Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Herring v. SCI Tennessee Funeral Services, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville

May 24, 2018

ANDREA HERRING, Plaintiff,
v.
SCI TENNESSEE FUNERAL SERVICES, LLC d/b/a EAST LAWN MEMORIAL PARK AND EAST LAWN FUNERAL HOME, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          J. RONNIE GREER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is the defendant's motion for new trial and remittitur, [Doc. 172]. In its motion, the defendant requests (1) a new trial, and (2) remittitur of awarded damages. The plaintiff has responded to the motion, [Doc. 180], and a reply has been filed, [Doc. 186]. Further, pursuant to this Court's order, both parties have filed a brief concerning their position on the issue of reinstatement, [Docs. 165 and 168]. These matters are ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the defendant's motion will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The plaintiff, Andrea Herring, brought this lawsuit against the defendant, SCI Tennessee Funeral Services, LLC, (“SCI”) seeking redress for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for sexual harassment and retaliation. Herring was employed by SCI from November 2009 until her termination on November 6, 2013. During her employment, a male coworker, Tim Stinnett, frequently made unwelcome and inappropriate sexual comments to the plaintiff and engaged in unwelcome sexual behavior towards her in the workplace. She brought concerns about her coworker's behavior to SCI management and human resources. After she had raised her concerns to SCI, she was ultimately terminated.

         Before trial, the defendant filed a motion in limine, [Doc. 59], to exclude certain witnesses, including the plaintiff's mother, Sheila Lively, for lack of personal knowledge of the events occurring at SCI. The Court ruled that these witnesses “could offer testimony as to the plaintiff's demeanor and how it was different when the alleged harassment was taking place, ” but that “they cannot state her treatment at work was the cause of an upset or anxious mood, or even that the events at work in fact took place.” [Doc. 100]. The defendant did not object to the Court's ruling on this issue pre-trial.

         This case was presented to a jury. At trial, the plaintiff called her mother to testify. During her mother's testimony, the defendant renewed its objection based on first-hand knowledge and added that statements made to the mother by others were hearsay. See [Doc. 182 at PageID # 1727]. After questioning from the Court, the defendant asserted in their oral objection that testimony by the mother of “how she observed [plaintiff's] feelings” would be admissible under the state of mind exception but “a description of what [the co-worker] allegedly said or didn't say would not be proper.” [Id.] The Court overruled the defendant's hearsay objection and gave the jury a limiting instruction that “to the extent that this witness testifies about something her daughter told her that somebody else said, that evidence is being offered by the plaintiff only to shed light on the state of mind of the plaintiff at that time. You are not to consider the statements for the truth of the matters asserted.” [Id.]

         The jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff on her sexual harassment and retaliation claims. The jury awarded the plaintiff $50, 000 for emotional pain and mental anguish caused by the sexual harassment, $100, 000 in back pay for the retaliation, and $150, 000 for emotional pain and mental anguish caused by the retaliation. The jury further awarded $1, 750, 000 in punitive damages, for a total net damages award of $2, 050, 000.

         Before submission of the case to the jury, the Court asked the parties about their respective positions on the issue of reinstatement. At trial, both parties agreed that reinstatement would likely not be feasible; however, the defendant indicated that reinstatement at a facility in the Tri-Cities area may be possible. This Court decided to submit the front pay instruction to the jury, and “if there is an award of front pay, then [the Court] can take up the issue of whether or not the award of front pay is appropriate or whether reinstatement would be.” [Doc. 183 at PageID # 1932]. The jury returned $0 for front pay. The plaintiff now requests reinstatement as a Family Service Counselor in the Chattanooga area. The defendant opposes any reinstatement.

