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Glass v. Snellbaker

September 17, 2008

WILLIAM R. GLASS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ARTHUR C. SNELLBAKER AND THE CITY OF ATLANTIC CITY, DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION

CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION...................... 1

II. BACKGROUND......................... 2

III. STANDARDS........................ 10

A. Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law...... 10

B. Motions for New Trial................ 12

C. Motions for Remittitur............... 13

IV. SNELLBAKER'S MOTION................... 15

A. Liability...................... 15

B. Punitive Damages.................. 21

V. PROPRIETY OF ECONOMIC DAMAGES.............. 31

A. Post-Resignation Damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Absence of Constructive Discharge Claim....... 31

B. Remittitur of Front Pay............... 46

VI. EFFECT OF DISMISSING COUNT TWO.............. 49

VII. DAMAGES FOR EMOTIONAL DISTRESS............. 51

VIII.MOTION FOR STAY OF EXECUTION OF JUDGMENT AND WAIVER OF SUPERSEDEAS BOND..................... 60

A. Atlantic City.................... 60

B. Snellbaker..................... 60

IX. CONCLUSION........................ 62

APPENDIX........................... 64

I. INTRODUCTION

This case, alleging violation of First Amendment rights and brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, was tried to a verdict before a jury. The jury found that Plaintiff William R. Glass, formerly Deputy Chief of the Atlantic City Police Department, proved that Defendants Arthur Snellbaker and the City of Atlantic City violated Glass' right to engage in protected activity and that he suffered an adverse employment action at the hands of Snellbaker and the City, and that the protected activity was a motivating factor in this adverse action. The jury also found that Glass' retirement was involuntary as a result of Defendants' adverse employment action. The jury found compensatory damages for emotional and mental harm in the amount of $250,000, past wage loss of $136,400, and future wage loss of $409,600, totaling $796,000 in compensatory damages. The jury also found Defendant Snellbaker liable for punitive damages in the amount of $75,000.*fn1

These motions followed.

* Motion by Defendant Snellbaker for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict [Docket Item 82]

* Motion by Defendant Snellbaker for New Trial on Assessment and Quantum of Punitive Damages

* Motion by Defendant Snellbaker to Stay Execution of Judgment and for Waiver of the Requirement to Post a Supersedeas Bond

* Motion by Defendant City of Atlantic City for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict [Docket Item 83]

* Motion by Defendant City of Atlantic City for a New Trial or Remittitur

* Motion by Defendant City of Atlantic City ("the City" or "Atlantic City") to Waive the Supersedeas Bond Requirement.

The Court heard oral argument on June 3, 2008 and reserved decision.

For the reasons explained below, the Court shall deny the motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial as to the awards of back pay and front pay; deny the motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial or remittitur as to the award of punitive damages; grant the motions for remittitur as to emotional and mental harm and as to front pay; deny the motion for a new trial on account of evidence related to Plaintiff's dismissed state law claim; and grant the motions to stay execution of judgment and for waivers of the requirement to post supersedeas bonds.

II. BACKGROUND

When issues of low departmental morale in the Atlantic City Police Department erupted in 2003, with widespread dissatisfaction with the management style of Chief Arthur Snellbaker, the Police Benevolent Association ("PBA") enlisted the help of one of its members, Deputy Chief Will Glass. Glass met quietly with PBA leaders and assisted them in formulating a plan to invite Chief Snellbaker to attend a PBA membership meeting to attempt to clear the air, as an alternative to a no-confidence vote that would otherwise have occurred. Glass' association with his union brought about retaliation by Chief Snellbaker against Glass extending over the next two years, which became the basis of Glass' present claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his First Amendment right of association.

