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Schlier v. Rice

November 14, 2008

JIMMY A. SCHLIER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CAPT. JOHN G. RICE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court are numerous post-trial motions made by both Plaintiffs and Defendants. These motions include Plaintiffs' "Motion for a New Trial Against Col. Jeffrey Miller" (Doc. 240), Plaintiff Wreckers International's "Motion for a New Trial on Wreckers International's Compensatory Damages" (Doc. 243), and Defendant John G. Rice's "Motion for a Judgment as a Matter of Law or, Alternatively, for a New Trial Pursuant to FED.R.CIV.P. 59(a), or for a Remittitur" (Doc. 248). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' "Motion for a New Trial Against Col. Jeffrey Miller" (Doc. 240) and Plaintiff Wreckers International's "Motion for a New Trial on Wreckers International's Compensatory Damages" (Doc. 243) will be denied. Defendants' "Motion for a Judgment as a Matter of Law or, Alternatively, for a New Trial Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a), or for a Remittitur" (Doc. 248) will be denied with respect to the motions for a judgment as a matter of law and a new trial, and will be granted with respect to the motion for remittitur.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Jimmy A. Schlier is the owner, president and operator of Plaintiff Wreckers International Inc., d/b/a Schlier's Towing & Service Center ("Schlier's Towing"). (Decl. of Jimmy A. Schlier, Doc. 91 ¶ 1.) In 1976 or 1977, Schlier's business began performing towing services for the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) and until September 2002, Plaintiffs were on the State Police's approved towing referral lists, whereby they regularly received requests from motorists and the State Police to tow vehicles that were broken down, involved in accidents, or impounded for criminal investigations; Plaintiffs also regularly performed towing and repair services on State Police vehicles. (Pls.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, Doc. 90 ¶¶ 2, 5, 13 [hereinafter Pls.' Statement]; Defs.' Counterstatement of Undisputed Material Facts, Doc. 107 ¶¶ 2, 5, 13 [hereinafter Defs.' Counterstatement].)

The Defendants, at the origination of this case, were Colonel Jeffrey Miller, Commissioner of the PSP; Major John Rice, Commander of Area V and, in 2002, before his promotion from captain, the commanding officer of Troop N, which includes five (5) stations; Lieutenant David Dougalas, the station commander of the Swiftwater barracks of Troop N; Daniel McGuire, assistant counsel at the State Police Office of Chief Counsel (OCC) beginning April 8, 2002; Lieutenant Colonel Cynthia Transue, Commander of Area V in 2002; Joe Robb, Director of the Bureau of Vehicle Management in the Department of General Services (DGS) in 2002; and Josie Sharp, current Director of Vehicle Management in the DGS. (Pls.' Statement ¶¶8-10; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 8-10; Pls.' Second Am. & Supplemental Compl, Doc. 67, ¶¶ 6, 11; Defs.' Answer to Second Am. & Supplemental Compl., Doc. 103 ¶¶ 6, 11; Dep. of Daniel McGuire, Doc. 122-7, at 15: 2-10, 143: 3-8.)

In February 2001, the PSP adopted Field Regulation 6-2, which regulated the provision of emergency towing services. It provided troop commanders with authority to suspend towing operators from the referral lists for a number of reasons, including failure to maintain the regulation's standards; commission of an act involving dishonesty or corruption when it affects the health, welfare, or safety of others; overcharging for services, to be determined in conjunction with the fee schedule the operator submitted its application; or repeated conduct that tends to demean the public image of the Police. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, Doc. 122 ¶¶ 3-4 [hereinafter Defs.' Statement]; Pls.' Counterstatement of Facts, Doc. 137 ¶¶ 3-4 [hereinafter Pls.' Counterstatement].)

In late 2001 or early 2002, disputes developed between Plaintiff Schlier and the PSP about billing. (See Pls.' Statement ¶ 15; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶ 15.) In January 2002, Mr. Schlier had a series of conversations with Representative Kelly Lewis, discussing trouble he was having getting paid for towing operations. (Dep. of Jimmy Schlier, Oct. 19, 2005, Doc. 140-6, at 61-64.) In response to a price that the Police thought exorbitant and a complaint filed against Schlier's Towing by another company, which led to an investigation into possible deceptive practices by Schlier's Towing, the PSP decided to no longer use Schlier's services exclusively but to seek out the best price each time towing services were needed. (See Defs.' Statement ¶¶ 12-18; Pls.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 12-18.) Mr. Schlier called then-Captain Rice to express concern that his services were no longer being used, and Rice informed him of the decision; at this point, Schlier complained of unpaid bills and Rice told Schlier to forward any such bills to Rice for his evaluation. (Defs.' Statement ¶¶ 18-19; Pls.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 18-19.) Schlier then sent more than sixty (60) bills totaling thirty-three thousand, three hundred twenty-five dollars and seventy-five cents ($33,325.75). (Pls.' Statement ¶ 17; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶ 15.)

