245 F.3d 474 (5th Cir. 2001), 99-11059, Giles v General Electric Company

Docket Nº:99-11059
Citation:245 F.3d 474
Party Name:Charles M. Giles, Plaintiff-Appellee- Cross-Appellant, v. General Electric Company, Defendant-Appellant- Cross-Appellee.
Case Date:March 19, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 474

245 F.3d 474 (5th Cir. 2001)

Charles M. Giles, Plaintiff-Appellee- Cross-Appellant,

v.

General Electric Company, Defendant-Appellant- Cross-Appellee.

No. 99-11059

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 19, 2001

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Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

Before JOLLY, JONES, and SMITH, Circuit Judges.

JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge:

This appeal arises out of a disability discrimination suit filed by Charles Giles against General Electric Company ("GE"), which appeals the denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law ("j.m.l.") following a verdict in favor of Giles. GE further appeals the award of attorneys' fees. Giles cross-appeals the quantum of damages and the dismissal of his retaliation claim under state law. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

I.

Beginning in 1978, Giles worked as a Class A Machinist.1 In April 1995, he injured his back lifting toolboxes while traveling home from a customer location. Although he tried to work thereafter, the pain forced him, in a few days, to seek treatment from Dr. Eric Coligado, who in July 1995 released him to return to GE, where he attempted to work for approximately a week before succumbing again to back pain.

The following month, Coligado prescribed a functional capacity evaluation ("FCE"), on the basis of which2 he concluded that Giles had attained maximum medical improvement and rated him as nine percent impaired--meaning Giles exhibited ninety-one percent of the physical capacity of an unimpaired person. In September 1995, Coligado released Giles to work once again, this time under permanent lifting restrictions.

On October 12, Coligado released Giles to a transitional work program with a twenty-pound lifting restriction but, five days later--apparently at the urging of a nurse in the employ of GE--rescinded the restriction. Giles refused to work, however, contending that he was unable to lift even twenty pounds. Upset with what he regarded as GE's interference with his relationship with Coligado, Giles thereafter sought treatment from Dr. John Milani, who performed surgery in March 1996 and thereafter prescribed a second FCE. In light of the FCE results, Milani recommended in June 1996 that Giles limit his work to a "medium physical demand level" and shortly thereafter released him to work but imposed a permanent lifting restriction of fifty pounds.

On August 6, 1996, Milani informed GE that the restrictions would not allow Giles to return to work as a Class A Machinist.3

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In an August 13 meeting with GE representatives, Giles learned that, based at least in part on Milani's findings, GE would not allow him to return to work.

Giles filed an application for disability pension GE in November 1996. As a condition of eligibility for the pension, Giles asserted that he was "permanently incapacitated for further work." GE approved the application, and Giles began receiving payments under the pension plan in April 1997. Giles further sought long term disability ("LTD") benefits, which GE agreed to pay through April 1997, backdated to October 1995. After Giles's LTD benefits expired, he filed with GE in July 1997 a written request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.

Giles submitted to a third FCE, which qualified him to work only at "medium duty" positions. Failing to secure an unqualified release to work, he applied for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") in September 1997. The Social Security Administration rejected the application, however, finding that "[his] condition does not prevent [him] from performing [his] previous job as a machinist as it is generally performed."

II.

Giles sued in November 1997, asserting claims for discrimination under the ADA and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act ("TCHRA"), Tex. Lab. Code § 21.001 et seq. He followed with an amended complaint, adding a claim for retaliation under the ADA, a claim for retaliation under Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 451.001,4 and state tort claims. The court granted GE's motion for summary judgment on the state tort and retaliation claims and reserved judgment on GE's contention that Giles's SSDI and LTD benefit applications estopped him from asserting that he was a qualified individual for purposes of the ADA. The court considered the impact of Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), then denied summary judgment on the estoppel issue, ruling that Giles had sufficiently explained the discrepancies between his assertions on the applications and his contention that he was a qualified individual. See Giles v. Gen. Elec. Co., Civ. Ac. No. 3-97-CV-2774-H, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9369 (N.D. Tex. June 9, 1999).

