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GILL v. CITY OF NEW YORK

United States District Court, S.D. New York


June 30, 2004.

JAMES GILL, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF NEW YORK, ET AL., Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: KEVIN FOX, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Following the conclusion of the jury trial of the above-captioned action, the plaintiff made a motion, pursuant to Rules 58 and 49 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, that judgment be entered in his favor in the sum of $50,000, reflecting the awards for compensatory and punitive damages made by the jury. Alternatively, the plaintiff requested that a new trial be held, in the interest of justice, pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

  The defendants filed a cross-motion, post-trial, pursuant to Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, through which they renewed their motion for judgment as a matter of law, that was made at that point in the trial when all the evidence had been presented to the jury. Alternatively, the defendants have requested that, pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court amend the judgment entered in this case by striking the responses the jurors made to questions posed to them in a verdict form that was used to report the results of their deliberations to the Court and the parties when the verdict was announced in open court. Papers in opposition to the plaintiff's motion and the defendants' cross-motion were seasonably submitted to the Court, and have been considered. The parties' respective post-trial motions are addressed below.

  II. BACKGROUND

  Plaintiff James Gill ("Gill"), a former New York City police officer brought this action alleging that the defendants discriminated against him, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12102, et seq., and state and municipal anti-discrimination laws, when they failed to grant his application for an accidental disability retirement pension. Gill maintained that he was entitled to such a pension because he experienced a seizure on July 17, 1996, several hours after completing a tour of duty in an unair-conditioned police vehicle and, as a result of the onset of the seizure, fell and injured his shoulder, neck and head. Gill later experienced several other seizure episodes while on and off duty.

  Gill claimed that his application for an accidental disability retirement pension was denied by the defendants because he has a history of alcoholism. At the trial, Gill explained to the jurors that, on each of the four occasions when he met with a three-physician panel that comprised a medical board of the Police Pension Fund, Article II, he was questioned repeatedly about his use of alcohol. The Medical Board of the Police Pension Fund, Article II ("Medical Board"), was charged, inter alia, with the responsibility for recommending to the Board of Trustees of the Police Pension Fund, Article II, whether Gill's application for an accidental disability retirement pension should be approved.*fn1 In Gill's case, the Medical Board recommended that his application for accidental disability retirement be disapproved, and the Board of Trustees of the Police Pension Fund, Article II, adopted that recommendation.

  Two physicians testified at the trial, Dr. Justin A. Willer, a neurologist engaged by the plaintiff to give opinion testimony, and Dr. Harold Bennake, an internist who served on each of the four three-physician Medical Board panels that evaluated Gill in connection with his accidental disability retirement application. Dr. Willer testified that Gill became dehydrated while in the unair-conditioned police vehicle on July 17, 1996. That experience caused Gill to vomit, lose consciousness and experience a grand mal seizure. Dr. Willer explained to the jury through his testimony that, in order to exclude a cause of a symptom, a physician would take a medical history from a patient. He stated that, if a person presented to a physician with a seizure history, a physician would inquire about the person's history for drug or alcohol abuse.

  The Medical Board was aware that Gill had a seizure history when it evaluated his accidental disability retirement application. Dr. Bennake testified that Gill was asked about his medical history when he met with the Medical Board. Dr. Bennake told the jury that Gill's history of alcoholism was considered by the Medical Board as it reviewed his accidental disability retirement application because alcohol use could cause a seizure. However, the Medical Board ruled out alcoholism as a cause for Gill's seizures and recommended that he receive an ordinary disability retirement because it determined that his seizures were not the product of a work-based accident, but were of unknown origin.

  After the plaintiff had presented his case-in-chief to the jury, the defendants moved, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a), that the Court enter judgment as a matter of law in favor of the defendants. Oral argument on that motion was entertained by the Court. Thereafter, the motion was granted with respect to the individually named defendants and denied as to all other defendants. The defendants then advised the Court that they rested. The defendants who remained as parties to the litigation then renewed their Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) motion and the Court reserved decision on that application.

