Coyle v. City of St. Louis, No. ED 97509.

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Writing for the CourtPATRICIA L. COHEN
Citation408 S.W.3d 281
PartiesCharles COYLE, Respondent/Cross–Appellant, v. CITY OF ST. LOUIS, Appellant.
Decision Date10 September 2013
Docket NumberNo. ED 97509.

408 S.W.3d 281

Charles COYLE, Respondent/Cross–Appellant,
v.
CITY OF ST. LOUIS, Appellant.

No. ED 97509.

Missouri Court of Appeals,
Eastern District,
Division Four.

Sept. 10, 2013.


[408 S.W.3d 283]


Nancy R. Kistler, St. Louis, MO, for appellant.

Jerome J. Dobson, St. Louis, MO, for respondent/cross-appellant.


PATRICIA L. COHEN, Judge.
Introduction

The City of St. Louis appeals the trial court's judgment in favor of Deputy Fire Chief Charles Coyle (Plaintiff) on his claim that the City discriminated against him on the basis of his race when it failed to promote him to the position of Fire Chief for the City of St. Louis Fire Department. The City asserts the trial court erred in denying its motion for mistrial and subsequent motion for a new trial because: (1) Plaintiff's counsel engaged in misconduct when he violated the terms of Plaintiff's motion in limine to exclude evidence of a former fire chief's appeal of his demotion; and (2) the court's exclusion of a Civil Service Commission determination that the former fire chief's demotion was not motivated by race and a Missouri Court of Appeals opinion upholding that determination prejudiced the City. Plaintiff cross-appeals, claiming that the trial court erred in denying his motion to amend the judgment to include: (1) equitable relief and (2) attorneys' fees. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff, who is African American, began working for the Fire Department as a probationary firefighter in 1978. After one year as a probationary firefighter, Plaintiff became a permanent firefighter and continued to progress through the ranks of the Fire Department 1 until May 2000, when then Fire Chief Sherman George promoted Plaintiff to deputy fire chief. In July 2000, Chief George appointed Plaintiff the City's fire marshal, making Plaintiff the highest ranking of the Fire Department's four deputy fire chiefs.

[408 S.W.3d 284]

In October 2007, the City's Director of Public Safety Charles Bryson demoted Chief George to deputy fire chief because he refused orders to make promotions to fill existing vacancies within the Fire Department. Chief George retired shortly thereafter and filed an appeal with the Civil Service Commission of the City of St. Louis in which he challenged the validity of Mr. Bryson's order and alleged racial discrimination and constructive discharge. After a hearing, the Civil Service Commission determined that Chief George's demotion was not based on race, and the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed that determination. George v. Civil Service Commission, 318 S.W.3d 266, 268 (Mo.App.E.D.2010).

Following Chief George's demotion, Mr. Bryson interviewed Plaintiff for the position of interim fire chief, but appointed deputy fire chief Steve Kotraba, who is white. Mr. Bryson also interviewed Plaintiff for the permanent fire chief position. Despite Plaintiff's superior rank within the Fire Department, successful performance on the promotional test, accomplishments as the City's fire marshal, and years of experience filling in for Chief George, Bryson appointed Dennis Jenkerson, a white battalion chief, to the fire chief position. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a claim with the Missouri Human Rights Commission. After receiving a notice of right to sue, Plaintiff filed suit under the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) alleging that the City discriminated against him on the basis of race when it failed to promote him to the position of fire chief.

Prior to trial, Plaintiff moved in limine for an order excluding “evidence of the determination made by the Civil Service Commission in connection with Chief George's claims and evidence that the Court of Appeals affirmed that determination.” 2 In his motion and at the pre-trial hearing on the motion, Plaintiff conceded that evidence of Chief George's allegations of race discrimination and constructive discharge were relevant to show his bias against the City.3 At the pre-trial hearing, Plaintiff's counsel informed the trial court that he did “not intend to argue or even suggest that” Chief George was demoted because of race and argued that admission of the Civil Service Commission's and Court of Appeals' determinations as to Chief George would prejudice Plaintiff. Plaintiff's counsel explained:

[T]he results of those claims is primarily what we're trying to keep out, because

