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Gardner v. CLC of Pascagoula, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

July 25, 2019




         BEFORE THE COURT are the [81] Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or Alternatively, for a New Trial, and the [83] Alternative Motion for Application of Damages Cap and for Remittitur, both filed by the defendant CLC of Pascagoula, LLC d/b/a Plaza Community Living Center. The parties have fully briefed the Motions. After reviewing the submissions of the parties, the record in this matter, and the applicable law, the Court finds that neither a judgment as a matter of law nor a new trial are justified. However, Gardner's non-pecuniary damages will be capped at $50, 000 pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1981a(b)(3)(A).


         Plaintiff Kymberli Gardner filed this lawsuit against her former employer, CLC of Pascagoula, LLC, alleging that she was sexually harassed by a patient housed in the nursing home where she was employed as a Certified Nursing Assistant. This Court granted summary judgment in favor of CLC. In remanding this case for a jury trial, the Fifth Circuit stated that “[a]s we and other courts have recognized, the diminished capacity of patients influences whether the harassment should be perceived as affecting the terms and conditions of employment. We must decide when the allegations of harassment nonetheless become so severe or pervasive that fact issues exist requiring a jury to decide the question.” Gardner v. CLC of Pascagoula, L.L.C., 915 F.3d 320, 322 (5th Cir. 2019), as revised (Feb. 7, 2019). The Fifth Circuit determined that Gardner's allegations did reach that threshold. After a three-day trial, the jury determined that Gardner had been subjected to a hostile working environment and subject to retaliation. The jury awarded her $10, 000 in back wages, $30, 000 for past pain and suffering, and $30, 00 for future pain and suffering.


         1. Motion JMOL or New Trial

         CLC seeks judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a), or in the alternative, a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. According to Wright and Miller, “[t]he contrasts between the two motions are dramatic.” 9B C. Wright & A. Miller, Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 2531 (3d ed.).

On a motion for new trial, the district court has a wide discretion to order a new trial whenever prejudicial error has occurred. On a motion for judgment as a matter of law, it has no discretion whatsoever and considers only the question of law whether there is sufficient evidence to raise a jury issue. On a motion for new trial the trial judge may consider the credibility of witnesses and the weight of the evidence; on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the judge may not.


         A court may grant judgment as a matter of law if “the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). The Fifth Circuit has held that granting judgment as a matter of law is proper only when “the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in the movant's favor that reasonable jurors could not reach a contrary conclusion.” Baisden v. I'm Ready Prods., Inc., 693 F.3d 491, 498 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Flowers v. S. Reg'l Physician Servs. Inc., 247 F.3d 229 (5th Cir. 2001)). A court must be “especially deferential” to the jury's verdict, id. at 499, and must review all evidence in the record and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         The standard for a Rule 59 motion for new trial is more relaxed. The Fifth Circuit has held that “[a] new trial may be granted, for example, if the [ ] 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.” Smith v. Transworld Drilling Co., 773 F.2d 610, 613 (5th Cir. 1985) (citations omitted); Seidman v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 923 F.2d 1134, 1140 (5th Cir. 1991). “In making this determination, the [ ] court weighs all the evidence, but need not view it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Transworld Drilling, 773 F.2d at 613.

         The motion for JMOL or a new trial argues that 1) Gardner failed to meet her burden of proof on both the hostile work environment and retaliation claims; 2) the damages award is not supported with sufficient evidence; and 3) the jury verdict was based solely on sympathy or emotion.

         A. Hostile Work Environment Claim

         CLC first argues that there was insufficient or no evidence of two of the five hostile work environment claim elements: 1) harassment that affected a term, condition, or privilege of Gardner's employment; and 2) CLC knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action. CLC contends that as a consequence, Gardner's hostile work environment claim fails as a matter of law. The Court applies the Rule 50(a) legal standard to this argument, reviewing all evidence and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Gardner.

         i). Evidence of Harassment That Affected a Term, Condition, or Privilege of Employment

         Harassing conduct affects a “term, condition, or privilege of employment” so as to create a hostile work environment, “only if it is either ‘severe' or ‘pervasive.'” Higgins v. Lufkin Indus., Inc., 633 Fed.Appx. 229, 235 (5th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). Although CLC argues here and during the trial that Gardner's testimony seemed to limit the scope of her hostile work environment to the events of her last day at work, the entirety of her testimony and that of the other witnesses did not support that conclusion. The jury was therefore instructed that it should consider all of the circumstances, including: the frequency of the conduct; its severity; whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interfered with Plaintiff Gardner's work performance as a certified nursing assistant.[1]

         The jury considered testimony that Gardner was directly responsible for J.S.'s care two days out of the week for a period of less than six months. (Tr. Vol. 2 at 104-05.) She experienced sexually graphic comments and grabbing and groping from J.S. every day she cared for him. (Tr. Vol. 2 at 62-63.) Gardner was unable to attend work after her last encounter with J.S. and is now afraid when she cares for male patients. This is evidence from which a reasonable jury could have concluded that Gardner was subjected to conduct that ...

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