Vera v. Alstom Power, Inc., CIVIL ACTION NO.: 3:12-cv-00382 (VAB)

Citation189 F.Supp.3d 360
Decision Date24 May 2016
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO.: 3:12-cv-00382 (VAB)
Parties Mariangelica Vera, Plaintiff, v. Alstom Power, Inc., Defendant.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)

189 F.Supp.3d 360

Mariangelica Vera, Plaintiff,
v.
Alstom Power, Inc., Defendant.

CIVIL ACTION NO.: 3:12-cv-00382 (VAB)

United States District Court, D. Connecticut.

Signed May 24, 2016


189 F.Supp.3d 367

Gregg D. Adler, Nicole M. Rothgeb, Mary E. Kelly, Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly, Hartford, CT, for Plaintiff.

Bernard E. Jacques, Rory M. Farrell, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, Hartford, CT, for Defendant.

RULING AND ORDER

VICTOR A. BOLDEN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Mariangelica Vera ("Vera"), filed this action against her former employer, Alstom Power, Inc. ("Alstom"), claiming sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act ("CFEPA"). A jury found for Alstom on the sex discrimination claims, but found for Vera on her claims that Alstom retaliated against her for filing a complaint of discrimination with the Connecticut Commission

189 F.Supp.3d 368

on Human Rights and Opportunities ("CHRO") by denying her a performance evaluation and raise, and terminating her employment. The jury awarded $500,000 in non-economic damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. After the trial, the Court held an evidentiary hearing and oral argument to determine back pay and other relief. See Broadnax v. City of New Haven , 415 F.3d 265, 271 (2d Cir.2005) (because back pay is an equitable remedy under Title VII, a party is not entitled to a jury determination).

This ruling addresses two post-trial motions, as well as Vera's request for back pay. First, Alstom's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, In the Alternative, a New Trial or Remittitur is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. The Court denies Alstom's motion for judgment as a matter of law. The Court does not order a new trial on the basis of a claimed error in an evidentiary ruling, but does order a new trial on damages, unless Vera agrees to remit the non-economic damages award to $125,000 and remit the punitive damages award to $50,000. Second, because Alstom did not prove that Vera failed to mitigate her damages, the Court awards $475,345.65 in back pay (including salary, bonuses, and 401(k) contributions), plus prejudgment interest. Third, Vera's Motion for Reinstatement or, In the Alternative, an Award of Front Pay is GRANTED. The Court orders Alstom to reinstate Vera.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Alstom's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, In the Alternative, a New Trial or Remittitur (ECF No. 141)

Alstom renews1 its motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the jury's verdict is unsupported by the evidence. In the alternative, Alstom seeks a new trial on the ground that an evidentiary ruling was error. Finally, Alstom seeks reduction of the non-economic and punitive damages awards.

1. Judgment as a Matter of Law

The standard governing a motion for judgment as a matter of law is "appropriately strict." Stubbs v. Dudley , 849 F.2d 83, 85 (2d Cir.1988). The motion "may only be granted if there exists such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or the evidence in favor of the movant is so overwhelming that reasonable and fair minded [persons] could not arrive at a verdict against [it]." Wiercinski v. Mangia 57, Inc. , 787 F.3d 106, 112 (2d Cir.2015) (quoting Brady v. Wal–Mart Stores, Inc. , 531 F.3d 127, 133 (2d Cir.2008) ). The Court must deny the motion "unless, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable [persons] could have reached." Cobb v. Pozzi , 363 F.3d 89, 101 (2d Cir.2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). The familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework applies to Alstom's motion for judgment as a matter of law. See Bucalo v. Shelter Island Union Free Sch. Dist. , 691 F.3d 119, 128 (2d Cir.2012) (applying McDonnell Douglas framework to Rule 50 motion in Title VII retaliation case); see also

189 F.Supp.3d 369

Alfaro v. Wal–Mart Stores, Inc. , 210 F.3d 111, 114 (2d Cir.2000) ("[T]he same standard that applies to a pretrial motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 also applies to motions for judgment as a matter of law during or after trial pursuant to Rule 50.") (quoting This Is Me, Inc. v. Taylor , 157 F.3d 139, 142 (2d Cir.1998) ).

