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Houston v. Easton Area School District

October 25, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry S. Perkin United States Magistrate Judge


On March 8, 2010, after a three-day jury trial, civil judgment upon a defense verdict was entered in favor of Defendant, the Easton Area School District against the Plaintiff, William Houston. J., Document No. 128. On March 11, 2010, Plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, alleging errors of law. For the following reasons, Mr. Houston's Motion is denied.


Mr. Houston retired from his position with the Defendant Easton Area School District in July 1999. On June 5, 2003, he brought suit against the Defendant under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17, alleging the School District discriminated against him based on his African American race when he received payment for only 25% of the value of his unused sick days upon his retirement, while four comparable white employees received payment for 100% of their unused sick days upon their respective retirements. The case was originally assigned to the Honorable James Knoll Gardner, and on February 17, 2004, following the consent of the parties, Judge Gardner ordered the referral of the case to United States Magistrate Judge Arnold C. Rapoport for all further proceedings and entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Judge Rapoport denied Defendant's motion for summary judgment on November 4, 2004, but on October 3, 2005, granted in part Defendant's motion in limine, excluding evidence of the retirement packages of three of the four alleged comparators on the basis that they were not similarly situated to Mr. Houston because their positions were not covered under a Pennsylvania statute commonly referred to as Act 93, 24 P.S. § 11-1164, excluding evidence of historical inequities and excluding secret code language in various employees' retirement letters. See Document Nos. 30, 38. Judge Rapoport then placed this case in suspense on January 24, 2006, pending the conclusion of Wrazien v. Easton Area School District,*fn1 a case pending in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County. On March 11, 2008, following notification by counsel that the state court case had concluded, the case was transferred out of suspense and referred to arbitration.

On July 24, 2008, an arbitration award was entered, and on July 29, 2008, Mr. Houston filed a request for a trial de novo. The parties informally consented to a bench trial during a telephone conference with Magistrate Judge Rapoport, and on July 31, 2008, Chief Judge Harvey J. Bartle, III, reassigned the case to the undersigned.

On August 6, 2008, Mr. Houston filed a motion for reconsideration of Judge Rapoport's decision on the motion in limine. On October 8, 2008, the motion for reconsideration was denied. A one-day bench trial was held on October 15, 2008. In a February 24, 2009 Memorandum Opinion and Verdict, this Court entered judgment for the Defendant. See Document No. 81.

Mr. Houston filed a timely appeal challenging the decision of the motion in limine excluding comparator evidence from the bench trial. On appeal, Mr. Houston did not challenge the exclusion of the historical inequities evidence. See Third Cir. Op., pp. 5-6 n.6. On December 8, 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in a nonprecedential opinion, vacated the judgment in favor of Defendant and remanded this case for a new trial. The Court stated that:

[Mr.] Houston challenges the court's exclusion of comparator evidence from the trial. Because we find Act 93 status should not have been determinative as to whether the employees were similarly situated to [Mr.] Houston, we will vacate the judgment of the District Court.

We find that under the facts of this case, Act 93 status should not have been the dispositive factor for purposes of determining whether [Mr.] Houston was similarly situated to other School District administrators.

The similarly situated analysis is for the District Court to determine in the first instance. See Mendelsohn, 128 S.Ct. at 1146 ("[Questions of relevance and prejudice are for the District Court to determine in the first instance." (citing U.S. v. Abel, 469 U.S. 45, 54 (1984))). But it appears that Ciccarelli and Hettel may be similarly situated to [Mr.] Houston. . . . . Evidence of additional similarly situated employees outside of [Mr.] Houston's protected class - each of whom received or was promised 100% of his sick pay upon retirement - likely would have changed the entire complexion of the trial.

Accordingly, we will vacate the judgment in favor of the School District and remand for a new trial. On remand, the District Court should engage in a factual analysis of the relevant factors to determine whether any of the excluded comparators is similarly situated to [Mr.] Houston.

The District Court also excluded evidence of alleged "secret code" language used in Ciccarelli's retirement letter because evidence of his retirement was excluded as not comparable to Houston. If the court determines on remand that Ciccarelli is an appropriate comparator, his retirement letter should be admissible in accordance with the court's ruling that similar language in Wrazien's letter was admissible.

