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Jones v. Pennsylvania State Police

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 11, 2018

RACHEL JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE AND MIKE TINNENY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WENDY BEETLESTONE, J.

         In this employment discrimination case, Plaintiff Rachel Jones asserted a claim for a hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), 43 Pa. Stat. 951 et seq., against Defendants Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) and Sergeant Mike Tinneny. Plaintiff was, during the relevant times of her Complaint, a patrol trooper for the PSP. According to Plaintiff, the PSP failed to stop her co-worker and ex-boyfriend, Trooper Craig Acord, from harassing her. Plaintiff furthermore claimed that Sergeant Tinneny aided and abetted the hostile work environment.

         After a four-day trial, the jury awarded $250, 000 to Plaintiff, finding that the PSP violated both Title VII and the PHRA. Sergeant Tinneny was found not liable. Defendants now move for a new trial under Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or, alternatively, seek a reduction of the jury's award. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion shall be denied.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         On motion, a court may grant a new 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). However, “it should do so only when ‘the great weight of the evidence cuts against the verdict and . . . a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand.” Leonard v. Stemtech Int'l Inc, 834 F.3d 376, 386 (3d Cir. 2016) (quoting Springer v. Henry, 435 F.3d 268, 274 (3d Cir. 2006)). The power to grant a new trial is limited to ensure that a court “does not substitute its judgment of the facts and the credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury.” See Id. (quoting Delli Santi v. CNA Ins. Cos., 88 F.3d 192, 201 (3d Cir. 1996)); Sheridan v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., 100 F.3d 1061, 1076 (3d Cir. 1996) (en banc). Indeed, granting a new trial may “effect[] 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 facts.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         II. DISCUSSION

         In moving for a new trial, Defendants contend that: (1) the Court committed an error of law when it denied, during trial and from the bench, Defendants' motion to amend the pleadings under Rule 15(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; and (2) the jury instructions confused and misled the jury. Each purported error will be considered in turn.

         a. Request for Amendment under Rule 15

         i. Defendants' Initial Request for Amendment under Rule 15(b)

         Before addressing the merits of Defendants' request for amendment under Rule 15(a), some procedural background is necessary. On January, 11, 2017, Defendants' filed an Answer in which they admitted, inter alia, that:

• Plaintiff s complaints about harassment by Acord “were not taken seriously”;
• Plaintiff reported Acord's harassment to a lieutenant, but was told “there was no need for an investigation” at the time;
• Internal Affairs of the PSP conducted witness interviews only after Plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”); and
• Starting in November 2015, the PSP began investigating Plaintiff s harassment claim pursuant to a second EEOC complaint.

         During trial, Plaintiff sought to read those admissions into evidence. In response, Defendants submitted a letter to the Court, styled as a “Motion to Amend, ” which sought leave to amend their Answer pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(b)(1) to “conform to the discovery and evidence as it has been presented at trial.”

         Rule 15(b)(1) authorizes amendment of pleadings in two ways: (i) when “a party objects that evidence is not within the issues raised in the pleadings” or (ii) when an “issue” is “tried by the parties' express or implied consent.” Ruling from the bench, the Court found that Defendants had not shown - either by letter or in argument - that either provision applied and, thus, denied the motion. Defendants have not challenged that decision here.

         ii. Defendants' Subsequent Oral Request for Amendment under Rule 15(a)

         However, after the Court's decision on their Rule 15(b) motion, Defendants switched their theory for an amendment - arguing that they should be granted leave to amend under Rule 15(a) instead. They provided no case law to support their position, contending simply that “justice so require[d]” it. Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). Without the benefit of briefing, the Court looked to the language of Rule 15(a) and denied Defendants' request to amend for two reasons. First, by its own terms, Rule 15(a)'s heading provided that it governed “Amendments Before Trial.” Accordingly, because Defendants sought amendment during trial, the Court concluded that Rule 15(a) did not apply. Second, the Court noted that prior, competent counsel for Defendants made the admissions, and justice did not require amendment simply because current counsel for Defendants disagreed with prior counsel's decision.

         iii. Rule 15(a) Standard and Its Application

         The decision of whether to grant or deny a motion for leave to amend under Rule 15(a) rests “within the sound discretion of the district court.” Howze v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 750 F.2d 1208, 1212 (3d Cir. 1984). If the deadline for amendment as a matter of course has passed, Rule 15(a) provides that “a party may amend its pleading only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). “The court should freely give leave when justice so requires.” Id.

