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Ryszard Zielinski v. Sps Technologies LLC

November 22, 2011

RYSZARD ZIELINSKI
PLAINTIFF,
v.
SPS TECHNOLOGIES LLC
DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW OR, IN THE ALTERNATIVE, MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL

I. Introduction

After a trial by jury in which a verdict was entered in favor of Plaintiff Ryszard Zielinski ("Zielinski") and against Defendant SPS Technologies, LLC ("SPS"), Defendant submitted this Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, in the Alternative, Motion for a New Trial (ECF No. 67). For the reasons stated below, the Motion is (1) DENIED insofar as it seeks judgment as a matter of law, (2) DENIED insofar as it seeks a new trial on liability, and (3) GRANTED insofar as it seeks a new trial on damages, UNLESS, within 30 days, Plaintiff accepts a remittitur limiting emotional distress damages to $100,000 and punitive damages to $327,500, in which event the Motion will also be DENIED insofar as it seeks a new trial on damages.

II. Background and Procedural History in this Court

SPS, a manufacturer of aerospace fasteners, operates a plant in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania with approximately 1000 employees. Zielinski, a Polish-born immigrant who came to the United States in 1987, was employed as a machinist at the plant from December 1997 to January 2009, when SPS terminated his employment.

On June 28, 2010, Zielinski filed a Complaint alleging that (1) SPS discriminated against him on the basis of his Polish ancestry, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"); (2) SPS retaliated against him for complaining to SPS's management and to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about inappropriate ethnic comments in the workplace, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII; and (3) SPS subjected him to a hostile work environment, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII. After a four-day trial by jury, a verdict was returned for Zielinski. The jury awarded him $85,000 in back pay, $100,000 in front pay, $250,000 in emotional distress damages, and $500,000 in punitive damages, for a total of $935,000 in damages.

On September 1, 2011, SPS timely filed the instant Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, in the Alternative, Motion for a New Trial (ECF No. 67). On September 22, 2011, Zielinski filed his response (ECF No. 70), and on October 12, 2011, SPS replied (ECF No. 72). On October 18, 2011, the Court invited Zielinski to submit a supplemental brief discussing Supreme Court and Third Circuit case law supporting the amount of emotional distress damages awarded to him by the jury (ECF No. 73). Zielinski submitted his supplemental brief on October 27, 2011 (ECF No. 74).

III. Legal Standard

Judgment as a matter of law may be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) when "the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). In conducting its analysis, the Court must "view[ ] the evidence in the light most favorable to the non[-]movant and giv[e] [him] the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 213 n.8 (3d Cir. 2009). The Court may not "weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its version of the facts for the jury's version." Id. Indeed, the Court must "disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe." Springer v. Henry, 435 F.3d 268, 281 (3d Cir. 2006). The relevant inquiry "is not whether there is literally no evidence supporting the party against whom the motion is directed but whether there is evidence upon which the jury could properly find a verdict for that party." Jaasma v. Shell Oil Co., 412 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).

In the alternative, the Court may grant a new trial on some or all of the issues "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1). For example, the Court may grant a new trial because (1) the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, (2) the damages are excessive, or (3) substantial errors were made in the admission or rejection of evidence or the giving or refusal of instructions. See Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940). Generally, the decision to grant or deny a new trial "is confided almost entirely to the discretion of the district court,"Blancha v. Raymark Indus., 972 F.2d 507, 512 (3d Cir. 1992).

With respect to the amount of damages awarded by the jury, a "court may not vacate or reduce the award merely because it would have granted a lesser amount of damages." Motter v. Everest & Jennings, Inc., 883 F.2d 1223, 1230 (3d Cir. 1989). The award is to be upheld "if there is a reasonable basis to do so." Id. However, if the Court believes a jury's award is unreasonable in light of the facts, it may remit the award. Cortez v. Trans Union, LLC, 617 F.3d 688, 716 (3d Cir. 2010); see also William A. Graham Co. v. Haughey, 646 F.3d 138, 142 (3d Cir. 2011) ("A district court's decision regarding a request for a remittitur is reversed only for abuse of discretion[.]"). Finally, if the Court determines that the award is constitutionally excessive, it must reduce the award as a matter of law to the amount that conforms with due process. Cortez, 617 F.3d at 716.

