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Reese v. Army Fleet Support, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

September 4, 2018

KENNETH REESE, Plaintiff,
v.
ARMY FLEET SUPPORT, LLC Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TERRY F. MOORER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This action is assigned to the undersigned magistrate judge to conduct all proceedings and order entry of judgment by consent of all the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See Doc. 31. Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or Alternatively, Motion for New Trial (Doc. 85, filed 5/17/18). After a review of the motion, response, reply, and relevant law, the Court DENIES the motion and alternative motion.

         I. Background

         On April 4, 2016, Plaintiff Kenneth Reese (“Reese” or “Plaintiff”) initiated this lawsuit by filing a complaint alleging violations of the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”). See Doc. 1. On June 6, 2016, Defendant L-3 Army Sustainment LLC d/b/a Army Fleet Support (“AFS” or “Defendant”) filed its answer. See Doc. 5. Plaintiff specifically alleged that he was ordered to active duty on January 24, 2003 while he worked for Dyncorp (the predecessor company for AFS). On June 2, 2009, Plaintiff was honorably released from active duty after serving on continuous active duty for over six years. Plaintiff alleges that though he exceeded the normal five year timeframe allowed by USERRA, his service fell under a USERRA exemption because it fell under Proclamation 7463 declared a national emergency following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center when he was called up to support a deployment for Operation Enduring Freedom. Plaintiff alleges he returned to AFS in July 2009 which was within the 90-day requirement for USERRA. He further avers that AFS told him that because he was on military leave in excess of 5-years that he was not eligible for return with USERRA benefits and would have to apply as a new hire. After several months, he eventually heard that AFS was hiring and after applying, he was hired as a new employee. After his mandatory ninety (90) day probation period, Plaintiff approached his Union to begin the process of restoring his seniority and benefits under USERRA. Ultimately, Plaintiff's benefits were not restored which resulted in the instant lawsuit. Defendant denies that Plaintiff sought reemployment within 90-days of his release from active duty.

         On March 20, 2018, the Court held a pretrial conference in this case and set a pretrial motions hearing for April 13, 2018 with jury selection and trial beginning on April 16, 2018. See Docs. 40, 68. At the motions hearing, the Court ruled on a number of pretrial motions in limine and admissibility of evidence. The Court continued to review last minute issues that arose over the weekend and made final rulings on those matters on April 16-17.

         Starting on April 17, 2018, the jury heard preliminary instructions, opening statements, and presentation of witnesses and documentary evidence. Plaintiff rested his case on April 18, 2018. The Defendant made its first motion for judgment as a matter of law which was orally denied. The case resumed with Defendant's presentation on April 19, 2018. At the conclusion of Defendant's presentation, both parties made cross-motions for judgment as a matter of law which were both orally denied. The parties then presented their closing arguments and after hearing the Court's instructions, the jury began its deliberation at 2:19 p.m. At 3:35 p.m., the jury rendered its verdict. See Doc. 79. The jury found that (1) Plaintiff left employment with AFS to perform service in a uniformed service, (2) that Plaintiff gave AFS advance notice of the service or that it was impossible or unreasonable to give advance notice of the service, (3) that the cumulative length of Plaintiff's absence from employment with AFS because of military service does not exceed five years OR that the five year rule is exempted due to a Presidential declaration of war or national emergency, and (4) that Plaintiff did not timely return to AFS or timely apply for reemployment after completing the service.” Id.

         On May 17, 2018, the Plaintiff filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or alternatively, motion for new trial. See Doc. 85. Defendant timely responded. See Doc. 89. Plaintiff then filed a reply. See Doc. 92. The motion is fully submitted and the Court determines that no oral argument is necessary.

         II. Standard of Review

         A. Rule 50(b) - Renewed Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Under Rule 50, “[a] party's motion for judgment as a matter of law can be granted at the close of evidence or, if timely renewed, after the jury has returned its verdict, as long as ‘there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find'” for the non-moving party. Chaney v. City of Orlando, 483 F.3d 1221, 1227 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Lipphardt v. Durango Steakhouse of Brandon, Inc., 267 F.3d 1183, 1186 (11th Cir. 2001)). “The fact that Rule 50(b) uses the word ‘renew[ed]' makes clear that a Rule 50(b) motion should be decided in the same way it would have been decided prior to the jury's verdict, and that the jury's particular findings are not germane to the legal analysis.” Chaney, 483 F.3d at 1228 (quoting Doe v. Celebrity Cruises, Inc., 394 F.3d 891, 903 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         A renewed motion post-verdict must be based upon the same grounds as the original request made at the close of evidence and prior to the case being submitted to a jury. Howard v. Walgreen Co., 605 F.3d 1239, 1243 (11th Cir. 2010). Regardless of timing (before or after jury verdict), the “proper analysis is squarely and narrowly focused on the sufficiency of evidence, ” that is, whether the evidence is “legally sufficient to find for the party on that issue.” Chmielewski v. City of St. Pete Beach, 890 F.3d 942, 948 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Chaney). All reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, no credibility determinations may be made, the evidence may not be weighed, and evidence that the jury need not have believed is to be disregarded. Id. (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000)). Finally, “[j]udgment as a matter of law is appropriate only if the evidence is so overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that a reasonable jury could not arrive at a contrary verdict.” Middlebrooks v. Hillcrest Foods Inc., 256 F.3d 1241, 1246 (11th Cir. 2001).

         B. Rule 59

         A Rule 59 motion for a new trial based on evidentiary grounds is to be granted only if the verdict “is against the clear weight of the evidence or will result in a miscarriage of justice.” Chmielewski, 890 F.3d at 948 (quoting Hewitt v. B.F. Goodrich Co., 732 F.2d 1554, 1556 (11th Cir. 1984)). “Because it is critical that a judge does not merely substitute his judgment for that of the jury, new trials should not be granted on evidentiary grounds unless, at a minimum, the verdict is against the great-not merely the greater-weight of the evidence.” Lipphardt, 267 F.3d at 1186.

         III. Discussion and Analysis

         A. Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         For the same reasons the Court denied the competing motions filed by Plaintiff and Defendant when they each moved for judgment as a matter of law, the instant motion is also due denial. The competing evidence was properly sent to the jury for decision. Plaintiff continues to argue that his evidence was “undisputed” and “uncontested.” However, believing that does not make it so. Rather, Plaintiff offered his testimony that he returned to work within the 90-days required by USERRA and the testimony of friends. Juries are free to weigh the credibility of that testimony and reject it - as they did. Further, Defendant presented its own evidence that contradicted Plaintiff's claims. That testimony was also free to be weighed by the jury. Plaintiff seems to rely upon the fact that AFS lacked documentary evidence disproving Plaintiff's claim he returned. Plaintiff also argues that because he testified about a conversation with Lesa Hatfield which she testified she did not remember, that the jury must accept his version as true. However, Lesa Hatfield testified that she did not remember such a meeting and did not believe that it occurred because she would not have addressed any USERRA issues with him, but instead would have taken him to a different Human Resource person. The Court specifically instructed the jury on the credibility of witnesses as follows:

When I say you must consider all the evidence, I don't mean that you must accept all the evidence as true or accurate. You should decide whether you believe what each witness had to say, and how important that testimony was. In making that decision you may believe or disbelieve any witness, in whole or in part. The number of ...

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