Applying those principles, the Court concludes that the jury reasonably could have found that Vera's protected activity was a but-for cause, and motivating factor, in Alstom's decisions to deny her a performance evaluation and raise, and terminate her employment.

As an initial matter, Vera established a close temporal proximity between her protected activity and the adverse employment actions she suffered. She filed a CHRO complaint on September 27, 2010. Ex. 48; Tr. 133. When Alstom received the complaint, it had not yet selected Vera for termination. Tr. 267–68, 428, 638. A few weeks later, before the end of October, Alstom decided to terminate Vera. See id. 404, 638. Approximately six months after Vera's CHRO complaint, Alstom denied her a performance evaluation and raise. See id. 137, 613. Vera's supervisor's supervisor, Bruce Buchholz, testified that Alstom did not give Vera a performance evaluation because she had been identified for termination. See id. 613. Joan Solnick, a human resources representative, testified that Alstom did not give Vera a performance evaluation because of her CHRO complaint. See id. 271.

The temporal proximity between Vera's protected activity and the adverse employment actions gives rise to an inference of retaliation. See Zann Kwan v. Andalex Grp. LLC , 737 F.3d 834, 845 (2d Cir.2013) (three-week period from plaintiff's complaint to her termination raised inference of retaliation); Espinal v. Goord , 558 F.3d 119, 129–30 (2d Cir.2009) (six-month period from dismissal of plaintiff's lawsuit to alleged retaliatory beating supported inference of causal connection). Of course, Vera needed to show more than temporal proximity to carry her ultimate burden. See El Sayed v. Hilton Hotels Corp. , 627 F.3d 931, 933 (2d Cir.2010) (temporal proximity raises an inference of retaliation, but is alone insufficient to show pretext). The Court concludes that Vera did supplement her showing of temporal proximity with evidence that, viewed in the light most favorable to her, is sufficient to support the jury's verdict.

First, the jury could have inferred retaliatory animus from the reactions of Vera's supervisor, Timothy Barry, and his supervisor, Bruce Buchholz, upon learning that Vera had filed a CHRO complaint. Barry learned the news while driving to a school alumni event. Tr. 524. He was "disappointed, surprised, [and] upset" and "so offended that [he] had to pull over on the side of road and check [his] blood pressure because [he] couldn't believe it." Id. 506, 525–26. The jury could have found that Buchholz was "surprised and offended" by the news and said, "You've got to be kidding me." See id. 267, 638. Shortly after Alstom decided to terminate Vera, Barry received an e-mail indicating that Vera had lost her e-mail access. He responded, "I think I just peed a little." Id. 510, 527; Ex. 51. The jury could have disbelieved Barry's explanation for this remark, and concluded that he was excited at the possibility of Vera's termination. See Zellner v. Summerlin , 494 F.3d 344, 371 (2d Cir.2007) (in ruling on motion for judgment as a matter of law, "the court must bear in mind that the jury is free to believe part and disbelieve part of any witness's testimony.").2 The jury

189 F.Supp.3d 370

observed Barry and Buchholz while they testified, and was free to give weight to their remarks because they were supervisors involved in the decisions to deny Vera an evaluation and terminate her employment. See Henry v. Wyeth Pharm., Inc. , 616 F.3d 134, 149 (2d Cir.2010) (in determining whether a remark is probative of discrimination, courts consider, inter alia , whether supervisor or decision-maker made the remark).

Second, the jury reasonably could have found that Alstom's proffered reason for terminating Vera—reducing head count—was pretext.3 In 2010, Alstom sought to reduce head count at the Windsor, Connecticut facility at which Vera worked, and within the Heat Recovery Steam Generator ("HRSG") and Project Management groups to which Vera belonged. See Ex. 514; Tr. 395–400. The head count targets were "moving" for several months. See Tr. 373–74; 610; Ex. 514, 515, 517. But by late October, Alstom developed targets for its next fiscal year. See Tr. 395–402; Ex. 517 at 20219–20; Def.'s Mem. at 8. The head count target for the Project Management group, previously set at twelve, was reduced to ten. See Tr. 399–402; Ex. 514 at 20182; Ex. 517 at 20220; Def.'s Mem. at 8.

Days later, Alstom...

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