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Olsen v. County of Nassau

May 7, 2009

PAMELA OLSEN, DEIRDRE KETCHAM, AND NOREEN CRIBBIN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE COUNTY OF NASSAU, DETECTIVE LIEUTENANT VINCENT ROBUSTELLI, SERGEANT STEVEN ZETH, SERGEANT ROBERT ATCHISON, DETECTIVE KEN CATALANI AND DETECTIVE KEN SCHMITT, (IN THEIR OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES), DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: E. Thomas Boyle United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before the Court is the defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), or in the alternative, for a new trial, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a), with respect to some, but not all, of the findings made by the jury at the conclusion of the civil trial in this action. For the following reasons, defendants' motion is denied in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

Familiarity with the underlying facts of this action is assumed. Plaintiffs, Pamela Olsen ("Olsen"), Deirdre Ketcham ("Ketcham") and Noreen Cribbin ("Cribbin") (collectively referred to as "plaintiffs"), commenced this action in 2005, alleging that defendants, The County of Nassau (the "County"), Detective Lieutenant Vincent Robustelli ("Robustelli"), Sergeant Steven Zeth ("Zeth"), Sergeant Robert Atchison ("Atchison"), Detective Ken Catalani ("Catalani") and Detective Ken Schmitt ("Schmitt") (collectively "defendants"), impermissibly discriminated against them in the terms and conditions of their employment with the Nassau County Police Department ("NCPD") on the basis of their gender. Plaintiffs asserted their discrimination claims pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290 et seq. Plaintiffs also asserted claims for First Amendment retaliation pursuant to Section 1983.

A jury trial was conducted in this action from October 6, 2008 to November 7, 2008. After all of the evidence was submitted, the Court granted judgment as a matter of law in favor of defendants, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), with respect to the following:

(1) plaintiffs' New York State Human Rights claims; (2) plaintiffs' First Amendment retaliation claims; (3) the Section 1983 claims asserted against the individual defendants in their official capacities; and, (4) the Section 1983 claims asserted against defendants Catalani and Schmitt in their individual capacities. See Olsen v. County of Nassau, No. CV 05-3626, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90426, at *20-21 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 5, 2008). As a result of that decision, defendants Catalani and Schmitt were dismissed from the action entirely. Id. at *21.

The jury rendered its verdict on the remaining claims on November 14, 2008, finding in favor of plaintiffs with respect to the following: (1) plaintiffs' Title VII claims against the County for disparate treatment based on gender; (2) plaintiff Olsen's and plaintiff Ketcham's Title VII retaliation claims against the County; (3) plaintiff Olsen's and plaintiff Ketcham's Section 1983 claims for denial of equal protection against defendant Atchison; and, (4) plaintiffs' Section 1983 claims against the County for denial of equal protection. The jury awarded plaintiffs $1 million in compensatory damages with respect to their claims against the County and $3 in nominal damages with regard to their claims against defendant Atchison.*fn1

(Def. Ex. C.)

The jury found that plaintiffs did not prevail on the following claims: (1) plaintiffs' Title VII claims against the County for a hostile work environment based on sexual harassment; (2) plaintiff Cribbin's Title VII retaliation claim against the County; and, (3) plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against defendants Robustelli and Zeth for denial of equal protection. Accordingly, the only defendants that remain in this action are the County and defendant Atchison.

Defendants now move for judgment as a matter of law, or alternatively, for a new trial, with respect to the following jury findings: (1) that the County is liable for disparate treatment based on gender, pursuant to Title VII; (2) that defendant Atchison violated plaintiff Olsen's and plaintiff Ketcham's equal protection rights under Section 1983; and, (3) that plaintiffs be awarded $1 million in compensatory damages. Defendants base their motion on three grounds:

(1) that a portion of the jury charge was erroneous; (2) that defendant Atchison is entitled to qualified immunity and therefore cannot be held liable for violating plaintiffs' equal protection rights; and, (3) that the damages awarded by the jury are excessive. Defendants do not challenge the jury's findings with respect to the County's liability for violating plaintiffs' equal protection rights under Section 1983 and for retaliation pursuant to Title VII.

DISCUSSION

I. Legal Standard

Judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), "is appropriately granted only when the court determines that 'there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for a party.'" Ruhling v. Newsday, Inc., No. CV 04-2430, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38936, at * 9 (E.D.N.Y. May 13, 2008) (quoting Merrill Lynch Interfunding, Inc. v. Argenti, 155 F.3d 113, 120 (2d Cir. 1998)) (additional citations omitted). Accordingly, "[a] movant seeking to set aside a jury verdict faces a 'high bar.'" Ruhling, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38936, at *10 (quoting Lavin-McEleney v. Marist Coll., 239 F.3d 476, 479 (2d Cir. 2001)).

Under Rule 50, 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 where there exists "such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded [jurors] could not arrive at a verdict against [it]." Ruhling, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38936, at *10 (quoting Kosmynka v. Polaris Indus., Inc., 462 F.3d 74, 79 (2d Cir. 2006)) (alteration in original). When applying this standard, a court is required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must refrain from "assess[ing] the weight of conflicting evidence, pass[ing] on the credibility of the witnesses, or substitut[ing] its judgment for that of the jury." Leblanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 67 F.3d 412, 429 (2d Cir. 1995); see also Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 70 (2d Cir. 2001).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, which supplies the standard for granting a new trial, is less stringent than Rule 50. See Manley v. Ambase Corp., 337 F.3d 237, 244-45 (2d Cir. 2003). In contrast to a motion for judgment as a matter of law, "a new trial motion may be granted even if there is substantial evidence to support the verdict." DeWitt v. N.Y. State Housing Fin. Agency, No. 97 Civ. 4651, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13057, at *3 n.1 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 24, 1999) (quoting Bevevino v. Saydjari, 574 F.2d 676, 683 (2d Cir. 1978)); see also Ruhling, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38936, at *10 ("On a motion for new trial, the judge may grant a new trial even if there is substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict."). In addition, the court is not required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, but may weigh it independently. See Ruhling, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38936, at *11 (citing Manley, 337 F.3d at 244-45). However, a motion for a new trial may only be granted where "the court is convinced that the jury reached a seriously erroneous result, or that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence," Manley, 337 F.3d at 244-45, or "the trial was not fair to the moving party." DeWitt, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13057, at *3 (quoting Mallis v. Bankers Trust Co., 717 F.2d 683, 691 (2d Cir. 1983)). "In evaluating a Rule 59 motion, the trial judge's duty 'is essentially to see that there is no miscarriage of justice.'" DeWitt, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13057, at *3 (quoting Sharkey v. Lasmo (AUL Ltd.), 55 F. Supp. 2d 279, 283 (S.D.N.Y. 1999)).

With respect to damages, if the court determines that the jury's award is excessive, it may do one of three things: (1) order a new trial; (2) order a new trial limited to damages; or, (3) pursuant to the practice of remittitur, condition the denial of a motion for a new trial on the plaintiff's acceptance of a reduced amount of damages. See Ruhling, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38936, at *11 (citing Cross v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 417 F.3d 241, 258 (2d Cir. 2005)). The court may not, however, simply reduce the damages ...


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