don't make money off the lottery machine, then you shouldn't have it, all I want to do is pay for my gas, pick up three dollars ($3.00) worth of lottery tickets, and leave." At that time, Breemes started yelling at plaintiff. Plaintiff told her, "ma'am, you should be careful who you're talking to like that," to which Breemes said, "I don't care." Breemes continued to argue with plaintiff, during which time about seven or eight customers accumulated in line behind plaintiff. Finally, Breemes allowed plaintiff to pay for his gas and purchase the lottery tickets he desired. Plaintiff told her, though, he was going to complain to her manager the next day and Breemes responded by saying, "do what you have to do." The entire exchange between plaintiff and Breemes took about six to seven minutes.

While Breemes was rude to plaintiff, she never used any racial epithets. However, at the time of the incident, plaintiff was the only African-American in the store, and approximately five years earlier, while working at the same Red Apple Kwik Fill, Breemes, ...


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