On April 27, 2002, Plaintiff Schlier sent a formal complaint to the Director of the Division of Internal Affairs, which investigates reports of misconduct, alleging that the Swiftwater barracks had failed to pay bills and had improperly directed towing business to another towing operator owned by a convicted felon. (Pls.' Statement ¶¶ 18-21; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 18-21.) This complaint was forwarded to Rice by May 22, 2002. (Pls.' Statement ¶ 23; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶ 23.) Rice later asked his personnel to survey Plaintiffs' rates, and after a survey, Lieutenant Dougalas reported to Rice that Plaintiffs' rates were two (2) to four (4) times higher than competitors'. (Defs.' Statement ¶¶ 25-27; Pls.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 25-27.)

On August 27, 2002, Rice informed Plaintiff that his company would be removed from all Troop N referral lists effective September 6, 2002. Rice informed Plaintiff that his decision was based on four factors: (1) Schlier's Towing failed to meet the requirement of charging reasonable and customary fees; (2) the company demeaned the image of the State Police by falsely communicating to another business that it had a contract with the Police and that the Police approved of its billing practices; (3) a complaint filed by that other company against Schlier's Towing resulted in a criminal investigation into deceptive or fraudulent business practices; and (4) Schlier's Towing submitted invoices to the Police totaling thirty-three thousand, three hundred twenty-five dollars and seventy-five cents ($33,325.75) but the State Police do not act as guarantor of the expenses that motorists may owe to emergency towing operators and the Police will not assume responsibility for the expenses. Finally, Rice informed Plaintiff that he could apply for reinstatement after six (6) months, contingent upon taking "appropriate remedial action so that [your business] will not conflict with the standards required by the Pennsylvania State Police." (Pls.' Statement ¶¶ 24-25; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 24-25.) The criminal investigation of Schlier's Towing ended September 26, 2002, after the district attorney declined prosecution. (Pls.' Statement ¶ 53; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶ 53.)

On November 15, 2002, Schlier's Towing filed an action with the Pennsylvania Board of Claims against the PSP to recover the charges it claimed it was owed, and the Board of Claims entered an opinion sustaining Plaintiffs' claim as stating a cause of action for breach of an implied-in-fact contract or an implied-in-law contract. (Pls.' Statement ¶¶ 54-55; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 54-55.) In March 2003, Plaintiffs unsuccessfully applied for reinstatement to the Police referral lists. (Pls.' Statement ¶¶ 57-60, 62-64; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 57-60, 62-64.)

In March 2006, Plaintiffs sent a letter to Colonel Miller through counsel complaining that the PSP had removed them from the referral lists in retaliation for exercise of their First Amendment rights to petition the government for redress of grievances, namely, for submitting the invoices. Plaintiffs argued in the letter that the reasons Rice gave for the suspension were pretextual. (Pls.' Statement ¶ 67; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶ 67.) An assistant counsel with the State Police then wrote to Plaintiffs' counsel that his letter was best directed not to Miller but to the Office of Attorney General, which represented the Defendants, as that he would forward it there. (Pls.' Statement ¶ 68; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶ 68.)

In August of 2006, after Plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction ordering Colonel Miller and Major Rice to reinstate them to the towing referral lists, the parties agreed to a rate schedule and Plaintiffs were reinstated to the lists. (Pls.' Statement ¶¶ 70-75; Defs.' Counterstatement ¶¶ 70-75.)

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint initiating this case on August 20, 2004. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiffs filed their Amended Complaint (Doc 18), mooting Defendants' initial Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 13). Defendants then moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint (Doc. 20), and this Court denied that motion in its Memorandum and Order of February 16, 2006.

(Doc. 29). Plaintiffs later filed their Second Amended and Supplemental Complaint on October 25, 2006. (Doc. 67.) Defendants moved to dismiss Count III of that Complaint (Doc. 76.), and this Court denied their motion in its Memorandum and Order of January 11, 2007. (Doc. 99.) Defendants filed their Answer to the Second Amended and Supplemental Complaint on January 25, 2007. (Doc. 103.) Plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 89) on January 2, 2007, and Defendants filed a summary judgment motion (Doc. 96) on January 3, 2007. In a Memorandum and Order dated October 9, 2007, this Court denied Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment against Defendants Rice and Miller, dismissed Defendant Josie Sharp, denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment in favor of Defendants Rice, Miller and Douglas with respect to Plaintiffs' First Amendment claims, granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment in favor of Defendants McGuire, Transue and Robb with respect to Plaintiffs' First Amendment claims, and granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment due process claims. (Doc. 156.)

