The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Garrett E. Brown, Jr.
Before the Court is Defendant's motion (Doc. No. 111) for judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, on Plaintiff's non-promotion claim, which is the sole remaining claim in this case. Previous decisions of this Court have dismissed Plaintiff's other claims, and a jury trial has resolved Defendant's counterclaims. For the following reasons, the Court will grant Defendant's motion.
This case arose from Plaintiff's claims of race-based employment discrimination against his former employer, Defendant United Parcel Service (UPS), as well as UPS's counterclaims for conversion and unjust enrichment. As this Court recounted in the October 14, 2010 Case Status Order (Doc. No. 110), the Honorable Joseph A. Greenaway, Jr., then-United States District Judge and now United States Circuit Judge, granted UPS's motion for summary judgment in part on December 31, 2008 (Doc. Nos. 39--40), dismissing all claims of Plaintiff's Complaint except for Counts I, II, and VI; these Counts represented Plaintiff's claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) for hostile work environment (I and II) and UPS's failure to promote him in 2004 (VI). This matter was reassigned to the undersigned by Order of March 8, 2010. By Opinion and Order of May 17, 2010, the Court granted UPS's in limine motions in part and precluded Plaintiff from presenting evidence relating to, inter alia, (1) previously dismissed claims for disability-based harassment, discriminatory pay raises, and the 2001 denial of a promotion, and (2) harassment creating a hostile work environment that occurred prior to 2004. (See Doc. Nos. 67--68.) The Court held a jury trial to resolve Plaintiff's two remaining claims (hostile work environment, non-promotion) and UPS's counterclaims from September 17--24, and at the close of evidence on September 24, the Court heard argument on UPS's motion for a directed verdict on Plaintiff's non-promotion and hostile work environment claims. The Court granted UPS's motion for a directed verdict on Plaintiff's hostile work environment, and reserved judgment with regard to Plaintiff's non-promotion claim, ultimately submitting the non-promotion claim and UPS's counterclaims to the jury. The jury returned a partial verdict on September 28, awarding $13,431.73 in damages on UPS's counterclaims, but the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict with regard to Plaintiff's non-promotion claim. (See Doc. No. 103.) Subsequent to the jury verdict, Plaintiff moved to reduce the jury's assessment of UPS's damages, and UPS renewed its motion for a directed verdict on Plaintiff's non-promotion claim. The Court denied Plaintiff's motion without prejudice and reserved judgment on UPS's renewed Rule 50 motion. The Court's October 14 Status Order permitted UPS to renew its Rule 50 motion and tentatively scheduled the date for a retrial of the non-promotion claim.*fn1
UPS now renews its motion for a directed verdict pursuant to Rule 50, arguing that the evidence Plaintiff submitted at trial did not present a triable issue of race-based discrimination under the NJLAD, and even if it did, that the evidence presented at trial could not support the finding, by clear and convincing evidence, see N.J. Stat. Ann. 2A:15-5.12(a), of "especially egregious" conduct necessary for an award of punitive damages under the NJLAD, see, e.g., Rendine v. Pantzer, 141 N.J. 292, 314 (1995). Plaintiff responds that Judge Greenaway's contrary conclusion in the December 31, 2008 opinion, which denied summary judgment on the 2004 non-promotion claim, precludes deciding the issue as a matter of law, and that the trial evidence established numerous questions of fact that must be determined by a jury. Plaintiff further responds that the evidence demonstrates that he was "intentionally denied" a "fair administration" of UPS's promotion procedures, and, thus, that a jury reasonable jury could find that punitive damages were warranted under the circumstances. (Pl.'s Br. at 8.*fn2 ) This Court has diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), because the parties are of diverse citizenship, and the amount in controversy at the time of filing exceeded $75,000. (See, e.g., Final Pretrial Order ¶ 1.)