  In due course, the jury was instructed on the applicable law and was asked to deliberate. Among other things, the jury was instructed as follows concerning the plaintiff's burden of proof respecting the establishment of a prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA:

The Fourth element under the ADA is that a defendant discriminated against a plaintiff because of the plaintiff's disability.
To satisfy this element, a plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff intentionally because of the plaintiff's disability or that the disability played a motivating role in the decision to take the adverse action.
An act is intentional if it is done knowingly, that is, if it is done voluntarily and deliberately and not because of mistake, accident, negligence or other innocent reason. A motivating role is one that played a substantial role, that made a difference to a defendant's decision to take an adverse employment action, although other factors may have played a role in the decision.
If a plaintiff cannot prove that a defendant intentionally discriminated against him or her because of the plaintiff's disability, the plaintiff may still fulfill the burden of proving this element of an ADA claim if the plaintiff can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances indicating that it is more likely than not that the adverse action was a product of discrimination by a defendant.
In this case, plaintiff claims that the Medical Board and Pension Board of the Police Pension Fund, Article II, discriminated against him when they denied his application for accidental disability retirement. The plaintiff contends that these defendants knew he had a history of alcoholism and denied him accidental disability retirement because of that disability. Learning that a person has a history of alcoholism is not illegal, but that knowledge — that a person has a history of alcoholism — may not be a motivating factor in deciding to deny a person an employment benefit for which that person is otherwise qualified and entitled.
The defendants deny that they discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of his history of alcoholism. According to the defendants, the denial of plaintiff's application for accidental disability retirement was based solely on plaintiff's failure to meet the relevant legal requirements.
If you find that the plaintiff has established by a preponderance of the evidence that the Medical Board and Pension Board of the Police Pension Fund, Article II, intentionally discriminated against him because of his history of alcoholism when they denied him an accidental disability retirement pension, or that plaintiff's history of alcoholism played a motivating role in the decision to deny him that retirement pension, or that the decision occurred under circumstances indicating that it is more likely than not that the denial of such a retirement pension was a product of discrimination by these defendants, then you must find that plaintiff has established a prima facie case of disability discrimination.
However, if you find that these defendants did not intentionally discriminate against the plaintiff because of his history of alcoholism when they denied him an accidental disability pension, or that his history of alcoholism did not play a motivating role in the decision to deny him that retirement pension, or that the decision did not occur under circumstances indicating that it is more likely than not that the denial of such a retirement pension was a product of discrimination, then you must find that plaintiff has not established a prima facie case of disability discrimination.
  To aid the jury in reporting its verdict to the Court and the parties, a verdict form was provided for the jury. It consisted of five questions, the first of which asked the jurors to report, by indicating yes or no, whether the defendants who remained parties to the action after the defendants' Rule 50(a) motion was partially granted had violated "the plaintiff's right to be free from unlawful discrimination by disapproving his application for accidental disability retirement because they were motivated by an animosity toward the plaintiff based on his history of alcoholism." To that question, the jury responded "no." This should have been the end of the jury's work. However, the jury continued to answer the remaining questions on the verdict form which pertained to: (a) the plaintiff's claim that he suffered emotional damages as a result of unlawful discriminatory conduct he ascribed to the defendants; and (b) the amount of compensatory and punitive damages, if any, that should be awarded to the plaintiff. However, notwithstanding the fact that the jury answered the first question negatively and, thereby, determined that the remaining defendants in the action did not violate the plaintiff's right to be free from unlawful discrimination, the jury answered "yes" to the question "[d]id the plaintiff suffer emotional pain, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life and mental anguish as a result of the discriminatory acts of the defendants?" and awarded Gill $5,000 in compensatory damages and $45,000 in punitive damages. A judgment reflecting the jury's verdict was entered on October 20, 2003.

  III. DISCUSSION

  Plaintiff's Motion

  As noted above, in his post-trial motion, the plaintiff has requested that judgment be entered on the docket for the sum of $50,000, reflecting the awards for compensatory and punitive damages made by the jury. However, the Court finds that the relief sought by Gill is a moot matter. "The hallmark of a moot case or controversy is that the relief sought can no longer be given or is no longer needed." Martin-Trigona v. Shiff, 702 F.2d 380, 386 (2d Cir. 1983). The relief sought by Gill through this branch of his motion: entry of a judgment in his favor consistent with the determination on damages reached by the jury, was accomplished when judgment was entered by the Clerk of Court on October 20, 2003. Consequently, that relief is no longer needed. Inasmuch as Gill has achieved the result he desired, entry of a judgment in his favor, consistent with the damages awarded by the jury, his request for alternative relief, a new trial, is denied.