Houston v. Easton Area Sch. Dist., slip op., pp. 2, 9, 10, 11 (3d Cir. Dec. 8, 2009).*fn2

Following remand, Mr. Houston moved to vacate waiver of his jury trial on December 11, 2009 and the motion was granted on December 24, 2009. Defendant filed a motion in limine on February 15, 2010. On February 19, 2010, a final pretrial conference was held, and supplemental briefing on the historical inequities issue was submitted on February 22 and 26, 2010. See Document Nos. 120, 121. On March 2, 2010, Defendant's motion in limine was denied with respect to exclusion of evidence surrounding the retirements of Piazza, Hettel, Wrazien and Ciccarelli, but was granted with respect to historical inequity evidence. See Document Nos. 117, 118. The historical inequity evidence included deposition testimony from Mr. Houston, Alfredean Jones and Constance Mazza that Mr. Houston and Mr. Jones suffered disparity in their pay beginning in 1975 that continued throughout the entirety of their careers with the Defendant School District. A jury trial was held on March 3, 4 and 5, 2010 which again resulted in a verdict for Defendant. Although I excluded argument regarding Plaintiff's alleged historical inequities, I allowed Mr. Houston to testify regarding past acts of discrimination. Specifically, I instructed the jury that:

Plaintiff will testify regarding past acts of discrimination he allegedly suffered in the past. This testimony is admissible with respect to Plaintiff's claim of emotional distress. These past acts of discrimination are not claims in this case. They are being provided to you by the Plaintiff for the limited purpose of explaining his claim of emotional distress. As with all evidence, it is for you to determine what weight to give this evidence.

This instruction was given during Mr. Houston's direct testimony on March 4, 2010. Mr. Houston then testified regarding three specific acts of discrimination that he had suffered throughout his life. On March 5, 2010, the jury returned a verdict for Defendant, and on March 8, 2010, civil judgment was entered in favor of Defendant. See Document No. 128. On March 11, 2010, Plaintiff filed the instant Motion for a New Trial. See Document No. 130. Defendant filed a Response in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion on March 26, 2010. See Document No. 131.


The ordering of a new trial is a matter committed to the sound discretion of the district court. Bonjorno v. Kaiser Alum. & Chem. Corp., 752 F.2d 802, 812 (3d Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 477 U.S. 908 (1986); Fed. R. Civ. P. 59. The grant of a new trial may be justified where, for example, material evidence has been improperly excluded or a material issue has been improperly submitted to the jury. See Petree v. Victor Fluid Power, Inc., 887 F.2d 34, 41 (3d Cir. 1989); 6A James M. Moore, et al., Moore's Federal Practice, ¶ 59.08.

When evaluating a motion for a new trial on the basis of trial error, the Court must first determine whether an error was made in the course of trial, and then must determine "whether that error was so prejudicial that refusal to grant a new trial would be 'inconsistent with substantial justice.'" Farra v. Stanley-Bostitch, Inc., 838 F. Supp. 1021, 1026 (E.D. Pa.1993) (citations omitted). "Absent a showing of 'substantial' injustice or 'prejudicial' error, a new trial is not warranted and it is the court's duty to respect a plausible jury verdict." Goodwin v. Seven-Up Bottling Co. of Phila., CIV.A. No. 96-CV-2301, 1998 WL 438488, at *3 (July 31, 1998) (citing Videon Chevrolet, Inc., v. Gen. Motors Corp., Civ. No. 91-4202, 1994 WL 188931, at *2 (E.D. Pa. May 16, 1994), aff'd, 46 F.3d 1120 (3d Cir.1994)). A court can only exercise its discretion to grant a new trial because the verdict was against the weight of the evidence when the failure to do so would result in injustice, or would shock the conscience of the court. Windsor Shirt Co. v. N.J. Nat'l Bank, 793 F.Supp. 589, 595 (E.D. Pa. 1992)(citing Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1348 (3d Cir.1991); Feingold v. Raymark Indus., Inc., 1988 WL 76114 at *3 (E.D. Pa. July 19, 1988) and Grace v. Mauser-Werke GMBH, 700 F.Supp. 1383, 1387 (E.D. Pa. 1988)).


In his Motion for New Trial, Mr. Houston alleges that:

(1) the Court erred by granting, in part, Defendant's second Motion in Limine and precluding Plaintiff from testifying about ongoing racial discrimination in his salary which allegedly started when Plaintiff became a principal and continued through his tenure at Easton Area School District;

(2) the Court committed prejudicial error by refusing to instruct the jury in accordance with the determination in Wrazien v. Easton Area School District*fn3 that 25% payment for accrued sick days at the time of an employee's retirement was a minimum and not a maximum benefit;

(3) the court prejudiced plaintiff by allowing into evidence testimony and charts indicating that non-cabinet officials received only 25% of their accrued sick days;

(4) the court compounded the error by allowing the jury to see Defendant's Exhibit No. 6 which itemized each and every non-cabinet official who only received 25%;

(5) whether or not the Defendant opened the door for admissibility of discrimination in ...

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