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Baptist v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 28, 2018



          Hon, Virginia M. Kendal United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff James Baptist (“Baptist”) filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, alleging that Defendant Ford Motor Company (“Ford”) terminated his employment in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim in violation of Illinois common law. After Ford removed the case to this Court, see (Dkt. No. 2), this Court granted summary judgment for Ford finding that “Baptist failed to provide evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that Ford's decision to terminate him was primarily retaliatory.” (Dkt. 66) The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded finding that a triable issue existed over the cause of the discharge. 827 F.3d 599 (7th Cir. 2016). The Court presided over a 7-day jury trial and the jury returned a verdict finding that Baptist failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Ford discharged him in retaliation for making a request for workers' compensation benefits. See (Dkt. No. 180). Baptist filed this Motion for a New Trial, (Dkt. No. 181), arguing primarily that the jury instructions given were in error. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies the motion. [181.]


         Ford hired Baptist in 2012 to operate a forklift at its assembly plant in Chicago, Illinois.[1] Three months into the job, Baptist injured his wrist while working and he sought medical assistance. Between numerous medical visits, the lingering injury, and Baptist's belief that he could not operate a forklift, Baptist took days off from time to time. At one point this included a one-month suspension by Ford because of his absence from work. Upon returning from the suspension, Ford's labor representative told Baptist he would have to return to his forklift position-a work placement he feared would exacerbate his injury-and so he did not report to work for the next three days. Ford subsequently terminated Baptist's employment claiming the three consecutive absences violated the terms of Ford's Collective Bargaining Agreement. The jury heard from the Plaintiff and numerous witnesses regarding the actions of Baptist and Ford. The jury judged the credibility of the witnesses and weighed the evidence and then concluded that Baptist had not proved his case of retaliation. None of the witnesses' testimony or the admitted exhibits is in question in this motion. Baptist solely challenges three jury instructions, the Court's gate-keeping ruling that the issue of punitive damages should not have gone to the jury, and the Court's discovery sanction which limited the number of years for which he could seek backpay due to his failure to disclose prior work ventures and income.


         Rule 59(a) is a limited rule requiring that district courts only grant a new trial upon a showing “the verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence, ... or if for other reasons the trial was not fair to the moving party.” Willis v. Lepine, 687 F.3d 826, 836 (7th Cir. 2012); see also Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Center, 610 F.3d 434, 440 (7th Cir. 2010). The moving party must show “that the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice or where the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks the conscience.” Davis v. Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections, 445 F.3d 971, 979 (7th Cir. 2006). The moving party bears a heavy burden under 59(a) of establishing the need for a new trial. See Moore ex rel. Estate of Grady v. Tuelja, 546 F.3d 423, 427 (7th Cir. 2008 (quoting Smith v. Northeastern Ill. Univ., 388 F.3d 559, 569 (7th Cir. 2004). Federal courts will not” set aside a jury verdict if a reasonable basis exists in the record to support the verdict, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, and leaving issue of credibility and weight of the evidence to the jury.” Id. Reviewing courts are “particularly careful in employment discrimination cases to avoid supplanting [its] own view of the credibility or weight of the evidence for that of both the jury (in its verdict) and the judge (in not interfering with the verdict).” Pickett, 610 F.3d at 440 (quoting Hybert v. The Hearst Corp., 900 F.2d 1050, 1054 (7th Cir. 1990).

         When a litigant challenges the jury instructions given to the jury, first the Court determines whether he objected to the presentation of the instructions and if he failed to object then he waived his right to attack them on appeal. In order to prevent a waiver and to preserve the issue, a party wishing to appeal an erroneous jury instruction to object in open court on the record before the jury retires, “stating distinctly the matter objected to and the grounds of the objection.” Fed. R. Civ.P. 51; LeBlanc v. Great Western Express, 58 Fed.Appx. 221, 224 (7th Cir. 2003). If he objected, then the Court looks at all of the instructions as a whole and determines whether they were sufficient to inform the jury of the applicable law. See Spiller v. Brady, 169 F.3d 1064, 1066 (7th Cir. 1999).


         In support of his Motion for a New Trial, the Plaintiff argues that he was denied a fair trial because (1) the Court gave three jury instructions that he believes misstated the law; (2) the Court did not allow the issue of punitive damages to go to the jury; and (3) the Court erred by limiting the amount of lost wages he could present to the jury. See generally (Dkt. No. 181). .

         I. Jury Instructions

         The district court has discretion in fashioning jury instructions that accurately state the law and do not confuse the jury. Schobert v. Illinois Dept. of Transp., 304 F.3d 725, 729 (7th Cir. 2002). A movant is entitled to a new trial based on jury instruction issues “if the instructions did not sufficiently inform the jury of the applicable law and the instructions prejudiced the [non-moving party].” E.E.O.C. v. AutoZone, Inc., 809 F.3d 916, 922 (7th Cir. 2016). Accordingly, even where the jury is confused or misled, a new trial is warranted only where there is evidence that the non-moving party was prejudiced by the improper jury instruction. See Jiminez v. City of Chicago, 732 F.3d 710, 717 (7th Cir. 2013). Jury instructions need not be an “idealized set of perfect jury instructions, ” but they must be correct legal statements and a reviewing court will not reverse a jury verdict unless the instruction is “so misleading that a party was prejudiced.” Schobert, 304 F.3d at 730.

         The Plaintiff argues three instances where he believes the jury instructions warrant a new trial: (1) Illinois Pattern Instructions 250.01 and 250.02, and the proximate cause instruction improperly instructed the jury to consider whether the Plaintiff's filing of a workers' compensation claim was the proximate cause rather than a proximate cause of the Plaintiff's discharge; (2) the inclusion of a pretext instruction shifted the burden of proving the legitimacy of the Defendant's stated reason for discharge from the Defendant to the Plaintiff; and (3) the use of the Seventh Circuit Pattern Instruction 1.14 regarding prior inconsistent statements prejudiced him. See (Dkt. No. 181, at 1-6). The Plaintiff properly objected to each of the jury instructions during the jury instruction conference held on the record on April 6, 2017.

         A. The Court Properly Instructed the Jury on Proximate Cause

         Baptist alleges that the jury instructions were wrong because they misstated that he needed to show that the retaliation was the cause of his firing. Both the Illinois Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit have rejected Plaintiff's assertion that he was only required to show that the retaliation was “a” proximate cause of the discharge. SeeMichael v. Precision All. Grp., LLC, 21 N.E.3d 1183, 1190 (Ill. 2014); Phillips v. Cont'lTire the Americas, 743 F.3d ...

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