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Merced Rojas v. Town of Cicero and Larry Dominick

December 22, 2011

MERCED ROJAS
v.
TOWN OF CICERO AND LARRY DOMINICK



Name of Assigned Judge Sitting Judge if Other or Magistrate Judge James F. Holderman than Assigned Judge

CASE TITLE

DOCKET ENTRY TEXT

For the reasons listed in the Statement section of the order, plaintiff Merced Rojas's "Motion for a New Trial on Plaintiff's Equal Protection Claim of Race Discrimination Only" [490] is denied, Defendants' "Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b)" [486] is denied, and "Defendants' Motion for a New Trial Pursuant [to] F. R. Civ. P. 59(a) and Relief from Judgment Pursuant [to] F. R. Civ. P. 60(b) [488] is granted. A new trial is granted on only Rojas's claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of retaliation for political affiliation. A new trial is set to begin on 4/23/12 at 9:00 AM, and a final pretrial conference will be held at 4:00 pm on 4/17/12 . "Defendants' Motion for Remittitur Pursuant to Rule 59(e)" [491], "Plaintiff's Post-Trial Motion for Reinstatement" [492], and Rojas's "Motion for Instructions Pursuant to ILND LR 54.3(g)" [499] are denied as moot.

O[ For further details see text below.] Docketing to mail notices.

STATEMENT

Plaintiff Merced Rojas was fired from his job as a handyman for senior citizens living in the Town of Cicero on October 16, 2006. Rojas brought suit alleging that the Town and Larry Dominick, the Town's president, are liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because Dominick fired Rojas on account of Rojas's support for Dominick's political opponents and because Rojas is Hispanic. At the close of Rojas's case-in-chief at trial, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law, which the court took under advisement. On July 14, 2011, a jury awarded Rojas $300,000 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages on his claim of retaliation for political affiliation, but found for the defendants on Rojas's claim of race discrimination. The defendants have now renewed their motion for judgment as matter of law (Dkt. No. 486), or, in the alternative, for a new trial (Dkt. No. 488.), on the claim of retaliation for political affiliation. The plaintiffs have also moved for a new trial on the claim of race discrimination. (Dkt. No. 490.)

I. Judgment as a Matter of Law

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, judgment as a matter of law is appropriate when "a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 149 (2000)(quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)). In performing this analysis, the court "must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Waite v. Bd. of Trs., 408 F.3d 339, 343 (7th Cir. 2005).The court "will overturn a jury verdict . . . only if [it] conclude[s] that no rational jury could have found for [the non-movant]." Id. (citation omitted). Based on the deference afforded to the jury's verdict, the Rule 50 standard "is obviously a difficult standard to meet." Id.; see also Sheehan v. Donlen Corp., 173 F.3d 1039, 1043 (7th Cir. 1999) ("Attacking a jury verdict is a hard row to hoe.").

Rojas bases his First Amendment claim for political retaliation on the allegation that he was fired because Rojas, his wife, and her family withdrew their political support from Larry Dominick. "The First Amendment prohibits a state employer from terminating the employment of a worker on the basis of [his] political beliefs unless political affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the position." Moss v. Martin, 614 F.3d 707, 710 (7th Cir. 2010). Here, the defendants contend that the jury's verdict was not rational because there was over a year between the time that Rojas withdrew his political support from Dominick and the time when he was fired, so there is no rational connection between the two events. See Wallscetti v. Fox, 258 F.3d 662, 669 (7th Cir. 2001) (finding that a period of four months is too long to support a reasonable inference of causation). Rojas submitted evidence, however, that he and his family continued to engage in protected activity by opposing Dominick politically during the months leading up to Rojas's firing. A reasonable jury thus could have found that his firing was caused by his family's continued political activity against Dominick.

The defendants cite Roger Whitmore's Automotive Services, Inc. v. Lake County, Illinois, 424 F.3d 659, 669 (7th Cir. 2005), a case in which the court considered the withdrawal of political support from the defendant as the key event for the purposes of determining whether political motivations caused a later adverse employment action. In Roger Whitmore's Automotive Services, however, the plaintiff did not continue his political activity past the end of the defendant's primary campaign a few months thereafter, instead reverting to support the defendant and even making a contribution to him for the general election. Id. at 665. By contrast, Rojas and his family continued to oppose Dominick right up to the time when Rojas was fired, thus allowing a reasonable jury to infer that the two events were related.

The defendants also contend that there is no evidence that Dominick's firing of Rojas was motivated by Rojas's political actions. Rojas presented evidence that in the months leading up to the firing, Dominick made statements such as that Rojas's in-laws were idiots, that they were no longer welcome in his organization, that they could go to hell, and that they were shit on the bottom of his shoe. (TT 622:4-15.) Rojas also presented evidence that Dominick said Rojas's wife was lucky that Dominick did not fire her husband (TT 629:10-16). Rojas also presented evidence that Dominick stated that Rojas's wife did not know who the father of her children were (TT 625:19-626:2). As the defendants point out, these comments do not state that Dominick decided to fire Rojas because of his political activity. Nonetheless, a reasonable jury considering the context of the ongoing political feud between Dominick and Rojas's family could have concluded that Dominick's comments and the firing were motivated by Dominick's political animus against Rojas.

Finally, the defendants point out that they offered evidence that Dominick fired Rojas because of the recommendation of a report that Rojas provided repair services for a non-senior's private home while on Town time. Rojas presented evidence, however, casting doubt on the thoroughness of the investigation. See, e.g., TT 1192:22-1193:12 (testimony that the person for whom Rojas was alleged to provide private repair services when he was on town time was not interviewed as part of the investigation). Moreover, there was testimony that Rojas performed the private, non-senior repair job on his own time, and not while working for the Town. TT118:15-119:7. A reasonable jury could have believed that testimony, discredited the report's findings, and found that the report was merely a pretext for firing Rojas. The defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law is denied.

II. Defendants' Motion for a New Trial on the Claim of Political Retaliation

Pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may grant a new trial in an action in which there has been a trial by jury "for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Fed. R.Civ. P. 59(a). In practice, new trials have been granted if the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence or if the trial was unfair to the moving party. David v. Caterpillar, Inc., 324 F.3d 851, 863 (7th Cir. 2003). However, the jury's verdict should be given considerable deference. Latino v. Kaizer, 58 F.3d 310, 315 (7th Cir. 1995). "To obtain a new trial on ...


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