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Marinaccio v. Boardman

March 7, 2007

PAUL MARINACCIO, SR., ACCADIA SITE CONTRACTING, INC., AND MIDWAY ENTERPRISES, INC., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
JOSEPH H. BOARDMAN, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY; JAMES B. CANTWELL, STEVEN F. LEWIS, JAMES F. TYNAN AND ROBERT E. O'CONNOR, IN THEIR OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES, AS EMPLOYEES OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, BY AND THROUGH, THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Neal P. McCurn, Senior District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

I. Introduction

Presently before the court is plaintiffs' motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b), or in the alternative, for a new trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59. Defendants oppose. The motions have been considered on the papers submitted without oral argument. For the reasons that follow, plaintiffs' motion is denied.

II. Background

A jury trial was held in this action from October 4 through 27, 2006 in Syracuse, New York. At the close of proof, two claims remained for the jury's consideration: a claim for the violation of plaintiffs' first amendment rights to free speech and association, and a state law tort claim for tortious interference with prospective advantage, also known as tortious interference with business relations. In addition, the jury was charged with resolution of defendants' qualified immunity affirmative defense to the First Amendment claim. At that time, plaintiffs moved for judgment as a matter of law on both claims pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a), and the court reserved judgment. The jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants on the state tort claim. As to the First Amendment claim, the jury found that defendants violated plaintiffs' rights, but were entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiffs contend that it was error to submit the question of qualified immunity to the jury, as there were no questions of fact for their resolution. Even if it was not error to submit the qualified immunity defense to the jury, plaintiffs argue they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the First Amendment claim because no reasonable juror could have determined that defendants did not know their actions violated federal law. Plaintiffs also argue they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to liability, and therefore a new trial as to damages, on the state law claim because no reasonable juror could have concluded that defendants did not tortiously interfere with plaintiffs' relationship with the New York State Department of Transportation ("DOT"). In the alternative, plaintiffs seek a new trial as to both claims.

III. Discussion

Where, as here, a verdict was rendered and a party renews a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court may allow the judgment to stand, order a new trial, or direct entry of judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b). "Under Rule 50, a court should render judgment as a matter of law when 'a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue.'" Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 149, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 2109 (2000), quoting Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 50(a). The standard for deciding a motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 mirrors that for analysis of a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. See Reeves, 133 U.S. at 150. As such, the court, in deciding a motion for judgment as a matter of law, must review all of the evidence in the record, and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See id. "A jury verdict should be set aside only where 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 him." Kosmynka v. Polaris Industries, Inc., 462 F.3d 74, 79 (2d Cir. 2006) (quoting Song v. Ives Labs., Inc., 957 F.2d 1041, 1046 (2d Cir.1992) (ellipsis in original) (internal quotations and citations omitted)).

When deciding a Rule 59 motion for a new trial, the district court may grant relief "only if it concludes that the jury reached 'a seriously erroneous result' or that 'the verdict is a miscarriage of justice.'" Exodus Partners, LLC v. Cooke, No. 04-Civ.-10239, 2007 WL 120053, at *12 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 17, 2007) (quoting Manley v. Ambase Corp., 337 F.3d 237, 245 (2d Cir.2003)). However significant this burden may be for the movant, the standard on a Rule 59 motion for a new trial is "less stringent than the Rule 50 standard for judgment as a matter of law in at least 'two significant respects.'" Id., (quoting Manley, at 244). First, even where there is substantial evidence to support a jury's verdict, a court may grant a new trial under Rule 59(a). See id., (citing Manley, 337 F.3d at 244). Second, "a court considering a Rule 59 motion is free to weigh the evidence itself, and need not view it in the light most favorable to the party that prevailed at trial." Id. (quoting Manley, at 244-45). Nonetheless, it is a rare occasion when a district court should disturb a jury's assessment of a witness's credibility. Id., (citing Brewster v. City of Poughkeepsie, 447 F.Supp.2d 342, 347 (S.D.N.Y.2006)).

A. First Amendment Claim

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants violated their rights to freedom of speech and association under the First Amendment when they conditioned the award of the Military Road contract on certain conditions, contained in Attachment A to said contract.

The First Amendment, which applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that, among other things, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." U.S. CONST. amend. I. When deciding whether government action violates the First Amendment right to free speech, the threshold question is whether the underlying speech is constitutionally protected. The question of whether speech is protected by the First Amendment is one of law, not fact. See Morris v. Lindau, 196 F.3d 102, 110 (2d Cir. 1999). The court determined as a matter of law that the speech at issue here is protected under the First Amendment. The jury was charged accordingly.

The next question is whether the government's restriction of speech is content-based or content-neutral. If the restrictions are content-based, Defendants may only avoid liability if they can prove, under the strict scrutiny test, that said restrictions are not invalid because they (1) serve a compelling government interest, (2) are necessary to serve the asserted compelling interest, (3) are precisely tailored to serve that interest, and (4) are the least restrictive means readily available for that purpose. See Hobbs v. County of Westchester, 397 F.3d 133, 149 (2d Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). If, on the other hand, said restrictions are found to be content-neutral restrictions of the time, place or manner of expression, Defendants may avoid liability if they can prove that, under an intermediate scrutiny test, said restrictions "are reasonable, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information." Mastrovincenzo v. City of New York, 435 F.3d 78, 98 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal citation and quotation omitted).

Here the court determined as a matter of law that the public forums provision in paragraph 2 of Attachment A is a content based restriction on plaintiffs' speech. The court further found as a matter of law that the provisions in paragraphs 3.1.2 and 3.1.3 of attachment A, which barred Marinaccio from communications with DOT employees and consultants are content neutral restrictions on plaintiffs' speech. As such, the jury was charged that the only questions for their resolution as to plaintiffs' freedom of speech claim were whether defendants actions passed the strict scrutiny and intermediate scrutiny tests.

In order to prove freedom of association claim under the First Amendment Plaintiffs must establish that Defendants interfered with their right to expressive association, and that such interference was "direct and substantial" or "significant." Fighting Finest, Inc. v. Bratton, 95 F.3d 224, 228 (2d Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). Once Plaintiffs meet this burden of proof, Defendants may only avoid liability if they meet the aforementioned ...


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