Passananti v. Cook Cnty.

Decision Date20 July 2012
Docket NumberNo. 11–1182.,11–1182.
PartiesKimberly PASSANANTI, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. COOK COUNTY, et al., Defendants–Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit


Luke A. Casson (argued), Attorney, Andreou & Casson, Chicago, IL, for PlaintiffAppellant.

Gregory Vaci (argued), Attorney, Office of the Cook County State's Attorney, Chicago, IL, for DefendantsAppellees.

Before MANION, SYKES, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

HAMILTON, Circuit Judge.

The Day Reporting Center of the Cook County Sheriff's Department ran an intensive supervision program that provided services for non-violent pretrial defendants. Its program reduced overcrowding in the Cook County Jail and tried to integrate non-violent individuals into society through supervised employment, job training, and substance abuse treatment. Plaintiff Kimberly Passananti was the deputy director of the DRC from 2002 until 2007. For several years, her supervisor was DRC director John Sullivan. After losing her job in 2007, Passananti sued, claiming that Sullivan subjected her to sexual harassment and that she was fired because of her sex. A jury agreed with her and awarded her a total of $4.1 million in damages: $4 million in compensatory damages against Cook County, and $70,000 in compensatory damages and $30,000 in punitive damages against Sullivan. The district court granted defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law and entered judgment for the defendants. Passananti v. County of Cook, 2010 WL 3958645 (N.D.Ill. Oct. 7, 2010). Passananti appeals.

As the case comes to us, on review of a district court's decision to grant judgment as a matter of law despite a jury verdict in favor of Passananti, we must give her the benefit of conflicts in the evidence and reasonable inferences in her favor. We must assume: (a) that Sullivan repeatedly and angrily called Passananti a “bitch” to her face and in front of their co-workers; (b) that in 2005, he trumped up charges against her for violating a DRC policy against tampering with supervisees' urine samples; and (c) that he fabricated an accusation that she had had sexual relations with a supervisee. As a result of Sullivan's accusations, Passananti was temporarily transferred and ultimately sustained a five-day unpaid suspension. Sullivan left the DRC in July 2006. Passananti stayed on, but in 2007, she lost her job when her position as DRC deputy director was eliminated as part of county-wide budget cuts.

On Passananti's sexual harassment claim, we reverse the district court and reinstate the jury's verdict as to liability. The jury could reasonably treat the frequent and hostile use of the word “bitch” to be a gender-based epithet that contributed to a sexually hostile work environment. Passananti also presented sufficient evidence to allow the jury to find that the gender-based harassment she suffered was severe and pervasive, and that she did not unreasonably fail to take advantage of available corrective measures in her workplace. However, we affirm the district court's decision to set aside the jury's verdict on Passananti's discriminatory termination claim, which simply lacked any evidentiary support. As we explain below, there was considerable confusion in the district court's handling of the different claims and damage awards, but we can discern that the jury must have found that $70,000 was the proper amount of compensatory damages on the sexual harassment claim. The county is the proper defendant on that claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Punitive damages are not available against the county itself, so we remand for entry of judgment in favor of plaintiff and against the county for the sum of $70,000.

I. Rule 50(b) Issues: Standard of Review and Timeliness

Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a district court to enter judgment against a party who has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial if “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) (motion for judgment as a matter of law), (b) (renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law). We give a district court's grant of a Rule 50 motion rigorous and de novo review. See Schandelmeier–Bartels v. Chicago Park Dist., 634 F.3d 372, 376 (7th Cir.2011) (reversing grant of Rule 50 motion). In deciding a Rule 50 motion, the court construes the evidence strictly in favor of the party who prevailed before the jury and examines the evidence only to determine whether the jury's verdict could reasonably be based on that evidence. See Tart v. Illinois Power Co., 366 F.3d 461, 464 (7th Cir.2004), citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150–51, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). The court does not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. See Waite v. Board of Trustees of Illinois Comm. College Dist. No. 508, 408 F.3d 339, 343 (7th Cir.2005), citing Reeves, 530 U.S. at 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097. Although the court reviews the entire record, the court “must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury [was] not required to believe.” Reeves, 530 U.S. at 151, 120 S.Ct. 2097.

