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ARMSTRONG v. BURDETTE TOMLIN MEMORIAL HOSPITAL

August 13, 2003

ARNIE ARMSTRONG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BURDETTE TOMLIN MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, RICHARD KRAUS, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stanley Brotman, Senior District Judge.

OPINION ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for a New Trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. For the reasons expressed below, Plaintiff's motion will be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

The background and procedural history of this case have been previously documented in prior Opinions and Orders of this Court.*fn1 On July 17, 2000, Plaintiff Arnie Armstrong ("Plaintiff") brought this suit against his employer, Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital ("Burdette"), and individual Defendants Richard Kraus ("Kraus"), Edward Moylett ("Moylett"), and Barbara Young ("Young"), asserting various discrimination claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("LAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et. seq., and seeking uncompensated overtime pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et. seq.

The first trial began on April 8, 2002. (See Docket Entry No. 21.) On April 9, at the close of his case, Plaintiff conceded to a dismissal of the FLSA claim on an unopposed motion pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50. (See Docket Entry No. 22; April 9, 2002 Tr. at 2.49:3-19.) The LAD claims were submitted to the jury which returned a verdict on April 11, 2002, finding Defendants Burdette and Kraus liable on Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim only. Judgment was entered on April 12, 2002 as follows: (1) in favor of Plaintiff and against Defendants Burdette and Kraus in the amount of $50,000 for emotional distress, mental anguish, inconvenience, and/or loss of enjoyment of life sustained by Plaintiff; and (2) no cause for action in favor of Defendants Moylett and Young. (See Docket Entry No. 24.)

Following the first trial, Defendants Burdette and Kraus ("Defendants") filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), or alternatively, for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. (See Docket Entry No. 31.) On August 7, 2002, the Court denied the motion for judgment as a matter of law, but granted Defendants' motion for a new trial on the ground that Defendants had been denied a statutory right to a peremptory challenge. (See Docket Entry Nos. 41 and 42.)

After much delay, a second trial began on March 17, 2003. (See Docket Entry No. 50.) For this trial, Plaintiff had replaced his counsel from the first trial, Merri R. Lane, Esq. ("Attorney Lane"), with his present counsel, William Hildebrand, Esq. ("Attorney Hildebrand'). (See Docket Entry Nos. 45-48.) Testimony in the second trial lasted two full days and consisted of only four witnesses. (See Docket Entry Nos. 50-51.) In support of his case, Plaintiff presented only one witness — himself. (Id.) Defendants Young, Kraus, and Moylett testified for the defense. (See Docket Entry No. 51.)

On March 21, 2003, the jury returned a verdict of no cause and the Court entered judgment in favor of the Defendants. (See Docket Entry Nos. 57-58.) Specifically, the jury found the following:

Intentional Age Discrimination Under the LAD — (1) Plaintiff was performing his job at a level that met his employer's expectations; (2) that Defendants sought someone to perform the same work after he left; (3) that Defendants advanced a legitimate business reason for their decision to discharge Plaintiff; and (4) that Plaintiff had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendants' business reason was a pretext for discrimination.
Intentional Disability Discrimination Under the LAD — (1) that Plaintiff was handicapped within the meaning of the LAD; (2) that Plaintiff was performing his job at a level that met his employer's expectations; and (3) that Plaintiff had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that he was discharged because of his handicap.
Failure to Accommodate Under the LAD — (1) that Plaintiff was handicapped within the meaning of the LAD; (2) that Plaintiff was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job with or without accommodation; and (3) that Plaintiff had not proven he requested and was denied a reasonable accommodation by Defendants.
Hostile Work Environment Under the LAD — that Plaintiff had failed to prove the conduct which he alleged actually occurred.
See Docket Entry No. 57 (Jury Interrogatories).

On March 31, 2003, Plaintiff field this Motion for a New Trial. (See Docket Entry No. 59.) Defendants oppose Plaintiff's motion (Docket Entry No. 62),*fn2 which is decided without oral argument pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[a] new trial may be granted to all or any of the parties and on all or part of the issues (1) in an action in which there has been a trial by jury, for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States. . . ." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). A trial court should grant a new trial only when the verdict is contrary to great weight of evidence, that is, if a "miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand." Fineman v. Armstrong Wold Indus., Inc., 980 F.2d 171, 211 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1352 (3d Cir. 1991)); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1); Roebuck v. Drexel Univ., 852 F.2d 715, 717 (3d Cir. 1988).

While Fed.R.Civ.P. 59 does not detail the grounds on which a new trial may be granted, the following have provided grounds for granting a new trial: "the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence; damages are excessive; the trial was unfair; and that substantial errors were made in the admission or rejection of evidence or the giving or refusal of instructions." Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 802 F. Supp. 1180, 1186 (D.N.J. 1992), aff'd 4 F.3d 1153 (3d Cir. 1993) (quoting Northeast Women's Center, Inc. v. McMonagle, 689 F. Supp. 465, 468 (E.D. Pa. 1988), aff'd in relevant part, 868 F.2d 1342 (3d Cir. 1989)); see also Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251, 61 S.Ct. 189, 85 L.Ed. 147 (1940) (providing non-exclusive list of grounds for new trial); Corrigan v. Methodist Hosp., 234 F. Supp.2d 494, 498 (E.D. Pa. 2002) ("A court may also grant a new trial if the verdict was the result of erroneous jury instructions, was excessive or clearly unsupported by the evidence or was influenced by extraneous matters such as passion, prejudice, sympathy or speculation."); Zarow-Smith v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Inc., 953 F. Supp. 581, 584-85 (D.N.J. 1997) (noting the most common reasons for granting a new trial are: (1) when the jury's verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence; (2) when newly discovered evidence would be likely to alter the outcome of the trial; (3) when improper conduct by an attorney or the court unfairly influenced the verdict, or (4) when the jury verdict was facially inconsistent) (citations omitted).

