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Westmoreland v. TWC Administration LLC

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

April 24, 2018

GLENDA WESTMORELAND, Plaintiff,
v.
TWC ADMINISTRATION LLC d/b/a TIME WARNER CABLE, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Max O. Cogburn Jr. United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the court on defendant's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, or in the Alternative, Motion for New Trial and/or to Alter or Amend the Verdict. Having considered this motion and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following Order.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed suit on February 5, 2016, alleging claims for age and race discrimination under federal law and wrongful discharge under state law. Trial commenced on December 18, 2017, and after close of evidence on December 19, 2017, the court granted defendant's oral motion for judgment as a matter of law as to plaintiff's race discrimination claim. After the jury could not reach a verdict on plaintiff's age discrimination and wrongful discharge claims, the court declared a mistrial.

         A new trial began on February 20, 2018, and at the close of evidence the next day, defendant again made an oral motion for judgment as a matter of law. The court denied this motion, and on February 22, 2018 the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff on both her age discrimination claim and wrongful discharge claim. Defendant now renews their motion for judgment as a matter of law. Should the court decline to grant that motion, defendant has also moved for a new trial or to alter or amend the verdict.

         II. Legal Standard

         When a court “does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made under Rule 50(a), the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). If the jury ultimately decides an issue against the party that sought judgment as a matter of law, that party may “file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59.” Id. A court may grant such motion “if a reasonable jury could reach only one conclusion based on the evidence or if the verdict in favor of the non-moving party would necessarily be based on speculation and conjecture.” Myrick v. Prime Ins. Syndicate, Inc., 395 F.3d 485, 489 (4th Cir. 2005); see also Int'l Safety Access Corp. v. Integrity Worldwide, Inc., 2011 WL 6826855, at *2 (D.S.C. 2011). “[T]he evidence and all reasonable inferences from it are assessed in the light most favorable to the [non-moving] party, and the credibility of all evidence favoring the non-moving party is assumed.” Crinkley v. Holiday Inns, Inc., 844 F.2d 156, 160 (4thCir. 1988) (citations omitted). The court should grant judgment as a matter of law “if the nonmoving party failed to make a showing on an essential element of his case with respect to which he had the burden of proof.” Price v. City of Charlotte, 93 F.3d 1241, 1249 (4th Cir. 1996).

         As for a new trial, one may be granted to a party “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). More specific examples of when a court should grant a new trial include when the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, when the verdict is based on evidence which is false, or when the verdict will result in a miscarriage of justice, even though there may be substantial evidence which would prevent the direction of a verdict. See Knussman v. Maryland, 272 F.3d 625, 639 (4th Cir. 2001). Unlike a motion for judgment as a matter of law, in considering a motion for a new trial, the court “may weigh the evidence and consider the credibility of the witnesses.” Poynter v. Ratcliff, 874 F.2d 219, 223 (4th Cir. 1989); see also Bristol Steel & Iron Works, Inc. v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 41 F.3d 182, 186 (4th Cir. 1994).

         III. Discussion

         a. Whether judgment as a matter of law is warranted

         First, the court considers whether defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Defendant argues that plaintiff has failed to meet their burden under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). In this matter, plaintiff chose to prove discrimination under the ADEA through the McDonnell Douglas framework. Plaintiff must first show a prima facie case of age discrimination. If successful, defendant must then produce a legitimate business reason for the action taken. At that point, plaintiff must show that said reason was merely a pretext for age discrimination. Mereish v. Walker, 359 F.3d 330, 335 (4th Cir. 2004); see also McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).

         Here, plaintiff successfully proved a prima facie case, as she was a member of the protected class (here, a person over the age of 40), she was discharged, she was performing at a satisfactory level and meeting her employer's legitimate expectations, and following her discharge she was replaced by someone outside the protected class (here, a person younger than age 40). E.E.O.C. v. Clay Printing Co., 955 F.2d 936, 941 (4th Cir. 1992) (citations and quotations omitted). Defendant then produced a legitimate business reason for the termination, in the form of evidence that plaintiff had falsified a document.

         Defendant argues that plaintiff failed to meet her burden at the pretext stage. Plaintiff must first show “[t]hat the employer's proffered reason is unpersuasive, or even obviously contrived.” Settle v. Balt. Cnty., 34 F.Supp.2d 969, 991 (D.Md. 1999) (quoting St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 524 (1993). However, more is required in age discrimination cases, as plaintiff must also show that the employer terminated her employment because of her age. Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 176 (2009); see also Cox v. Lowe's Home Ctrs., LLC, 2015 WL 7288689 (W.D. N.C. 2015); Hartman v. Univ. of Md. at Balt., 595 Fed.Appx. 179, 181 (2014). In other words, plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that, but for her age, she would not have been terminated by defendant. Id. at 177-78.

         Here, the court disagrees with defendant and finds that plaintiff has met her burden under the ADEA. It is true that it is not this court's job to second guess or otherwise review or police legitimate business decisions. See, e.g., Fields v. Verizon Servs. Corp., 493 Fed.Appx. 371, 379 (4thCir. 2012); Anderson v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 406 F.3d 248, 269 (4th Cir. 2005); Jiminez v. Mary Wash. Coll., 57 F.3d 369, 383 (4th Cir. 1995). But the totality of the evidence is substantial enough to justify the jury's finding. For example, defendant attempts to downplay a remark made by a superior by suggesting it may not have been made and that the superior was not really involved in the decision to terminate. But that is improper at this stage, as the court must examine the evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in the light most favorable to plaintiff, and assume the credibility of all evidence favoring plaintiff. Crinkley, 844 F.2d at 160 (citations omitted). With credibility and reasonable inferences both assumed in plaintiff's favor, a superior firing plaintiff and then telling her to “go home and take care of those grandbabies” is damning evidence of pretext as it could reasonably form the basis of a finding that plaintiff's firing was based on her age, and not based on the proffered legitimate business reason. (Trans. 290-97). In conjunction with the rest of the evidence of record, including ...


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