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Hughes v. Town of Bethlehem

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 7, 2015

CHRISTOPHER A. HUGHES, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF BETHLEHEM et al., Defendants.

Sussman, Watkins Law Firm MICHAEL H. SUSSMAN, ESQ., Goshen, NY, for the Plaintiff.

Napierski, VanDenburgh Law Firm THOMAS J. O'CONNOR, ESQ., ANDREW S. HOLLAND, ESQ., SHAWN T. NASH, ESQ., Albany, NY, for the Defendants.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

GARY L. SHARPE, Chief District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Christopher A. Hughes commenced this action against defendants Town of Bethlehem and Police Chief Louis Corsi pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging retaliation in violation of his First Amendment rights of union association and free speech. ( See generally Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) Pending is Hughes' motion to set aside the verdict and order a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). (Dkt. No. 79.) For the reasons that follow, the motion is denied.

II. Background[1]

Hughes was an officer with the Town of Bethlehem Police Department and a member of the Bethlehem Police Benevolent Association during the time period relevant to this case. (Compl. ¶¶ 5, 6.) In his complaint, Hughes alleged that he was retaliated against because he engaged in conduct that is protected under the First Amendment, namely speech and association in the form of union activity. ( See generally Compl.) Specifically, in the Fall of 2007, Hughes drafted a work substitution policy, which, he claimed, Chief Corsi opposed, and, throughout the Spring of 2009, he also drafted several letters to the union president that were, among other things, critical of the police department. (Id. ¶¶ 8-10; Dkt. No. 29 at 2.) Hughes claimed that, as a result of his union activity, Chief Corsi denied Hughes promotions, including a promotion to K-9 handler. (Compl. ¶ 12.) In the spring and summer of 2009, Hughes also engaged in various forms of speech that were critical of: (1) the police department's tolerance and condonation of a detective's on-the-job intoxication; and (2) Chief Corsi's utterance of a racial epithet, which Chief Corsi subsequently attempted to cover up, and which, in Hughes' view, the Town failed to properly and thoroughly investigate. (Id. ¶¶ 14-20, 29; Dkt. No. 29 at 2-3.) Hughes alleged that, as a result of his speech, he was brought up on erroneous disciplinary charges, and, ultimately, his badge, weapon, and identification were confiscated and his access to the police department was limited. (Compl. ¶¶ 13, 31, 37, 38, 39; Dkt. No. 29 at 3.)

After the court denied defendants' motion to dismiss and/or for summary judgment, (Dkt. No. 29), the parties proceeded to a five-day jury trial, which was held from November 3 to 7, 2014. At the close of the proof, the court instructed the jury.[2] First, the court instructed the jury that Hughes had three separate First Amendment retaliation claims: one based on his freedom of association (union activity), a second based on his speech related to Chief Corsi's utterance of a racial slur, and a third based on his speech related to the public health and welfare - i.e., his speech regarding the intoxication of a detective while on duty. ( See Dkt. No. 72.) The court further instructed the jury on, among other things, the elements that Hughes needed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence in order to prove each of his three claims, and also what defendants needed to prove in order to establish their affirmative defense - the Mt. Healthy or "same decision" defense. See Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 287 (1977); see also Deep v. Coin, 453 F.Appx. 49, 52 (2d Cir. 2011). Neither party objected to any part of the instructions, and the case was then submitted to the jury.

After deliberating, the jury delivered a verdict in favor of defendants. (Dkt. No. 72.) Specifically, the jury found that Hughes failed to prove both his First Amendment retaliation claim based on his union association and his First Amendment retaliation claim based on his speech relating to Chief Corsi's utterance of a racial epithet. (Id. at 2.) The jury also found that, while Hughes did prove his First Amendment retaliation claim based on his speech regarding public safety and welfare, Chief Corsi proved that he would have taken the same adverse actions against Hughes even in the absence of Hughes' speech.[3] (Id. at 3.) Thereafter, Hughes filed the now-pending motion for a new trial. (Dkt. No. 79.)

III. Standard of Review

Pursuant to Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district court may grant a new trial "after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." In this Circuit, in order to grant a motion for a new trial under Rule 59(a), a court "must conclude that 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." Manley v. AmBase Corp., 337 F.3d 237, 245 (2d Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "[A] new trial under Rule 59(a) may be granted even if there is substantial evidence supporting the jury's verdict, and... a trial judge is free to weigh the evidence himself, and need not view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner." Id. at 244-45 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The task before the court is to balance "respect [for] the jury's findings... with avoidance of miscarriage of justice[, ] and" the court may only grant a new trial if, after viewing all the evidence, it has "a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Cunningham v. Town of Ellicott, No. 04CV301, 2007 WL 1756502, at *4 (W.D.N.Y. June 18, 2007) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted), aff'd 310 F.Appx. 448 (2d Cir. 2009).

IV. Discussion[4]

Hughes seeks a new trial on the ground that the jury's verdict went against the substantial weight of the evidence.[5] ( See generally Dkt. No. 80.) Specifically, Hughes first argues that it was irrational for the jury to have concluded that defendants retaliated against him with respect to his speech about a detective's intoxication, but not with respect to his speech regarding Chief Corsi's racial slur or his union activity. (Id. at 18-21.) Hughes also contends that defendants failed to prove their affirmative defense, "and the jury's conclusion that the Town would have proceeded in the same way absent [Hughes' speech and union activity] is sheer speculation unsupported by any evidence." (Id. at 22-24.)

In response, defendants provide little to no actual argument. ( See generally Dkt. No. 84.) In fact, the parties' respective briefs are like ships passing in the night. Defendants do, however, citing trial testimony and certain exhibits, articulate the facts differently than Hughes does, and explain that, for every allegedly adverse action taken against Hughes, there were non-retaliatory justifications. (Id. ) For the reasons that ...


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