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Clopp v. Atlantic County

October 7, 2002

EDWARD CLOPP, NORRIS JUSTIS, ROBERT REID MURIE, AND IRIS QUEZERGUE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ATLANTIC COUNTY, ATLANTIC COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY, AND WARDEN FRANK MAZZONE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irenas, District Judge

OPINION

Following a trial which lasted from March 11, 2002, through April 11, 2002, and which resulted in a jury verdict finding liability for retaliation against Defendant Atlantic County, Defendant moves for a new trial based on excessiveness and impropriety of the verdict, alleged errors in evidentiary rulings and the jury charge, insufficiency of the evidence, failure of the Plaintiffs to mitigate damages, and misrepresentations of fact by Plaintiffs' counsel during closing argument. In the alternative, Defendant seeks remittitur of the $300,000 in damages awarded to each Plaintiff. Because the findings of the jury were supported by substantial evidence and the trial was not infected by prejudicial error, Defendant's motion for a new trial will be denied. Defendant's motion for remittitur will, however, be granted and damages shall be remitted from $300,000 to $75,000 per Plaintiff.

Plaintiffs move for counsel fees as prevailing parties under the relevant statute, as well as for pre-judgment interest on the damages award. Because the request for fees and costs is reasonable, the Court will grant Plaintiffs' application in the amount of $196,894.55. Plaintiffs' motion for pre-judgment interest will be denied, as they have been adequately compensated through the damages award.

I.

Plaintiffs Edward Clopp, Norris Justis, Robert Murie, and Iris Quezerque are corrections officers currently employed by Atlantic County at the Atlantic County Justice Facility. Each plaintiff is also a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, Atlantic Lodge #34 ("F.O.P."), which is the authorized collective bargaining unit for corrections officers in Atlantic County.

In or about May of 1997, Plaintiffs participated as F.O.P. members in "informational pickets" in various public forums in Atlantic County, New Jersey. Plaintiffs alleged that Frank Mazzone, *fn1 then Warden of the Atlantic County Justice Facility, learned of their participation in the picketing and proceeded to engage in various forms of retaliatory behavior against them. In addition, Plaintiffs alleged that Mazzone retaliated against them for various other union activities in which they participated. The retaliation took many forms, depending on the individual Plaintiff, and included allegations of selectively imposed discipline.

Plaintiffs' brought suit on March 8, 2000, claiming, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that Defendants deprived Plaintiffs of their rights under the First Amendment (Count I) and that Defendants conspired to interfere with Plaintiffs' civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) (Count II). Subsequently, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss, and in its June 26, 2000, Opinion, this Court dismissed Count II. Thus, only Plaintiffs' § 1983 claims remained.

On August 9, 2001, this Court denied Defendant's motion for summary judgment and trial commenced on March 11, 2002. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury rendered a verdict against the County and awarded $300,000 to each Plaintiff in compensatory damages.

II.

The standard for granting a motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59 is less demanding than that for a judgment as a matter of law under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Whitco Corp., 802 F.Supp. 1180, 1185 (D.N.J. 1992) (citing 9 Charles A. Wright & Arthur A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2531, at 575 (1971)). Although a trial court has narrow discretion when ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, a trial court ruling on a motion for a new trial is vested with wide discretion.

In ruling on a motion for a new trial, the trial court is permitted to consider the credibility of witnesses and to weigh the evidence. Where a motion for a new trial is based primarily on the weight of the evidence, however, the trial court's discretion is more limited. A court should grant such a motion "only if the record shows that the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice, or when the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks the conscience." Williamson v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3d Cir. 1991). Because of the time-honored authority of the jury to render a verdict based on its collective wisdom, New Market Inv. Corp. v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 774 F.Supp. 909, 917 (E.D. Pa. 1991), the trial court must exercise restraint to avoid usurping the jury's primary function. Borbley v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., 547 F.Supp. 959, 980 (D.N.J. 1981). The Court must proceed with caution because:

[When a] trial judge grants a new trial on the ground that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, the judge . . . substitutes his own judgment of the facts and credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury. . . . Such an action effects a denigration of the jury system. Thus, close scrutiny is required in order to protect the litigant's right to a jury trial. Lind v. Schendley Industries, Inc., 278 F.2d 79, 90 (3d Cir. 1960).

