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Rojas v. Theobald

August 23, 2007

REYNA ROJAS AND EDUARDO ROJAS, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES, AND ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR CHILDREN CARLOS ROJAS AND DULCE ROJAS AND LONG ISLAND HOUSING SERVICES, INC.,*FN1 PLAINTIFFS,
v.
VICTORIA THEOBALD, JASON THEOBALD, AND GREGORY SCHKODA, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hurley, Senior District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Presently before the Court are the motions by: (1) defendant Victoria Theobald for judgment as a matter of law dismissing the verdict entered against her pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 50(b); (2) plaintiffs Reyna Rojas and Eduardo Rojas, on behalf of themselves and their minor children Carlos and Dulce (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), for judgment as a matter of law against defendants Victoria Theobald and Schkoda pursuant to Rule 50(b); and (3) defendant Gregory Schkoda ("Schkoda") for sanctions pursuant to Rule 11 and counsel fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988(b) and 3613(c)(2). For the reasons stated below, all three motions are denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brought this action against defendants Victoria Theobald, Jason Theobald, and Gregory Schkoda (collectively, "Defendants") asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1982, 1985 and 1986, the fourteenth amendment, the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3617 (the "FHA"), and state law. The trial commenced with jury selection on September 25, 2006. Following Plaintiffs' direct case, each of the Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(a) on all counts. (Tr.*fn2 at 1053-55, 1059, 1075.) The majority of Plaintiffs' claims were either voluntarily discontinued by Plaintiffs or dismissed by the Court. At the conclusion of the trial, only three claims were presented to the jury, viz. alleged violations under the FHA, § 1985, and a claim for private nuisance. On October 23, 2006, the jury returned a verdict finding defendant Victoria Theobald liable on the claim of private nuisance only and awarded compensatory damages as follows: $1,000.00 to Reyna Rojas; $500.00 to Eduardo Rojas; $250.00 to Carlos Rojas; and $250.00 to Dulce Rojas. The jury also awarded $100.00 in punitive damages to Reyna Rojas. Defendants Jason Theobald and Schkoda were found not liable on all counts.

On October 31, 2006, Victoria Theobald filed a motion to set aside the private nuisance verdict pursuant to Rule 50(b). On November 16, 2006, Schkoda filed a motion for attorneys' fees pursuant to Rule 11 and counsel fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988(b) and 3613(c)(2). Thereafter, on December 16, 2006, Plaintiffs cross-moved under Rule 50(b) for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on all counts as against Schkoda and on their FHA claim as against Victoria Theobald. For the reasons that follow, the Court denies the parties' motions.

DISCUSSION

I. The Court's Jurisdiction Over Plaintiffs' and Victoria Theobald's Rule 50(b) Motions

Before determining whether the parties are entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the Court must first consider whether the parties' respective motions are procedurally barred. At the time Victoria Theobald filed her motion, i.e., October 31, 2006, Rule 50 provided, in pertinent part, as follows:*fn3

(a) Judgment as a Matter of Law

(1) If during a trial by jury 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, the court may determine the issue against that party and may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against that party with respect to a claim or defense that cannot under the controlling law be maintained or defeated without a favorable finding on that issue.

(2) Motions for judgment as a matter of law may be made at any time before submission of the case to the jury. Such a motion shall specify the judgment sought and the law and the facts on which the moving party is entitled to the judgment.

(b) Renewing Motion for Judgment After Trial; Alternative Motion for New Trial. 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.*fn4 Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) and (b).

Rule 50(a) governs a party's initial motion for judgment as a matter of law. It provides that such motions may be made "at any time before submission of the case to the jury." Id. 50(a). Post-verdict renewal of such motions is governed by Rule 50(b). Pursuant to Rule 50(b) as it existed prior to the amendment, "when a Rule 50(a) motion made during trial is not granted, the moving party must renew the motion both at the close of the evidence and within ten days after entry of judgment." Pahuta v. Massey-Ferguson, Inc., 170 F.3d 125, 129 (2d Cir. 1999). Accordingly, "[t]here is no provision for a [motion for judgment as a matter of law] to be made for the first time after trial." McCardle v. Haddad, 131 F.3d 43, 50-51 (2d Cir. 1997).

Effective December 1, 2006, Rule 50(b) was "amended to permit renewal of any Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law, deleting the requirement that a motion be made at the close of all the evidence." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 advisory committee's note 2006 Amendment (emphasis added). As further explained:

This change responds to many decisions that have begun to move away from requiring a motion for judgment as a matter of law at the literal close of all the evidence. Although the requirement has been clearly established for several decades, lawyers continue to overlook it. The courts are slowly working away from the formal requirement. The amendment establishes the functional approach that courts have been unable to reach under the present rule and makes practice more consistent and predictable.

