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Allman v. Smith

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

September 8, 2017

ROBIN ALLMAN, MARGARET BAUGHER, MARK BAUGHER, KRISTIE BINDA, GARY DAVIS, ANDREW GREENE, AMBER LEWIS-LILLY, MICHAEL MCKINLEY, TIM STIRES, JEFF WELKER, and ROBERT ALLMAN, Plaintiffs,
v.
KEVIN SMITH, in his individual capacity and in his official capacity as Mayor of the City of Anderson, and the CITY OF ANDERSON, Defendants.

          ENTRY ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW OR ALTERNATIVE MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL

          TANYA WALTON PRATT, United States District Court Judge

         Before the Court is a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 by Defendants Kevin Smith (former- “Mayor Smith”) and the City of Anderson (“the City”) (collectively, “Defendants”). (Filing No. 214.) In the alternative, Defendants move the Court for a new trial because key jury instructions were unfairly prejudicial. Id. After termination of their employment by Defendants, Plaintiffs Robin Allman (“Ms. Allman”), Margaret Baugher (“Ms. Baugher”), Mark Baugher (“Mr. Baugher”), Kristie Binda (“Binda”), Gary Davis (“Davis”), Andrew Greene (“Greene”), Amber Lewis-Lilly (“Lilly”), Michael McKinley (“McKinley”), Tim Stires (“Stires”), Jeff Welker (“Welker”), and Robert Allman (“Mr. Allman”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) sought relief in this Court. (Filing No. 22.) Plaintiffs filed this action alleging Defendants terminated them for engaging in political activity protected by the First Amendment. Following a trial held on March 15, 2016 through March 21, 2016 on Plaintiffs' First Amendment claims, a jury found in favor of certain Plaintiffs and entered a verdict for compensatory damages. (Filing No. 169.) For the following reasons, the Court DENIES Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and DENIES the alternative Motion for a New Trial.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In November 2011, Kevin Smith, a Republican, was elected Mayor of Anderson, Indiana, and his term began on January 1, 2012. Shortly prior to or immediately following the beginning of Mayor Smith's term, the Plaintiffs-all City employees-were terminated. Each of the Plaintiffs' publically supported the Democratic candidate in the November 2011 election. On October 23, 2012, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint, alleging Defendants improperly terminated them for political reasons in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. (Filing No. 22.) On August 1, 2013, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing each Plaintiffs' position required political loyalty, thus exempting Plaintiffs from First Amendment protection. The Court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' request for summary judgment. (Filing No. 79 at 25.) The Court specifically found that a material issue of fact remained regarding whether Plaintiffs' positions required political loyalty. Id. The Court, however, granted Mayor Smith's motion for summary judgment on the issue of qualified immunity with respect to Mr. Baugher, Binda, Davis, Greene, Lilly, McKinley, Stires, Welker and Mr. Allman. Id. The Court denied summary judgment on the qualified immunity issue as to Ms. Allman and Ms. Baugher. Id.

         On Monday, March 14, 2016, a jury trial commenced regarding: 1) Plaintiffs' First Amendment claim against the City, 2) Ms. Allman's and Ms. Baugher's First Amendment claim against Mayor Smith, as well as 3) Defendants' defense that they terminated each Plaintiff for nonpolitical reasons, but-even if they terminated Plaintiffs for political reasons-each Plaintiff held positions unprotected by the First Amendment. At the close of evidence and prior to the Court submitting the case to the jury, Defendants renewed a motion for judgment as a matter of law with respect to each Plaintiff. The Court granted in part and denied in part the motion. (Filing No. 163.) The Court specifically found that Mayor Smith was entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Ms. Baugher's claim, however, the remaining claims were left for the jury to determine. Following deliberations, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Baugher, Binda, Davis, Greene, McKinley, Stires, Welker and Ms. Allman for a total of $731, 994.00 in compensatory damages. (Filing No. 169.) The jury, however, ruled in favor of Defendants with respect to claims alleged by Lilly, Mr. Allman, and Ms. Baugher. Id. On March 31, 2017, the Court entered a final judgment in accordance with the jury's verdict. (Filing No. 207.) The Defendants timely requested judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), notwithstanding the verdict. (Filing No. 214.) Defendants assert only that Plaintiffs' positions required political loyalty. In the alternative, Defendants contend they are entitled to a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 because two key jury instructions were erroneous and unfairly prejudiced them.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b)

Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a district court to enter judgment against a party who has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial if a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue. In deciding a Rule 50 motion, the court construes the evidence strictly in favor of the party who prevailed before the jury and examines the evidence only to determine whether the jury's verdict could reasonably be based on that evidence.