A motion for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) "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." Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir.1993); see also Mandile v. Clark Material Handling Co., 131 F. App'x 836, 838 (3d Cir.2005). "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." Lightning Lube, 4 F.3d at 1166 (citing Fineman v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 980 F.2d 171, 190 (3d Cir.1992)). "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." Lightning Lube, 4 F.3d at 1166 (quoting Patzig v. O'Neil, 577 F.2d 841, 846 (3d Cir.1978)); see also Raiczyk v. Ocean County Veterinary Hosp., 377 F.3d 266, 268 (3d Cir.2004) ("A judge may overturn a jury verdict only when, as a matter of law, the record is critically deficient of that minimum quantity of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief.") (quotations omitted).
Here, UPS argues (1) that Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence at trial to make out a prima facie case of racial discrimination under the McDonnell Douglas framework applicable to NJLAD claims; (2) that UPS presented evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the non-promotion; and (3) that Plaintiff failed to present evidence of pretext. Cumulatively, UPS argues that Plaintiff did not satisfy the burden of persuasion for his non-promotion claim. After carefully reviewing the relevant evidence submitted at trial, and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Plaintiff, the Court agrees that a reasonable jury could not have found in favor of Plaintiff on the non-promotion claim.
1. The McDonnell Douglas Standard for NJLAD Claims The appropriate "starting point" for employment discrimination claims arising under the NJLAD is the burden-shifting framework for discrimination under Title VII articulated by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green,411 U.S. 792, 802--05 (1973). E.g., Clowes v. Terminix Int'l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 595 (1988); see also Schurr v. Resorts Int'l Hotel, Inc., 196 F.3d 486, 498 (3d Cir. 1999) ("Analysis of a claim made pursuant to the NJLAD generally follows analysis of a Title VII claim."). McDonnell Douglas analysis consists of three steps: first, a plaintiff must present sufficient evidence to present a prima facie case of discrimination; second, if the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the defendant, who must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment decision; third, if the defendant presents such justification, the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff, who must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant's nondiscriminatory reasons were merely pretext for discrimination. E.g., Clowes, 109 N.J. at 596; Dooley v. Roche Labs., Inc., Civ. No. 04-2276, 2007 WL 556885, at *5 (D.N.J. Feb. 15, 2007).
In order to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under McDonnell Douglas, [t]he plaintiff must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she (1) belongs to a protected class, (2) applied and was qualified for a position for which the employer was seeking applicants, (3) was rejected despite adequate qualifications, and (4) after rejection the position remained open and the employer continued to seek applications for persons of plaintiff's qualifications.
Andersen v. Exxon Co., U.S.A., 89 N.J. 483, 492 (1982) (citing McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802); see also Clowes, 109 N.J. at 596. Where, as here, the position does not remain open, a court may modify the last prong of the prima facie case to consider whether "someone similarly situated but not in the protected group received better treatment" than the plaintiff. Jackson v. Del. River & Bay Auth., Civ. No. 99-3185, 2001 WL 1689880, at *16 (D.N.J. Nov. 26, 2001); see also E.E.O.C. v. Metal Serv. Co.,892 F.2d 341, 348 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the plaintiff "must carry the initial burden of offering evidence adequate to create an inference that an employment decision was based on a[n] [unlawful] discriminatory criterion," and instructing courts to "be sensitive to the myriad of ways such an inference can be created").Defendant's burden in rebutting a prima facie case of discrimination is "rather light." Monaco v. Am. Gen. Assurance Co., 359 F.3d 296, 300 (3d Cir. 2004); see also Salkovitz v. Pioneer Elecs. (USA), Inc., Civ. No. 04-344, 2005 WL 1638141, at *4 (D.N.J. July 12, 2005). Indeed, the New Jersey Supreme Court has described the employer's burden in this regard as "so light as to be 'little more than a mechanical formality; a defendant, unless silent, will almost always prevail.'" Mogull v. CB Commercial Real Estate Group, Inc., 162 N.J. 449, 469 (2000) (citation omitted). Once the defendant has rebutted the prima facie case, "the plaintiff must convince the factfinder 'both that the reason was false, and that ...