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Munoz v. Manhattan Club Timeshare Association, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

September 18, 2014

ANTONIO MUÑOZ, Plaintiff,
v.
THE MANHATTAN CLUB TIMESHARE ASSOCIATION, INC., Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

J. PAUL OETKEN, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Antonio Muñoz, prevailed against Defendant, The Manhattan Club Timeshare Association, Inc. ("TMC"), in a jury trial in March 2014. Muñoz won a verdict on retaliation claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A), and the New York City Human Rights Law ("NYCHRL"), New York City Admin. Code, § 8-107(1)(a). The jury awarded Muñoz damages totaling $615, 964.02. Muñoz now moves for attorney's fees and costs. TMC has renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) or, in the alternative, moves for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. For the reasons that follow, Muñoz's motion for fees and costs is granted, but at a reduced amount, and TMC's motions are denied.

I. Defendant's Rule 50(b) and Rule 59 Motions

Rule 50(b)[1] motions are decided by viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict. Zellner v. Summerlin, 494 F.3d 344, 370-71 (2d Cir. 2007) (citing Black v. Finantra Capital, Inc., 418 F.3d 203, 209 (2d Cir. 2005)). The Court must disregard any evidence that weighs against the jury's verdict unless the jury was required to believe it. Id. at 370 (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing, 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000)). The jury is required to believe the testimony of unimpeached, disinterested, uncontradicated, and plausibly credible witnesses. E.g., Reeves, 530 U.S. at 151; see also Lin v. Gonzales, 446 F.3d 395, 402 (2d Cir.2006) ("Adverse credibility determinations are appropriately based on inconsistent statements... and inherently improbable testimony.") (citation omitted). The question is whether, if credibility assessments are made against the moving party and all reasonable inferences are drawn against the moving party, a reasonable jury nevertheless would have no choice but to find in the movant's favor. Zellner, 494 F.3d at 370-71 (citing Piesco v. Koch, 12 F.3d 332, 343 (2d Cir. 1993)).

The ADA provides that "[n]o person shall discriminate against any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by this chapter or because such individual made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this chapter." 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a). "[T]he elements of a retaliation claim under... the ADA are (i) a plaintiff was engaged in protected activity; (ii) the alleged retaliator knew that the plaintiff was involved in protected activity; (iii) an adverse decision or course of action was taken against the plaintiff; and (iv) a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action." Weixel v. Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, 287 F.3d 138, 148 (2d Cir. 2002) (quotation marks and citation omitted).[2] "It is well established that requesting an accommodation, without filing a formal charge or engaging in other specific behaviors listed in § 12203(a), is nonetheless behavior protected from an employer's retaliation." Carreras v. Sajo, Garcia & Partners, 596 F.3d 25, 35-36 (1st Cir. 2010) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

Claims for retaliation are analyzed under a burden-shifting framework. Treglia, 313 F.3d at 719. Under this framework, while the burden to produce evidence shifts, the ultimate burden of persuasion remains always with the plaintiff. First, the plaintiff has a burden to produce evidence of a prima facie case of the elements of a retaliation claim. "A plaintiff's burden at this prima facie stage is de minimis. " Id. Then "the burden [of production] shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the challenged employment decision." Id. at 721. If the defendant successfully meets this burden, then "the plaintiff must point to evidence that would be sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to conclude that the employer's explanation is merely a pretext for impermissible retaliation." Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted).

TMC concedes that Muñoz has presented sufficient evidence that he was engaged in protected activity, that TMC knew that Muñoz was involved in protected activity, and that an adverse decision or course of action was taken against Muñoz. TMC contends (1) that Muñoz has not put forth sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that there was a causal connection between Muñoz's protected activity and the adverse employment action;[3] and (2) that the jury had no reasonable basis in the evidence for its damages award. Both contentions are unpersuasive.

