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Guarnieri v. Borough

September 2, 2008

CHARLES GUARNIERI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DURYEA BOROUGH, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court are Defendants Duryea Borough, Ann Dommes, Lois Morreale, Frank Groblewski, Edward Orkis, Robert Webb, Audrey Yager, Joan Orloski, and Alfred Akulonis' post-trial motions. These motions include a renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, a Motion for a New Trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 59, and a Motion to Stay Proceedings to Enforce Judgment. (Docs. 121, 127.) Because sufficient evidence exists such that a reasonable juror could find for the Plaintiff, and because there is no significant error of law on which to grant a new trial, the Rule 50 and 59 motions will be denied. As the Court will dispose of the Rule 50 and 59 motions in this Memorandum and Order, Defendants' motion to stay will be denied as moot.

BACKGROUND

On July 18, 2005, Plaintiff Charles Guarnieri, Jr. filed a civil action against Duryea Borough, Ann Dommes, Lois Morreale, Frank Groblewski, Edward Orkis, Robert Webb, Audrey Yager, Joan Orloski, and Alfred Akulonis. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff filed his Amended Complaint against these Defendants on December 21, 2006. (Doc. 38.) The Amended Complaint alleged various claims including violations of his Fourteenth Amendment preand post-deprivation due process rights, and several claims of First Amendment retaliation. (Doc. 38.) Defendants filed an Answer to the Amended Complaint on December 29, 2006. (Doc. 43.) On December 22, 2006, the Defendants moved for summary judgment. (Doc. 39.) On November 15, 2007, the motion for summary judgment was granted in part and denied in part. (Doc. 51.) The remaining claims involved allegations of violations of Plaintiff Guarnieri's First Amendment rights. (Doc. 51.)

The remaining counts went to trial on April 14, 2008. The jury returned a verdict on April 17, 2008 in favor of the Plaintiff with respect to retaliation for the issuance of the directives and the withholding of overtime compensation, and awarded forty-five thousand, three-hundred and fifty-eight dollars ($45,358.00) in compensatory damages and fifty-two thousand dollars ($52,000.00) in punitive damages. (Doc. 101.)

Following trial, Defendants filed various post-trial motions, including a renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, a Motion for a New Trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 59, and a Motion to Stay Proceedings to Enforce Judgment. (Docs. 121, 127.)

These motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

LEGAL STANDARDS

I. Rule 50(b)

Under Rule 50(b), a party may renew its request for a motion for judgment as a matter of law by filing a motion no more than ten (10) days after judgment is entered.

SeeFED. R. CIV. P. 50(b). In the present case, Defendants' Rule 50(b) motion was timely filed. (Doc. 218.) Judgment notwithstanding the verdict should be granted sparingly. See Walter v. Holiday Inns, Inc., 985 F.2d 1232, 1238 (3d Cir. 1993). In deciding whether to grant a Rule 50(b) motion: the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and determine whether the record contains "the minimum quantum of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief." The court may not weigh evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses or substitute its version of the facts for that of the jury. The court may, however, enter judgment notwithstanding the verdict if upon review of the record, it can be said as a matter of law that the verdict is not supported by legally sufficient evidence.

Parkway Garage, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia, 5 F.3d 685, 691-92 (3d Cir. 1993), abrogation on other grounds recognized by United Artists Theatre Circuit, Inc. v. Twp. of Warrington, Pa., 316 F.3d 392 (3d Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). A Rule 50 motion will be granted "only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and giving [the non-movant] the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury reasonably could find liability." Lightning Lube v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir.1993). The question is not whether there is literally no evidence supporting the non-moving party, but whether there is evidence upon which the jury could properly find for the non-moving party. See Walter, 985 F.2d at 1238 (citing Patzig v. O'Neil, 577 F.2d 841, 846 (3d Cir. 1978)).

II. Rule 59(a)

Under Rule 59(a), motions for a new trial must be filed within ten (10) days of the date the judgment was entered. SeeFED. R. CIV. P. 59. Defendants' motion for a new trial was timely filed. (Doc. 209.) The decision to grant a new trial is left to the sound discretion of the trial judge. See Blackiston v. Johnson, No. 91-5111, 1995 WL 563834, at *1 (E.D. Pa. 1995), aff'd 91 F.3d 122 (3d Cir. 1996), cert. denied 519 U.S. 953 (1996). Courts have granted motions for a new trial where: (1) there is a significant error of law, to the prejudice of the moving party; (2) the verdict is against the weight of the evidence;

(3) the size of the verdict is against the weight of the evidence; or (4) counsel engaged in improper conduct that had a prejudicial effect on the jury. See Maylie v. Nat'l R. R. Passenger Corp., 791 F. Supp. 477, 480 (E.D. Pa.), aff'd 983 F.2d 1051 (3d Cir. 1992). Where the evidence is in conflict, and subject to two (2) or more interpretations, the trial judge should be reluctant to grant a new trial. See Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1295 (3d Cir. 1993).

