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Newcomb v. Corinth School District

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

March 31, 2015

ALFRED L. NEWCOMB, Plaintiff,
v.
CORINTH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SHARION AYCOCK, District Judge.

The present action was tried before a jury, and a verdict was returned for Plaintiff Alfred Newcomb on his claim of retaliatory termination in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") against Defendant Corinth School District ("CSD"). Defendant has filed a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or Alternate Relief [84], and Plaintiff has filed a Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment [82]. Upon consideration of the motions, responses, rules, and authorities, the Court finds as follows:

(A) Factual and Procedural History

Newcomb, a former employee in CSD's maintenance and transportation departments, proceeded to trial before a jury against CSD, alleging that he was terminated for taking FMLA qualifying leave following a non-work related injury to his shoulder. At the close of Newcomb's case-in-chief, CSD moved for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). The Court denied the motion, finding that the evidence created a factual issue as to whether CSD retaliated against Newcomb. The jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of Newcomb and awarded damages in the amount of $100, 000 for "wages, salary, employment benefits, or other compensation denied or lost because of Corinth School District's violation of the FMLA."

Following the verdict and award, CSD filed the present Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or Alternate Relief [84], arguing that the Court should render judgment in its favor, grant a new trial, or remit Newcomb's award.[1] Newcomb filed a Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment [82], arguing that he is entitled to prejudgment interest, liquidated damages, and either reinstatement or front pay as a result of the jury's finding of retaliation. The Court addresses each contention in turn.

(B) CSD's Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) allows a defendant to file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law following a verdict for the plaintiff, as CSD has done here. Judgment as a matter of law is warranted under Rule 50 if "a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue[.]" FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a)(1). The standard under Rule 50 "mirrors" the standard for summary judgment under Rule 56 "such that the inquiry under each is the same." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing, 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000) (internal quotation and citation omitted). When ruling on a Rule 50 motion, the Court must "view the trial evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, making all reasonable and factual inferences and credibility assessments in the nonmovant's favor." Illinois Cent. R.R. Co. v. Guy, 682 F.3d 381, 393 (5th Cir. 2012). The Court must uphold the verdict unless "the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in the movant's favor that reasonable jurors could not reach a contrary conclusion.'" Flowers v. S. Reg'l Physical Servs. Inc., 247 F.3d 229, 235 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting Omnitech Int'l, Inc. v. Clorox Co., 11 F.3d 1316, 1322 (5th Cir. 1994)).

Sufficiency of the Evidence

Under the FMLA, an eligible employee is entitled to twelve weeks of unpaid leave within a twelve month period if he suffers from a disabling health problem that precludes his ability to work. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1). The FMLA's retaliation provision makes it unlawful to "discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any individual" for taking such leave. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). A plaintiff may prove FMLA retaliation by producing direct evidence, Herron v. Baptist Mem'l Healthcare Corp., 2007 WL 2579972, at *1 (N.D. Miss. Sept. 4, 2007), or through circumstantial evidence of a retaliatory motive. Richardson v. Monitronics Int'l, Inc., 434 F.3d 327, 332 (5th Cir. 2005). Because the "case has been fully tried on its merits, [the Court] does not focus on the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting scheme" but inquires "whether the record contains sufficient evidence to support the jury's ultimate findings." Bryant v. Compass Grp. USA Inc., 413 F.3d 471, 475-76 (5th Cir. 2005).

It is uncontested that CSD slated Newcomb's position for elimination in May 2010 as part of a Board-approved reduction-in-force plan. However, Newcomb continued his employment with CSD until he received a letter of termination on September 17, 2010, approximately seven weeks after he injured his shoulder and just one day after he underwent surgery. CSD maintains that, because the reduction-in-force was adopted in May, well before Newcomb's injury or leave, the decision to terminate him could not have been infected by a retaliatory motive.