  Defendants' Motion

  Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) provides as follows:

If, for any reason, the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made at the close of all the evidence, the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion. The movant may renew its request for judgment as a matter of law by filing a motion no later than 10 days after entry of judgment — and may alternatively request a new trial or join a motion for a new trial under Rule 59. In ruling on a renewed motion, the court may:
(1) if a verdict was returned:
(A) allow the judgment to stand,
(B) order a new trial, or
(C) direct entry of judgment as a matter of law; or
(2) if no verdict was returned:
(A) order a new trial, or
(B) direct entry of judgment as a matter of law.
Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, judgment as a matter of law should be entered where "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for" a party. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). See Merrill Lynch Interfunding, Inc. v. Argenti, 155 F.3d 113, 120 (2d Cir. 1998). When a court is entertaining a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court should review all of the evidence in the trial record. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 2110 (2000). A court may not resolve the motion by evaluating the credibility of witnesses or the relative weight of the evidence. It "must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-movant and grant that party every reasonable inference that the jury might have drawn in its favor." Stagl v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 117 F.3d 76, 79 (2d Cir. 1997) (quoting Purgess v. Sharrock, 33 F.3d 134, 140 [2d Cir. 1994]). A post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law may be granted "only if there is `such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair-minded men could not arrive at a verdict against [the moving party].'" Diesel v. Town of Lewisboro, 232 F.3d 92, 102-103 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 67 F.3d 412, 429 [2d Cir. 1995]).

  The defendants urge that their renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law be granted because no reasonable jury could have concluded that: (1) the plaintiff's disability resulted from an accident while in the furtherance of his duties as a police officer, (2) the plaintiff proved a nexus between his alleged dehydration and his seizure after his tour of duty ended, and (3) the defendants denied the plaintiff an accidental disability retirement pension based upon the plaintiff's history of alcoholism. In addition, the defendants contend that their post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law should be granted because the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case under the ADA because he was not a "qualified individual with a disability" within the meaning of the ADA. The defendants contend that in order to take advantage of the benefits conferred by the ADA, the plaintiff had to be able to perform the essential functions of his police officer position with or without a reasonable accommodation. According to the defendants, because the plaintiff was unable to perform the essential functions of his former position at the time that he applied for accidental disability retirement, he failed to meet his burden of establishing a prima facie case under the ADA. After considering the entire trial record as a whole, the Court finds that in order to address two of the theories upon which the defendants base their contention that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law, to wit, that no reasonable jury could have concluded that the plaintiff's disability resulted from an accident, that is, a "sudden, fortuitous mischance, unexpected, out-of-the ordinary, and injurious in impact," Lichtenstein v. Board of Trustees of the Police Pension Fund of the Police Department of the City of New York, Article II, 57 N.Y.2d 1010, 1012, 457 N.Y.S.2d 472, 473 (1982), or that no reasonable jury could conclude that plaintiff's seizure disorder developed from his being dehydrated on June 17, 1996, as a result of spending his tour of duty in an unair-conditioned police vehicle, the Court would be required to do that which it is not permitted to do when ruling on a motion made pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, namely, either evaluate the credibility of witnesses who testified at the trial or evaluate the relative weight of the evidence that the jury considered. This is so because the record generated during the trial contains medical opinion evidence as well as eyewitness testimony from persons who observed Gill during and at the conclusion of his tour of duty on July 17, 1996, and at the time he suffered his seizure several hours after his tour of duty was completed on that date. This evidence arguably supports some of the contentions made by the plaintiff in this action, and could well have been believed in whole or in part by the jury. Thus, when the record evidence is viewed in a light most favorable to the non-movant, Gill, it cannot be said that the jury was relegated to making its findings on whether Gill's disability resulted from an accident, or whether his seizure disorder developed as a result of dehydration it is alleged he experienced on June 17, 1996, based upon speculation, surmise and conjecture. However, this is not the situation with respect to the third theory under which the defendants urge that their motion be granted. The ADA prohibits discrimination against any "qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Generally, in order to make out a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must establish that: "(1) his employer is subject to the ADA; (2) he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (3) he was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (4) he suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability." Giordano v. City of New York, 274 F.3d 740, 747 (2d Cir. 2001). However, in a case such as this, where a person with a disability alleges discrimination with respect to the provision of a post-employment fringe benefit and is not alleging discrimination with respect to hiring, promotion, or firing, the person is a qualified individual with a disability within the meaning of Title I of the ADA if he or she could "perform the essential functions of the employment position for a period sufficient to establish entitlement to an employer-related fringe benefit." Castellano v. City of New York, 142 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted).