GE moved for j.m.l. on several issues after the close of Giles's case in chief. First, GE argued that Giles had failed to prove that he was a qualified individual under the ADA and that he was judicially estopped from claiming qualified individual status. Second, GE asserted that Giles had failed to prove the elements of a retaliation claim under the ADA. The court denied the motion with respect to Giles's status as a qualified individual5 and granted it with respect to the retaliation claim.

The jury made the following findings via special verdict: (1) Giles is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) his disability was a motivating factor in GE's refusal to rehire him; (3) the reasonable accommodation requested by Giles would not impose an undue burden on GE; (4) GE failed to make a good faith effort reasonably to accommodate Giles's disability; (5)

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Giles is entitled to $400,000 in compensatory damages; (6) GE violated Giles's rights under the ADA with malice or reckless indifference; and (7) Giles is entitled to $800,000 in punitive damages. Citing 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(3)(D), the court limited the award to $300,000,6 denied Giles's motion for back pay, awarded front pay of $141,110, and granted Giles attorneys' fees of $150,837.

GE filed a post-judgment motion for j.m.l. under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a), contending that (1) Giles's statements on his SSDI and benefit applications estop him from asserting his status as a "qualified individual with a disability" under the ADA; (2) Giles is not a qualified individual with a disability, because he could not have performed his job even with reasonable accommodation; (3) Giles is not disabled for purposes of the ADA, because he was not restricted from a broad class of jobs; (4) GE does not regard Giles as disabled;7 (5) GE has a policy of not allowing restricted individuals to return to work and could not be required to act contrary to that policy;8 (6) Giles is not entitled to an award of front pay; and (7) the attorneys' fee award is excessive. The court denied the motion in all respects.

GE appeals the denial of the rule 50 motion, the magnitude of the damage award, and the order awarding attorneys' fees. Giles cross-appeals the refusal to award back pay, the limitation of the compensatory and punitive awards, and the order setting off Giles's disability benefits against his award.

III.

We turn first to GE's arguments. When reviewing the denial of j.m.l., we "consider all of the evidence . . . in the light and with all reasonable inferences" in favor of the party opposing the motion. Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 1969) (en banc), overruled on other grounds by Gatreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331 (5th Cir. 1997) (en banc).

If the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the Court believes that reasonable men could not arrive at a contrary verdict, granting of the motion[] is proper. On the other hand, if there is substantial evidence opposed to the motion[], that is, evidence of such quality and weight that reasonable and fair-minded men in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions, the motion[] should be denied, and the case submitted to the jury.

Id. Accord Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 576 n.9 (5th Cir. 2001).

The court denied GE's motion for j.m.l. made at the close of Giles's case. Under rule 50(b), if a party moves for j.m.l. at the close of all the evidence, it may renew its motion after judgment. The right to renew the motion post-judgment can be waived, however: "[B]y introducing its own evidence after the plaintiff's case in chief, and by failing to renew the motion for [j.m.l.], the defense waive[s] its

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motion for judgment after the verdict." Tamez v. City of San Marcos, 118 F.3d 1085, 1089 (5th Cir. 1997).9 Nonetheless, we "ha[ve] been willing to excuse certain 'de minimis' departures from technical compliance with Rule 50(b)," McCann, 984 F.2d at 671, if the purposes of the rule have been met;10 thus, we generally have excused violations of rule 50(b) only where

the trial court had reserved a ruling on an earlier motion for directed verdict (made at the close of the plaintiff's evidence); the defendant called no more than two witnesses before closing; only a few minutes elapsed between the motion for directed verdict and the conclusion of all the evidence; and the plaintiff introduced no rebuttal evidence.

Id.11

If a defendant has waived its right to move for j.m.l. after judgment, we review merely for plain error and reverse only if the judgment works a "manifest...

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