The remaining First Amendment retaliation claims against Defendants Rice, Miller, and Dougalas proceeded to trial on March 4, 2008. On March 14, 2008, Defendants moved for a dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 which was denied by the Court. On March 18, 2008, Defendants renewed their Rule 50 motion, and the Court granted it with respect to Defendant Col. Miller, dismissing him from the case. The trial continued with Rice and Dougalas the only remaining Defendants. On March 20, 2008, after twelve (12) days of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiffs, awarding Plaintiff Jimmy Schlier two million, two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($2,250,000) in compensatory damages and awarding Plaintiff Wreckers International, Inc. one million ($1,000,000) in compensatory damages. (Doc. 233.) This Court entered judgment accordingly. (Docs. 230, 231.) On March 31, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for a New Trial against Col. Jeffrey Miller pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(a) and 50(d). (Doc. 240.) On April 2, 2008, Plaintiff Wreckers International, Inc. filed a Motion for New Trial on Wreckers' Compensatory Damages Only, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a). (Doc. 243.) On April 3, 2008, Defendants Rice and Dougalas filed their Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, Alternatively, for a New Trial Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a), or For a Remittitur. (Doc. 248.) Each of these motions have been fully briefed and are now ripe for disposition.

LEGAL STANDARDS

I. Rule 50(d)

Under Rule 50(d), "[a]ny motion for a new trial under Rule 59 by a party against whom judgment as a matter of law is rendered must be filed no later than 10 days after the entry of the judgment." FED. R. CIV. P. 50(d). The only motion currently before the Court involving a judgment as a matter of law is Plaintiff's Motion for a New Trial Against Col. Jeffrey Miller (Doc. 240), which was timely filed on March 31, 2008.

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. Plaintiffs' Motion for a New Trial Against Col. Jeffrey Miller (Doc. 240), Plaintiff Wreckers International's Motion for a New Trial on Wreckers' Compensatory Damages (Doc. 243), and Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, Alternatively, for a New Trial, or for a Remittitur (Doc. 248) were all timely filed.

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).

"Where the practice permits a partial new trial, it may not properly be resorted to unless it clearly appears that the issue to be retried is so distinct and separable from the others that a trial of it alone may be had without injustice." Gasoline Products Co. v. Champlin Refining Co., 283 U.S. 494, 500 (1931). "[A] new trial limited solely to damages is improper where'the question of damages... is so interwoven with that of liability that the former cannot be submitted to the jury independently of the latter without confusion and uncertainty, which would amount to a denial of a fair trial.'" Pryor v. C.O. 3 Slavic, 251 F.3d 448, 455 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Gasoline Products, 283 U.S. at 500). "That is'the grant of a partial new trial is appropriate only in those cases where it is plain that the error which has crept into one element of the verdict did not in any way affect the determination of any other issue.'" Id. (quoting Elcock v. Kmart Corp., 233 F.3d 734, 758 (3d Cir. 2000).

DISCUSSION

I. Plaintiffs' Motion for a New Trial Against Col. Jeffery Miller

In their motion, Plaintiffs argue that, on March 18, 2008, the Court erred in granting Defendant Miller's motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) because there was a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for the jury to find for Plaintiffs with respect to Defendant Miller. In support of their argument, the Plaintiffs focus on the mention of counsel in the Court's March 18, 2008 oral order dismissing Defendant Miller from the case. Specifically, they argue that the jury could have found counsel's response to a March 9, 2006 letter as evidence of acquiescence to the violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights and that Attorney Hawn's May 15, 2006 memorandum of understanding compounded these First Amendment violations. Plaintiffs, however, do not respond to the Court's finding that no evidence was presented at trial suggesting fault or culpable conduct on the part of Col. Miller regarding his actions subsequent to any notice that he had. (Tr. March 18, 2008, Doc. 269, 93:5-8.)

In their brief in opposition to Plaintiff's motion, Defendants correctly argue that liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 requires personal involvement by the defendant in the alleged acts. See Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988) ("A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior.") (citing Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 537 n. 3 (1981); Hampton v. Holmesburg Prison Officials, 546 F.2d 1077, 1082 (3d Cir. 1976)). "Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence." Id. Accordingly, for Defendant Miller to properly remain as a defendant in the current action, Plaintiffs needed to show that Miller was either personally involved in the decision to remove Schlier from the PSP towing referral list or that Miller knew of and acquiesced to Schlier's removal from the list.

During the various stages of this litigation prior to the Court's March 18, 2008 order dismissing Defendant Miller, including eleven (11) days of trial, Plaintiffs presented no evidence that Defendant Miller was personally involved in removing Schlier or Wreckers International from the emergency towing list, and the only evidence presented that suggests knowledge or acquiescence by Miller is contained in a letter dated March 9, 2006, three full years after Schlier's removal. Without any further evidence suggesting that Miller's actions or acquiescence caused a violation of Schlier's First Amendment rights, the Court could not, and still can not, discern any fault or culpability by Miller sufficient to hold him liable under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. ...


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