The evidence at trial, however, showed that the plan was not rigidly applied. According to a list of non-renewals introduced by CSD, the majority of employees who were scheduled for termination as part of the reduction-in-force were terminated either at the end of May 2010 or the first day of July 2010. But Mike Rutledge, an employee in CSD's maintenance department who was originally among those scheduled for termination, was still employed with CSD at the time of trial. This was because Rutledge's supervisor, Brent Avent, convinced the Superintendent, Lee Childress, to retain Rutledge, according to the testimony of both Avent and Childress.

Additionally, Newcomb, remained employed until mid-September, a full two-and-a-half months after CSD had terminated every other person listed on the non-renewal list.[2] To explain why Newcomb was not terminated along with the others, his immediate supervisor Nat Rogers testified that he pleaded with Childress to retain Newcomb because the transportation department needed Newcomb's assistance. Childress corroborated Rogers' testimony on this point and explained that CSD would have "worked [Newcomb] through part of August or it would have been determined once things settled down ...." (emphasis added).

Therefore, even though the Board decided to terminate Newcomb as part of the reduction-in-force plan adopted in May, the evidence demonstrated that Superintendent Childress retained a level of decision-making authority to determine if and when employees would be terminated. Given Childress' previous deviations from the plan and the absence of a firm end date in place for Newcomb, there is simply no conclusive evidence as to when Newcomb was to be terminated pursuant to the reduction-in-force or even that he definitively was to be terminated. See c.f., Davis v. Dallas Ind. Sch. Dist., 448 F.Appx. 485, 493 (5th Cir. 2011) (holding that where employer had employee's end date in place before the plaintiff's protected activity, no causal connection could be had even though termination was not formalized until after the protected activity took place). The Court concludes that, based on the evidence adduced at trial, a reasonable jury was entitled to find that the final decision to terminate Newcomb occurred sometime subsequent to the Board's meeting in May.

Thus, the door was opened for the jury to consider, as evidence of retaliation, the close temporal proximity between Newcomb's FMLA leave and his termination. See Mauder v. Metr. Trans. Auth. of Harris Cnty., 446 F.3d 574, 583 (5th Cir. 2006) ("When evaluating whether the adverse employment action was causally related to the FMLA protection, the court shall consider the temporal proximity' between the FMLA leave, and the termination."); Shirley v. Chrysler First, Inc., 970 F.2d 39, 44 (5th Cir. 1992) (deeming suspicious timing as "one of the elements" supporting a retaliatory finding). The jury was additionally entitled to consider the following excerpt from Childress' testimony concerning the timing of Newcomb's termination:

Q. Okay. Now, let me see if I understand. Normally when you let somebody go, you let them go when you decide you no longer need their services?
A. In terms of the job that they are doing, that would be correct.
Q. Well, in this case, you would have known that you didn't need Mr. Newcomb's service when he was unable to work because of his injury, wouldn't you sir?
A. That would be the case.

In light of the evidence that Childress retained decision-making authority with regard to Newcomb's termination, the close temporal connection between Newcomb's leave and his termination, and Childress' testimony that he decided he no longer needed Newcomb's services following the injury that precipitated Newcomb's leave, the Court finds a sufficient evidentiary basis to support the jury's finding of FMLA retaliation.[3]

Prejudice Suffered

CSD alternately argues that even if the jury's finding of retaliation is supported, the verdict should nonetheless be overturned because Newcomb's leave would have expired before he was able to return to CSD, and that he accordingly suffered no prejudice by the FMLA retaliation.