Passananti v. Cook County, 689 F.3d 655, 659 (7th Cir. 2012) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

Under Rule 50, both the district court and an appellate court must construe the facts strictly in favor of the party that prevailed at trial. Although the court examines the evidence to determine whether the jury's verdict was based on that evidence, the court does not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.

Schandelmeier-Bartels v. Chi. Park Dist., 634 F.3d 372, 376 (7th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). If a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law is made at the close of evidence and is not granted, the moving party may renew the motion no later than twenty-eight days after the entry of judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b).

         B. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59

         Under Rule 59, the district court has broad discretion to grant or deny a new trial. The court considers whether the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the damages are excessive, or the trial was not fair to the moving party. Marcus & Millichap Inv. Servs. of Chi., Inc. v. Sekulovski, 639 F.3d 301, 313 (7th Cir. 2011). Parties seeking a new trial under Rule 59 “bear a particularly heavy burden because a court will set aside a verdict as contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence only if no rational jury could have rendered the verdict.” Sekulovski, 639 F.3d at 314. “Rule 59(a) is not intended to allow parties to merely relitigate old matters or to present the case under new theories; rather, a motion for a new trial not predicated on the discovery of new evidence is intended to correct manifest errors of law or fact.” Int'l Paper Co. v. Androscoggin Energy LLC, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22066, at *8 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 30, 2005).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendants move for judgment as a matter of law, arguing-based on the evidence presented at the summary judgment stage and trial-Plaintiffs occupied positions not protected by the First Amendment. In the alternative, Defendants request a new trial, to correct a manifest error of law. Defendants argue the Court's instruction on the burden of proof was contrary to Seventh Circuit precedent and the Court's instruction on the issue of whether Plaintiffs occupied positions where they had “meaningful input into governmental decision-making” failed to adequately define those terms. Each issue is addressed in turn.

         A. Judgment as a Matter of Law based on Summary Judgment Rulings

         In pretrial motions, Defendants sought summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' claims alleging that the written job descriptions for Plaintiffs' positions identified duties that placed them outside of the First Amendment based on the “provisional safe harbor” for elected officials described in Riley v. Blagojevich, 425 F.3d 357, 360-61 (7th Cir. 2005). The Court denied summary judgment, in part, finding it would be impossible for the Court to determine whether certain job descriptions were accurate or reliable for purposes of the safe harbor provision set forth in Riley. Defendants contend the Court erred in denying their motion for summary judgment with respect to Stires, Welker, and McKinley because-based on their job descriptions-those Plaintiffs occupied sensitive, policy-making positions.

         The Court, declines to address this contention because a party may not “appeal an order denying summary judgment after a full trial on the merits.” Ortiz v. Jordan, 562 U.S. 180, 184 (2011) (“May a party…appeal an order denying summary judgment after a full trial on the merits? Our answer is no”). “Once the case proceeds to trial, the full record developed in court supersedes the record existing at the time of the summary-judgment motion.” Id. Accordingly, because Defendants rely solely on the summary judgment record in making this argument, the Court denies Defendants' request for judgment as a matter of law on this issue.

         B. Judgment as a Matter of Law based on Trial Evidence

         Defendants next argue that the evidence presented at trial mandates entry of judgment against all Plaintiffs because each Plaintiff occupied a position that required political loyalty.

         Under the First Amendment, a government employee may not be discharged on the basis of political affiliation, unless “political loyalty is ‘essential to the discharge of the employee's governmental responsibilities.'” Tomczak v. City of Chi., 765 F.2d 633, 640 (7th Cir. 1985) (quoting Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 518 (1980)).

[T]his could be either because the job involves the making of policy and thus the exercise of political judgment or the provision of political advice to the elected superior, or because it is a job (such as speechwriting) that gives the holder access to his political superiors' confidential, politically sensitive thoughts.

Riley v. Blagojevich, 425 F.3d 357, 359 (7th Cir. 2005) (citing Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 367-68 (1976); Branti, 445 U.S. at 518).

         When determining a Rule 50(b) motion, courts must review the record as a whole and “draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Gracia v. SigmaTron Int'l, Inc., 842 F.3d 1010, 1018 (7th Cir. 2016) (citations omitted). Moreover:

the court must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe. ... That is, the court should give credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses.

Id. (citations omitted). The Court will address the trial evidence with respect to each ...


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