DISCUSSION

I. Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Defendants first move for judgment as a matter of law after trial pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 50(b) provides, in relevant part:

[i]f the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made 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. No later than 10 days after the entry of judgment -- or if the motion addresses a jury issue not decided by a verdict, no later than 10 days after the jury was discharged -- the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. . . .

FED. R. CIV. P. 50(b). Plaintiff argues that Defendants waived their right to a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law when they failed to make a motion at the close of all evidence. See Kruczek v. Borough of Lansford, Civ. A. No. 3:04-CV-1179, 2006 WL 1410620, at *1 (M.D. Pa. May 21, 2006) (Caputo, J.) (citing Greenleaf v. Garlock, Inc., 174 F.3d 352, 364 (3d Cir. 1999)) (finding Defendants waived their right to a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law when they failed to raise the motion at the close of evidence). Defendants, however, did renew their Rule 50 motions at the close of evidence. (Trial Tr. vol. 3, 202-03, Apr. 16, 2008.)

Furthermore, Kruczek was decided prior to the 2006 Amendments to the Rule 50. The Advisory Committee Notes on the 2006 Amendment to Rule 50 state that "Rule 50(b) is amended to permit renewal of any Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law, deleting the requirement that a motion be made at the close of all the evidence. Because the Rule 50(b) motion is only a renewal of the preverdict motion, it can be granted only on grounds advanced in the preverdict motion."

Defendants did properly renew their Rule 50 motion. Even if they had not, Defendants need not raise a Rule 50 motion at the close of the evidence as per the 2006 Amendment to Rule 50(b). Therefore, Defendants may renew their motion for judgment as a matter of law.

II. Punitive Damages

Defendants first argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to the punitive damages award. The jury awarded fifty-two thousand dollars ($52,000.00) in punitive damages to Plaintiff Guarnieri. (Doc. 100.) Defendants argue that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support this award.

"The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant for his willful or malicious conduct and to deter others from similar behavior." Memphis Cmty. Sc. Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 306 n.9 (1986). "A jury may be permitted to assess punitive damages in an action under § 1983 when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others." Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56 (1983).

The United States Constitution prevents "grossly excessive" punitive damage awards because such awards "further[ ] no legitimate purpose and constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of property." State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 416-17 (2003). In determining if a punitive damages award is reasonable, the court must consider: "(1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's misconduct; (2) the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases." Id. at 418 (citing BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 574-75 (1996)).

"[T]he must important indicium of the reasonableness of a punitive damages award is the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct." Id. at 419 (quoting Gore, 517 U.S. at 575). In evaluating reprehensible conduct, a court should look to whether: "the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic; the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others; the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability; the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident." Id.

Defendants' argument focuses on this first prong of the three-pronged inquiry. Specifically, Defendants assert that none of the above stated factors were present in this case, and therefore an award of punitive damages is not warranted. First, Defendants note that the harm suffered by Plaintiff Guarnieri was economic, rather than physical. Second, Defendants note that the First Amendment retaliation claims did not effect the health or safety of others. Third, Defendants argue that Plaintiff Guarnieri was not financially vulnerable. Fourth, Defendants argue that the conduct was not repeated. Finally, Defendants assert that it was not the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit.

Although the facts do not support the first three (3) factors, the fourth and fifth factors are supported by the facts. There is evidence in the record that actions against Plaintiff Guarnieri were repeated. Such evidence included the fact that Plaintiff received the directives and was denied overtime pay, as found by the jury. Furthermore, a reasonable juror could find that Defendants acted with malice in both issuing the directives and withholding the overtime pay. In this case, a reasonable juror could find that the conduct on part of the Defendants was malicious or wanton, and that such conduct was reprehensible. A reasonable juror could find that the directives were issued based upon wanton or malicious conduct based upon the fact that Plaintiff Guarnieri received the directives on January 21, 2005, upon his return to work after the conclusion of his grievance procedure. A jury could also find the conduct of Defendants to be wanton or malicious with respect to the denial of overtime pay. A jury could find that a fiscal retaliatory action of denying overtime pay to a person who files a grievance to be wanton or malicious. Although all of the factors are not supported by the facts, the fourth and fifth factor weigh in favor of the reasonableness of the jury's award.