As stated earlier, an eligible employee is entitled to twelve weeks of unpaid leave within a twelve month period. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1). Although an employer generally is required to restore the employee to the same or an equivalent position upon returning from such leave, 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1), if the employee is unable to perform his duties at the expiration of the twelve weeks, he is not entitled to such reinstatement. Johnson v. Houston's Rest., Inc., 167 F.Appx. 393, 396 (5th Cir. 2006). Moreover, the FMLA authorizes relief for lost compensation incurred " by reason of the violation [.]" 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(A)(i)(I) (emphasis added). Interpreting this provision, the Supreme Court has clearly held that an employee may obtain "no relief unless [he] has been prejudiced by the violation[.]" Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., 535 U.S. 81, 89, 122 S.Ct. 1155, 152 L.Ed.2d 167 (2002); see also Cuellar v. Keppel Amfels, LLC, 731 F.3d 342, 347 (5th Cir. 2013).

It is undisputed that Newcomb's leave began immediately after his injury on August 2, 2010. CSD highlights a series of doctor's notes indicating that Newcomb was "totally disabled" until January 18, 2011. Thus, based on these notes, CSD argues that Newcomb's twelve weeks of leave would have expired before he was able to return to work.

However, at trial, Newcomb explained that the doctor's notes on which CSD relies did not accurately reflect his medical condition and were signed, not by his doctor, but by support staff at the doctor's office. Specifically, Newcomb testified that, in an effort to draw payments under his former disability insurance policy with CSD, he would tell the receptionist "nothing has changed" regarding his ability to work. According to Newcomb, the receptionist would then, without questioning him, sign the note indicating that Newcomb was totally disabled. At trial, however, Newcomb testified that he was, in fact, able to return to his position at CSD sometime in September 2010, well within the period covered by the FMLA.

In light of Newcomb's testimony, the Court finds that the evidence introduced created a genuine issue of material fact as to when Newcomb would have been able to return to work and thus whether he would have been entitled to reinstatement upon his return. See 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1). Accordingly, the Court concludes that the jury's determination of prejudice caused by CSD's FMLA retaliation was sufficiently supported by the evidence presented. CSD's motion for judgment as a matter of law is therefore DENIED.

(C) CSD's Rule 59 Motion for a New Trial

Alternatively, CSD moves for a new trial. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 provides that "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues... after a jury 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). Grounds for a new trial, while "undefined by the Rule" include situations where "the district court finds the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the damages awarded are excessive, the trial was unfair, or prejudicial error was committed in its course." Weckesser v. Chi. Bridge & Iron, L.G., 447 F.Appx. 526, 529 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Smith v. Transworld Drilling Co., 773 F.2d 610, 613 (5th Cir. 1985)).

CSD maintains that prejudicial error was committed in several respects with regard to the Court's jury instructions. To successfully challenge a jury instruction, CSD "must demonstrate that the charge as a whole create[d] substantial and ineradicable doubt whether the jury has been properly guided in its deliberations." Hartsell v. Dr. Pepper Bottling Co. of Tex., 207 F.3d 269, 272 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Johnson v. Sawyer, 120 F.3d 1307, 1315 (5th Cir. 1997)). But even if substantial and ineradicable doubt is shown, the instruction should still be upheld as long as the Court determines "based upon the entire record, that the challenged instruction could not have affected the outcome of the case." Id.

FMLA Mixed-Motive Instruction

CSD first argues that the Court erred by issuing the following "mixed-motive" causation instruction:

Ultimately, if you find that Newcomb's termination was motivated by his FMLA qualified leave and other lawful reasons, then you must decide whether Newcomb's FMLA qualifying leave was a motivating factor in Corinth School District's decision to terminate him. If you find Newcomb's FMLA leave was a motivating factor in Defendant's decision to terminate him, even though other considerations were factors in the decision, then you must determine whether Corinth School District proved by a preponderance of the evidence it would have made the same decision even if it had not considered Newcomb's FMLA leave in its decision. If you find that Corinth School District would have made the same decision even if it had not considered Newcomb's FMLA leave, then you must find for Defendant.

CSD contends that this instruction wrongly allowed the jury to premise liability upon a finding that Newcomb's FMLA protected leave was merely a motivating factor in its decision to terminate him. It argues that in FMLA retaliation suits, the employee must prove that the ...


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