[408 S.W.3d 285]

we don't want them to be able to put on evidence that there was a finding that his claims ... it's going to confuse the jury. It's unfairly prejudicial to the Plaintiff because they may find that well, if the Court found that Chief George wasn't discriminated against, maybe Charles Coyle wasn't discriminated against either. So ultimately what we're trying to keep out is the result, is the finding by the Civil Service Commission and the Court of Appeals.
The trial court ruled that, because the fact that Chief George filed a claim was relevant to his bias as a witness testifying at trial, the City could ask Chief George whether he filed a claim against the City challenging his demotion, but neither party could introduce evidence relating to the nature or outcome of Chief George's claim.

At trial, Plaintiff called Chief George as his first witness. Among other things, Chief George testified to the organizational structure of the Fire Department and the circumstances surrounding his demotion and subsequent retirement. Chief George stated that he failed to follow orders from Mayor Francis Slay, Mr. Bryson, and Mr. Bryson's predecessor Sam Simon, directing him to make promotions within the Fire Department. Chief George testified that Mr. Bryson demoted him on October 1, 2007 and he left the Fire Department on October 12, 2007. Plaintiff's counsel asked Chief George, “Now, Chief George, did you file a claim against the [C]ity relating to your demotion?,” and Chief George answered, “Yes, I did.” The City counselor objected and, after an off-the-record discussion, the trial court sustained the City's objection, denied the City's request for a mistrial, and instructed the jury to disregard the question and answer.

Prior to cross-examining Chief George, the City counselor made an offer of proof regarding the Civil Service Commission's determination that Chief George's demotion was not discriminatory and the Court of Appeals' affirmance. Plaintiff renewed his objection to this evidence, and the trial court sustained the objection. The trial court explained that the risk of creating juror confusion “greatly outweighs the minimal probative value [toward bias] it would have.”

After the trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on his claim of race discrimination and awarded him $300,000 in actual damages and $50,000 in punitive damages. Plaintiff filed post-trial motions to amend the judgment to include equitable relief and attorneys' fees. The City filed a motion for a new trial claiming, inter alia, that Plaintiff's counsel engaged in misconduct when he asked Chief George whether he appealed his demotion and that the trial court erred in excluding evidence that the Civil Service Commission and Court of Appeals upheld Chief George's demotion as nondiscriminatory. After a hearing on the parties' post-trial motions, the trial court denied the City's motion for a new trial and took Plaintiff's motions to amend the judgment under submission. Because the trial court did not rule on Plaintiff's motions to amend the judgment within ninety days of filing, they are deemed overruled pursuant to Rule 78.06.4 The City appeals, and Plaintiff cross-appeals.

[408 S.W.3d 286]

Standard of Review

Mistrials are drastic remedies that should be granted only in exceptional circumstances. Dooley v. St. Louis County, 302 S.W.3d 202, 208 (Mo.App.E.D.2009). The decision to sustain or overrule a motion for mistrial lies within the trial court's discretion, and we will reverse a denial of a motion for mistrial only when there has been a manifest abuse of discretion. In re Brasch, 332 S.W.3d 115, 121 (Mo. banc 2011).

A denial of a motion for a new trial and denial of a motion to amend judgment are also reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Palmer v. Union Pacific R. Co., 311 S.W.3d 843, 851 (Mo.App.E.D.2010). A trial court abuses its discretion when its decision is clearly against the logic of the circumstances and is so arbitrary and unreasonable as to shock the sense of justice and indicate a lack of careful, deliberate consideration. Dooley, 302 S.W.3d at 208.

Discussion

In its first point on appeal, the City claims the trial court abused its discretion in denying its motion for mistrial and subsequent motion for a new trial because: (1) Plaintiff's counsel engaged in misconduct when he violated the terms of his own motion in limine by presenting evidence that Chief George appealed his demotion; and (2) introduction of evidence of Chief George's claim against the City materially affected the merits of the action and the trial court's curative instructions were not sufficient to remove the prejudicial effect. Plaintiff counters that the trial court properly denied the City's motions because evidence that Chief George appealed his demotion was relevant to his bias as a witness and any prejudice was cured by the trial court's instruction.

