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Boone v. Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation

June 8, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Sylvia H. Rambo


Before the court is Defendants' Post-Trial Motion Pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 50 and 59 for Judgment as a Matter of Law, for a New Trial, or to Amend the Judgment (Doc. 204). The parties have briefed the issues and the matter is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the court will deny Defendants' motion in part and grant it in part. The court will grant Defendants' motion for remittitur with respect to the emotional distress damages, but will deny the motion in all other respects.

I. Background

The facts leading to up to trial are set forth in detail in the court's summary judgment ruling (Doc. 127). On November 22, 2005, following an eleven-day trial, a jury found that Defendants, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Stephen Nasuti, and Stephen Schmerin (hereinafter "the Commonwealth Defendants" or "Defendants"), discriminated against Plaintiff Christine Boone because she is blind. The jury further found that Mr. Nasuti and Secretary Schmerin aided and abetted the discrimination.

In addition, the jury found that Mr. Nasuti and Secretary Schmerin denied Ms. Boone her due process rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because they "made false, defamatory, and stigmatizing statements to the public in the proximate time of her termination that called into question Plaintiff's good name, reputation, and personal qualifications in the field of vocational rehabilitation." (Jury Verdict, Doc. 171 at 2.) Finally, the jury found that Mr. Nasuti and Secretary Schmerin conspired to stigmatize Plaintiff in connection with her termination and to deny her a name clearing hearing.

The jury awarded Plaintiff $3,000,000 in emotional distress damages and $180,000 in front pay damages. The jury did not award back pay damages. The jury also awarded Plaintiff $175,000 in punitive damages.*fn1

The Commonwealth Defendants filed the instant motion on February 13, 2006, and seek judgment as a matter of law in their favor, or in the alternative a new trial, or in the further alternative a remittitur on damages.

II. Legal Standard

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 governs motions for judgment as a matter of law. Rule 50 provides, in relevant part:

If during a trial by jury a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue, the court may determine the issue against that party and may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against that party with respect to a claim or defense that cannot under the controlling law be maintained or defeated without a favorable finding on that issue.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). The court should grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law "only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and, giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury reasonably could find liability." Jaguar Cars, Inc. v. Royal Oaks Motor Car Co., Inc., 46 F.3d 258, 269 (3d Cir. 2005); see also McGreevy v. Stroup, 413 F.3d 359, 364 (3d Cir. 2005).

The court is precluded from making credibility determinations, weighing the evidence, and drawing legitimate inferences from the facts because such functions are reserved for the jury. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). The court considers the record as a whole, but may only rely upon "evidence favoring the non-movant 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.' " Id. at 151. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 300 (1986)). Judgment as a matter of law "may not stand unless the record is critically deficient of that minimum quantum of evidence from which the jury might reasonably afford relief." Fineman v. Armstrong World Indust., Inc., 980 F.2d 171, 190 (3d Cir. 1992) (internal quotations omitted).

B. Motion for New Trial

A motion for a new trial is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. Under this rule, in the case of a jury trial, "[a] new trial may be granted to all or any of the parties and on all or part of the issues . . . for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1). In the Third Circuit, a new trial is warranted "when the verdict is against the great weight of the evidence or errors at trial produce a result inconsistent with substantial justice." Sandrow v. United States, 832 F. Supp. 918, 918 (E.D. Pa. 1993) (citing Roebuck v. Drexel Univ., 852 F.2d 715, 735-36 (3d Cir. 1988)); see also Bullen v. Chaffinch, 336 F. Supp. 2d 342, 346 (D. Del. 2004) (noting that excessive damages or improper use of peremptory challenges to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race are other grounds for a new trial).

When a motion for a new trial is based on a prejudicial error of law, the court has broad discretion to order a new trial. Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3d Cir. 1993). If, however, a motion for a new trial is premised on a verdict that is allegedly against the weight of the evidence, the court's discretion is more limited. Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3d Cir. 1991). Under these circumstances, a new trial should only be granted when the verdict "cries out to be overturned or shocks the conscience." Id. Nonetheless, in reviewing a motion for a new trial, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the verdict winner. Marino v. Ballestas, 749 F.2d 162, 167 (3d Cir. 1984); see also 12 James Wm. Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice § 59.13.

III. Discussion

A. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 "Stigma-Plus" Claim

1. Rule 50 Motion

a. Nature of Stigma

The Commonwealth Defendants first argue that a stigma cannot exist unless an employer accuses an employee of immoral or criminal behavior. Defendants further interpret the court's reference to yellow crime tape in its October 12, 2005 order (Doc. 127)*fn2 as an affirmation of this premise and cite the court's later exclusion of references to yellow crime tape as a basis for finding error with the court's denial of Defendants' motion for summary judgment and for granting their Rule 50 motion now.

