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Jovan v. Pilgrim's Pride Corp.

November 20, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane


Before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. (Doc. No. 103.) The parties have briefed the motion, which is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny the motion.


A. Procedural Background

Jonily Jovan, a native of Sri Lanka, brought this action against his former employer, Pilgrim's Pride Corp. ("Pilgrim's Pride"), under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., alleging discrimination based upon national origin and race. Jovan alleged that he was subjected to an hostile work environment, and that his employment at Pilgrim's Pride was terminated because of his national origin.

After a four-day trial in March 2007, a jury entered a verdict in favor of Pilgrim's Pride. On March 26, 2007, Jovan moved for a new trial (Doc. No. 103) on the grounds that the Court abused its discretion by limiting Jovan's testimony concerning persecution and torture suffered by Jovan in his homeland. (Doc. No. 103, at 1.) Jovan filed a brief in support of his motion on April 12, 2007. (Doc. No. 105.) Pilgrim's Pride filed a brief in opposition to the motion on May 2, 2007. (Doc. No. 106.) No reply brief was filed, and this motion is now ripe for disposition.

B. Factual Background

Jovan's motion for a new trial singularly pertains to a pretrial evidentiary ruling. On the morning of jury selection, Pilgrim's Pride presented to the Court its formal objection to a recently disclosed newspaper article describing Jovan's harrowing escape from Sri Lanka and the hardships he endured there. Pilgrim's Pride objected to the admissibility of the newspaper article and further objected to "any reference by argument, testimony, or otherwise to Mr. Jovan's claim that he suffered torture in his homeland of Sri Lanka or any evidence regarding his journey from Sri Lanka to the United States." (Tr. 4:8-11.) The Court granted the motion only in part, on relevance grounds, ruling that Jovan would be allowed to testify about certain background information, without recounting in detail the tortured he claims to have endured. The ruling was explained as thus: Jovan would be permitted "to explain [that he was] the recipient of political asylum and . . . to detail his background without sharing a lot of detail about the torture and circumstances of his living in Sri Lanka." (Tr. 4:12-17.) The Court further explained that Jovan would be able to testify about "where he came from and why he left, that he left because of the upheaval in his country, [that] he felt that he was at risk, physically at risk, and [that] he applied for and was granted political asylum." (Tr. 5:21-24.) Pilgrim's Pride objected to the ruling, on the grounds that "[w]e don't believe any of it should be permitted given its unduly prejudicial nature." (Tr. 6:13-15.) Plaintiff did not object to the ruling and proffered no basis for the admissibility of the evidence.

The case commenced to trial thereafter, with Jovan as the first witness. Despite the Court's pretrial ruling, Jovan repeatedly referred to persecution and torture that he suffered in Sri Lanka. Every time Jovan used either the word "persecution" or "torture," Pilgrim's Pride objected. After Jovan made his third reference to persecution and torture that he and his wife suffered, Pilgrim's Pride moved for a mistrial at sidebar. (Tr. 69-71.) The Court denied the motion. Jovan later testified that his wife suffered a miscarriage due to torture (Tr. 148) and, again, Pilgrim's Pride objected. Finally, Jovan asked the Court whether "[he could] just use the word 'persecution' once? Am I not allowed at all? I'm not going to go into detail." (Tr. 157:21-22.)

At sidebar, Pilgrim's Pride again moved for a mistrial on the grounds that "despite the Court's admonition to counsel and to this witness, this witness has twice this morning referenced persecution and torture, not only with respect to himself but talked about alleged persecution and torture of his wife in a blatant attempt to appeal to the passion, sympathy, and prejudice of this jury." (Tr. 158:1-6.) The Court denied the motion as follows:

I'm sorry, Counsel, but I don't have a history with this witness. You obviously do, and you are very mistrustful of any errors that he may make. I don't see it this way. I do not think this is a manipulative person who is trying to manipulate the Court and counsel and the whole system. I don't see that. I think he's a person who has some language issues, some language barriers, and is doing his best to follow the Court's instruction. Perhaps I've not been explicit enough, but I haven't heard anything that I think warrants a mistrial in this case. (Tr. 158-159:1-10.) At side bar, overruling Pilgrim's Pride's motion for a mistrial, the Court opined that:

The ruling on whether or not he's even allowed to reference the issues in Sri Lanka is a close call, and I may even be wrong on that. I certainly think in terms of background it was not proper. In terms of explaining to the jury how the hostile work environment impacted him, it probably is appropriate. But I've limited what he's going to be permitted to say. I think that at some point there comes to be a [Rule] 403 issue with it, but we're walking a fine line here. I don't think he's done anything that has prejudiced defendant's case, especially given later opportunity for a possible limiting instruction.

(Tr. 159:11-22.)

Jovan now argues in his motion for a new trial that the Court's latter statement that "[t]he ruling . . . is a close call, and I may even be wrong on that" amounts to a concession that the jury did not receive all "relevant and key evidence to prove the defendant's discriminatory intent and/or that national origin was a determinative factor in the decision to terminate the plaintiff from employment." (Pl's Br. 12.) Now, for the first time, Jovan has adopted the Court's suggestion that the questioned evidence may be relevant to Jovan's hostile-work-environment claim. Pilgrim's Pride opposes ...

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