In his motion in limine and at the pre-trial hearing, Plaintiff conceded that “evidence of George's allegations of race discrimination and constructive discharge are relevant to show bias.” However, Plaintiff nevertheless requested that the trial court exclude evidence of the Civil Service Commission's and Court of Appeals' determinations on the grounds that the evidence was likely to confuse the jury and was more prejudicial than probative. The City counselor responded at the hearing by arguing that, if Chief George's “allegations ... of discrimination are relevant to bias, so is the result.” Plaintiff's counsel suggested that the trial court permit the City to introduce evidence that...

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8 practice notes
  • Diaz v. AutoZoners, LLC, WD 77861
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • November 10, 2015
    ...damages.’ " 484 S.W.3d 94DeWalt v. Davidson Surface Air, 449 S.W.3d 401, 404 (Mo.App.E.D.2014) (quoting Coyle v. City of St. Louis, 408 S.W.3d 281, 291 (Mo.App.E.D.2013) ). Courts have set forth a number of factors to be used in determining the appropriate amount of fees to award:(1) the ra......
  • Revis v. Bassman, No. ED 107663
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • March 3, 2020
    ...must demonstrate both that the trial court erred and that the error prejudiced the outcome of the verdict. Coyle v. City of St. Louis, 408 S.W.3d 281, 290 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013) (internal citation omitted); see also Jones, 569 S.W.3d at 53. In addition, a trial court "has nearly unfettered di......
  • Bell v. Redjal, No. ED 106320
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • February 26, 2019
    ...VI to the jury.4 A mistrial is a drastic remedy that should only be granted in exceptional circumstances. Coyle v. City of St. Louis , 408 S.W.3d 281, 286 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013) ; Palmer , 311 S.W.3d at 854 ; Cole ex rel. Cole v. Warren County R-III School Dist. , 23 S.W.3d 756, 759 (Mo. App.......
  • Holmes v. Kan. City Pub. Sch. Dist., WD 80763
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • December 11, 2018
    ...or small monetary damages." ’ DeWalt v. Davidson Surface Air , 449 S.W.3d 401, 404 (Mo. App. 2014) (quoting Coyle v. City of St. Louis , 408 S.W.3d 281, 291 (Mo. App. 2013) ). "In human rights cases, the amount of the verdict or judgment may have little bearing on the amount of attorneys' f......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
8 cases
  • Diaz v. AutoZoners, LLC, WD 77861
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • November 10, 2015
    ...damages.’ " 484 S.W.3d 94DeWalt v. Davidson Surface Air, 449 S.W.3d 401, 404 (Mo.App.E.D.2014) (quoting Coyle v. City of St. Louis, 408 S.W.3d 281, 291 (Mo.App.E.D.2013) ). Courts have set forth a number of factors to be used in determining the appropriate amount of fees to award:(1) the ra......
  • Revis v. Bassman, No. ED 107663
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • March 3, 2020
    ...must demonstrate both that the trial court erred and that the error prejudiced the outcome of the verdict. Coyle v. City of St. Louis, 408 S.W.3d 281, 290 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013) (internal citation omitted); see also Jones, 569 S.W.3d at 53. In addition, a trial court "has nearly unfettered di......
  • Bell v. Redjal, No. ED 106320
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • February 26, 2019
    ...VI to the jury.4 A mistrial is a drastic remedy that should only be granted in exceptional circumstances. Coyle v. City of St. Louis , 408 S.W.3d 281, 286 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013) ; Palmer , 311 S.W.3d at 854 ; Cole ex rel. Cole v. Warren County R-III School Dist. , 23 S.W.3d 756, 759 (Mo. App.......
  • Holmes v. Kan. City Pub. Sch. Dist., WD 80763
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • December 11, 2018
    ...or small monetary damages." ’ DeWalt v. Davidson Surface Air , 449 S.W.3d 401, 404 (Mo. App. 2014) (quoting Coyle v. City of St. Louis , 408 S.W.3d 281, 291 (Mo. App. 2013) ). "In human rights cases, the amount of the verdict or judgment may have little bearing on the amount of attorneys' f......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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