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Failla v. City of Passaic

May 29, 1998


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. No. 93-1957)

Before: Scirica, Roth, and Rendell Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge.

Argued January 27, 1998

Filed: May 29, 1998


Appellants City of Passaic, Passaic Police Department, and Victor Jacalone appeal from a judgment entered upon a jury's determination that appellants violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination when they transferred appellee William Failla to a night shift which aggravated his back condition, and from the district court's orders denying their consolidated post-trial motions and their motion for reconsideration of the award of attorneys' fees to Failla. For the reasons set forth below, we will affirm the judgment entered against the City and the Police Department, vacate the judgment entered against Jacalone, and reverse the district court's order denying appellants' post-trial motions insofar as it imposes individual liability on Jacalone, but will affirm the order in all other respects. We will also affirm the order denying appellants' motion for reconsideration of the attorneys' fee award.


Failla served as a captain with the Passaic Police Department. In 1989, he suffered a work-related back injury for which he subsequently received a partial disability award pursuant to the Worker's Compensation Act. In 1991, Failla was transferred from day shift to night shift work. At trial, Failla testified that approximately one year prior to that transfer, Jacalone, then the Chief of the Passaic Police Department and Failla's immediate supervisor, advised Failla that he wanted to transfer Failla to the night shift. Failla stated that he informed Jacalone of his back pain, and that Jacalone responded that the night air would "do [him] good."

Failla testified that following his transfer to the night shift, his back pain worsened. Several of Failla's co-workers also testified to his apparent discomfort on the night shift. Failla claimed that both the night air and the more strenuous duties required of the night captain aggravated his back condition. Failla also offered expert medical testimony in support of his claims. The expert testified that the cold and dampness of the night air, as well as the increased stress associated with the busier night shift, aggravated Failla's back condition. Failla requested a transfer back to a day shift on at least six occasions between 1992 and 1993. However, Failla was not reinstated to a day shift until November 1993, after he filed this suit and after Jacalone retired.

While still working the night shift, Failla initiated this action against the City, the Police Department, and Jacalone in his official and individual capacities. Failla alleged several causes of action, many of which were dismissed prior to trial. Failla proceeded to trial on his claims against all three appellants based upon their alleged violation of the LAD, and against the City and the Police Department based on their alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.*fn1 Failla contended that day shift work constituted a reasonable accommodation of his back condition.

At trial, the jury determined that Failla was not "disabled" within the meaning of the ADA, and judgment was accordingly entered in favor of the City and the Police Department on the ADA claim. The jury concluded, however, that Failla was "handicapped" within the meaning of the LAD, and that the City and the Police Department were liable for failing to accommodate Failla's handicap. The jury also concluded that Jacalone had engaged in discriminatory conduct within the scope of his employment, and the district court found him liable on that basis. The district court awarded Failla compensatory damages of $143,000, with costs. The district court denied appellants' subsequent motions for judgment as a matter of law, or in the alternative for a new trial, and awarded attorneys' fees to Failla. This appeal followed.*fn2


Appellants have appealed from multiple rulings of the district court, and different standards of review apply to different arguments that appellants have raised on appeal. Appellants' contention that Failla failed to establish a prima facie case under the LAD relates to their entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, and this court exercises plenary review over an order granting or denying a motion for judgment as a matter of law, applying the same standard as the district court. See Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993). A court should grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law "only if viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, no jury could decide in that party's favor." Walter v. Holiday Inns, Inc., 985 F.2d 1232, 1238 (3d Cir. 1993). Appellants' arguments relating to Jacalone's individual liability turn on the district court's interpretation of the effect of the jury's answers to interrogatories. We exercise plenary review over the district court's determination that the jury's findings resulted in a verdict of individual liability against Jacalone. See Bradford-White Corp. v. Ernst & Whitney, 872 F.2d 1153, 1158 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 993 (1989). Appellants' challenges to the district court's evidentiary rulings relate to their right to a new trial, and an abuse of discretion standard applies to the district court's decision to grant or deny a new trial. See Rotondo v. Keene Corp., 956 F.2d 436, 438 (3d Cir. 1992). Where, however, the district court's decision rests on the application of legal precepts, we exercise plenary review. See id. (citing Link v. Mercedes-Benz of N. Am., Inc., 788 ...

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