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Rodriguez v. City of Rochester

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 31, 2014


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For Alberto Rodriguez, Braulio Lopez, Joselito Perez, Eduardo Cruz, Jose Diaz, Jose Laza, Daniel Torres, Jesus Fuentes, Plaintiffs: Melvin Bressler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Bressler & Kunze, Rochester, NY.

For City of Rochester, Manager Karen St Aubin, Commissioner Paul Holohan, Defendants: Igor Shukoff, LEAD ATTORNEY, City of Rochester, Law Department, Rochester, NY.



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I. Introduction

This case involves allegations that the Defendants, City of Rochester and two municipal officials, pursuant to an officially promulgated policy, violated the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs, eight Hispanic, City of Rochester employees who claimed that they were not permitted to speak Spanish during their casual, non-work related conversations. In its present posture, the Court is called upon to determine a post-verdict motion alleging that the trial evidence was legally insufficient to warrant the jury's finding in favor of Plaintiffs against one of the municipal officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or in the alternative, whether a new trial should be ordered. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) and 59. For the reasons discussed herein below, the Court finds that evidence of a § 1983 constitutional violation on the part of this named municipal official was insufficient to support the jury's verdict. I hereby direct judgment as a matter of law in her favor.

II. Background

Plaintiffs Alberto Rodriguez (" Rodriguez" ), Braulio Lopez (" Lopez" ), Joselito Perez (" Perez" ), Eduardo Cruz (" Cruz" ), Jose Diaz (Diaz), Jose Laza (" Laza" ), Daniel Torres (" Torres" ), and Jesus Fuentes (" Fuentes" ) filed a Complaint on May 12, 2011, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against Defendants City of Rochester (" City of Rochester" ), Manager Karen St. Aubin (" Manager St. Aubin" ) and Commissioner Paul Holohan (" Commissioner Holohan" ), alleging disparate treatment and hostile work environment due to their race and violations of their liberty interests in the choice of language protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, all stemming from and predicated upon an " officially adopted English language only policy of the City of Rochester." ECF No. 1. Thereafter, following the written request of Plaintiffs' attorney for a trial (ECF No. 11), this Court issued a Pretrial Order scheduling the matter for a jury trial to begin on July 8, 2013 (ECF No. 14).

A jury trial commenced on July 8, 2013 and concluded on July 12, 2013. At the close of Plaintiffs' case, Defendants made a motion pursuant to Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure based upon the failure of proof of each of Plaintiffs' causes of action as set forth in the Complaint, arguing the absence of any proof of discrimination or a hostile work environment, the lack of any evidence of an English-only policy by the City of Rochester and contending that no damages were available to Plaintiffs. Following the close of all proof, Defendants renewed their Rule 50(a) motion on the same grounds.

The jury returned verdicts finding no cause for action against the Defendants City of Rochester, Commissioner Holohan and Manager St. Aubin on claims brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981 alleging discrimination and a hostile work environment

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on the basis of race. Jurors also returned verdicts finding no cause for action against Defendants City of Rochester and Commissioner Holohan on each Plaintiff's § 1983 claim alleging impairment of the " liberty interest in his choice of language, protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution," but returned verdicts finding that each Plaintiff's liberty interest in his choice of language was impaired by Defendant Manager St. Aubin. As to Manager St. Aubin, the jury awarded to each Plaintiff compensatory damages in the amount of $2500.00 and punitive damages in the amount of $2500.00.

Immediately following the verdicts and based upon the Court having reserved decision on this issue, defense counsel orally moved for dismissal of the punitive damages awards against Manager St. Aubin and requested a motion date for the filing of post-verdict motions. The Court gave Plaintiffs the opportunity to respond to Defendant's oral motion and granted Defendant's request for the post-verdict motion filing date.

Plaintiffs filed a Memorandum response in opposition to Defendant's oral motion seeking dismissal of the punitive damages award against Manager St. Aubin. ECF No. 25. The attorney for Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Motion (ECF No. 27), along with accompanying Declaration (" Agola Decl." ) (ECF No. 27-1), supporting exhibits (" Ex. A-C" ) (ECF Nos. 27-2, 27-3, 27-4), and a Memorandum of Law (" Agola Mem." ) (ECF No. 27-5), seeking an order awarding attorney's fees in the amount of $69,000.00.

Now pending before the Court for determination is Defendant's post-trial Notice of Motion (" Def. Motion" ) (ECF No. 31), together with supporting papers consisting of Exhibits (" Def. Ex." ), Attorney Declaration (" Def. Decl." ) (ECF No. 31-1), Memorandum of Law (" Def. Mem." ) (ECF No. 31-2) filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) and 59, seeking an Order setting aside the verdict, specifically, granting Manager St. Aubin judgment as a matter of law (" JMOL" ) dismissing all claims and verdicts against her under Rule 50(b), including the award of punitive damages or, in the alternative, granting her a new trial under Rule 59, and further in the alternative, if such relief is not granted, a reduction in the amount of attorney fees sought by application dated July 23, 2013. ECF No. 31. Defendant separately submitted Trial Transcript Excerpts (" Def. Tr. Exc." ) consisting of Plaintiffs' trial testimony taken on July 9, 2013 and July 10, 2013.[1]

Plaintiffs filed their response in opposition to Defendant's Rule 50(b) motion to set aside the verdict, including a Memorandum of Law (" Pls.' Mem." ) (ECF No. 33) and a Declaration (" Pls.' Decl." ) (ECF No. 33-1). Plaintiffs also attached Trial Transcript Excerpts (" Pls.' Tr. Exc." ) consisting of Plaintiffs' trial testimony taken on July 9, 2013 and July 10, 2013.[2] Defendant filed a Reply Declaration (" Def.'s Reply Decl." ) (ECF No. 36) and a Reply Memorandum of Law (" Def.'s Reply Mem." ) (ECF No. 36-1).

