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Bernadette Waites v. Kirkbride Center

July 30, 2012

BERNADETTE WAITES,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
KIRKBRIDE CENTER, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM

Currently pending before the Court are Plaintiff Bernadette Waites's ("Plaintiff") Motion for Sanctions (Doc. No. 68) and Plaintiff's Motion for New Trial (Doc. No. 71). For the following reasons, both motions will be DENIED.

I. FACTS

The factual background of this case has been detailed by this Court previously. See Waites v. Kirkbride Center, No. 10-1487, 2011 WL 2036689 (E.D. Pa. May 23, 2011) (Doc. No. 39). Therefore, the facts are only briefly summarized here.

Plaintiff began her employment with Defendant Kirkbride Center ("Defendant") as a detox therapist in February 2005.*fn1 Beginning in September 2007, Plaintiff began experiencing health problems. Although initially believed to be Subclavian Steal Syndrome, the doctors ruled out this diagnosis. In fact, Plaintiff suffered from high blood pressure, a torn ligament in her shoulder, and mental problems arising from depression and hypoglycemia. Plaintiff's medical problems caused fainting spells, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty in thinking, and difficulty in functioning at work. Plaintiff began missing work. Initially, Plaintiff properly telephoned Mr. Kevin Collier (her supervisor) about her absences. However, Plaintiff did not continue telephoning Defendant about subsequent absences and failed to timely provide doctor's notes. Plaintiff was admitted into the hospital from September 17 through September 20, 2007. Plaintiff's doctor subsequently provided a note that she was medically cleared to return to work.

Defendant gave Plaintiff the opportunity to explain why she was absent and neglected to call out sick. Plaintiff, however, could not demonstrate any suitable reason for failing to abide by Defendant's attendance policy. After receiving letters from Defendant's Human Resources Department, Plaintiff was terminated on October 1, 2007 due to a violation of Defendant's No Call/No Show Policy. Plaintiff subsequently submitted information to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), which formulated a formal Charge of Discrimination.

Plaintiff instituted the current action against Defendant by filing a Complaint on April 5, 2010. (Doc. No. 1). Plaintiff alleged that Defendant violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. ("ADA"), and the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. ("FMLA"), by terminating Plaintiff. Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 3) on June 1, 2010 and Amended Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 4) on June 2, 2010, asserting that Plaintiff's ADA claim was time-barred. On June 11, 2010, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 5), to which Defendant filed an Answer (Doc. No. 6) on June 28, 2010.*fn2

This matter was initially assigned to District Court Judge Juan R. Sanchez. On July 16, 2010, the parties consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and the matter was referred to me. (Doc. No. 9).

Defendant filed an Amended Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 20), to which Plaintiff filed multiple responses. After holding oral argument, this Court granted Defendant's motion regarding the ADA claim, but denied the motion in all other respects. (Doc. No. 39). Consequently, this matter proceeded to trial on Plaintiff's FMLA claim, which lasted from June 3 to June 9, 2011.*fn3

During trial, a recurring theme in Plaintiff's case was Defendant's failure to produce Plaintiff's personnel file during discovery. On the last day of testimony (i.e., June 8, 2011), defense counsel produced the file -- stating that despite prior unsuccessful searches, the file was found during a renewed search the previous night. After being given time to review the personnel file, the Court asked Plaintiff how she wished to proceed. Plaintiff's counsel stated:

And my position is, I'm ready to go, and we can -- portions of this file, ignoring the untimeliness issue, okay, portions of this file are admissible. I'm not waiving my contention that the Defendant should be sanctioned for this belated discovery privilege, but as to the admissibility and utilization of the same at trial, why not. I brought it in issue.

See N.T. 6/8/2011 at 24. Thereafter, Plaintiff's counsel introduced documents within the personnel file, and even moved for the admission of a handwritten letter by Plaintiff that was in the file. The handwritten letter stated that Plaintiff contacted Mr. Collier to decline FMLA leave.

Plaintiff confirmed that the handwritten document was in fact written by her, but testified that she did not recall the circumstances surrounding the letter (e.g., when and why she wrote it). Plaintiff also denied the accuracy of many of the statements within the letter.