IV. Discussion

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law: Liability

SPS moves for judgment as a matter of law on multiple grounds. First, SPS claims that judgment should be entered in its favor on Zielinski's discrimination claim because there was no evidentiary basis for the jury to have concluded that Zielinski was suspended and terminated because he was Polish. Second, SPS argues that it cannot be found liable for retaliation because there was insufficient evidence to prove a causal connection between Zielinski's protected activity and the adverse employment actions. Third, SPS contends that Zielinski's hostile work environment claim fails as a matter of law both because it was barred by the statute of limitations and because the evidence at trial did not demonstrate a work environment containing sufficiently severe or pervasive discrimination. The Court now discusses each of these claims in turn.

1. Zielinski's Discrimination Claim

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII, a plaintiff pursuing a claim for discrimination on the basis of national origin must first come forward with enough evidence to establish a prima facie case. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). If the plaintiff succeeds in establishing his prima facie case, the burden shifts back to the employer to establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. Atkinson v. LaFayette College, 460 F.3d 447, 454 (3d Cir. 2006). Upon the employer's satisfaction of that standard, the burden shifts again to the plaintiff to prove that the non-discriminatory explanation is merely a pretext for discrimination. Id.

SPS argues that no reasonable juror could have determined from the evidence at trial that SPS's articulated reason for disciplining Zielinski-namely, his repeated offensive and inappropriate behavior towards his co-workers-was a pretext for discrimination. Viewed in the light most favorable to Zielinski, the trial record establishes the following facts, among others. Beginning in 2004, Zielinski's group leader at the plant, Al Weikel ("Weikel"), began subjecting him to discriminatory and harassing comments. For example, Weikel called Zielinski a "dumb Polack," suggested that he go back to his own country, and made fun of Zielinski's accent. (Tr. I-40.) In 2005, Zielinski complained about Weikel's comments to his manager, Mike Zataveski ("Zataveski"), who in turn reported them to SPS Human Resources ("HR"). (Tr. I-151.) The complaint was investigated, and as a result, Weikel and Zielinski were told that discriminatory language would not be permitted. (Tr. I-96, 166, Exh. D-1.) However, no formal discipline was imposed on either party.

In July 2006, Zielinski received his first discipline from SPS, after never having been disciplined in his previous nine years on the job. Specifically, Zielinski was suspended for three days after he allegedly pushed a co-worker. (Tr. I-106-07.) Zielinski testified that he did not push his co-worker but rather merely inserted himself sideways between two co-workers who were preventing him from clocking in for work. (Tr. I-52-54.)

During that period and thereafter, Zielinski was subjected to additional discriminatory harassment from two other co-workers in the thread roll department, Keith Strickland ("Strickland") and John Janiszewski ("JJ"). Strickland and JJ called him a "dumb Polack" and told him to "speak English;" in addition, Strickland began stealing Zielinski's production time. (Tr. I-43-44.) In May 2007, Zielinski complained to Zataveski's replacement, Bob Costello ("Costello"), about this treatment. Costello took no action in response to this complaint, and at trial he denied that Zielinski had ever complained to him. (Tr. II-56.)

Around the same time in early 2007, Strickland and JJ initiated what would become a long series of complaints to SPS that Zielinski was misbehaving and harassing them. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Zielinski, the jury could have concluded these complaints were another manifestation of JJ's and Strickland's anti-Polish discriminatory tactics. The jury also could have concluded that Costello's involvement was discriminatory in nature.

Specifically, in early 2007 Strickland and JJ complained to Costello that Zielinski was whistling and staring at them. (Tr. II-104-06, 175-76, Exh. D-3.) Though Zielinski denied this conduct, Costello verbally admonished Zielinski about his co-workers' complaints on multiple occasions. (Exh. D-3, D-4.) On the other hand, Costello did not take any corrective action regarding Zielinski's own complaints about Strickland and JJ. (Tr. I-44-45.)

Strickland and JJ's complaints persisted. In late August or early September 2008, JJ claimed to HR that Zielinski's improper whistling and staring was escalating. (Tr. II-171-72, 176-78.) As a result, on September 2, 2008, Zielinski was called to a meeting with HR employee Jerry Creed ("Creed") to discuss JJ's accusations and to warn him that he would be suspended if he did not stop. (Tr. I-223-25.) In that meeting, Zielinski again reported that Strickland and JJ were harassing him because he was Polish. (Tr. I-55.) In response, Creed eventually questioned Strickland and JJ about whether they had been harassing Zielinski. They denied it, and Creed declined to investigate the matter further. (Tr. I-232-33.)

Later that month, Strickland complained again to HR that Zielinski continued to whistle and stare at him, and was banging a bolt on a metal pan near Strickland in a harassing manner. (Exh. D-6.) Costello claimed that he, too, observed Zielinski's conduct. (Tr. II-70-73.) As a result, on September 11, 2008 SPS suspended Zielinski's employment for three days and ...


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