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Oorah, Inc v. M A R V I N S C H I C K

August 6, 2012

OORAH, INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
M A R V I N S C H I C K , T H E J E W I S H FOUNDATION SCHOOL, AND
THE RABBI JACOB JOSEPH SCHOOL, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Oorah, Inc. ("Oorah"), a nonprofit organization, brought this action against Marvin Schick, the Jewish Foundation School ("JFS") and the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School ("RJJ") (collectively, the "School") seeking to enforce an alleged non-disparagement agreement. The School counterclaimed, arguing that Oorah had breached an agreement to pay a set tuition over a certain number of years for students it enrolled and, in the alternative, that Oorah was unjustly enriched at the School's expense.*fn1

The Court determined that Oorah's claim would be tried separately from the School's counterclaims, the former in a bench trial and the latter before a jury. A three-day jury trial on the counterclaims commenced on January 9, 2012, and Oorah was found liable for breach of contract in the amount of $357,100. A bench trial on Oorah's claim was held on March 12, 2012. After hearing limited testimony, the Court determined that no binding non-disparagement agreement existed and the equitable relief Oorah sought was improper.

Oorah now moves for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 or, alternately, for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1). It argues that a series of pretrial rulings -- most notably the decision to try the claims and counterclaims separately and the decision to exclude evidence of a prior arbitration -- were unfairly prejudicial; that the School's unjust enrichment claim should not have been presented to the jury; and that the Court erred in finding that there was no enforceable non-disparagement agreement. For the reasons that follow, the motion is denied.

I.

Under Rule 50, the Court may "enter judgment as a matter of law against a party on an issue only if 'there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue.'" Nadel v. Isaksson, 321 F.3d 266, 271-72 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)). The motion must be denied "unless, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable persons could have reached." Id. at 272 (internal quotation marks omitted).

The standard for granting a new trial under Rule 59 is "less stringent . . . in two significant respects: (1) a new trial under Rule 59(a) 'may be granted even if there is substantial evidence supporting the jury's verdict,' and (2) 'a trial judge is free to weigh the evidence himself, and need not view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner.'" Manley v. AmBase Corp., 337 F.3d 237, 244-45 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 133-34 (2d Cir.1998)). Nevertheless, the Court may grant a new trial only if "'the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or . . . the verdict is a miscarriage of justice,' i.e., it must view the jury's verdict as 'against the weight of the evidence.'" Id. at 245 (quoting DLC Mgmt. Corp., 163 F.3d at 133) (further internal quotation marks omitted).

II.

A. The jury trial

At the jury trial on the counterclaims, the School maintained that Oorah had breached a contract to make tuition payments for the 2007-2009 school years and, in the alternative, that Oorah had been unjustly enriched by using its philanthropic relationship with the School to solicit donations.

1. The pretrial rulings

To prevent confusion, the Court instructed the parties to avoid referring to one another as "plaintiff" or "defendant." It further instructed them to avoid reference to an arbitration that had occurred before a rabbinic tribunal in April 2007 or any nondisparagement agreement that may have emerged from that proceeding. Oorah claims that these decisions, along with the decision to try the claims and counterclaims separately, deprived the jury of necessary context in which to view the counterclaims.It argues that its inability to refer to the rabbinic arbitration was particularly damaging, as it was unable to present a defense that the rabbinic proceeding released the parties from their tuition payment obligations.

As an initial matter, the Court was well-within the bounds of its discretion when it ordered that the claims and counterclaims would be tried separately. See Rule 42 ("For convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize, the court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues, claims, crossclaims, [or] counterclaims[.]"). Prior to trial, Oorah informed the Court that it was seeking only injunctive relief and would not require a jury. As Oorah's claim was predicated on entirely different factual and legal issues than the counterclaims, the Court decided to try it separately to avoid potentially confusing the jurors and burdening them with an unnecessarily long trial.Oorah does not point to any prejudice that stemmed from this decision.

Exclusion of evidence regarding the rabbinic arbitration was similarly appropriate. The Court "has broad discretion over the admission of evidence . . . and its evaluation of relevance is entitled to substantial deference." Perry v. Ethan Allen, Inc., 115 F.3d 143, 150 (2d Cir. 1997). Moreover, "[u]nless justice requires otherwise, no error in admitting or excluding evidence . . . is ground for granting a new trial," Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 61, and "[a] party may claim error in a ruling to admit or exclude evidence only if the error affects a substantial right," Fed. R. Evid. 103(a). The ...


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