On June 9, 2011, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendant on the FMLA count. (Doc. No. 64). Judgment was entered for Defendant and against Plaintiff. (Doc. No. 66). Plaintiff subsequently filed the instant post-trial motions, both of which seek a new trial as the remedy. (Doc. Nos. 68 & 71). Defendant responded to the Motion for Sanctions on July 13, 2011 (Doc. No. 72), and the Motion for New Trial on July 30, 2011 (Doc. No. 75). Accordingly, both motions are now ripe for disposition.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 allows a trial court to "grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, 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)(A). The decision to grant a new trial is within the trial court's discretion. See Blanca v. Raymark Indus., 972 F.2d 507, 512 (3d Cir. 1992). "Such an endeavor is not, however, lightly undertaken, because it necessarily 'effects a denigration of the jury system and to the extent that new trials are granted the judge takes over, if he does not usurp, the prime function of the jury as the trier of the facts.'" Guynup v. Lancaster Co., No. 06-4315, 2009 WL 541533, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 3, 2009) (quoting Lind v. Schenley Indus., Inc., 278 F.2d 79, 90 (3d Cir. 1960)). "Courts have granted new trials when there have been prejudicial errors of law or when the verdict is against the weight of the evidence." Jones v. City of Phila., No. 90-02974, 2008 WL 1794842, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 18, 2008).

When the asserted basis for a new trial is the that jury verdict is against the weight of the evidence, a trial court should grant a new trial "only when the record shows that the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice or where the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks [the court's] conscience." Greenleaf v. Garlock, Inc., 174 F.3d 352, 366 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3d Cir. 1991)). In reviewing a motion for a new trial, the court must "'view all the evidence and inferences reasonably drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the party with the verdict.'" Marino v. Ballestas, 749 F.2d 162, 167 (3d Cir. 1984) (quoting Chuy v. Phila. Eagles Football Club, 595 F.2d 1265, 1273 (3d Cir. 1979)).

When the asserted basis for a new trial is trial error by the judge, "'the court's inquiry . . . is twofold. It must first determine whether an error was made in the course of the trial, and then must determine whether the error was so prejudicial that refusal to grant a new trial would be inconsistent with substantial justice.'" Guynup, 2009 WL 541533, at *2 (quoting Farra v. Stanley-Bostitch, Inc., 838 F. Supp. 1021, 1026 (E.D. Pa. 1993)).

III. DISCUSSION

In Plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions, Plaintiff requests this Court to vacate the judgment and order a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37. See Pl.'s Mot. Sanctions, Proposed Order. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that Defendant should be sanctioned for failing to produce Plaintiff's personnel file during discovery or immediately after Defendant found it. See Pl.'s Mot. Sanctions ¶ 17.

In Plaintiff's Motion for New Trial, Plaintiff asks this Court to grant a new trial based upon the following claims for relief:

(1) The Court improperly granted summary judgment on Plaintiff's ADA claim.

(2) The Court improperly admitted into evidence:

(a) Plaintiff's personnel file; and

(b) Defendant's prior employee manual and human resources documentation.

(3) The Court erred by:

(a) failing to include an interrogatory regarding an employer's notice requirement in the verdict sheet;

(b) utilizing the term "appropriate notice" in the verdict sheet, which was vague and confusing, and caused the verdict to be against the weight of the evidence;

(c) failing to instruct the jury regarding statements against interest as requested by Plaintiff; and

(d) failing to reconsider its dismissal of Plaintiff's retaliation claim, and by failing to instruct the jury on same.*fn4

See Pl.'s Mot. New Trial; see also Pl.'s Mem. Law Supp. Mot. New Trial. In response, Defendant contends that relief is not due.

This Court will decide each claim for relief separately.

A. Granting Summary Judgment on Plaintiff's ADA Claim*fn5 Plaintiff argues that this Court "erred by granting summary judgment on the merits of Plaintiff's ADA claim because . . . [she] adduced sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie claim under the ADA." Pl.'s Mem. Law Supp. Mot. New Trial 12-13. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that this Court erred by determining that Plaintiff was not regarded by her employer as being disabled. Id. at 13. In response, Defendant contends that Plaintiff failed to provide any "new facts, legal argument, or change in the applicable caselaw" to convince this Court to upset its prior holding. Def.'s Mem. Law Re: Mot. New Trial 9.

The ADA prohibits covered employers from discriminating against disabled individuals. Sulima v. Tobyhanna Army Depot, 602 F.3d 177, 185 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a) (2006)).*fn6 In analyzing such claims, courts utilize the burden-shifting framework announced in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). See Shaner v. Synthes, 204 F.3d 494, 500 (3d Cir. 2000). Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, the plaintiff has the initial burden of showing a prima facie case of discrimination; the burden then shifts to the defendant to offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment actions; finally, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove that the offered reason is pretextual. Id. at 500-01.

In order to prove a prima facie case of discrimination, a plaintiff must show:

(1) that she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA,

(2) that she is otherwise qualified for the job, with or without ...


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