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Layton v. Eagle Rock Timber, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Idaho

January 7, 2020

HEATH LAYTON, Plaintiff,
v.
EAGLE ROCK TIMBER, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          David C. Nye Chief U.S. District Court Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Heath Layton's Motion for Directed Verdict. Dkt. 56. Having reviewed the record and briefs, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding further delay, and because the Court finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, the Court will decide the Motions without oral argument. Dist. Idaho Loc. Civ. R. 7.1(d)(1)(B). For the reasons outlined below, the Court DENIES Layton's Motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         In this case, Layton brought a single cause of action against Eagle Rock Timber, Inc. (“ERT”): disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Dkt. 1. A four-day trial began on April 15, 2019. At the close of his case-in- chief, Layton moved for judgment as a matter of law[1] on the elements of disability and qualified individual.[2] The Court denied the Motion.

         Subsequently, after the Court's informal jury instruction conference, Layton's counsel made a formal objection to the jury instructions, arguing (as a renewed Rule 50 motion) that the elements of “disability” and “qualified individual” were not disputed and that the instructions and verdict questions on those topics should be modified or excluded. Layton's Counsel specifically expressed concern that leaving the question about whether Layton had a disability on the verdict form[3] might cause the jury to conclude Layton had not met his burden and “needed to prove more than was already presented.” Dkt. 56, at 7. The Court denied the motion and objection and did not modify the verdict form.

         At the conclusion of trial, the jury did not return a verdict in Layton's favor. Dkt. 51. Layton then timely filed a Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (Dkt. 56) on May 16, 2019. In his Motion, Layton argues for judgment as a matter of law, but also that-in the event the Court does not find in his favor-a new trial should be granted. The Court will address each motion in turn.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50

         “A Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law is not a freestanding motion. Rather, it is a renewed Rule 50(a) motion. Under Rule 50, a party must make a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law before a case is submitted to the jury.” EEOC v. Go Daddy Software, Inc., 581 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 2009). “If the judge denies or defers ruling on the motion, and if the jury then returns a verdict against the moving party, the party may renew its motion under Rule 50(b).” Id.

         “[I]n entertaining a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court . . . may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). Rather, the Court “must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party . . . and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.” Josephs v. Pac. Bell, 443 F.3d 1050, 1062 (9th Cir. 2006). “The test applied is whether the evidence permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's verdict.” Id.

         The “jury's verdict must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence, which is evidence adequate to support the jury's conclusion, even if it is also possible to draw a contrary conclusion.” Harper v. City of L.A., 533 F.3d 1010, 1021 (9th Cir. 2008). The Court “can overturn the jury's verdict and grant such a motion only if there is no legally sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue.” Costa v. Desert Palace, Inc., 299 F.3d 838, 859 (9th Cir. 2002) (internal citations omitted). If there is “sufficient evidence before the jury on a particular issue, and if the jury instructions on the issue were correct, then the jury's verdict must stand.” Transgo, Inc. v. Ajac Transmission Parts Corp., 768 F.2d 1001, 1014 (9th Cir. 1985).

         Importantly, “[b]ecause it is a renewed motion, a proper post-verdict Rule 50(b) motion is limited to the grounds asserted in the pre-deliberation Rule 50(a) motion.” Go Daddy Software, 581 F.3d at 961. “Thus, a party cannot properly ‘raise arguments in its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) that it did not raise in its pre-verdict Rule 50(a) motion.'” Id. (quoting Freund v. Nycomed Amersham, 347 F.3d 752, 761 (9th Cir. 2003)).

         However, Rule 50(b) may be satisfied by an ambiguous or inartful Rule 50(a) motion. Id. (citing Reeves v. Tuescher, 881 F.2d 1495, 1498 (9th Cir. 1989)). “Absent such liberal interpretation, the rule is a harsh one.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). When ruling on a Rule 50(b) motion based on grounds not previously asserted in a Rule 50(a) motion, the Court is “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.. “This exception . . . permits only extraordinarily deferential review that is limited to whether there was any evidence to support the jury's verdict.” Id. (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).

         B. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 outlines that a Court may grant a new trial “if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based on evidence which is false, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice.” Silver Sage Partners v. City of Desert Hot Springs, 251 F.3d 814, 819 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Molski v. M.J.Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007) (“Historically recognized grounds [for a new trial under Rule 59] include, but are not limited to, claims that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the moving party.” (internal quotation and citation omitted)).