  As noted above, Gill alleged that his application for accidental disability retirement was denied by the defendants because of his history of alcoholism. In other words, Gill maintained that he suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability. The Court finds, based upon a review of the entire trial record, that the evidence presented was not sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to find that the defendants determined not to approve Gill's application for accidental disability retirement because of his history of alcoholism. The record evidence contains testimony from Dr. Willer, who testified on behalf of the plaintiff, that in order to exclude a cause of a symptom it would be reasonable and appropriate for a physician to take a medical history from a patient. Furthermore, Dr. Willer also testified that when a patient, like Gill, presents with a seizure history, a physician would, in keeping with professional standards and practices, inquire about the person's history for information about drug or alcohol abuse. Dr. Bennake, a member of each of the three-physician panels that comprised the Medical Board that evaluated Gill's application for accidental disability retirement, testified that Gill, who presented with a seizure history, was questioned about his medical history which included a history of alcoholism. The inquiries made by the Medical Board physicians, concerning Gill's use of alcohol, were made, as Dr. Willer explained, because professional norms dictated that they be made in light of the fact that Gill had a seizure history and alcohol use could trigger a seizure.

  Dr. Bennake testified that Gill's history of alcoholism was considered by the Medical Board because alcohol use could cause a seizure. Given that the Medical Board's responsibility was, in part, to determine, if possible, the cause of Gill's seizures so as to opine whether the seizures were the result of an accident suffered by Gill while performing his police officer duties for the City of New York, the record is barren of any evidence that the questioning to which Gill told the jury he was subjected by the Medical Board concerning his use of alcohol was other than a proper line of inquiry for the Medical Board physicians who were evaluating the accidental disability retirement application of a person whom they knew had a seizure history.

  The Medical Board concluded that Gill's seizures were of unknown origin. Since the Medical Board could not link Gill's seizures to an accident that occurred while he was engaged in police activities for the City of New York, it recommended to the Board of Trustees of the Police Pension Fund, Article II, that Gill's application for accidental disability retirement be disapproved. The record evidence is insufficient to permit a reasonable juror to conclude that the Medical Board's recommendation, that Gill's application for accidental disability retirement be disapproved, was the product of some bias or animus the Medical Board had toward Gill because of his history of alcoholism. Consequently, no reasonable juror could find, based upon the record evidence, that Gill met his burden of establishing the fourth element he needed to establish in order to make out a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA. In other words, Gill failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendants took an adverse employment action against him intentionally because of his disability, a history of alcoholism, or that his history of alcoholism played a motivating role in the decision to take the adverse action. Therefore, the defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50.

  Having determined that the defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law and that, as a result, the judgment entered for the plaintiff cannot stand, the judgment is vacated and the Clerk of Court is directed to enter a judgment dismissing the plaintiff's complaint. This result obviates the need for the Court to analyze the defendants' alternative request that, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e), the Court alter or amend the judgment by striking certain answers made by the jury to questions on the verdict form used in this case. Although no analysis of that request is necessary, it is worth noting that Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) permits a court to amend a judgment. The answers made by the jury to questions on the verdict form are not part of the judgment previously entered by the Clerk of Court. Accordingly, Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) is not a proper vehicle through which to amend the answers provided by a jury on a verdict form. See Frazier v. Boyle, 206 F.R.D. 480, 491-492 (E.D. Wis. 2002). IV. CONCLUSION

  For the reasons set forth above, plaintiff's post-trial motion for entry of a judgment is denied because the relief sought can no longer be granted; therefore, the matter is moot. The plaintiff's alternative request for relief, that a new trial be held, is denied. The defendants' cross-motion, for judgment as a matter of law, made pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), is granted. The Clerk of Court shall vacate the judgment previously entered in this action and enter judgment as a matter of law, for the defendants, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50.

  SO ORDERED.


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