United States District Court, E.D. New York
DR. ADDAGADA C. RAO, Plaintiff,
RAMON RODRIGUEZ and WYCKOFF HEIGHTS MEDICAL CENTER, INC, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
NICHOLAS G. GARAUFIS, United States District Judge.
Dr. Addagada C. Rao brought this employment discrimination
action against Defendants Ramon Rodriguez and Wyckoff Heights
Medical Center, Inc. ("Wyckoff"), asserting claims
of discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and
age, in violation of federal, state, and municipal law. (See
Compl. (Dkt. 1).) On May 11, 2017, after a nine-day trial,
the jury returned a defense verdict on all claims. (Jury
Verdict (Dkt. 160).) Now before the court is Defendants'
application for attorney's fees (the "Fee
Application"). (Defs. Appl. for Att'y Fees (Dkt.
163).) For the reasons stated below, the Fee Application is
fees may be awarded to the prevailing party on claims
asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ("Title
VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5; Section 1981 of the
Civil Rights Act of 1866 ("Section 1981"), 42
U.S.C. § 1988(b); and the New York City Human Rights Law
("NYCHRL"), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-502(g).
"'[A] district court may in its discretion award
attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant'
only 'upon a finding that the plaintiffs action was
frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even
though not [necessarily] brought in subjective bad
faith.'" Carter v. Inc. Vill. of Ocean
Beach, 759 F.3d 159, 163 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting
Christiansburg Garment Co. v. Equal Empl't
Opportunity Cornm'n, 434 U.S. 412, 421
where "[h]indsight proves" that a plaintiff's
allegations are "very weak, " attorney's fees
will be denied unless the court finds the plaintiffs claims
to be "completely without foundation." Tancredi
v. Metro. Life Ins. Co.. 378 F.3d 220, 230 (2d Cir.
2004); see also Christiansburg Garment, 434 U.S. at
421-22. The Second Circuit has cautioned that "a court
cannot properly consider a claim to be frivolous on its
face" if the court previously found "that . the
plaintiff must be allowed to litigate the claim."
LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 143 F.3d 765, 770 (2d
Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). In particular, "a claim
[may not] properly be deemed groundless where the plaintiff
has made a sufficient evidentiary showing to forestall
summary judgment and has presented sufficient evidence at
trial to prevent the entry of judgment against him as a
matter of law." Id. at 771 (and discussing
Am. Fed'n of State, Ctv. & Mun. Employees,
AFL-CIO v. Ctv. of Nassau ("AFSCME"), 96 F.3d
644 (2d Cir. 1996)).
court denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment, as
well as their motions for judgment as a matter of law under
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). (Mar. 30, 2017, Mem.
& Order (Dkt. 101); Trial Tr. 1376:24-1377:1.) Defendants
submit that the denial of a "Rule 50 motion should not
serve as a bar to attorney's fees." (Defs. Reply in
Supp. of Fee Appl. (Dkt. 167) at 3.) The only authority they
cite for that proposition, however, is Dangler ex rel.
Dangler v. Yorktown Central School, 777 F.Supp. 1175
(S.D.N.Y. 1991), a district court case that predates the
Second Circuit's ruling in LeBlanc-Sternberg.
The court finds the reasoning in Dangler persuasive,
but sees no leeway under the clear language in
LeBlanc-Stenberg, and therefore denies
Defendants' Fee Application.
reviewing a Rule 50 motion, all credibility determinations
and reasonable inferences of the jury are given deference and
we may not weigh the credibility of witnesses."
Vangas v. Montefiore Med. Ctr.. 823 F.3d 174, 180
(2d Cir. 2016) fciting Bradv v. Wal-Mart Stores.
Inc., 531 F.3d 127, 133 (2d Cir. 2008)). That standard
creates a difficult hurdle in cases such as this, in which
Plaintiffs discrimination claims rested almost entirely on
disputed allegations that Defendant Rodriguez made certain
remarks to or about Plaintiff. Most of the witnesses who
testified to overhearing those remarks were individuals who
had themselves been terminated or demoted, and some had
initiated their own private actions against Defendants.
Certain witnesses, including Plaintiff himself, seemed to
have trouble remembering what, exactly, Rodriguez allegedly
said, or to whom he said it. Though certain comments were
allegedly made at group meetings, Plaintiff did not produce
corroborating testimony from other meeting attendees.
