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Doe v. Wyoming Valley Health Care System

December 18, 2009

JANE DOE, APPELLEE
v.
WYOMING VALLEY HEALTH CARE SYSTEM, INC., APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment entered July 25, 2008 In the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County Civil, No. 4555 of 1996.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gantman, J.

BEFORE: ORIE MELVIN, GANTMAN, AND CLELAND, JJ.

¶ 1 Appellant, Wyoming Valley Health Care System, Inc., appeals from the judgment entered in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas in favor of Appellee, Jane Doe,*fn1 following the denial of Appellant's motion for post-trial relief. We reverse and remand.

¶ 2 The relevant facts and procedural history of this case are as follows. In the spring of 1996, Appellee became a member of an organizing committee to represent medical/surgical nurses as a collective bargaining unit in matters relative to their employment with Appellant. Between May and July 1996, Appellant held several meetings, known as "round the clock" meetings, concerning the potential unionization of the nurses. In May 1996, Appellee attended one such meeting held by Mary Beth Komnath, the Vice President of Patient Care Services for Appellant. At the meeting, Appellee raised her hand on several occasions to correct what she felt were inaccuracies on the part of Ms. Komnath regarding unionization. Following the meeting, Appellee spoke briefly with Ms. Komnath about patient safety and staffing issues.

¶ 3 In July 1996, Appellant presented testimony/evidence concerning unionization before the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") over the course of several hearings. During the hearings, the NLRB focused, inter alia, on whether nurses who held the position of Clinical Care Coordinator ("CCC") were "supervisors," as defined by the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA"), and should be excluded from the proposed bargaining unit. Appellant's position was that CCC's were supervisors under the NLRA. To show that CCC's functioned in a supervisory role, Appellant assembled written examples of disciplinary actions, instructions, written reprimands, and/or anecdotal notes independently initiated by CCC's in conjunction with their role in supervising staff nurses. Ms. Komnath instructed the directors of various nursing departments to identify and collect the requested documents. Ms. Komnath did not decide which examples to present before the NLRB. Rather, Appellant forwarded the assembled documents to legal counsel, who independently determined which documents to present at the hearing.

¶ 4 During the NLRB hearing on July 3, 1996, Ms. Komnath appeared as a witness for Appellant to give testimony/evidence that CCC's were supervisory employees.*fn2 Appellant's counsel presented Ms. Komnath with a series of disciplinary records, written reprimands, and anecdotal records pertaining to various members of Appellant's staff and questioned Ms. Komnath on the content of those documents. Prior to testifying, Ms. Komnath did not review the documents Appellant's counsel had chosen to present before the NLRB.

¶ 5 Appellant's counsel introduced seventeen (17) documents for Ms. Komnath's comment. Significantly, opposing counsel did not request that Appellant's counsel redact the names of the employees appearing on the documents. One of the documents counsel presented to Ms. Komnath related to Appellee's job performance. Specifically, this document, labeled "Anecdotal Record," revealed that on March 5, 1996, Appellee failed to transcribe a patient's vital signs. Appellee was not present at the July 3, 1996 hearing. The following day, a co-worker allegedly told Appellee that Appellant had used a document from her personnel file at the NLRB hearing. On August 2, 1996, Appellee filed a complaint against Appellant claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress*fn3 and invasion of privacy due to Appellant's dissemination of a document from her confidential personnel file at the July 3rd hearing before the NLRB. Appellee's complaint also asserted that on July 4, 1996, a local newspaper published an article mentioning Appellant's use of confidential personnel files at the NLRB hearing.*fn4 Appellee sought both compensatory and punitive damages. On August 30, 1996, Appellant filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer. On November 18, 1996, the court overruled Appellant's objections.*fn5 Following discovery, on August 21, 2003, Appellant moved for summary judgment. On February 6, 2004, the court denied Appellant's motion. In each of the relevant pleadings, Appellant asserted/argued the affirmative defense of absolute privilege.

¶ 6 Trial commenced on January 28, 2008. At the close of Appellee's case-in-chief, Appellant moved for a compulsory non-suit, again asserting, inter alia, the disclosure at the NLRB hearing concerning Appellee was absolutely privileged because the disclosure took place during a judicial proceeding. After hearing argument from both parties, the court denied Appellant's motion. The court then permitted both parties to introduce additional evidence in the form of exhibits. Thereafter, Appellant moved for a directed verdict and to preclude an instruction on punitive damages. Appellant's motion renewed the argument concerning absolute privilege. Subsequently, the court denied Appellant's motions. The court, however, stated: "But if you get an award on punitive damages I'm revisiting that." (N.T., 1/29/08, at 102; R.R. at 37a).

¶ 7 On January 31, 2008, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Appellee in the amount of $400,000.00 (compensatory damages totaling $50,000.00 and punitive damages totaling $350,000.00). On February 8, 2008, Appellant filed a timely motion for post-trial relief, seeking judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") or, alternatively, a new trial or remittitur. On June 30, 2008, the court denied Appellant's motion. The court entered judgment on the verdict in favor of Appellee on July 25, 2008. On July 29, 2008, Appellant timely filed its notice of appeal. The court did not order Appellant to file a statement of matters complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), and Appellant did not file one.

¶ 8 Appellant raises the following issues for our review:

BECAUSE [APPELLEE] FAILED TO ADDUCE SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO SUSTAIN A PRIMA FACIE CASE THAT [APPELLANT] INVADED HER PRIVACY, WHETHER THE [TRIAL] COURT ERRED BY FAILING TO GRANT [JNOV] OR A NEW TRIAL IN FAVOR OF [APPELLANT]?

BECAUSE THE EVIDENCE DEVELOPED AT TRIAL DOES NOT DEMONSTRATE THE LEVEL OF OUTRAGEOUSNESS NECESSARY TO SUPPORT AN AWARD OF PUNITIVE DAMAGES, WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN ALLOWING THE ISSUE OF PUNITIVE DAMAGES TO BE SUBMITTED TO THE JURY IN THE FIRST INSTANCE AND IN FAILING TO GRANT [JNOV], OR AT A MINIMUM A NEW TRIAL TO [APPELLANT]?

BECAUSE THE JURY'S VERDICT WAS PLAINLY EXCESSIVE AND SUBSTANTIALLY DEVIATED FROM THE TRIAL EVIDENCE, WHETHER [APPELLANT] IS ENTITLED TO A SUBSTANTIAL REMITTITUR OF THE JURY'S MANIFESTLY EXCESSIVE VERDICT OR TO A NEW TRIAL ON DAMAGES? (Appellant's Brief at 5).

¶ 9 Our standard of review of a trial court's denial of a motion for JNOV is as follows:

Whether, when reading the record in the light most favorable to the verdict winner and granting that party every favorable inference therefrom, there was sufficient competent evidence to sustain the verdict. Questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence are for the trial court to resolve and the reviewing court should not reweigh the ...


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