Myers v. Dollar Gen. Corp.

Decision Date01 June 2017
Docket NumberC.A. No.: 2:15-cv-02869-MGB
CourtU.S. District Court — District of South Carolina
PartiesPaulette A. Myers, Plaintiff, v. Dollar General Corporation, Defendant.

Paulette A. Myers, Plaintiff,
v.
Dollar General Corporation, Defendant.

C.A. No.: 2:15-cv-02869-MGB

DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA CHARLESTON DIVISION

June 1, 2017


ORDER

Plaintiff filed the instant action in the Georgetown County Court of Common Pleas on May 14, 2015; Defendant subsequently removed the case to this court. (See generally Dkt. No. 1.) After the parties consented to having the case referred to a Magistrate Judge, the Honorable Richard M. Gergel issued an Order on May 26, 2016 referring the case to the undersigned. (Dkt. No. 18.)

Jury selection was held on August 23, 2016, and the matter was tried before a jury on August 29, 2016 and August 30, 2016. (Dkt. No. 33; Dkt. No. 41; Dkt. No. 45.) On August 29, 2016, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff on Plaintiff's claims for negligence and slander; the jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendant on Plaintiff's claim for false imprisonment. (Dkt. No. 43.)1 On August 30, 2016, the jury awarded Plaintiff $250,000 in punitive damages on her claim for slander but found that Plaintiff was not entitled to punitive damages on her claim for negligence. (Dkt. No. 48.) Judgment was entered on August 31, 2016. (Dkt. No. 51.)

On September 28, 2016, Defendant filed the instant Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict ("JNOV"). (Dkt. No. 53; see also Dkt. No. 54.) On November 15, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition to Defendant's motion. (See Dkt. No. 63.) For the reasons set forth herein, Defendant's motion (Dkt. No. 53) is denied.

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STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district court may grant JNOV if "the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the [non-moving] party." FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 50(b). In evaluating a motion for JNOV, the court gives the non-movant "'the benefit of every legitimate inference in his favor'" and denies the motion if "'there was evidence upon which a jury could reasonably return a verdict'" for the non-movant. Cline v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 294, 301 (4th Cir. 1998) (quoting Abasiekong v. City of Shelby et al., 744 F.2d 1055, 1059 (4th Cir. 1984)). In ruling on a motion for JNOV, the court does not "retry factual findings or credibility determinations reached by the jury." Id. (citing Duke v. Uniroyal, Inc., 928 F.2d 1413, 1419 (4th Cir. 1991)). The court "assume[s] that testimony in favor of the non-moving party is credible, 'unless totally incredible on its face,' and ignore[s] the substantive weight of any evidence supporting the moving party." Id. (citing Duke, 928 F.2d at 1419).

A motion for a new trial, pursuant to Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "is governed by a different standard." Id. The Fourth Circuit "ha[s] recognized that," pursuant to Rule 59(a),

[T]he district court must "set aside the verdict and grant a new trial[] if . . . (1) the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, or (2) is based upon evidence which is false, or (3) will result in a miscarriage of justice, even though there may be substantial evidence which would prevent the direction of a verdict."

Minter v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 762 F.3d 339, 346 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Knussman v. Maryland, 272 F.3d 625, 639 (4th Cir. 2001)).

DISCUSSION

In its post-trial motions, Defendant states that it "moves the Court, pursuant to Rules 50(b), 59, and 60 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and other applicable law, for an order requiring

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[P]laintiff to elect one measure of recovery for the wrong alleged, granting Defendant judgment as a matter of law or altering or amending the judgment entered in this case . . . , and for a new trial. . . ." (Dkt. No. 53 at 1 of 9.)2 Defendant first contends that Plaintiff "should be required to elect the jury verdict upon which judgment should be entered against [the] Defendant, and the judgment should be altered and amended to clarify that only the verdict elected by Plaintiff constitutes a judgment against Defendant." (Dkt. No. 54 at 1.) Next, Defendant seeks relief pursuant to Rule 50(b), asserting it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to Plaintiff's claim for slander "because the only reasonable inference from the evidence presented at trial is that the subject statement was privileged and that privilege was not abused." (Dkt. No. 54 at 5.) Defendant also seeks relief pursuant to Rule 59, asserting it is entitled to a new trial for the following reasons:

A. Defendant is entitled to a new trial because the jury's verdict was inconsistent[;]

B. The Court erred in submitting punitive damages to the jury because Plaintiff failed to present any clear and convincing evidence of actual malice[; and]

C. Defendant is entitled to a new trial because no evidence was presented at trial that Defendant's conduct was reckless, wanton or willful, [and] the verdict shocks the conscience and was the result of caprice, passion and prejudice.