Combative or evasive demeanor on the stand further undermined
the credibility of certain key witnesses. The court
recognizes, however, that a "claim is not necessarily
frivolous" merely "because a witness is
disbelieved." LeBlanc-Sternberg, 143 F.3d at
770 (quoting AFSCME. 96 F.3d at 652).
setting aside questions of credibility, Plaintiffs claims
arguably suffered from inadequate evidence of discriminatory
intent. Notably, witnesses disagreed with each other over the
meaning of Rodriguez's alleged comments. Even if it is
true that Rodriguez said Plaintiffs "face looks like an
oyster shell, " that comment could be interpreted as a
comment on Plaintiffs age, race, or national origin, or
something else entirely. The term "Indian Mafia"
could, in a vacuum, be interpreted as referring to all
doctors of Indian descent, but at least one witness testified
that the term was a commonly used moniker for a particular
tight-knit group of doctors who worked together and supported
each other, most of whom were Indian, but who represented
only a small proportion of the many Indian staff members at
Wyckoff. Meanwhile, Defendants offered multiple legitimate
non-discriminatory reasons for seeking Plaintiffs departure,
also highlighted the absence of evidence that Defendants had
sought the removal or demotion of other employees on the
basis of age, South Asian race, or Indian national origin.
close of Plaintiff s affirmative case, Defendants moved for
judgment as a matter of law. The court expressed skepticism
about the merits of Plaintiff s case, especially with regard
to claims asserting race-based discrimination. The court
asked Plaintiff whether there has "been evidence here of
racial animus ... beside one alleged comment" more than
a year after Plaintiffs departure, "which is usually not
enough in these discrimination cases." (Trial Tr.
1168:16-21.) Plaintiff did not offer any additional examples,
but emphasized that the comment in question was allegedly
made by Rodriguez himself, a key decision maker, and thus
constitutes evidence of discriminatory animus. Qd.
1168:22-1169:2.) The court questioned whether "that
[was] really credible here" given the "ample
evidence that many, many people of Indian and other minority
background have been hired or  remained on staff."
the court reserved ruling on Defendants' Rule 50 motion,
and invited Defendants to reassert the motion at the close of
evidence. (Id. 1170:1 -3.)
sidebar later in the trial, the court cautioned Plaintiff
that the undersigned was "close to directing a
verdict." (Id. 1335:21-22.) At the close of
evidence, however, the court denied Defendants' renewed
Rule 50(a) motion. (Id. 1376:24-1377:1.) Despite the
court's skepticism as to the veracity of testimony from
Plaintiff's witnesses, and even as to the integrity of
Plaintiffs prima facie case,  the court permitted all claims to
proceed to a jury verdict. The court was cognizant that
judgment as a matter of law is an extraordinary remedy. The
court recognized, moreover, that certain among Plaintiffs
claims had more support than others, both due to the
differential evidence adduced as to various asserted
discriminatory motives, and also thanks to the NYCHRL's
uniquely plaintiff-friendly standards. As long as at least
some of Plaintiffs claims were fit for decision by jury, the
court thought it wise to submit all claims for jury review in
the first instance, particularly in light of Plaintiffs
inability to articulate with certainty which allegedly
discriminatory comments supported which bases for
discrimination. Cf. Dangler, 777 F.Supp. at 1178
("Directed verdicts are  disfavored because they
require a retrial if improvidently granted.").
doing, the court recognized that, when denying a motion for
judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a), "the court
is considered to have submitted the action to the jury
subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions
raised by the motion." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). Had the jury
found for Plaintiff on any of his claims, Defendants could
have moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict under
Rule 50(b). The court will not, at this time, articulate
definitive rulings on hypothetical motions, but notes that,
with regard to certain among Plaintiffs claims, a 50(b)
motion would have received serious
consideration. LeBlanc-Sternberg brooks no
exception, however, declaring that a claim may not be
"deemed groundless where the plaintiff... has presented
sufficient evidence at trial to prevent the entry of judgment
against him as a matter of law." 143 F.3d at 771.
the court denied Defendants' motions for summary judgment
and for judgment as a matter of law, and because the court
lacks evidence that Plaintiff actually acted in bad faith or
knowingly presented false ...