First, Alexander v. Hargrove, upon which Defendants rely, fails to support such a restricted view. 1995 WL 144636, at *9 (E.D. Pa. March 31, 1995). As the court previously held in its disposition of Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 85), "stigma-plus" claims are not strictly limited to statements of dishonesty or criminal conduct or immorality. Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth identified dishonesty and immorality as examples of the kinds of charges that put "a person's good name, reputation, honor, or integrity" at stake, but did not strictly limit stigma-plus claims to those two categories. 408 U.S. 564, 572 (1972). Hargrove involved accusations of criminal conduct, but failed to establish that Roth and its progeny could not apply outside of such facts. Among the cases that review stigma-plus claims are some that involve criminal or immoral charges and some that do not; however, none suggest that charges of immorality or dishonesty represent the only conduct upon which such claims may stand. Moreover, the Third Circuit has expressly indicated that the determination of what constitutes a stigma requires consideration of the subsequent injury and effects of the charges made. See McKnight v. S.E. Pa. Transp. Auth., 583 F.2d 1229, 1235-37 (3d Cir. 1978) (discussing that whether an allegation of intoxication while at work was merely a charge of an isolated incident insufficient to impute a stigma or the equivalent of labeling a person an alcoholic, and if so, how to determine whether that was sufficient to impute a stigma under Roth). Thus, Plaintiff was not required to show that Defendants accused her strictly of immoral or illegal conduct and the absence of such charges fails to provide a basis for granting Defendants' Rule 50 motion.

Second, Defendants' attempt to inflate the significance of the court's rulings with respect to yellow crime tape fails. At the summary judgment stage, the court determined that "Defendants' stated reasons for dismissing Plaintiff[,] insubordination, failure to cooperate, and lack of required skills," reasons which Plaintiff disputed were the real reasons, "sufficiently imputed a stigma to Plaintiff's termination." (Doc. 127 at 18.) The court identified use of yellow crime tape to block access to Plaintiff's door after her dismissal as one of a number of additional acts that further contributed to the stigma associated with Plaintiff's dismissal. However, the presence or absence of yellow crime tape was not the pivotal factor in the court's decision at that time. Accordingly, the court's misinterpretation of the reliability of the evidence Plaintiff planned to submit with respect to the yellow crime tape*fn3 was not an error that would have altered the court's finding.

b. Manner of Termination

Defendants also argue that the manner of Plaintiff's dismissal cannot serve as a basis of a stigma-plus claim because the manner of dismissal was comprised of internal acts that were not publicized. However, Defendants supply only scant authority that is not completely on point or not from this jurisdiction. More importantly, even accepting the premise as true, the court again notes that its decision at the summary judgment stage was sufficiently based on Defendants' public statements, which they made at the time of Plaintiff's termination and maintained throughout litigation, and even now, that Plaintiff was terminated "for cause" -- for "compelling, performance-based reasons" and for reasons "involving behavior unacceptable from an employee." These statements preclude the court from granting Defendants' Rule 50 motion based on the question of whether Plaintiff established stigma, regardless of whether the issue of the manner of Plaintiff's termination may be considered.

c. The Statements

Defendants further challenge the sufficiency of the statements to establish stigma. Defendants cite to Scarnati v. Washington for the premise that statements that criticize competence, performance, or abilities are insufficient to impute a stigma. 599 F. Supp. 1554, 1556 (3d Cir. 1985), aff'd, 772 F.3d 896 (3d Cir.). Defendants fail, however, to equate a label of incompetence with one of insubordination or dismissal for cause, or claims that Plaintiff was unwilling to cooperate or acted in an unacceptable manner. Accordingly, Defendants fail to provide authority sufficiently analogous to the instant scenario for the court to grant the Rule 50 motion.

Defendants also dispute whether statements made by Mr. Nasuti and Secretary Schmerin were "substantially and materially false," Ersek v. Twp. of Springfield, 102 F.3d 79, 83-84 (3d Cir. 1996), without specifically identifying the statements or discussing how or why they were not materially false. The court acknowledges that the parties have disputed throughout this litigation whether Plaintiff's conduct constituted insubordination and whether the other reasons stated by Defendants for her termination were true. Both parties presented evidence via testimony from various witnesses regarding the instances Defendants identified as acts of insubordination and the circumstances and events surrounding those acts (e.g., the state-wide training session, her actions regarding the college scholarship policy, her role in the readmittance of Ben Marshall to the Business Enterprise Program, her communications to staff regarding writing letters to Senator Specter). ...

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