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Hardenbrook v. United Parcel Service

September 3, 2010

DAREL HARDENBROOK, AN INDIVIDUAL, PAUL GOOCH, AN INDIVIDUAL AND ROBERT ORLOFF, AN INDIVIDUAL, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, CO., A DELAWARE CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Edward J. Lodge U. S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Pending before the Court in the above entitled matter is the Defendant's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Alternative Motion for New Trial or to Alter or Amend the Judgment. (Dkt. No. 157.) The parties have fully briefed the motion and it is now ripe for the Court's consideration. Having fully reviewed the record herein, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented in the briefs and record. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding further delay, and because the Court conclusively finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, the motion shall be decided on the record before this Court without oral argument.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Plaintiffs, Darel Hardenbrook, Paul Gooch, and Robert Orloff, initiated this action on November 2, 2007 by filing a Complaint in state court against the Defendant, United Parcel Service, Co. ("UPS"), alleging retaliation in violation of Idaho public policy, breach of contract, and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. (Dkt. No. 1, Att. 2.) On December 5, 2007, UPS removed the case to this Court on diversity grounds. (Dkt. No. 1.) The dispute between the parties relates to employment actions taken by UPS as to each of the Plaintiffs; Mr. Gooch and Mr. Hardenbrook were terminated and Mr. Orloff was demoted.

The Plaintiffs' complaint alleged that UPS' employment actions against them were made in retaliation to their inquiries regarding the Department of Transportation's ("DOT") hours of service regulations. (Dkt. No. 1, Att. 2, p. 2.) The DOT regulations prohibit drivers of commercial vehicles from driving if they have exceeded a specified number of work hours for a prescribed period of time. UPS denied the allegations and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 40.)

On December 8, 2009, this Court entered an Order granting in part and denying in part the Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 84.) The Court's Order dismissed all of Mr. Orloff's claims against UPS and dismissed two of the three claims raised by both Mr. Gooch and Mr. Hardenbrook. Eventually, Mr. Gooch's claims were resolved by the parties and only Mr. Hardenbrook's claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy remained. (Dkt. No. 97.) Thereafter, the parties filed Motions in Limine, Trial Briefs, Proposed Voir Dire, and related pretrial filings. The Court entered Orders on certain of the Motions in Limine. (Dkt. Nos. 118, 119, 123.) Trial began on January 12, 2010. The jury returned a Special Verdict on January 21, 2010 in favor of Mr. Hardenbrook awarding a total amount of damages of $1,476,367.00. (Dkt. No. 142.)

On March 4, 2010, UPS filed its Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and the parties each filed Memorandums, Declarations, Affidavits and other materials regarding the motions. Having reviewed these materials, the trial transcripts, and the entire record herein the Court finds as follows.*fn1

DISCUSSION

1. Rule 50(b) Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

At the close of Mr. Hardenbrook's case in chief, UPS made a Rule 50(a) motion. The Court denied the motion and the case was submitted to the jury resulting in the verdict in favor of Mr. Hardenbrook. UPS now moves to renew its motion for a judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(b).

A. Legal Standard for Rule 50(b) Motion

Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law ("JMOL") and Alternatively Motion for New Trial are made pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) which states:

If the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made under Rule 50(a), the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion. No later than 28 days after the entry of judgment--or if the motion addresses a jury issue not decided by a verdict, no later than 28 days after the jury was discharged--the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59. In ruling on the renewed motion, the court may:

(1) allow judgment on the verdict, if the jury returned a verdict;

(2) order a new trial; or

(3) direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law.*fn2

"Pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL") against a party on a claim or issue where the party has been 'fully heard on [that] issue during a jury trial' and the court finds that a 'reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis' to find for that party." Fungi Elec. Co., Ltd. v. Daewoo Electronics Corp., 593 F.Supp.2d 1088, 1092-93 (N.D. Cal. 2009) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) & (b)). "Where a party moves for JMOL in a case that has been tried to a jury, the court must determine whether 'there exists evidence of record upon which a jury might properly have returned a verdict in [the non-movant's] favor when the correct legal standard is applied.'" Id. (citations omitted). "The test is whether the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to that of the jury." White v. Ford Motor Co., 312 F.3d 998, 1010 (9th Cir. 2002); see also E.E.O.C. v. Go Daddy Software, Inc., 581 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 2009) ("The test applied is whether the evidence permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's verdict.").