         Despite the Rule 15(a) heading upon which the Court based its ruling during trial, requests for Rule 15(a) amendments are not necessarily limited to matters before trial. In their motion for a new trial, Defendants cite to Charpentier v. Godsil which holds that requests for Rule 15(a) amendments are not categorically barred during trial. 937 F.2d 859, 863-64 (3d Cir. 1991) (noting that a “responsive pleading may be amended at any time by leave of court to include an affirmative defense”) (emphasis added); see also id. at 864 (“Consequently, we believe that the district court possessed discretion to permit an amendment of the answer to assert this defense even after the verdict was returned.”) (emphasis added). And, based on the Court's independent research, it is clear that requests for amendment under Rule 15(a) may be made at various stages of litigation. See Mullin v. Balicki, 875 F.3d 140, 149 (3d Cir. 2017) (“Lacking a time limit or an outer bound on when amendment is permissible, the Rule instructs courts to ‘freely give leave [to amend] when justice so requires.”); see also Newark Branch, NAACP v. Town of Harrison, N.J., 907 F.2d 1408, 1417 (3d Cir. 1990) (“Accordingly, courts have held that grants for leave to amend complaints should be routinely granted to plaintiffs, even after judgments of dismissal have been entered against them, if the appropriate standard for leave to amend under Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a) is satisfied.”); Levin v. Weissman, 594 F.Supp. 322, 329 (E.D. Pa. 1984), judgment aff'd, 760 F.2d 258 (3d Cir. 1985) (“There was discretion to permit plaintiff to amend his complaint immediately after he rested his case. . . .”). In light of Charpentier, Defendants now claim that their request for amendment under Rule 15(a) should have been granted.

         Nonetheless, leave to amend under Rule 15(a) is not given automatically. Leave may be denied for various reasons, such as when the request for amendment fails to specify “what [the movant's] amendment would have looked like.” Petratos v. Genentech, Inc., 855 F.3d 481, 493 (3d Cir. 2017). Additionally, in deciding whether “leave to amend might reasonably be denied, ” prejudice to the opposing party is considered.[1] Mullin, 875 F.3d at 149. “[P]rejudice to the non-moving party is the touchstone for the denial of an amendment.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, two reasons justify denial of Defendants' request.

         First, Defendants' cursory request, absent citation to authority or identification of exactly what they wanted to amend in their answer, warranted a denial.[2] It is only in their post-trial briefing that Defendants have taken issue with specific admissions and have offered particularized reasons as to why “justice” might require amendment. Because the Motion to Amend failed to tender any proposed amendment or identify “the particular grounds on which amendment [was] sought, ” denial of the Rule 15(a) motion was proper. Petratos, 855 F.3d at 493-94; see also Williams v. Martin-Baker Aircraft Co., 389 F.3d 1251, 1259 (D.C. Cir. 2004).

         Second, and more significantly, amending admissions made by Defendants' in their answer to Plaintiff's Complaint at the eleventh hour during trial would have unduly prejudiced Plaintiff. Cureton v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 252 F.3d 267, 273 (3d Cir. 2001) (“[U]ndue prejudice to the non-moving party is a sufficient ground for denial of leave to amend.”). Plaintiff's counsel received Defendants' admissions nearly a year before trial began and relied on these admissions in preparing trial strategy. To enact wholesale but unspecified changes to Defendants' factual admissions in the midst of trial - all without any briefing or adequate explanation - would have required Plaintiff's attorney to re-think his trial strategy on the fly thus unduly prejudicing Plaintiff. See id.; see also Synthes, Inc. v. Marotta, 281 F.R.D. 217, 228 (E.D. Pa. 2012) (noting that ...


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