Subsequent to filing their responsive submissions, Plaintiffs' attorney Christina A. Agola, was suspended from the practice of law before the Western District Court.[3]

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Plaintiffs have retained new counsel, Melvin Bressler, Esq., who has appeared and, based upon his review of the case file, requested additional time to supplement Plaintiffs' earlier responses. Having granted this request, the Court also permitted additional time for counsel for the Defendant to file any submissions in response thereto. The filing deadlines expired, and no additional submissions were received by the Court. Several weeks following the expiration of the time within to submit these supplemental responses, Plaintiffs' attorney sought additional time to file. However, the Court denied this request.

III. Discussion

A. Legal Standards

Under Rule 50(a), a party who has been fully heard on an issue may move for judgment as a matter of law during trial at any time prior to submission of the case to the jury. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1), (2). When making this motion, the party must " specify the judgment sought and the law and facts that entitle the movant to judgment." Id. It is noteworthy that the identical standard applies to motions for judgment as a matter of law during or after trial under Rule 50 and pretrial summary judgment motions pursuant to Rule 56. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-251, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (motion for summary judgment standard " mirrors the standard for a directed verdict under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a)" ); Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, advisory committee's note (1991 amendment) (declaring name change to call attention to the close relationship between Rule 50 and Rule 56).

A Rule 50(b) motion is only a renewal of an earlier preverdict motion made pursuant to Rule 50(a). Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). Under Rule 50(b), if a jury returns a verdict for which there is not a legally sufficient evidentiary basis, the court may either order a new trial or direct entry of judgment as a matter of law. Id. Propriety of judgment as a matter of law is considered within the framework of the substantive law. Thus, under Rule 50, a court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law if, upon a review of all of the evidence, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and without making credibility determinations or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there is not a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to permit a reasonable jury to find for the nonmovant under the governing law. See Tolbert v. Queens College, 242 F.3d 58, 70 (2d Cir. 2001); Smith v. Lightning Bolt Prods., Inc., 861 F.2d 363, 367 (2d Cir. 1988). A court should review all of the evidence in the record. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 149, 150-152, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000) (internal citations and quotations omitted) (A court, reviewing all of the record evidence, " must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe -- [] giv[ing] credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses." ); see also Obabueki v. Choicepoint, Inc., 236 F.Supp.2d 278, 282 (S.D.N.Y. 2002), aff'd sub nom. Obabueki v. International Business Machines Corp., 319 F.3d 87 (2d Cir. 2003). The Court may properly grant the motion only if 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 such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the [moving party] that reasonable

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and fair minded men could not arrive at a verdict against [the moving party]." Gronowski v. Spencer, 424 F.3d 285, 292 (2005) (quoting LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 67 F.3d 412, 429 (2d Cir. 1995)) (quoting Song v. Ives Labs., Inc., 957 F.2d 1041, 1046 (2d Cir. 1992)).

At the time a renewed motion pursuant to Rule 50(b) is filed, a party may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). Pursuant to Rule 59(a)(1), generally, a court, on motion, may order a new trial on all or some issues to any party, after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court, provided such motion is timely made within 28 days after the entry of judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1). A new trial is justified when the trial judge, free to weigh the evidence himself, finds that " the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or ... the verdict is a miscarriage of justice." DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 134 (2d Cir. 1998) (Although the " trial judge is free to weigh the evidence himself, . . . the court should only grant [a motion for a new trial] when the jury's verdict is 'egregious.'" ) (citing Dunlap-McCuller v. Riese Org., 980 F.2d 153, 158 (2d Cir. 1992)).

B. Defendant's Rule 50(b) Motion

In support of her motion to set aside the verdict pursuant to Rule 50(b), Defendant makes several assertions. Namely, Defendant asserts the following: (1) evidence in the record overwhelmingly supports Manager St. Aubin's claim that she requested only that English be spoken when she, as their immediate supervisor, was addressing Plaintiffs in their work capacity and only as she was attempting to communicate City business; (2) the testimony of Plaintiffs appearing in the record is so sparse regarding the allegation of impairment of choice of language that it does not rise to the level of violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments as set forth in the verdict sheets and, upon review, transcripts of Plaintiffs' testimony do not offer evidence of a violation of their liberty interests; (3) Manager St. Aubin was sued in her official capacity, therefore, the real party in interest is the City of Rochester which is shielded from liability because the record clearly demonstrates the absence of a requisite systematic pattern or practice, supported by misconduct so severe and pervasive; (4) the finding of liability against Manager St. Aubin in her official capacity is inconsistent with the jury's verdicts of no liability against the City on all claims; (5) absent ...

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