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Griggs v. Chickasaw County

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

April 3, 2018




         The present action was tried by a jury, and final judgment was entered in favor of Plaintiff Lamon Griggs on his claims for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment. Plaintiff filed Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment [88], and Defendant filed a Cross-Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, or New Trial [90].

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Griggs, a former employee of Chickasaw County, proceeded to trial before a jury against Chickasaw County, alleging that his position as Solid Waste Enforcement Officer was eliminated and that he was subsequently terminated from his position as Bailiff, in violation of his First Amendment rights. At the close of Griggs' case-in-chief, Chickasaw County 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 presented at trial created a factual issue as to whether Chickasaw County retaliated against Griggs for campaigning for Sheriff of Chickasaw County. At the close of arguments, the jury was instructed to determine liability as to the elimination of the Solid Waste Officer Position, as well as his termination from the Bailiff position. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Griggs on both claims and awarded back pay in the amount of $83, 447.08.

         Following the verdict and award, Chickasaw County filed the present Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, Alternatively, for New Trial, primarily renewing their summary judgment argument that, because Griggs failed to follow Mississippi's Bill of Exceptions procedure, his claims are barred by issue and claim preclusion, judicial estoppel and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Griggs filed a cross Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment, arguing that he is entitled to front pay or reinstatement.

         I. Defendant'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. 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)).

         In its motion, Defendant re-urges many of the arguments presented at the summary judgment phase, including that Plaintiff's claims were procedurally barred or precluded, and that Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to establish that his First Amendment rights were violated. Because the Court extensively addressed Defendant's procedure and preclusion arguments at the summary judgment phase, it here focuses on the factual disputes presented at trial, and whether the facts point “so strongly and overwhelmingly” in the Defendant's favor that reasonable jurors could not reach a contrary conclusion. Flowers, 247 F.3d at 235.

         At trial, many of the same factual issues persisted that were apparent during the pretrial motion phase. For example, at least fifty percent of Griggs' salary was paid from competitive grants for which he applied on the County's behalf. However, when the County failed to obtain the competitive grant, the County terminated him. Griggs argued to the jury that he was terminated because he ran for Sheriff of Chickasaw County as an independent candidate.

         According to Griggs, several board members publicly supported Chief Deputy James Meyers, the democratic candidate for the position, and began spreading rumors about him to disrupt his campaign. For example, Plaintiff called Susan Owings to the stand, who testified that Russell Brooks, a Chickasaw County supervisor, stopped her in a parking lot in order to tell her that Griggs had been “taking money” from the County's coffer. Conversely, Supervisor Brooks testified that Owings stopped him in the parking lot in order to accost him regarding Griggs.

         Furthermore, Plaintiff's attorney attempted to undermine Defendant's explanation for Griggs' discharge by questioning Supervisor Brooks and Supervisor Jerry Hall about the September 22, 2015 board meeting, wherein the Board voted to eliminate the Solid Waste Enforcement position. Supervisor Brooks testified that even though he asked Griggs about the Hatch Act[1] immediately before his dismissal, Griggs' termination had nothing to do with politics. Plaintiff's attorney also asked Supervisor Hall whether he was aware during the meeting that a local nursing home had not been paying rent to the city for quite a while. Plaintiff's attorney argued that, had there really been a budgetary shortfall, the County would not have allowed potential income to be overlooked. Griggs further testified as to the disruptions in his campaign for Sheriff, the effect that the terminations had on him, and his inability to find other employment.

         “Weighing the conflicting evidence and the inferences to be drawn from that evidence, and determining the relative credibility of the witnesses, are the province of the jury, and its decision must be accepted if the record contains any competent and substantial evidence tending fairly to support the verdict.” Gibraltar Sav. v. LDBrinkman Corp., 860 F.2d 1275, 1297 (5th Cir. 1988). The jury considered all of the evidence and concluded that Griggs' running for sheriff was a motivating factor in his termination from the position in Solid Waste Enforcement and that of Bailiff, and the Court finds this verdict to be reasonable based on the evidence presented at trial. Thus, the Court may not disturb the jury's sound findings. Reeves, 530 U.S. at 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097.

         II. Defendant's Rule 59 Motion for New Trial

         Alternatively, Defendant 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 Fed.Appx. 526, 529 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Smith v. Transworld Drilling Co., 773 F.2d 610, 613 (5th Cir. 1985)). Furthermore, a Rule 59 motion “is not the proper vehicle for rehashing evidence, legal ...

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