Muñoz has presented evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude-as the jury in this case did-that he was fired because he sought an accommodation for his protected disability. For example, Muñoz has offered evidence that TMC employees referred to him as a "complainer" a couple of months after he asked for an accommodation. TMC offered evidence that this comment did not refer to Muñoz and that it may not have been referring specifically to Muñoz's requested accommodation. But the jury was not required to believe TMC's evidence because it was contradicted by testimony from other TMC employees. Similarly, Muñoz has put forth evidence that he was an excellent employee. TMC countered that evidence with evidence that Muñoz was not such a good employee, but, again, the jury was not required to believe that evidence. A reasonable juror could have concluded that Muñoz was an excellent employee, which is circumstantial evidence that he was terminated in retaliation for his protected activity- particularly where, as here, other employees with performance problems were not terminated. Finally, TMC points to the ten-month gap between Muñoz's initial request for an accommodation and his termination as grounds for judgment as a matter of law. But Muñoz has offered evidence that his termination was the capstone to a longer campaign of retaliation that began shortly after his complaint. This is enough for reasonable jurors to conclude that Muñoz was fired in retaliation for his protected activity.

Similarly, the jury's award of damages was reasonable given the evidence in this case. The jury enjoys wide latitude in determining the amount of compensatory damages. See Zarcone v. Perry, 572 F.2d 52, 54 (2d Cir. 1978). Muñoz put forth evidence that he suffered extensive emotional distress as a result of his termination. He offered evidence that he suffered from shingles after he was terminated. And he introduced the testimony of a psychologist that the termination was psychologically damaging. From this evidence, the jury could have reasonably concluded that Muñoz was entitled to a substantial compensatory award.

TMC argues, finally, that the jury's award of punitive damages was unreasonable because Muñoz has not put forth evidence of "malice or reckless indifference or egregious or outrageous behavior." (Defendant's Memorandum of Law, at 21 (quoting Tepperwien v. Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc., 663 F.3d 556 (2d Cir. 2011).) But Muñoz has put forth both direct and circumstantial evidence that TMC acted with retaliatory intent, as described above. A reasonable jury could conclude, as this one did, that TMC acted with at least reckless indifference to Muñoz's rights under the ADA and the NYSHRL.[4]

II. Attorney's Fees and Costs

Prevailing plaintiffs under the ADA may be granted reasonable attorney's fees and costs associated with the litigation. 42 U.S.C. § 12205 ("[T]he court..., in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party... a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs."). The parties do not dispute that-at least now that Defendant's Rule 50(b) motion has been denied-Muñoz is the prevailing party. Instead, they dispute the amount of Muñoz's lead counsel's reasonable fee and the reasonable fee for his co-counsel, Mssrs. Cardinale, Sanchez, and Harris, and Ms. Richardson.

Fee awards are calculated using the "presumptively reasonable fee" method. Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. Cnty. of Albany & Albany Cnty. Bd. of Elections, 522 F.3d 182, 183 (2d Cir. 2008). The presumptively reasonable fee is arrived at by "multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation... by an hourly rate." Kirsch v. Fleet Street, Ltd., 148 F.3d 149, 172 (2d Cir.1998). Under this method, "district courts are advised to bear in mind all of the case-specific variables that [the Second Circuit] and other courts have identified as relevant to the reasonableness of attorney's fees in setting a reasonable hourly rate." Simmons v. New York City Transit Auth., 575 F.3d 170, 172 (2d Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "The presumptively reasonable fee boils down to what a reasonable, paying client would be willing to pay, ' given that such a party wishes to spend the minimum necessary to litigate the case effectively.'" Id. at 174 (quoting Johnson v. Georgia Highway Exp., Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 715 (5th Cir. 1974), abrogated by Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87 (1989)). Courts "should generally use the hourly rates employed in the district in which the reviewing court sits' in calculating the presumptively reasonable fee." Arbor Hill, 493 F.3d at 119 (quoting In re "Agent Orange" Prod. Liab. Litig., 818 F.2d 226, 232 (2d Cir. 1987)). Finally, courts should discount the final award if the plaintiff was less than fully successful.[5] Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 435 (1983).

Notwithstanding this general methodology, some discretion is necessary in determining a reasonable fee. The Supreme Court "emphasize[s]... that the determination of fees should not result in a second major litigation.... [T]rial courts need not, and indeed should not, become green-eyeshade accountants." Fox v. ...


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