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Erbel v. Johanns

January 15, 2008

DR. COLLEEN ERBEL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL O. JOHANNS, SECRETARY UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas W. Phillips United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Dr. Colleen Erbel sued her former employer, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for employment discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and Title VII. The case was tried to a jury over a seven-day period and resulted in a jury verdict in favor of Dr. Erbel. The USDA now moves the court for judgment in its favor as a matter of law, pursuant to Rule 50(b), or, in the alternative, for a new trial, pursuant to Rule 59(a), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

As grounds for the motion, the USDA states that: (1) the trial record is devoid of legally sufficient evidence that Dr. Erbel was disabled under the law; (2) the trial record is devoid of legally sufficient evidence that non-disabled or male employees who were similarly situated to Dr. Erbel were treated more favorably than Dr. Erbel; (3) the record establishes that all actions taken by Dr. Erbel's supervisors were taken for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, and there is no evidence of pretext; and (4) the damages award is excessive.

The USDA also moves the court for oral argument on these post-trial motions. The USDA and the plaintiff received permission from the court to exceed the twenty-five page limitation for briefs, and each side has thoroughly addressed the relevant issues. Oral argument is unnecessary given the extensive written briefing submitted by the parties. Therefore, the USDA's motion for oral argument [Doc. 168] is DENIED.

Judgment as a Matter of Law/New Trial Motion

A motion for judgment as a matter of law should be granted if in "viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue of material fact for the jury, and reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion in favor of the moving party." Noble v. Brinker Int'l, Inc., 391 F.3d 715, 720 (6th Cir. 2004). That is, the court must determine whether there is evidence which would properly support a jury verdict in favor of the non-movant. Patrick v. South Central Bell. Tel. Co., 641 F.2d 1192, 1197 (6th Cir. 1980). In making this determination, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and may neither weigh the evidence, pass on the credibility of witnesses, nor substitute its own judgment for that of the jury. Morelock v. NCR Corp., 584 F.2d 1096, 1104 (6th Cir. 1978). The court must give the non-moving party the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Hunt v. Coynes Cylinder Co., 956 F.2d 1319, 1328 (6th Cir. 1992). Further, the motion should be granted only where there is "a complete absence of pleading or proof on an issue material to the cause of action or when no disputed issues of fact exist such that reasonable minds would not differ. Tuck v. HCA Health Services of Tennessee, Inc., 7 F.3d 465, 469 (6th Cir. 1993).

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a), a court may set aside a jury verdict and grant a new trial "to all or any of the parties and on all or part of the issues ... for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Courts have generally interpreted this language to allow a new trial when a jury has reached a "seriously erroneous result," which may occur when (1) the verdict is against the weight of the evidence; (2) the damages awarded are excessive; or (3) the trial was unfair to the moving party in some fashion (i.e., the proceedings were influenced by prejudice or bias). See Holmes v. City of Massillon, 78 F.3d 1041, 1045-46 (6th Cir. 1996). The burden of demonstrating the necessity of a new trial is on the moving party, Clarksville-Montgomery Co. Sch. Sys. v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 925 F.2d 993, 1002 (6th Cir. 1991), and the ultimate decision whether to grant such relief is a matter vested within the sound discretion of the district court. See Anchor v. O'Toole, 94 F.3d 1014, 1021 (6th Cir. 1996); Davis v. Jellico Community Hosp., Inc., 912 F.2d 129, 133 (6th Cir. 1990) (limiting a court's responsibility to preventing an injustice); Browne v. Signal Mountain Nursery, 286 F.Supp.2d 904, 908 (E.D.Tenn. 2003).

