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Muller v. Holmes

July 11, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas J. McAVOY, Senior United States District Judge



Plaintiff commenced this action pro se pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contending that Defendants violated his rights under the First Amendment by retaliating against him with regard to his prison employment after he filed grievances in the prison grievance system. See Compl. [dkt # 1]. Following a decision on Defendants' motion for summary judgment that narrowed the issues in dispute, see Dec. & Order [dkt. # 37], the case was tried before a jury on March 24 and 25, 2008. After being charged on the law and deliberating approximately one hour, the jury returned a verdict for Defendants. See 3/25/08 Minute Entry [dkt. # 127]. Plaintiff now moves for a new trial, contending that he was denied a fair trial because "the Court improperly instructed the jury and failed to correct the verdict sheet," and because the Court failed to use Plaintiff's 102-question written juror questionnaire. See Motion for New Trial [dkt. # 134]. Plaintiff also argues that the verdict is unsupported by the evidence. Id. Defendants have opposed the motion. See Mem L. in Opp. [dkt. # 138]. For the reasons that follow, the motion is denied.


Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that "[a] new trial may be granted . . . for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." The Second Circuit has interpreted this standard to permit the granting of new trials when "in the opinion of the district court, the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or . . . the verdict is a miscarriage of justice." DLC Management Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 133 (2d Cir. 1998)(quotation marks and citation omitted). "A new trial may be granted, therefore, when the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence." Id.

"Unlike judgment as a matter of law, a new trial may be granted even if there is substantial evidence supporting the jury's verdict. Moreover, a trial judge is free to weigh the evidence himself, and need not view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner. A court considering a Rule 59 motion for a new trial must bear in mind, however, that the court should only grant such a motion when the jury's verdict is egregious." Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). Therefore, "a court should rarely disturb a jury's evaluation of a witness's credibility." Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted).


a. Written Juror Questionnaire

Plaintiff argues in his reply papers that his written juror questionnaire was necessary to allow "prospective jurors . . . to be free from the peer pressures unavoidably involved with open court voir dire" and thus obtain an impartial jury. Reply ¶ 1. The Court disagrees.

"[F]ederal judges have been accorded ample discretion in determining how best to conduct the voir dire." Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 68 L.Ed.2d 22 (1981)(plurality opinion). "The questioning of potential jurors on voir dire is . . . quintessentially a matter for the discretion of trial courts." United States v. Lawes, 292 F.3d 123, 128 (2d Cir. 2002). While juror questionnaires are sometimes utilized (usually in cases in which anonymous juries are empaneled or which involve sensitive subject matters, see United States v. Tomero, 486 F. Supp.2d 320, 324-25 (S.D.N.Y. 2007), United States v. Harding, 273 F. Supp.2d 411, 429 & n. 99 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)), they are not required simply because a litigant requests them. Tomero, 486 F. Supp.2d at 325; Harding, 273 F. Supp.2d at 429. "Moreover, a district court has broad discretion whether to pose a [party's] requested voir dire questions." Lawes, 292 F.3d at 128.

The subject matter of the instant case was such that prospective jurors could be expected to openly discuss their views and positions on relevant issues. Indeed, Plaintiff cites in his reply papers the conflicting responses of two prospective jurors on the same subject - one who was of the view that "prisoners should not be paid at all" for their work in prison, and one who thought "inmates are not paid enough." Reply ¶¶ 2, 11. Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that prospective jurors could not openly discuss their views relative to this case. See Harding, 273 F. Supp.2d 411, 429 ("In this case, Harding has failed to demonstrate that use of a written questionnaire is necessary to elicit honest and frank responses from prospective jurors concerning their ability to be fair and impartial when evaluating evidence concerning, for example, child pornography and homosexuality."). There is no basis upon which to conclude that the procedure used for the selection of the jury in this case resulted in anything other than a fair and impartial jury. Therefore, the motion on this ground is denied.

b. Improper Jury Instructions

Plaintiff also argues that the jury instructions were improper and that, therefore, he must be given a new trial.

A charge conference, attended by Plaintiff (who was proceeding pro se), Plaintiff's stand-by counsel, and Defendants' counsel, was held prior to the close of evidence and closing arguments. The Court had prepared a charge based on the parties' "requests to charge" and the applicable law. The Court reviewed the prepared charge with the parties, including reading to them the substantive portions of the charge. At the conclusion of the conference, the Court asked for objections to the charge. Plaintiff, through his stand-by counsel, objected to the portion of the charge with respect to the status of the defendants as supervisors on the ground that that is not an issue of the case; there's no claim against anyone ...

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