The second prong of the punitive damages test considers the difference between the punitive damages and the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff. Here, the compensatory damages awarded by the jury totaled forty-five thousand, three-hundred and fifty-eight dollars ($45,358.00), compared to fifty-two thousand dollars ($52,000.00) in punitive damages. (Doc. 101.) The Supreme Court has "been reluctant to identify concrete constitutional limits on the ratio between harm, or potential harm, to the plaintiff and the punitive damages award." State Farm, 538 U.S. at 424. However, the State Farm Court stated that, "in practice, few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to significant degree, will satisfy due process." Id. at 425. Citing Gore, the Court noted that a four-to-one (4-to-1) ratio may be close to the constitutional limits. Id. In this case, the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages is slightly greater than a one-to-one (1-to-1) ratio. The punitive damages in this case are not so great as to be constitutional excessive.

Finally, the Court is to considerthe difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. In this respect, Plaintiff cites to the case of DeLuzio v. Monroe County, No. 3:CV-00-1220, 2006 WL 3098033 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 30, 2006) (Vanaskie, J.), aff'd 271 Fed App'x 193 (3d Cir. 2008). In DeLuzio, Judge Vanaskie denied the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law on a punitive damages award of twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000.00) for a First Amendment claim. Id. at *14-15. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court, noting that a jury could infer evil intent on part of the defendant, including from testimony about the defendant's hostility towards the plaintiff.271 Fed. App'x at 198.

The jury in this case awarded fifty-two thousand dollars ($52,000.00) on two (2) claims of First Amendment retaliation. The DeLuzio jury awarded twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000.00) for one (1) claim of First Amendment retaliation. In comparison to DeLuzio, the punitive damages award granted by the jury on the First Amendment claims is not unreasonable.

The evidence supports the jury's award of punitive damages. The award is reasonable based upon the ratio of the compensatory to punitive damages, the punitive damages award in similar cases, and the degree of reprehensibility of the Defendants' conduct. For these reasons, the Court will deny the Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law on the punitive damages claim.

III. Matter of Public Concern

Defendants argue that the Court should award the Defendants judgment as a matter of law because Plaintiff's petition did not address a matter of public concern. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has previously held that the First Amendment's Petition Clause protects a public employee from retaliation for filing non-sham lawsuits, grievances, and other petitions directed at the government or its officials. See San Filippo v. Bongiovanni, 30 F.3d 424, 439 (3d Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1082 (1995). The filing of such a petition is protected without regard to whether the petition addresses a matter of public concern. Id. at 442. A petition is protected as long as it is filed in good faith, and the petition is not a sham. Id. San Filippo noted thatformal mechanisms of filing a grievance include grievance procedures pursuant to a collective bargain agreement. Id. at 442. Defendants note that the holding of San Filippo contravenes the law of numerous other circuit courts, and therefore this Court should grant judgment as a matter of law for the Defendants. At this time, the Supreme Court has yet to decide the split in authority between the Third Circuit and other Courts of Appeals. Therefore, the law of San Filippo remains good law in this circuit. As a good faith grievance pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement has specifically been protected within the meaning of the Petition Clause by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in San Filippo, Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law will be denied on these grounds.

IV. Government Employee Filing a Petition

Defendants next argue that they should be granted judgment as a matter of law because Plaintiff Guarnieri was a public employee petitioning his government employer. Defendants cite Foraker v. Chaffinch, 501 F.3d 231, 248-49 (3d Cir. 2007) to support the argument that Plaintiff Guarnieri's public employee relationship with Duryea Borough created a lack of protected conduct within the meaning of the First Amendment. Quoting the Supreme Court case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 422 (2006), the Foraker court held that "when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." Id. at 239. Based upon this rationale, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that when police officers complained to a state auditor about hazardous conditions at a firing range, they spoke pursuant to their duty as government employees. Id. at 240.

Defendants cite the following language of the Foraker opinion in support of the proposition that a government employee's petition to his government employer is not protected: "[w]hile the Supreme Court did not address the question of whether the rule it announced in Garcetti applies to First Amendment retaliation claims based on a public employee's petitioning activities, as distinguished from his speech, there is good reason to believe that it does." Id. at 248-49 (Greenberg, J., concurring). This language appears in Judge ...


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