When ruling on a new trial motion claiming the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, the district court should "compare the opposing proofs and weigh the evidence." Conte v. Gen. Housewares Corp., 215 F.3d 628, 637 (6th Cir. 2000); Toth v. Yoder Co., 749 F.2d 1190, 1197 (6th Cir. 1984); see also J.C. Wyckoff & Assoc. v. Standard Fire Ins. Co., 936 F.2d 1474, 1487 (6th Cir. 1991). The court should deny the motion and leave the jury's verdict undisturbed so long as it "could reasonably have been reached." See Conte, 215 F.3d at 637-38. Thus, a motion for a new trial should be denied "if the verdict is one that reasonably could be reached, regardless of whether the trial judge might have reached a different conclusion were he the trier of fact." Mosley v. Kelly, 65 F.Supp.2d 725, 739 (E.D. Tenn. 1999), quoting Powers v. Bayliner Marine Corp., 83 F.3d 789, 796 (6th Cir. 1996). A jury's verdict "should not be considered unreasonable simply because different inferences and conclusions could have been drawn or because other results are more reasonable." J.C. Wyckoff, 936 F.2d at 1487. Rather, the court must compare the offered evidence and set aside the jury's verdict only if it is against the clear weight of the evidence as a whole. Webster v. Edward D. Jones & Co., 197 F.3d 815, 818 (6th Cir. 1999).

When reviewing the facts of a discrimination claim after there has been a full trial on the merits, the court must focus on the ultimate question of discrimination rather than on whether a plaintiff made out a prima facie case. Barnes v. City of Cincinnati, 401 F.3d 729, 736 (6th Cir. 2005). Thus, the proper inquiry following the presentation of all evidence in a Title VII case is whether the plaintiff has proven her case by a preponderance of the evidence. Id.

Under Title VII, in order to prevail on a hostile work environment claim based on gender, Dr. Erbel had to show by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was subjected to harassment based on her gender; (3) the harassment had the effect of unreasonably interfering with her work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offense work environment; and (4) the USDA failed to take reasonable care to prevent and correct any such harassment. Bowman v. Shawnee State Univ. 220 F.3d 456, 463 (6th Cir. 2000).

The elements of a hostile environment claim based on gender and a hostile environment claim based on disability are similar, but not exactly the same. Under the Rehabilitation Act, Dr. Erbel was required to demonstrate that (1) she was disabled; (2) she was subjected to harassment, based solelyon her disability; (3) the harassment unreasonably interfered with her work performance; and (4) the USDA either knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take corrective measures. See Blankenship v. Parke Care Ctrs. Inc., 123 F.3d 868, 872 (6th Cir. 1997) (establishing the framework of proof under Title VII for sexual harassment); Crawford v. Medina Gen. Hosp., 96 F.3d 830, 834 (6th Cir. 1996) (holding that the elements of a hostile work environment claim are the same across discrimination contexts.).

Evidence of Disability

The determination of whether a person is disabled within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act is an individualized inquiry, particular to the facts of each case. Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471, 483 (1999). In examining such claims, the Sixth 5 Circuit has adopted the standards provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its corresponding EEOC regulations. Burns v. City of Columbus Dept of Pub. Safety, 91 F.3d 836, 842 (6th Cir. 1996). Under the ADA, a disability is defined as (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (2) having a record of such an impairment, or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. 42 U.S.C. §12102(2).

The focus of the inquiry here is whether Dr. Erbel presented sufficient evidence that her impairments "substantially limited" her ability to perform at least one "major life activity." Relevant EEOC regulations pertaining to the ADA state that "major life activities" are functions such as "caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working." 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(I). The "ability to perform cognitive functions on the level of an average person" constitutes a major life activity. Brown v. Lester E. Cox Med. Ctrs, 286 F. 3d 1040, 1045 (8th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, thinking and concentrating qualify as "major life activities" under the ADA. See Shaver v. Indep. Stave Co., 350 F.3d 716, 720-21 (8th Cir. 2003); Head v. Glacier Northwest Inc., 413 F.3d 1053, 1061 (9th Cir. 2005); Fiscus v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 385 F.3d 378, 383 (3rd Cir. 2004); Nawrot v. CPC Int'l, 277 F.3d 896, 907 (7th Cir. 2002).

The record shows that Dr. Erbel suffers from two chronic mental impairments: major depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Throughout most of 2002, Dr. Erbel also suffered from generalized anxiety disorder. However, the determination of whether an individual has a disability is not necessarily based on the diagnosis of an impairment, but rather on the effect of that impairment on the life of the individual. 29 C.F.R. pt. 1630, App. § 1630.2(j).