This case arises out of the transfer of Plaintiff William Glass from a Deputy Chief position in the Special Operations Division of the Atlantic City Police Department---overseeing the SWAT team, vice squad and tactical team---to a Deputy Chief position in the Support Services Division, which performs financial and administrative functions. The evidence at trial showed that Plaintiff spent twenty-nine years in a public service career, focused on the demanding, high-profile police work that the Special Operations unit performed. He led the Special Operations Division. The evidence also showed that he had performed his job extremely well, was liked by his fellow officers, and was uniquely qualified for that type of work. Among other things, the evidence showed that Plaintiff's unit successfully performed the largest drug bust in the history of the Atlantic City Police Department shortly before Plaintiff's transfer. The evidence showed that Plaintiff had the training and skills to perform well in his chosen field, Special Operations, and no skills or training in Support Services, and that Chief Snellbaker shunned and disparaged him until Plaintiff involuntarily retired several years later in 2005, five years prior to his intended retirement date in 2010.

This case has its genesis in the Spring of 2003, when rank-and-file police officers became angry with their Police Chief, Defendant Arthur Snellbaker, and union members began discussing whether to take a no-confidence vote. Plaintiff Glass was a long-time member of the PBA union and was influential in its affairs as the bargaining representative of the Deputy Chiefs in their negotiations with the City of Atlantic City. It was uncontradicted that Glass and all the ranking officers of the department were themselves also dues-paying members of the association and that they enjoyed many of the privileges of PBA membership with the rank-and-file members. (The PBA's By-Laws also included Deputy Chiefs as members, according to former PBA President Sean McCausland.) The evidence established that Glass and all Deputy Chiefs occasionally attended PBA meetings and participated in PBA affairs, as had Chief Snellbaker when he was a Deputy Chief. The Department, by longstanding practice, dealt collectively with the Deputy Chiefs in their contractual bargaining through the auspices of the union. The PBA, of course, was also the collective bargaining unit for rank-and-file police officers. The evidence showed that Plaintiff spoke with union leaders---Sean McCausland and Ron DiGiovanni---about whether to take a no-confidence vote against Chief Snellbaker and convinced them, instead, to invite Chief Snellbaker to a union meeting to hear and answer the union members' complaints. The union extended the invitation by letter to Snellbaker to attend and speak with the membership. (Although the PBA letter was not introduced at trial, there was no dispute that it was sent and that Snellbaker received it.)

Evidence showed that Snellbaker became enraged at the PBA's invitation. For example, Public Safety Director Flipping testified that an outraged Snellbaker came into his office waving a letter and denouncing the union's efforts and explicitly blaming Glass for it. Evidence also showed that Snellbaker knew Plaintiff was involved in discussions with PBA and planning the meeting and decided to punish him for it by revoking all of his duties and transferring him to a do-nothing position. Within about a day of receiving the PBA letter, Snellbaker signed an order April 14, 2003, effective April 30, 2003, transferring Glass. Snellbaker, meanwhile, attended the PBA meeting and engaged in a tense discussion with the membership, as discussed below, while Glass did not attend this meeting, which occurred on April 30, 2003.

Snellbaker transferred Plaintiff to become Deputy Chief of Support Services, an administrative position for which he had no training or experience. Although Plaintiff's salary remained the same in that position, Snellbaker refused to provide him with the equipment or information he needed to perform his job. Snellbaker ignored Glass, communicating past him, not with him, in Glass's new position, while telling others that Glass could not be trusted. The jury found these actions to be in retaliation for Glass's exercise of associational rights in meeting and conferring with his PBA union. Numerous trial witnesses testified to the humiliation Snellbaker inflicted on Glass in the new Deputy Chief position. Approximately two years later, Plaintiff resigned from the Police Department. Although Plaintiff did not explicitly plead a constructive discharge claim in the Complaint (since he was still employed when he filed his Complaint), his subsequent deposition testimony and the Final Pretrial Order itself made it clear that he was seeking damages for constructive discharge at trial. Glass testified and the jury found that his resignation was not voluntary and that it was caused by Defendants' retaliation for Glass' exercise of associational rights.