         “[E]rroneous jury instructions, as well as the failure to give adequate instructions, are also bases for a new trial.” Murphy v. City of Long Beach, 914 F.2d 183, 187 (9th Cir. 1990). “A jury instruction is erroneous if it ‘misleads the jury as to the correct legal standard or does not adequately inform the jury on the law.'” Altria Grp., Inc. v. United States, 658 F.3d 276, 286 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). A new trial is not warranted on the basis of an incorrect evidentiary ruling unless “the ruling substantially prejudiced a party.” United States v. 99.66 Acres of Land, 970 F.2d 651, 658 (9th Cir. 1992).

         The “district court may not grant a new trial simply because it would have arrived at a different verdict, ” Silver Sage Partners, 251 F.3d at 819, but only if the “trial court [has] a firm conviction that the jury has made a mistake.” Landes Constr. Co., Inc. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1372 (9th Cir. 1987).

         When evaluating a motion for new trial under Rule 59, the court can weigh the evidence, evaluate the credibility of the witnesses, and is not required to view the evidence from the perspective most favorable to the prevailing party. United States v. Kellington, 217 F.3d 1084, 1095 (9th Cir.2000).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Renewed Rule 50 Motion

         As a threshold matter, the Court must address the scope of Layton's renewed motion for a directed verdict. As Layton admits in his briefing, during trial he “moved the court pursuant to FRE 50 for a directed verdict on the elements of disability and qualified individual.” Dkt. 56, at 7, ¶ 7.[4] This acknowledgement aside, in the current Motion, Layton asserts he is seeking “a directed verdict that Plaintiff was disabled during all relevant times, that Plaintiff was a qualified individual during all relevant times, that Plaintiff suffered adverse employment actions because of his disability, and on lost wage damages.” Dkt. 56, at 9 (emphasis added).[5]

         Layton did not seek a pre-verdict directed verdict on the element of “adverse employment action” and, consequently, cannot do so now. It is well settled that this is an improper application of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50. As noted above, “a Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law is not a freestanding motion. Rather, it is a renewed Rule 50(a) motion.” Go Daddy Software, Inc., 581 F.3d at 961. Accordingly, as a renewed motion, “a proper post-verdict Rule 50(b) motion is limited to the grounds asserted in the pre-deliberation Rule 50(a) motion.” Id. See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 advisory committee's notes to the 1991 amendments (“A post trial motion for judgment can be granted only on grounds advanced in the pre-verdict motion.”)).[6]

         In sum, Layton's motion for directed verdict on the issue of adverse employment action is not properly before the Court and must be denied. Layton can proceed on his renewed motion regarding the ADA elements of “disability” and “qualified individual” as he previously raised each of those topics.[7]

         During trial, Layton moved for a directed verdict on the elements of disability and qualified individual claiming there was no dispute as to these elements. Then, as now, Layton relies on the testimony of Rick Gokey-ERT's owner and manager-and his “admission” that Layton was disabled, to argue the Court should have taken this issue away from the jury and granted a directed verdict as a matter of law. While it is true that Gokey acknowledged Layton was “limited” and “injured”-and further, that he would not dispute Layton was “substantially limited in his ability to walk”-this is not the same as admitting someone is “disabled.” Even then, as the Court will explain below, the breadth and impact of Gokey's testimony (regardless of the interpretation) is not as dispositive as Layton suggests. The full colloquy of the testimony at issue is as follows:

Q. All right. And so, do you agree that in March and April of 2017, from the date of his injury until his employment ended, that he was substantially limited in his ability to walk?
A. He was limited. I don't have any expertise to say substantially. He was limited. He was on crutches, and so he had a work release.
Q. Okay. And are you disputing the fact that he was disabled at that time?
A. I don't - MR. GARDNER: Objection. Foundation, Your Honor.
MR. WESSEL: Do you want some dates?
THE COURT: Lay some more foundation.
BY MR. WESSEL:
Q. Okay. In the March -- well, let's say on April 27th -- well, throughout all of April 2017, are you disputing the fact that he was disabled at that time?
MR. GARDNER: Objection. Still foundation, Your Honor.
THE WITNESS: In my opinion, he was injured.
THE COURT: Just a minute. Don't answer that until I make ...

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