Bell v. O'Reilly Auto Enters.

Decision Date02 September 2022
Docket Number1:16-cv-00501-JDL
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maine

As the manager at the O'Reilly Auto Parts store in Belfast, Brian Bell began to work additional hours after two relatively senior employees unexpectedly quit. After several weeks, he experienced on June 4, 2015, what his psychiatric nurse practitioner described as a “meltdown.” Bell had previously been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, Tourette syndrome, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. After his mental-health crisis, Bell proposed to O'Reilly Auto a scheduling accommodation described in a note from his psychiatric nurse practitioner that would have limited his weekly scheduled hours. O'Reilly Auto ultimately prevented Bell from returning to work, declined Bell's accommodation request, and terminated his employment. Bell then brought this action (ECF No. 4), asserting claims of disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Maine Human Rights Act (“MHRA”).

At the July 2018 trial, the jury found (ECF No. 101) in favor of O'Reilly Auto on Bell's claims of disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and unlawful retaliation. On appeal, the First Circuit remanded for a new trial solely on the failure-to-accommodate claim due to an instructional error. Bell v. O'Reilly Auto Enters., 972 F.3d 21, 24-25 (1st Cir. 2020). The second trial in October 2021 consisted of two phases. At the end of the first phase, which focused on liability, backpay, and compensatory damages, the jury found (ECF No. 234) that O'Reilly Auto had violated Bell's right to a reasonable accommodation under both the ADA and MHRA, and it awarded $42,000 in backpay and $75,000 in compensatory damages. At the conclusion of the second phase, which focused on punitive damages, the jury found (ECF No. 235) that O'Reilly Auto had violated the ADA and MHRA with malice or reckless indifference, and it awarded Bell an additional $750,000.

O'Reilly Auto moves (ECF No. 262) for a new trial or, in the alternative, for a reduction of the punitive award on common-law or constitutional grounds. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. For the reasons that follow, I deny the motion.

A. Jury Instructions

O'Reilly Auto contends that the jury instructions contained three errors. First, the jury should have been instructed not to second-guess O'Reilly Auto's business judgments. Second, the instructions should have stated that an unpredictable work schedule is not a reasonable accommodation. Third, the phrase “good faith” should have been defined in keeping with case law cited by O'Reilly Auto. After reviewing the relevant legal standards, I conclude that none of these purported errors merit a new trial.

1. Standards

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) “authorizes a district court to override a jury verdict and order a new trial ‘if the verdict is against the law, against the weight of the credible evidence, or tantamount to a miscarriage of justice.' Teixeira v. Town of Coventry ex rel. Przybyla, 882 F.3d 13, 16 (1st Cir. 2018) (quoting Casillas-Diaz v. Palau, 463 F.3d 77, 81 (1st Cir. 2006)). “A verdict that results from prejudicial error in jury instructions is a verdict that is against the law ....” Id.

“Where ‘a party assigns error to the failure to give a requested instruction, the threshold inquiry is whether the requested instruction was correct as a matter of law.' Franchina v. City of Providence, 881 F.3d 32, 55 (1st Cir. 2018) (quoting Shervin v. Partners Healthcare Sys., Inc., 804 F.3d 23, 47 (1st Cir. 2015)). “If that threshold is met, the challenger must make two subsequent showings: first that the proposed instruction is ‘not substantially incorporated into the charge as rendered' and second that it is ‘integral to an important point in the case.' Id. at 55-56 (quoting White v. N.H. Dep't of Corr., 221 F.3d 254, 263 (1st Cir. 2000)).

However, a trial court's “choice of language is largely a matter of discretion” if that language sufficiently covers a litigant's theory of the case. United States v. DeStefano, 59 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 1995). [T]rial courts must be accorded substantial latitude about how to distill complicated legal concepts into language that jurors will understand.” Shervin, 804 F.3d at 48. The wording selected by a court will not require a new trial if “the instruction ‘adequately illuminated the law applicable to the controverted issues in the case without unduly complicating matters or misleading the jury.' Id. at 47 (alteration omitted) (quoting Testa v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 173, 175 (1st Cir. 1998)). Trial courts also have discretion over whether to define words contained in jury instructions. Ciolino v. Gikas, 861 F.3d 296, 301 (1st Cir. 2017).

