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El-Bakly v. Autozone

January 9, 2009

MOUSTAFA EL-BAKLY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AUTOZONE, INC. A NEVADA CORP., ROB HARRIS, JUAN GUTIERREZ, AND CHRIS RAMOS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Properly before the Court is Defendant AutoZone, Inc.'s renewed motion [147] for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b), and in the alternative, for a new trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59, on Plaintiff's claim of co-worker harassment and punitive damages. Also under consideration by the Court is Plaintiff's motion for judgment as a matter of law on all claims on which the jury found against him [142].*fn1 For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion [142] is denied and Defendant AutoZone's motion for judgment as matter of law [147] is granted.

I. Background

In this lawsuit, Plaintiff asserted several claims against Defendant AutoZone, claiming that (1) he suffered discrimination based on his religion, Islam, and national origin, Egyptian, as a result of an alleged demotion and assignment of job duties outside of the scope of his employment; (2) both his supervisors and co-workers subjected him to harassment based on his religion and/or national origin, creating a hostile work environment; and (3) AutoZone discharged him from his employment on account of his religion and/or national origin. Plaintiff also pursued claims against the three individual defendants, Rob Harris, Juan Gutierrez, and Chris Ramos, claiming that all three subjected him to intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamed him. Plaintiff sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

A jury trial was held in this case from April 21-24, 2008. At the close of Plaintiff's case-in-chief, Defendants collectively moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). Defendants filed a written memorandum in support of their motion the next day. [136]. Plaintiff did not move for judgment as a matter of law on his claims at the close of his case-in-chief; rather, Plaintiff waited until April 25, 2008, a day after the jury returned its verdict, to file his motion for judgment as a matter of law [142] in combination with his response to Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law.

On April 24, 2008, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the three individual Defendants Rob Harris, Juan Gutierrez, and Chris Ramos on all claims (intentional inflection of emotional distress and defamation) against them. The jury also found in favor of AutoZone and against Plaintiff on all claims save for one: on Plaintiff's claim of co-worker harassment, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff and against AutoZone and awarded Plaintiff $8,000.00 in punitive damages.

Defendants contend that Plaintiff's failure to move for judgment as a matter law at the close of his case-in-chief is fatal to his request for the relief he requests now. In the alternative, Defendants contend that Plaintiff's motion fails on its merits. With respect to Defendant's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiff's co-worker harassment claim, Plaintiff contends that the record contains ample evidence to support the jury's verdict in his favor both on the elements of the claim and the award of punitive damages.

II. Analysis

A. Standard of Review

On a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50, a court must determine whether the evidence presented at trial, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, is sufficient to support the verdict. Massey v. Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Illinois, 226 F.3d 922, 924 (7th Cir. 2000); see also Hall v. Gary Community Sch. Corp., 298 F.3d 672, 675 (7th Cir. 2002). Although a mere scintilla of evidence is not sufficient to sustain a verdict, the Court is not to substitute its view of the contested evidence in place of the jury's determination. Filipovich v. K & R Express Sys., Inc., 391 F.3d 859, 863 (7th Cir. 2004). A jury verdict is not to be set aside if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, there exists within the record any reasonable basis to support the verdict, leaving issues of credibility and weight of evidence to the jury. Kapelanski v. Johnson, 390 F.3d 525, 530 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). In other words, the test is whether "no rational juror could have found for the prevailing party." Turner v. Miller, 301 F.3d 599, 602 (7th Cir. 2002); see also Emmel v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago, 95 F.3d 627, 630 (7th Cir. 1996) (the court is limited to assessing whether no rational jury could have found for the plaintiff). A trial court may grant a motion for a new trial where "the clear weight of the evidence is against the jury verdict, the damages are excessive or for some other reason the trial was not fair to the moving party." Scaggs v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 6 F.3d 1290, 1293 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing Walden v. Ill. Central Gulf R.R., 975 F.2d 361, 365 (7th Cir. 1992)). However, the Seventh Circuit has cautioned that "only when a verdict is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence should a motion for a new trial challenging the jury's assessment of the facts carry the day." Emmel, 95 F.3d at 629.

B. Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

1. Timeliness of Plaintiff's Motion

Defendants raise a threshold issue in opposition to Plaintiff's motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Plaintiff failed to comply with Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(2)'s requirement that such a motion be made "any time before the case is submitted to the jury." The Seventh Circuit has stated unequivocally that a failure to move for judgment as a matter of law prior to jury deliberation is fatal to any post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law. See Production Specialties Group, Inc. v. Minsor Sys., Inc., 513 F.3d 695, 699 (7th Cir. 2008) (noting strict enforcement of this principle and affirming the district court's holding that a party's failure to first move for judgment as a matter of law at the close of evidence prohibited consideration of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict); see also Zelinski v. Columbia 300, Inc., 335 F.3d 633, 639 (7th Cir. 2003) (moving for a directed verdict on a issue is a prerequisite to judgment as a matter of law and failure to do so waives that issue post-trial); Arifin v. Matuszuwich, 2000 WL 796146, at *2 (N.D. Ill. June 20, 2000) (finding plaintiffs' motion for "judgment as a matter of law" barred by the plaintiffs' "failure to preserve it for post-trial consideration by making it at the close of evidence"). Only after a party has moved for judgment as a matter of law prior to submission of the case to the jury may the Court consider a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b). As the rule expressly states, "[i]f 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 decision the legal questions raised by the motion. * * * No later than 10 days after the entry of judgment * * * the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b) (emphasis added).

Here, it is undisputed that Plaintiff failed to move for judgment as a matter of law at any time during the course of the trial and prior to the return of the verdict. Accordingly, under clear Seventh Circuit precedent, Plaintiff's motion must be denied as a matter of law on that ground alone. Moreover, as discussed ...


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