In order for a court to grant a new trial based a failure to give a properly requested jury instruction, the court must review the charge as a whole, in light of the evidence, to determine whether it adequately conveyed the controlling legal principles. See Link v. Mercedes-Benz, 788 F.2d 918, 922 (3d Cir. 1986); see also Bateman v. Mnemonics, Inc., 79 F.3d 1532, 1543-44 (11th Cir. 1996); Eastern Mt. Platform Tennis, Inc. v. Sherwin-Williams Co., 40 F.3d 492, 500-03 (1st Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 515 S.Ct. 1103 (1995); Moran v. Vermeer Mfg. Co., 742 F.2d 456, 458-59 (8th Cir. 1984). "Where a contention for a new trial is based on the admissibility of evidence, the trial court has great discretion . . . which will not be disturbed on appeal absent a finding of abuse." Link, 788 F.2d at 921.

A trial court must take great care when exercising its discretion to award a new trial. See Lightning Lube, 802 F. Supp. at 1185; Hulmes v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd., 960 F. Supp. 844, 850 (D.N.J. 1997). While a court is permitted to consider the credibility of witnesses and to weigh evidence, the court must "exercise restraint to avoid usurping the jury's primary function." Hurley v. Atl. City Police Dep't, 933 F. Supp. 396, 403 (D.N.J. 1996); see also Clopp v. Atl. County, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18898 *4-5 (D.N.J. Oct. 7, 2002) ("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."). A jury renders its verdicts based on the collective wisdom of its members:

[When a] trial judge grants a new trial on the grounds 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. . . . Thus, close scrutiny is required in order to protect the litigant's right to a jury trial.
Hurley, 933 F. Supp. at 403 (quoting Lind v. Schenley Indus., Inc., 278 F.2d 79, 90 (3d Cir. 1960), cert. denied, 364 U.S. 835 (1960)). Thus, a judge may not usurp the jury's role as factfinder "simply because the court might have come to a different conclusion." Lightning Lube, 802 F. Supp. at 1186 (quoting Fineman v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 774 F. Supp. 266, 269 (D.N.J. 1991), aff'd 980 F.2d 171 (3d Cir. 1992)). Accordingly, a "court must defer to the jury whenever its findings are reasonably supported by the record, and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the verdict winner." Hulmes, 960 F. Supp. at 850 (citing (Blum v. Witco Chem. Corp., 829 F.2d 367, 372 (3d Cir. 1987)).

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff argues "a number of errors justify a new trial in this case." (Pl.'s Br. at 5.) Plaintiff gives six reasons why a new trial should be granted. (Id.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues: (1) the Court's jury charge on the burden of proof was improper; (2) the Court's pre-text charge was incorrect; (3) the Court erred in charging the jury on Plaintiff's failure to accommodate claim; (4) the jury interrogatories were wrong; (5) the Court should not have dismissed Plaintiff's FLSA claim; and finally (6) the Court erred in refusing to admit one of Plaintiff's proposed exhibits into evidence. (Id.) According to Plaintiff, each error, "singly and in combination, contributed to an unjust verdict." (Id. at 17.) Each of Plaintiff's arguments will be addressed below.

Jury Charge and Interrogatories

Jury Charge on Plaintiff's Burden of Proof

First, Plaintiff argues the Court failed to accurately communicate the concept of preponderance of the evidence to the jury. (Pl.'s Br. at 6-7.) Specifically, Plaintiff objects to the Court's use of the statements "[t]he right of the defendants to have the plaintiff bear the required burden of proof is a substantial one and not a mere matter of form." Additionally, Plaintiff maintains it was an error for the Court not to instruct the jury in the difference between the standard of proof in civil and criminal trials.

The Court is satisfied that the jury was correctly charged with the burden of proof. In relevant part, the charge given to the jury on this issue was as follows:

Now, ladies and gentlemen, in respect to the claims in this case, the law places upon the plaintiff the burden of proving by the greater weight of the believable testimony the truth of his allegations. To put it another way, the burden is upon the plaintiff to establish the nature and extent of the alleged wrongdoing and damages by a preponderance of the evidence. The burden is not on the defendants to establish that the plaintiff is not entitled to your verdict in their favor. While proof of certainty is not required, the evidence, either direct or circumstantial, must be such as to justify an inference of probability, as distinguished from the mere possibility.
To illustrate what is meant by the phrase "proof by a preponderance of the evidence," we may visualize evidence as something weighed in an ordinary balance scale. If the evidence the plaintiff offers in support of his claims is more weighty in probative value than that offered in opposition to it that it tips the scales on the side of the plaintiff, then plaintiff has proven his claims by the preponderance of the evidence. If, however, in weighing and evaluating the testimony adduced during the trial you come to the conclusion that the scales are evenly balanced, then it cannot be said that the plaintiff has carried the required burden of proof. To establish by a preponderance of the evidence simply means to prove that something is more likely so than ...

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