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(Dkt. No. 54 at 8-15.) Finally, Defendant contends that it is "entitled to a new trial nisi remittitur because the verdict is excessive and unduly liberal." (Dkt. No. 54 at 16.)

Before addressing Defendant's arguments, the undersigned will briefly review the Plaintiff's allegations in this case. Plaintiff alleged that on or about November 8, 2014, she was a business invitee at the Dollar General store located in McClellanville, South Carolina, when Defendant's employees asserted that she was shoplifting. (Compl. ¶¶ 3-4.) She alleged that as a result of the actions of Defendant's employees, she "was detained and served with a Uniform Traffic Ticket for suspected shoplifting." (Compl. ¶ 5.) Plaintiff further alleged that she "was not charged with shoplifting but detained and held," and that she "asked to use the bathroom, but was denied such that she urinated on herself." (Compl. ¶ 6.) She asserted that Defendant "was negligent, reckless, willful and wanton, through its officers, agents and/or employees, in one or more of the following" manners:

a. in calling the police and asserting that Plaintiff was shoplifting;

b. in calling the police and asserting that Plaintiff had stolen something;

c. in calling the police and causing the Plaintiff to be detained when there was no probable cause or evidence;

d. in banning Plaintiff from the Dollar General;

e. in failing to use reasonable precautions and in insisting that Plaintiff be detained; [and]

f. in not taping the Plaintiff with a recorder.

(Compl. ¶ 7.) Plaintiff's claims for negligence, false imprisonment, and slander were submitted to the jury. As noted above, the jury found in favor of Plaintiff on her claims for negligence and slander; the jury found in favor of the Defendant on Plaintiff's claim for false imprisonment. (Dkt. No. 43.)

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Having reviewed the factual allegations in this case, the undersigned now turns to Defendant's post-trial arguments.

I. Election of Remedy

Defendant contends that Plaintiff "should be required to elect the jury verdict upon which judgment should be entered against the Defendant, and the judgment should be altered and amended to clarify that only the verdict elected by Plaintiff constitutes a judgment against Defendant." (Dkt. No. 54 at 1.) As Defendant notes, the jury awarded Plaintiff actual damages of $25,000 on her negligence claim and $75,000 on her slander claim. (Dkt. No. 43.) Defendant asserts the "only evidence presented to the jury at trial that could potentially support a finding of negligence or slander on the part of Defendant or its store manager was the manager's act of calling the police to report a suspected shoplifter." (Dkt. No. 54 at 2.) While Defendant denies that any wrong was committed, Defendant states that "if there was a wrong committed . . . , that one act of calling the police was the only wrong and there could be no double recovery for that single wrong." (Dkt. No. 54 at 2.)

Defendant cites Jones by Robinson v. Winn-Dixie Greenville, Inc., 318 S.C. 171, 456 S.E.2d 429 (Ct. App. 1995), in support of its argument. (See Dkt. No. 54 at 2-4.) In Jones by Robinson, the jury awarded the plaintiff damages on his claims for false imprisonment as well as assault and battery. Jones by Robinson, 318 S.C. at 173, 456 S.E.2d at 430-31. Watson, an employee of Winn-Dixie, suspected Jones of shoplifting shoe inserts, even though Watson "admitted he lost sight of Jones several times and at no time did he see Jones conceal the shoe inserts." Id. at 173-74, 456 S.E.2d at 431. Watson confronted Jones about the shoe inserts, and Jones was escorted out of the store after he explained to Watson that he put the inserts on another aisle. Id. at 174, 456 S.E.2d at 431. The South Carolina Court of Appeals noted the following evidence:

Jones testified that once they were outside the store, Watson began cursing

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and threatening him. Watson admitted telling Jones he was "going to kick his [a ___]" if he came back in the store again. Watson then grabbed Jones by the arm and led him back inside the store and into the store's public restroom. Watson closed the bathroom door, then told Jones to take down his pants, which Jones did. Watson was standing in front of the door. Jones testified he complied with Watson's request because he was scared and nervous and did not know what to do. Finding no evidence of any stolen merchandise, Watson allowed Jones to pull his pants back up and walked him out of the bathroom.
As Jones exited the bathroom, he was confronted by policemen, whom Watson had called after initially confronting Jones. Jones' mother was also present by this time. Watson then admitted to the police officers he found no store merchandise on Jones' person.

Id. at 174, 456 S.E.2d at 431.

The jury in Jones by Robinson returned verdicts of (a) $25,000 actual damages and $50,000 punitive damages on the claim for false imprisonment and (b) $25,000...

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