Id. Under the amendment, a motion under Rule 50(b) continues as a "renewal of the preverdict motion." Id. That is to say, a district court remains powerless to entertain a Rule 50(b) motion unless the movant has first requested judgment as a matter of law "at any time before the case is submitted to the jury." Id. 50(a). However, under the new subsection (b), a movant is no longer required to renew its Rule 50(a) motion at the close of all the evidence.

A. Defendant Victoria Theobald's Motion is Procedurally Proper

It is undisputed that each defendant made a motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(a) at the close of Plaintiffs' case. (Tr. at 1053-55, 1059, 1075.) The parties do not address, however, whether any of the Defendants expressly renewed their motions at the close of all the evidence. After a review of the transcript, it would appear that Defendants did not. (See id. at 1399.) Under the current version of Rule 50(b), Victoria Theobald's failure to expressly renew her Rule 50(a) motion at the close of all the evidence would have no bearing on her ability to bring the present motion under subsection (b). Her Rule 50(b) motion, however, was filed prior to December 1, 2006, the effective date of the amendment, and, therefore, presumably the former version of Rule 50 is applicable. Nonetheless, for the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Victoria Theobald's Rule 50(b) motion is procedurally proper.

"The purpose of requiring the moving party to articulate the ground on which [judgment as a matter of law] is sought is to give the other party an opportunity to cure the defects in proof that might otherwise preclude him from taking the case to the jury. The articulation is necessary . . . so that the responding party may seek to correct any overlooked deficiencies in the proof." Galdieri-Ambrosini v. National Realty & Dev. Corp., 136 F.3d 276, 286 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks and citation deleted). That purpose was more than adequately served in this case although defense counsel did not expressly move for judgment as a matter of law at the conclusion of all the evidence. To begin with, defense counsel explained its position following the presentation of Plaintiffs' case-in-chief. (Tr. at 1053-75.) At that time, the Court indicated its intent to proceed with Defendants' witnesses and address Defendants' arguments at the end of the day. (Id. at 1058, 1075-76.) Thereafter, Defendants called two witnesses. Following their testimony, the Court briefly addressed some of the arguments raised in Defendants' Rule 50(a) motion and the matter was adjourned to the following week. (See id. at 1038-1322.) The next week, Defendants called their third and final witness. (See id. at 1348.) At the conclusion of his testimony, the defense rested. (See id. at 1399.) The pre-summation charge conference was then conducted, during which defense counsel mentioned again the arguments embodied within their Rule 50(a) motions made at the conclusion of Plaintiffs' evidence. (See id. at 1406-1517.) Thus, defense counsel provided specific notice of what they perceived to be the deficiencies in Plaintiffs' proof. And, as explained infra, the deficiencies cited were not truly factual in nature, but rather concerned the legal conclusions to be drawn based on a given set of undisputed material facts. After the conference, the Court specifically reserved decision on Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' private nuisance claim, noting that it would submit the claim to the jury and that if there was verdict in favor of Plaintiffs, it would entertain the appropriate Rule 50 motion. (See id. at 1497.) Accordingly, the Court will treat that charge conference colloquy as a motion for judgment as a matter of law made at the conclusion of all of the evidence. See Campbell v. Liberty Transfer Co., No. CV-02-3084, 2005 WL 2002453, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 19, 2005) and cases cited therein, vacated in part upon reconsideration on other grounds, 2006 WL 3751529 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 19, 2006). Victoria Theobald's Rule 50(b) motion is therefore procedurally proper.

B. Plaintiffs' Rule 50(b) Motion is Procedurally Barred

Plaintiffs move for judgment as a matter of law on all counts as against defendant Schkoda and on their FHA claim as against Victoria Theobald. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' motion is barred because Plaintiffs failed to move for judgment as a matter of law "before the case [wa]s submitted to the jury." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). The Court agrees.*fn5

Plaintiffs advance several arguments as to why their Rule 50(b) motion is not procedurally defective. First, they claim that "at the close of Plaintiff[s'] case, the Court entertained all motions from all Defense Counsel, including motions pursuant to Rule 50, all of which Plaintiffs opposed." (Pls.' Reply Mem. of Law in Further Supp. of Their Mot. Pursuant to Rule 50 at 1.) The Court fails to see the significance of this statement. Clearly, the fact that Defendants moved under Rule 50(a), or that ...


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