Before digging into the evidence and the merits, we must address two procedural issues. Passananti argues that the district court never should have heard the defendants' renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) because (1) they failed first to file a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law, and (2) their Rule 50(b) motion was untimely. We disagree on both points. Rule 50(b) states in relevant part:

If the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a), the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion. No later than 28 days after the entry of judgment—or if the motion addresses a jury issue not decided by a verdict, no later than 28 days after the jury was discharged—the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59.

“Because the Rule 50(b) motion is only a renewal of the preverdict motion, it can be granted only on grounds advanced in the preverdict motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), comm. note (2006 amend.); see also Unitherm Food Sys., Inc. v. Swift–Eckrich, Inc., 546 U.S. 394, 404–05, 126 S.Ct. 980, 163 L.Ed.2d 974 (2006) (party forfeited argument not presented in a Rule 50(a) motion and not renewed in a Rule 50(b) motion).

The trial transcript contradicts the factual basis for Passananti's first argument. At the close of plaintiff's case, the defense orally moved under Rule 50(a) for judgment as a matter of law and presented some sort of writing to the court in support of that motion. The court reviewed the defense's written motion and then asked the plaintiff to respond orally, ultimately taking the motion under advisement. Tr. Vol. 3B at 36–41. Unfortunately, however, the defense's written motion discussed in the transcript was never actually entered in the court's docket or made part of the record.

We take this opportunity to remind district courts and their staffs that it is the district court's responsibility to ensure that such documents delivered to the clerk or to the judge are made part of the court's file. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 5(d)(2), (4). District judges may depend on the help of the court clerks whom they supervise, but the responsibility remains the judge's, and here the transcript indicates that the document was actually in the judge's hands.

Like much that happened in this trial, however, this oversight was harmless. The defendants clearly made a motion under Rule 50(a) and submitted something on paper in support of it. In this appeal, the particulars of the defendants' Rule 50(a) motion are no longer relevant. It was not their Rule 50(a) motion that was granted, and Passananti does not argue that the defendants' Rule 50(b) motion, which was granted and is the subject of this appeal, was beyond the scope of their Rule 50(a) motion. Passananti also makes no attempt to show that she was prejudiced in any way by the district court's error in failing to docket an important trial document tendered to the court.1

Plaintiff contends next that the defendants' Rule 50(b) motion was untimely. It was not. As applicable here, a Rule 50(b) motion must be filed “no later than 28 days after the entry of judgment.” The district court did not enter judgment immediately after the verdict was returned, and in fact did not enter judgment until it ruled on the defendants' motion. The Rule 50(b) motion was therefore timely. Plaintiff takes the argument a step further, however. Relying on Rule 58, she argues that the district court committed reversible error by failing to enter judgment on the jury's verdict “promptly.” If judgment had been entered promptly, the argument goes, defendants' Rule 50(b) motion would have been late. We put aside the ability of parties to rely on the district court's decision not to enter judgment immediately, for the argument still lacks merit. Rule 58 provides that the clerk of the court, without awaiting the court's direction, must promptly prepare, sign, and enter the judgment when a jury returns a general verdict, unless the court orders otherwise.Fed.R.Civ.P. 58(b)(1)(A). The jury reached its verdict in this matter on June 10. On June 22, the court held a status conference and ordered the defense to file its Rule 50(b) motion by July 21. In other words, the court ordered otherwise.2

Plaintiff expresses concern that without a firm deadline, a judgment might never be entered or might be held hostage indefinitely, citing Ohio–Sealy Mattress Mfg. Co. v. Sealy, Inc., 585 F.2d 821, 846 (7th Cir.1978) (addressing calculation of post-judgment interest). See...

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