Appellate deference to the trial judge's decision is normally appropriate because it is the district court that was able to observe the witnesses and follow the trial in a way that an appellate court cannot replicate by reviewing a cold record. Id.; Roebuck v. Drexel University, 852 F.2d 715 (3d Cir. 1988), citing Semper v. Santos, 845 F.2d 1233, 1237 n.5 (3d Cir. 1988).

Although Fed. R. Civ. P. 59 does not enumerate the bases for a new trial, the following have been recognized as being among them: the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence; damages are excessive; the trial was unfair; and substantial errors were made in the admission or rejection of evidence or the giving or refusing of instructions. Lightning Lube, Inc., 802 F.Supp. at 1186.

III.

A.

Defendant argues that the jury's award of $300,000 to each Plaintiff is not rationally related to the evidence, that the evidence of emotional distress is speculative and cannot support such an award, that the damages are punitive and therefore improper, and that the awards are excessive. While this Court does affirm the decision of the jury, it agrees with Defendant in regard to the excessiveness of the awards and will use remittitur to reduce the total amount of damages.

Defendant argues that the fact that each Plaintiff received an identical award of $300,000 demonstrates that the awards cannot be rationally related to the specific injuries sustained by each Plaintiff. However, it is clear that the jury simply found that each Plaintiff suffered approximately the same level of damages. This is not surprising considering that the behavior of Mazzone began and ended at basically the same point in time for each Plaintiff (from the date of the picketing in March 1997 through Mazzone's departure in December 1999) and the fact that each Plaintiff received damages for similar forms of emotional distress based on Mazzone's actions. In Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997, 1011 (9th Cir. 1998), the court held that identical awards for emotional distress should be upheld when the harms suffered by the plaintiffs are similar, stating that "the jury likely concluded that the emotional harm to each plaintiff was roughly equal given the similar treatment each plaintiff suffered at the hands of the defendants." This court will not order a new trial simply because each Plaintiff received the same level of damages.

Defendant also argues that the evidence of emotional distress was too speculative to support an award of damages. However, the jury did find that there was significant emotional distress on the part of the Plaintiffs and the Court will not overturn this judgment. In fact, all four Plaintiffs presented evidence that they had suffered emotional distress and it is not the job of this Court to order a new trial unless the clear weight of the evidence could not support such a claim. See Lightning Lube, Inc., 802 F.Supp. at 1186. That is not the case here, as each Plaintiff made some showing of emotional distress that the jury chose to account for. Plaintiff Justis presented evidence of increased stress in his marriage, embarrassment due to his financial situation, and emotional distress related to uncertainty over his employment situation. Plaintiff Clopp testified to physical manifestations related to his emotional distress (including weight gain and increased sleepiness). Plaintiff Quezergue presented evidence that she began taking medication for stress and had problems eating and sleeping. Plaintiff Murie testified that he suffered from stress that disrupted his family life.

It is important to note that the Third Circuit has held that it is not necessary for a plaintiff to present expert medical testimony in order to recover for emotional distress under civil rights laws. Bolden v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 21 F.3d 29, 34 (3d Cir. 1994). Therefore, the evidence presented by the Plaintiffs was sufficient to allow a jury to find that all four had suffered from emotional distress.

Defendant argues that should a new trial not be granted by this Court the damages awarded to the Plaintiffs should be remitted. "A remittitur is in order when a trial judge concludes that a jury verdict is 'clearly unsupported' by the evidence and exceeds the amount needed to make the plaintiff whole, i.e., to remedy the effect of the employer's discrimination." Starceski v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 54 F.3d 1089, 1100 (3d Cir. 1995), citing Spence v. Board of Educ. of Christina School Dist., 806 F.2d 1198, 1201 (3d Cir. 1986). A court should not lower a damage award merely because it would have chosen to award less money, but there must be a "rational relationship between the specific injury sustained and the amount awarded." Gumbs v. Pueblo Intern., Inc., 823 F.2d 768, 773 (3d Cir. 1987). A court may look at awards in similar cases in determining whether an award is excessive. Sassaman v. Heart City Toyota, 879 F. Supp. 901, 911 (N.D. Ind. 1994); Abrams v. Lightolier, 841 F. Supp. 584, 593 (D.N.J. 1994), aff'd 50 F.2d 1204 (3d Cir. 1995); Garrison v. Mollers North ...


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