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Cover v. Potter

August 29, 2008

WAYNE COVER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT.



DECISION & ORDER

Plaintiff Wayne Cover ("plaintiff") is a former part-time flexible mail processor with the Postal Service. Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. ("Rehabilitation Act"). Plaintiff's complaint raised numerous allegations of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and disability, as well as claims of retaliation against the Postal Service ("defendant"). A jury trial commenced on February 11, 2008. The jury determined that defendant Post Office retaliated against plaintiff when it disciplined him and suspended him without pay. The jury awarded plaintiff $100,000 in compensatory damages.

Presently before this Court are defendant's motions for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50, or, in the alternative, a new trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a), and plaintiff's application for attorney's fees and costs. In the event the Court declines to vacate the jury's verdict, the Postal Service also moves for remittitur of the jury's award of $100,000 in compensatory damages pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e).

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff became a part-time flexible mail processor for the Postal Service in November of 1997. Plaintiff was initially assigned to the White Plains Post Office. As a part-time flexible mail processor, plaintiff was assigned to work on a delivery bar code sorter ("DBCS") machine. In October 2000, plaintiff was reassigned to the Westchester Processing and Distribution Center ("WPDC"). Plaintiff was assigned to the Tour 1 shirt, from approximately 11:00 p.m. until 7:30 a.m. As a mail processor at the WPDC, plaintiff was assigned to work in the Automation area of the facility, which includes the DBCS area of the facility as well as other areas such as the optical character reader machine area. Plaintiff was assigned to the Automation area of WPDC until the last day he "clocked-in" for work, which was August 5, 2004.

During his time in the Automation area of the WPDC, plaintiff alleged that: (1) on October 2, 2002, his request to leave work prior to completing assigned tasks was denied; (2) from October 2, 2002, through December 7, 2003 he was subject to incidents of harassment by his supervisor, such as falsely accusing him of being late from his break and insisting that he tie his shoe laces standing up; (3) on November 11, 2002, he was issued a letter of warning; (4) on February 8, 2003, he was issued a Notice of Seven-Day Suspension; (5) on May 9, 2003, his schedule was changed; (6) on May 22, 2003 he was issued a Notice of Fourteen-Day Suspension; (7) on August 5, 2004, he was assigned to work on a DBCS machine, despite his medical condition; and (8) on August 7, 2004, he was constructively discharged when he refused to report to work on a DBCS machine, and was therefore not allowed to "clock-in."

Plaintiff also claimed that some or all of the above actions were taken by defendant in retaliation for an EEO complaint of discrimination made against defendant and defendant's employees. The complaint process was initiated on October 3, 2002 and finally resolved in defendant's favor on May 6, 2005.

DISCUSSION

I. Standard for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Defendant moves for judgment as a matter of law because the evidence presented at trial failed to support plaintiff's retaliation claim and the punitive damages award. Pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "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 (2000), quoting Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 50(1).

"[I]n entertaining a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court should review all of the evidence in the record." Reeves, 530 U.S. at 151. "In doing so, however, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Id.

"Whether judgment as a matter of law is appropriate in any particular case will depend on a number of factors. Those include the strength of the plaintiff's prima facie case, the probative value of the proof that the employer's explanation is false, and any other evidence that supports the employer's case and that properly may be considered on a motion for judgment as a matter of law." Id., at 148-49.

II. Standard for Granting a New Trial

In the alternative, defendant also moves for a new trial because the verdict for plaintiff on his retaliation claim was against the weight of the evidence. Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, in pertinent part:

A new trial may be granted to ... any of the parties and on all or part of the issues (1) in an action in which there has been a trial by jury, for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States....

Rule 59's threshold for granting a new trial is lower than Rule 50's threshold for granting judgment as a matter of law because the trial judge "is free to weigh the evidence himself and need not view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner." U.S. v. Landau, 155 F.3d 93, 104 (2d Cir. 1998)(internal quotation and citation omitted). Thus, "a motion for a new trial may be granted even if there is substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict." Caruolo v. John Crane, Inc., 226 F.3d 46, 54 (2d Cir. 2000). However, the trial court "ordinarily should not grant a new trial unless it is convinced that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or that the verdict is a miscarriage of justice." Hygh v. Jacobs, 961 F.2d 359, 365 (2d Cir. 1992) (internal quotation omitted).

III. Retaliation

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that "[i]t shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees ... because [the employee] has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by" Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). In order to establish a prima facie case of retaliation pursuant to Title VII, a plaintiff must show: "(1) that [he] was engaged in protected activity by opposing a practice made unlawful by Title VII; (2) that the employer was aware of that activity; (3) that [he] suffered adverse employment action; and (4) that there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action." Galdieri-Ambrosini v. Nat'l Realty & Dev., Corp., 136 F.3d 276, 292 (2d Cir. 1998), citing Reed v. A. W. Lawrence & Co., 95 F.3d 1170, 1178 (2d Cir. 1996). If a plaintiff establishes his prima facie case of retaliation, defendant must then offer "a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action." Slattery v. Swiss Reinsurance America Corp., 248 F.3d 87, 95 (2d Cir. 2001). Once defendant proffers this reason, plaintiff must then show that the proffered reason is pretextual. See id.

With regards to the fourth prong of a plaintiff's prima facie case of retaliation, "temporal proximity can demonstrate a causal nexus." Id., citing Manoharan v. Columbia Univ., 842 F.2d 590, 593 (2d Cir. 1988). Proof of causation may be shown either: "(1) indirectly, by showing that the protected activity was followed closely by discriminatory treatment, or through other circumstantial evidence such as disparate treatment of fellow employees who engaged in similar conduct; or (2) directly, through evidence of ...


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