There is record support for the jury's finding that Dr. Erbel is disabled under the Rehabilitation Act. At trial, Dr. Joanne Filchock, Dr. Erbel's family practice physician testified that Dr. Erbel reported having severe stress at work, that she was feeling harassed and her blood pressure became more and more out of control. Dr. Erbel also reported having chest pains caused by stress. Based on these medical impairments, Dr. Filchock felt that it was medically necessary to keep Dr. Erbel from going out of town on a 30-day detail assignment. Dr. Filchock opined that Dr. Erbel's work environment and work-related stress aggravated her health and hypertension.

Dr. Lane Cook, plaintiff's psychiatrist testified that at the time of the events alleged in the complaint, Dr. Erbel suffered from Major Depression, Recurrent, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As to the effect of Dr. Erbel's disorders on her daily life, Dr. Cook testified that her symptoms substantially impaired her cognitive functioning and working memory. These impairments also substantially impacted her ability to organize, concentrate, think, and plan. In addition, Dr. Cook testified that her symptoms substantially impaired her ability to care for herself and perform daily life activities. Comparing Dr. Erbel to an average person in the general population who does not have these disorders, Dr. Cook opined that she is substantially limited in her ability to perform major life activities.

Dr. Cook further testified that even with medication and treatment, Dr. Erbel still suffered substantial impairment in her daily life activities. Dr. Cook stated that she suffered increasing symptoms of depression because she was treated unfairly at work, and that the aggravation of her depression impacted her ability to manage her ADHD. In 2002, he also began treating Dr. Erbel for anxiety caused by the stress or friction in her workplace. Dr. Cook testified that Dr. Erbel's work was a harmful environment for her and detrimental to her mental health. He supported her request for disability retirement finding that she was unable to do the work anymore.

Dr. Cook further testified that Dr. Erbel suffered from a mental or emotional injury in addition to her disorders and that the cause of the injury was her treatment at her place of employment. He described several things that happened which demoralized her: she had been told that she would have more frequent feedback, monthly meetings with her supervisor, which didn't occur; she kept hearing rumors that she was being talked about behind her back; she was supposed to be given more information about her performance and then was blind-sided by an unsatisfactory performance evaluation; she was asking for more help and instead help was taken away from her; she was asked to go on a detail out of rotation that she felt was uncalled for and unfair. It made her feel more hopeless and helpless, more confused. She would attempt to get more clarification and could not get that. Dr. Cook further testified that it impacted Dr. Erbel's morale, her ability to plan, it impacted her optimism: "She became more despondent. She had thoughts that life wasn't worth living, thought about killing herself. It made her question her, you know, her own validity and self-worth." Dr. Cook opined that the injury suffered as a result of her work environment significantly aggravated the actual mental disorders: "And then, over time, especially as she reports the events at work to me, she's more tearful, she is frequently suicidal, she is having more struggles with just at times getting out of bed, bathing, brushing her teeth, paying bills. She misses a couple of appointments with me, is more disorganized, loses her keys, loses her phone, not cashing checks people sent to her. You know, just basically what we call poor task completion, not finishing things, going off on tangents, in some cases, not even getting started on things."

Dr. Denise Tope, plaintiff's clinical psychologist, testified that Dr. Erbel's symptoms worsened significantly in 2001, but especially in 2002 because of the difficult situation in the workplace. Dr. Tope categorized the problems Dr. Erbel experienced with ADHD as cognitive difficulties, i.e., the ability to focus and concentrate. Dr. Erbel also experienced trouble maintaining persistence on task and significant difficulties in organizing herself:

Her organizational skills had deteriorated to the point where she reported stacks of papers in her office area. She had reported the need to store a lot of her test supplies for animal testing, and sometimes would spend an inordinate amount of time even looking for a particular test that she needed.

She reported difficulties in structuring her days. She was required by her job to structure her own days and this became increasingly difficult for Colleen. She reported difficulties in concentrating and she was reporting at that time less involvement in nonwork activity. So, for example, she was spending less time with her horse. She was ...


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