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Bennett v. Highland Graphics, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

October 10, 2017

CHRIS BENNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
HIGHLAND GRAPHICS, INC. and RON WALL, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are: (1) Plaintiff's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Motion for a New Trial on Back Pay Damages (Doc. No. 267); (2) Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Reply (Doc. No. 281); (3) Plaintiff's Motion for Liquidated Damages and Pre-judgment Interest (Doc. No. 269); (4) the Motion for Renewed Judgment [sic] as a Matter of Law (Doc. No. 275) filed by Highland Graphics, Inc. and Ron Wall (referred to collectively herein, in the singular, as “Highland”); and (5) Defendants' Motion for Leave to File Reply (Doc. No. 287).

         As an initial matter, both motions for leave to file a reply brief (Doc. Nos. 281, 287) are GRANTED, and the Clerk is DIRECTED to file separately the proposed reply briefs attached to the motions. The Court has considered the proposed replies in ruling on the motions, all of which are fully briefed and ripe for review.

         I. Plaintiff's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Motion for a New Trial on Back Pay Damages

         Plaintiff Chris Bennett renews his motion for judgment in his favor as a matter of law on Highland's affirmative defense of failure to mitigate the damages related to his FLSA retaliation claim, under Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. He also requests a new trial solely on the issue of back pay damages under Rule 59(a).

         A. Standard of Review

         The Court may grant a Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law only if, “when viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, giving that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences, 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.” Rhinehimer v. U.S. Bancorp Investments, Inc., 787 F.3d 797, 804 (6th Cir. 2015) (quoting Barnes v. City of Cincinnati, 401 F.3d 729, 736 (6th Cir. 2005)). “The evidence should not be weighed, and the credibility of the witnesses should not be questioned. The judgment of [the] court should not be substituted for that of the jury.” Id. (quoting Balsley v. LFP, Inc., 691 F.3d 747, 757 (6th Cir. 2012)). “In other words, the decision to grant judgment as a matter of law . . . is appropriate whenever 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.” Jackson v. FedEx Corp. Servs., 518 F.3d 388, 392 (6th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). In ruling on a Rule 50(b) motion, the Court may allow the verdict to stand, order a new trial, or direct entry of judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b).

         Rule 59(a)(1)(A) provides that “[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues-and to any party . . . for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” “The language of Rule 59(a) has been interpreted to mean that a new trial is warranted when a jury has reached a seriously erroneous result as evidenced by: (1) the verdict being against the weight of the evidence; (2) the damages being excessive; or (3) the trial being unfair to the moving party in some fashion, i.e., the proceedings being influenced by prejudice or bias.” E.E.O.C. v. New Breed Logistics, 783 F.3d 1057, 1066 (6th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         B. Timeliness of Rule 50(b) Motion

         A party may submit a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law “at any time before the case is submitted to the jury.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(2). If the court denies relief on the basis sought, the movant may renew the motion no later than 28 days after entry of judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). Here, the question is whether Bennett's Rule 50(a) motion was timely, such that a Rule 50(b) motion was proper at all.

         Bennett's Rule 50(a) motion for judgment in his favor on the affirmative defense of failure to mitigate was filed on March 23, 2017, after closing arguments but before the jury had been charged. (See Doc. Nos. 243 (motion), 244 (memorandum).) The motion followed an in-court discussion regarding Highland's proposal to add additional language to the mitigation instruction already included in the jury charge. Highland asserts that the Rule 50(a) motion was not timely because it was filed after closing arguments rather than after the close of proof. It also claims that the Rule 50(a) motion did not put it on notice of the arguments raised in the Rule 50(b) motion, because Bennett “did not mention any cases in support of the argument promoted . . . in his post trial Rule 50(b) [motion].” (Doc. No. 279, at 3-4.) Finally, it contends that, because Bennett did not “raise the issue at the close of Defendants' proof, Defendants were not aware (or on notice) that Plaintiff Bennett was making his own Rule 50(a) motion when filing his Motion for Judgment as a Matter of law at the same time as the Defendants' request for an instruction on self-employment.” (Doc. No. 279, at 4.)

         Highland's contention that the motion is untimely fails. Prior to 2006, Rule 50 contained language requiring that a Rule 50(a) motion be made at the close of all the evidence, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 50 advisory committee's note on 2006 Amendment, but this requirement was modified to allow a Rule 50(a) motion to be made “at any time before the case is submitted to the jury.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(2). Highland cites to no precedent establishing that a Rule 50(a) motion, under the rule's current language, is untimely if presented after closing arguments.

         Highland's other arguments are likewise without merit. Bennett filed a written motion, docketed in the Court's electronic filing system, styled, “Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law as to Defendants' Defense that Plaintiff Failed to Mitigate His Damages.” (Doc. No. 243.) The first line of the motion specified that it was brought pursuant to Rule 50(a). The Certificate of Service serves as proof that it was served electronically on defense counsel on the day of its filing, March 23, 2017. (Doc. No. 243, at 3.) The Rule 50(a) motion cross references the contemporaneously filed brief. (Id.) In the brief, Bennett raises the same arguments and cites to most of the same cases referenced in his current Rule 50(b) motion. (See Doc. No. 244.) In short, it is clear that the timely Rule 50(a) motion put Highland on notice of the issue raised in the Rule 50(b) motion and that the Rule 50(b) motion is simply a renewal of an argument raised in the Rule 50(a) motion.

         C. Discussion

         Bennett argues now, as he did in his initial Rule 50(a) motion, that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law in his favor on Highland's affirmative defense of failure to mitigate damages, because Highland did not introduce any evidence from which the jury could conclude that comparable employment was available to Plaintiff after his retaliatory termination. He contends that, as a result, he is entitled to a new trial on the issue of damages. Highland argues in response that the $5, 000 awarded to Bennett by the jury is reasonable, because the jury evidently concluded that Bennett removed himself from the job market by going into business for himself immediately following his departure from Highland and that a new trial is not warranted. (Doc. No. 278, at 1, 2.)

         Damages for violation of the anti-retaliation provisions of the FLSA are controlled by 29 U.S.C. § ...


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