The trial of this action took place on January 22-24 and 28-31, 2008. At trial, Plaintiff provided evidence about his damages in the form of his testimony. Plaintiff testified that he retired on December 31, 2005, at age 57, but would have, absent Defendants' conduct, retired at age 62, that is, at the end of 2010. He testified that his early retirement cost him $50,000 per year in salary, as compared with his pension; $13,000 per year for the lost use of a vehicle; and $350 per month in lost healthcare benefits. (Glass Tr. at 61:14 to 65:1, Ex. C to Williams Cert.) Altogether, therefore, Plaintiff claimed $67,200 per year in lost wages and benefits from January 1, 2006 to December 31, 2010, which is a five year period. (Plaintiff's attorney, apparently performing an arithmetical error, argued to the jury for $68,200 per year in lost wages and benefits for a five-year period, including back pay and front pay.)

At the close of Plaintiff's case in chief, on January 28, 2008, the City and Snellbaker made a motion pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint. Specifically, Defendants argued that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the First Amendment right of association claim in Count One and the statutory claim in Count Two as well as the sought-after damages for lost wages in the absence of a separate constructive discharge claim. (Tr. Rule 50 Hr'g, Jan. 28, 2008, at 56:10 to 62:23, 63:18 to 67:2, Ex. B to Williams Cert.) No party directed the Court to any authority justifying dismissal of the lost wages claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the absence of a separate constructive discharge claim or otherwise indicated relevant authority that precluded this category of damages for past and future loss of wages and benefits.

The Court granted the Rule 50 motion in part and denied it in part. In an oral opinion, the Court ordered that Defendants' motions were denied without prejudice with respect to Plaintiff's first claim (42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for violation of right of association under the First Amendment); that Defendant Arthur Snellbaker's motion was granted by consent, dismissing Plaintiff's second claim against him (for violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 40A:14-147); and that the City's motion was also granted as to this second claim. (Tr. Oral Op., Jan. 29, 2008, at Ex. H to Williams Cert.) The Court did not address the viability of the claim for lost wages under Section 1983 and the parties indicated they had no questions about the Court's ruling. (Id. at 26:16-18.) Trial went forward against Defendants Snellbaker and the City of Atlantic City solely upon Plaintiff's Section 1983 claim for violation of First Amendment rights seeking economic damages of past and future lost wages and benefits, and for non-economic damages for emotional and mental harm, as well as for punitive damages against Defendant Snellbaker.

At the close of all the evidence, Defendants renewed their Rule 50 motions as to Count One only and argued that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for a First Amendment violation. Defendants did not argue that the Court should direct a verdict as to the claim for economic damages, whether for back pay or front pay, or that the evidence failed to prove constructive discharge. The Court denied the renewed motion as to Count One.

On January 30, 2008, the Court charged the jury without objection and the jury, after deliberation, returned a verdict for the Plaintiff against Snellbaker and the City in the amount of $796,000 ($250,000 for mental and emotional harm; $136,400 for past wages and benefits from December 31, 2005 to the date of the verdict; and $409,600 for future lost wages and benefits*fn2 ). The jury also decided that punitive damages should be awarded against Snellbaker. The Jury Verdict Form for the first phase of trial is attached in the Appendix hereto.

On January 31, 2008, the trial continued only to determine the amount of punitive damages against Snellbaker. The parties stipulated to Defendant Snellbaker's "personal resources" as follows:

[(1)] the amount of $500,000 was received by Snellbaker in settlement of a claim with the City of Atlantic City. The net value of this claim was $200,000.

[(2)] The amount of $500,000 was received by Arthur Snellbaker upon his retirement from the City of Atlantic City. The net value of this settlement was $245,000.

[(3)] Arthur Snellbaker affirms that any moneys that he received in the settlement and buyout[, noted above,] have been spent and are not currently available.

[(4)] Arthur Snellbaker and his wife own a home valued at $300,000. They each have an undivided interest in that marital home so that the value of Arthur Snellbaker's own interest separate from his wife's is less than $300,000.

[(5)] Arthur Snellbaker receives a pension income payment in the amount of $8,000 per month for life.

[(6)] Arthur Snellbaker has a bank account in the amount of $500.

[(7)] Arthur Snellbaker owns vehicles in the amount of $40,000.

[(8)] Arthur Snellbaker has monthly expenses of $3,500.