         II. DISCUSSION

          A. Request for New Trial

         The defendant's instant motion for a new trial is brought pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendant asserts that the jury's verdict is not reliable, but is instead the product of bias, prejudice, or speculation based on improperly admitted hearsay and causation evidence from the plaintiff's mother. Reliance on such improper evidence, the defendant argues, resulted in the jury reaching an erroneous verdict. The defendant further claims that the amount of damages and the ultimate verdict of liability is against the overwhelming weight of the evidence, and therefore a new trial should be granted.

         1. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 provides that “[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court . . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. “A new trial is appropriate when the jury reaches a ‘seriously erroneous result as evidenced by (1) the verdict being against the [clear] 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.'” Cummins v. BIC USA, Inc., 727 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2013) (alteration in original) (quoting Static Control Components, Inc. v. Lexmark Int'l, Inc., 697 F.3d 387, 414 (6th Cir. 2012)). A new trial may be granted if the trial court “improperly admitted evidence and a substantial right of a party has been affected.” Logan v. Dayton Hudson Corp., 865 F.2d 789, 790 (6th Cir. 1989). Although the decision of whether to grant or deny a new trial is purely within the discretion of the court, “[e]ven if a mistake has been made regarding the admission or exclusion of evidence, a new trial will not be granted unless the evidence [or the exclusion of evidence] would have caused a different outcome at trial.” Morales v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 151 F.3d 500, 514 (6th Cir. 1998) (citing Nida v. Plant Protection Ass'n Nat'l, 7 F.3d 522, 527 (6th Cir. 1993)). The party seeking a new trial bears a “heavy burden” and must show that it “was prejudiced and that [the] failure to grant a new trial [would be] inconsistent with substantial justice.” Miller v. American President Lines, Ltd., 989 F.2d 1450, 1466 (6th Cir. 1993) (quoting Erskine v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 814 F.2d 266, 272 (6th Cir. 1987)). Ultimately, the governing principle for this Court's consideration of the defendant's motion for a new trial boils down to whether, in its judgment, “such course is required in order to prevent an injustice.” Park West Galleries, Inc. v. Hochman, 692 F.3d 539, 544 (6th Cir. 2012).

         2. Analysis

         a. Verdict Against Clear Weight of Evidence

         The defendant contends that the plaintiff did not offer any allegation of harassment which would be sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile working environment. The defendant points to the testimony of Charles Gibson, the human resources manager for SCI. In his testimony, he stated the plaintiff's reported allegations included Stinnett's comments to her about not being able to sit down because of a wild weekend, that Stinnett had pushed the bathroom door open while the plaintiff was occupying the bathroom, and that Stinnett had passed gas in her office and would not let her leave. The defendant stands by its theme of the case that, while these acts were unprofessional, they are not sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

         The plaintiff responds that “the facts and arguments made by Defendant are so off base it is as though Defendant attended a completely different trial.” [Doc. 180 at PageID # 1521]. In her response, the plaintiff recaps her own testimony at trial, in which she went into great detail about the harassment she experienced while working at SCI. Further, the plaintiff points to other behaviors of her coworker which she described at trial that the defendant's motion overlooks, including Stinnett's discussions about his sex life, his sexual comments and jokes, his inappropriate comments about her body parts, his sharing of photographs of his naked UT college sex partner, his invitations for the plaintiff to participate in sexual activity, running his foot along her behind near her private parts, his sending sexual text messages to her phone, and procuring a key to open the door to laugh at her while she was in the bathroom in just her bra and underwear.

         Additionally, the plaintiff places focus on the testimony by witnesses from the defendant that the coworker's sexually harassing behaviors were corroborated at the time by another female coworker, Nikki Addison.[1] Indeed, both parties provided evidence at trial that SCI was aware of at least some of Stinnett's behavior, and the plaintiff's assertion that the harassment was based on her sex was largely unrebutted. Further, the plaintiff's evidence that SCI failed to take reasonable care in preventing or correcting the sexually harassing behavior was significant. The plaintiff showed that human resources conducted an interview into the corroborated allegations against Stinnett, but no formal action was ever taken against him. Further, they provided evidence that John Fredrickson, SCI market director, unreasonably told the plaintiff to air out her differences with local management rather than properly handling the matter or personally involving a human resources representative.