"[I]n entertaining a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court... may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Go Daddy, 581 F.3d at 961 (citation omitted). Rather, "[w]e must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party... and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Id. (citation omitted). "We review a jury's verdict for substantial evidence in ruling on a properly made motion under Rule 50(b)." Go Daddy, 581 F.3d at 961.*fn3 "However, in ruling on a Rule 50(b) motion based on grounds not previously asserted in a Rule 50(a) motion, we are limited to reviewing the jury's verdict for plain error, and should reverse only if such plain error would result in a manifest miscarriage of justice." Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Plain error review "permits only extraordinarily deferential review that is limited to whether there was any evidence to support the jury's verdict." Id. at 961-62.

"Thus, the court must conduct two inquiries. First, the court must determine the correct law. Next, the Court must review the jury's factual findings to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence." Fungi Elec., 593 F.Supp.2d at 1092-93 (citations omitted). The jury's factual findings are given "substantial deference" and the legal standards the jury applies are considered de novo to determine, as a matter of law, whether the correct standards have been used. Id. (citations omitted).

B. Analysis

In this case, on his claim of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, Mr. Hardenbrook had the burden of proving each of the following by a preponderance of the evidence:

1. the Plaintiff engaged in or was engaging in an important public obligation under state law, that is the reporting of violations, or potential violations, of federal Department of Transportation regulations;

2. the Defendant subjected the Plaintiff to an adverse employment action, that is the termination of his employment with the Defendant; and

3. the Plaintiff was subjected to the adverse employment action because he engaged in or was engaging in the important public obligation of reporting violations, or potential violations, of federal Department of Transportation regulations.

(Dkt. No. 143, Jury Instr. No. 32.) The jury was instructed that:

Public policy considerations include where an employee is performing an important public obligation. In Idaho, reporting violations, or potential violations, of federal transportation regulations is an important public obligation falling within the public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine. (Dkt. No. 143, Jury Instr. No. 30.) UPS maintains the jury's verdict is not supported by the evidence presented at trial because there is no evidence that 1) Mr. Hardenbrook ever reported any DOT violations and 2) his termination was linked to any protected conduct. (Dkt. No. 157.) Mr. Hardenbrook counters that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's findings. (Dkt. No. 173.)

(1) Reporting DOT Violations

As has been argued since the summary judgment phase of this case, the parties' dispute over whether Mr. Hardenbrook reported any DOT violations or potential violations revolves around the events beginning in December of 2005 and Mr. Gooch's emails sent to his superior, Brad Whitworth at the time. (Dkt. No. 84.) UPS argues Mr. Hardenbrook cannot rely upon Mr. Gooch's emails reporting the alleged violations but that it must be Mr. Hardenbrook's own conduct that reports such violations in order to invoke the public policy exception. (Dkt. No. 189, p. 2.) The Court agrees.

The issue of whether the conduct in question violates public policy is a question for the jury. See Thomas v. Medical Center Physicians, P.A., 61 P.3d 557, 564 (Idaho 2002). "In order for the public policy exception to apply, the discharged employee must: (1) refuse to commit an unlawful act; (2) perform an important public obligation; or (3) exercise certain rights or privileges." Thomas, 61 P.3d at 564 (emphasis added). Based on the emphasized language in Thomas, the Court finds the public policy exception can only apply to Mr. Hardenbrook's claims where he performed an important public obligation; to-wit reporting violations or potential violations of DOT regulations.*fn4

Mr. Hardenbrook argues the evidence shows Mr. Gooch's email was prompted by his conversations with Mr. Gooch and that the email encompassed Mr. Hardenbrook's concerns about possible DOT violations. (Dkt. No. 173.) Mr. Hardenbrook also points to his actions subsequent to the email that, he argues, reflects his involvement in and knowledge of the email reporting alleged violations. In particular, Mr. Hardenbrook's telephone conversation with Mr. Whitworth subsequent to the email, he argues, is a report of violations or potential violations and evidence that he and Mr. Gooch were in communication about the emails between December 17 and 22. During his phone call with Mr. Whitworth, Mr. Hardenbrook argues he accepted responsibility for the emails and told Mr. Whitworth that he had asked Mr. Gooch to seek clarification regarding the DOT regulations. Because he was involved in the conception of the email and later took responsibility for the email, Mr. Hardenbrook contends there was evidence upon which the Jury could find he had engaged in a public obligation of reporting alleged or potential DOT violations.

Asking or talking to Mr. Gooch about possible DOT violations, UPS counters, does not amount to a performance of an important public obligation invoking the public policy ...


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