[(9)] Arthur Snellbaker has existing debt in the amount of $50,000. (Tr. Jan. 31, 2008 at 18:10 to 19:9.) Under oath, Snellbaker indicated that he understood the stipulations, had discussed them with his attorney, and that they were true and correct to the best of his knowledge. (Id. at 19:25 to 20:8.) Snellbaker also indicated that there was no stipulation he would correct. (Id. at 20:9-11.) These stipulations were then entered into evidence as the only evidence in the final phase of trial concerning quantum of punitive damages. The Court then issued its supplemental instructions to the jury without objection.

The jury returned shortly thereafter with a punitive damage award in the amount of $75,000 against Defendant Snellbaker. These post-trial motions followed.

III. STANDARDS

A. Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 governs motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, that is, motions for judgment as a matter of law.*fn3 Rule 59 governs motions for new trials.

In ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Rule 50, a district court must view the evidence, together with all reasonable inferences therefrom, in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. Rotondo v. Keene, 956 F.2d 436, 438 (3d Cir. 1992); see also Potence v. Hazleton Area Sch. Dist., 357 F.3d 366, 370 (3d Cir. 2004).

Such a motion should be granted only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury reasonably could find liability. In determining whether the evidence is sufficient to sustain liability, the court may not weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its version of the facts for the jury's version. Fineman v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 980 F.2d 171, 190 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 122 L.Ed. 2d 677, 113 S.Ct. 1285 (1993). Although judgment as a matter of law should be granted sparingly, a scintilla of evidence is not enough to sustain a verdict of liability. Walter v. Holiday Inns, Inc., 985 F.2d 1232, 1238 (3d Cir. 1993). "The question 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." Patzig v. O'Neil, 577 F.2d 841, 846 (3d Cir. 1978) (citation omitted) (quotation omitted). Thus, although the court draws all reasonable and logical inferences in the non-movant's favor, [judgment as a matter of law is appropriate if] it is apparent that the verdict is not supported by legally sufficient evidence.

Lightning Lube v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993) (citation omitted).

B. Motions for New Trial

A motion for a new trial is governed by a different standard and the District Court has more discretion in deciding whether to grant it. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1), a new trial may be granted "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court."

Generally, a trial court should grant a motion for a new trial when "in the opinion of the trial court, the verdict is contrary to the great weight of the evidence, thus making a new trial necessary to prevent a miscarriage of justice." Roebuck v. Drexel University, 852 F.2d 715, 736 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing 9 Charles Wright & Arthur Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2531 at 575-76 (1971) (noting that the standard for granting a new trial is substantially less demanding than that for a judgment as a matter of law)).

A trial court is vested with wide discretion in ruling on a motion for a new trial. 9 Wright & Miller § 2531 at 575; see also Lightning Lube, Inc., v. Witco Corp., 802 F. Supp. 1180, 1185 (D.N.J. 1992). Unlike with a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court is allowed to consider the credibility of witnesses and weigh the evidence. Id. "The district court's discretion, of course, is not unbounded. Particularly where the court has replaced its opinion for that of the jury, we must be careful that plaintiff's right to a jury trial is not usurped." Roebuck, 852 F.2d at 735. A trial court may not grant a new trial because it would have come to a different conclusion than that reached by the jury. Lightning Lube, 802 F. Supp. at 1186. Several circumstances have been recognized as general 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." Id. (quoting Northeast Women's Center, Inc. v. McMonagle, 689 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1988), aff'd in relevant part, 868 F.2d 1342 (3d Cir. 1989)).

Lyles v. Flagship Resort Dev. Corp., 371 F. Supp. 2d 597, 601-02 (D.N.J. 2005).

C. Motions for Remittitur

A jury verdict which is "so grossly excessive as to shock the judicial conscience" can be the basis for either a new trial or remittitur. See Williams v. Martin Marietta Alumina, Inc., 817 F.2d 1030, 1038 (3d Cir. 1987). Verdicts that shock the judicial conscience are those that bear no rational relationship to the evidence presented. See Gumbs v. Pueblo Int'l, Inc., 823 F.2d 768, 773 (3d Cir. 1987). "It is undisputed that [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) (emphasis in original). Remittitur is inappropriate when a verdict is based upon passion and ...


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