         There is little question that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence at trial for a reasonable jury to find severe and pervasive sexual harassment by the coworker. The plaintiff's testimony alone would have been sufficient to support the jury's finding, in which she recalled, in great detail, the sequence of sexually harassing events she experienced while working at SCI with the coworker, as well as her efforts to alert SCI of the behavior. However, the jury did not have to rely solely upon the plaintiff's testimony. Indeed, the defendant itself did not offer any testimony at trial directly denying the plaintiff's version of events. Rather, the defendant's own witnesses confirmed that many of the events that the plaintiff testified to actually occurred. The defendant presented evidence that SCI was notified of at least some of the accusations made by the plaintiff, and only offered evidence that she failed to report all of the inappropriate behavior and that her trial testimony was inconsistent with the information she provided to SCI at the time. The defendant did not offer the coworker as a witness to deny or even clarify the harassing behavior explained by the plaintiff in her testimony. And indeed, the emails sent by the plaintiff show direct evidence that she made formal complaints to alert SCI about her coworker's behavior. Overall, as to the sexual harassment claim, the verdict of the jury is not against the clear weight of the evidence.[2]

         Regarding the retaliation claim, the defendant argues that the plaintiff did not sufficiently prove any causal connection between any protected activity and an adverse employment action; rather, the evidence showed that plaintiff was discharged because of her bad attitude and absenteeism.

         The plaintiff responds with the overall “theme” of her case; that is, before reporting the sexual harassment, Herring had “a glowing performance record” and “was building an outstanding record in sales, ” whereas after reporting the sexual harassment, her employment picture “was dismal.” [Doc. 180 at PageID # 1526]. Plaintiff points out that soon after reporting Stinnett's behavior, she began being criticized for absences under the subjective attendance policy; absences which were reported by Susie Mozolic, the location general manager, but were never further investigated by SCI human resources or upper management. Further, the plaintiff's own testimony suggested that Mozolic became upset, rude, and accusatory towards her after she had made the reports to SCI human resources manager Charles Gibson. Also, the defendant's own assertion that the plaintiff's final email to SCI requesting a transfer to a different position was the catalyst for her termination supports a causal connection between the protected activity and the retaliation. The plaintiff also points out that SCI's admitted untrue statements to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in their responses to the plaintiff's EEOC charge render the testimony of SCI witnesses incredible.

         Again, the jury's verdict on the retaliation claim was not against the clear weight of the evidence. Indeed, there was testimony that the plaintiff's personnel file did not contain a single write-up for attendance issues while employed at SCI. The defendant continues to assert that the plaintiff's attendance was least an important factor in her termination, yet even at the close of the evidence, there was no direct testimony from any witness clarifying which days the plaintiff had actually missed prior to her termination. Indeed, SCI's own documents showed that plaintiff was terminated with remaining paid sick days left at the company.

         The plaintiff's attendance chart prepared by SCI showed that she had taken multiple days off from work by using annual leave and sick days in the months prior to her termination; however, the defendant suggested that this chart potentially failed to be completely updated. Nevertheless, the defendant admitted that it provided no evidence that the plaintiff had missed days which were not approved by the company policy. Indeed, in arguing against the plaintiff's motion for a directed verdict, the defendant's position was that “even though these were approved sick days, complied with the policy, and they were within the days granted for vacation, that they still could fire her for excessive absenteeism.” [Doc. 183 at PageID # 1908].

         The plaintiff's testimony regarding Mozolic's behavior towards her after she complained about Tim Stinnett's behavior, if believed, could allow a reasonable jury to find retaliation.[3]Additionally, the time between the plaintiff's final email to SCI regarding the sexual harassment and her termination, coupled with the defendant's own admission that this email “was the final straw, ” could reasonably allow a jury to infer ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.