Unpreserved claims of instructional error are reviewed for plain error. Rodriguez-Valentin v. Drs.' Ctr. Hosp. (Manati), Inc., 27 F.4th 14, 23 (1st Cir. 2022); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 51(d)(2) (“A court may consider a plain error in the instructions that has not been preserved as required by Rule 51(d)(1) if the error affects substantial rights.”). “To demonstrate plain error, the party advancing the claim of error must establish (1) that an error occurred (2) which was clear or obvious and which not only (3) affected the defendant's substantial rights, but also (4) seriously impaired the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.' Lestage v. Coloplast Corp., 982 F.3d 37, 45 (1st Cir. 2020) (quoting Teixeira, 882 F.3d at 18). The plain-error hurdle is high, and [n]owhere is this hurdle higher than in instances in which an appellant relies on a claim of instructional error.” Teixeira, 882 F.3d at 18.

2. Instruction on Deference to Employer's Judgment

O'Reilly Auto asserts that the jury should have been instructed not to question O'Reilly Auto's business judgments when deciding the essential functions of the store manager position. More specifically, O'Reilly Auto assigns error to my decision not to instruct the jury as follows:

The inquiry into essential functions is not intended to second-guess an employer's business judgment with regard to production standards. An employer is not required to make an accommodation which would have the effect of lowering its standards, insofar as the quality and quantity of the work of its employees is concerned.

ECF No. 209 at 5 (O'Reilly Auto's Proposed Jury Instructions).

I declined to provide that instruction, concluding that it was “adequately covered” by other instructions that I would give and that “this additional commentary is not needed and would add unnecessary complexity.” ECF No. 254 at 3:15-18. In particular, the existing instructions substantially covered these points by inviting the jury to consider O'Reilly Auto's stated judgment along with other evidence illuminating whether that stated judgment was sincerely grounded in the realities of the workplace:

To decide what the essential functions of a job are, you may consider the following factors: (1) The employer's judgment as to which functions of the job are essential; (2) written job descriptions; (3) the amount of time spent on the job performing the function in question; (4) consequences of not requiring the person to perform the function; (5) the work experience of people who have held the job; (6) the current work experience of people in similar jobs; (7) whether the reason the position exists is to perform the function; (8) whether there are a limited number of employees available among whom the performance of the function can be distributed; and (9) whether the function is highly specialized and the individual in the position was hired for his or her expertise or ability to perform the function. No one factor is necessarily controlling. You should consider all of the evidence in deciding whether a job function is essential.

The First Circuit has observed that courts “generally give substantial weight to the employer's view of job requirements in the absence of evidence of discriminatory animus,” Ward v. Mass. Health Rsch. Inst., Inc., 209 F.3d 29, 34 (1st Cir. 2000), and that a court's “inquiry into essential functions ‘is not intended to second guess the employer or to require the employer to lower company standards,' Mulloy v. Acushnet Co., 460 F.3d 141, 147 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting Mason v. Avaya Commc'ns, Inc., 357 F.3d 1114, 1119 (10th Cir. 2004)). Further, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (“EEOC”) interpretive guidance provides: “It is important to note that the inquiry into essential functions is not intended to second guess an employer's business judgment with regard to production standards, whether qualitative or quantitative, nor to require employers to lower such standards.” 29 C.F.R. pt. 1630, app. (2022).

Yet the First Circuit has also cautioned that an employer's views are “only one factor in the analysis” and that other “fact-intensive considerations” matter including “written job descriptions, consequences of not requiring the function, work experience of past incumbents, and work experience of current incumbents.” Ward, 209 F.3d at 34 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3) (1999)). Those additional factors are taken from an EEOC regulation, which also lists [t]he amount of time spent on the job performing the function.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3)(iii) (2022). These further considerations “are not meant ‘to enable courts to second-guess legitimate business judgments, but, rather, to ensure that an employer's asserted requirements are solidly anchored in the realities of the...

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