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Kathleen A. Coyne v. County of San Diego

December 20, 2011

KATHLEEN A. COYNE,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Janis L. Sammartino United States District Judge

ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL (ECF No. 138)

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff Kathleen A. Coyne's ("Plaintiff" or "Coyne") motion for new trial. (Mot. New Trial, ECF No. 138) Also before the Court are Defendant County of San Diego's ("Defendant" or "County") response in opposition, (Resp. in Opp'n, ECF No. 141), and Plaintiff's reply in support, (Reply in Supp., ECF No. 142). The hearing set for the motion on December 15, 2011, was vacated, and the matter taken under submission on the papers. Having considered the parties' arguments and the law, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion.

BACKGROUND*fn1

Plaintiff, a Level V Deputy Public Defender, sued the County of San Diego for unlawful sex discrimination and unlawful retaliation based on three alleged adverse employment actions:

(1) her assignment to the Juvenile Delinquency branch of the Public Defender's Office; (2) the decision not to assign her to a supervisory position in the Public Defender's Office in 2005, 2007, or 2009; and (3) a disciplinary letter she received in connection with her 2008 motion to disqualify a judge.

Plaintiff's case survived summary judgment and went to trial. On August 12, 2011, the jury returned a special verdict in favor of Defendant. As Plaintiff accurately summarizes,

[The jury found that] Plaintiff Kathleen A. Coyne ("Coyne") had suffered an adverse employment action by County and that Coyne's involvement in protected activity was a motivating factor for the adverse employment conduct by County. And the evidence supported a finding that Ms. Coyne's transfer to Juvenile, the lack of any supervisory position from 2005 to 2009, and/or the filing of a reprimand, collectively or individually resulted from the improper motive of the County in undertaking these individual or collective acts. The jury then found that this individual or collective activity all had a legitimate basis and would have occurred regardless of the retaliatory motive. (Mot. New Trial 1, ECF No. 138) Now, Plaintiff seeks a retrial on the retaliation claim "on the grounds that the evidence clearly did not support the jury's decision. It appears there was confusion with this aspect of the case." (Id. at 2 (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a))).

LEGAL STANDARD

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, a court has the discretion to grant a new trial "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A). "The trial court may grant a new trial only if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice." Passantino v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Prods., 212 F.3d 493, 510 n.15 (9th Cir. 2000).

As to the first basis, "[a] district court may order a new trial based on insufficient evidence only if it finds that the jury's verdict 'is against the great weight of the evidence, or it is quite clear that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result.'" Ace v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 139 F.3d 1241, 1248 (9th Cir. 1998) (quoting EEOC v. Pape Life, Inc., 115 F.3d 676, 680 (9th Cir. 1997)). This is a "stringent standard." Pape Life, 115 F.3d at 680. "The judge can weigh the evidence and assess the credibility of witnesses, and need not view the evidence from the perspective most favorable to the prevailing party." Landes Constr. Co. v. Royal Bank of Can., 833 F.2d 1365, 1371 (9th Cir. 1987). However, the court may not "substitute its 'evaluations for those of the jurors.'" Tortu v. Las Vegas Metro. Police Dep't, 556 F.3d 1075, 1084 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Union Oil Co. v. Terrible Herbst, Inc., 331 F.3d 735, 743 (9th Cir. 2003)).

ANALYSIS

Here, Plaintiff's only argument for a new trial is that the "weight of the evidence shows there is no legitimate reason for the employment decisions in issue or that County would have made the same decisions regardless of retaliatory motive." (Mot. New Trial 3, ECF No. 138)*fn2

Stated another way, Plaintiff would have the Court accept the jury's findings that (1) "plaintiff proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the County engaged in conduct that, taken as a whole, materially and adversely affected the terms and conditions of her employment and was therefore an adverse employment action;" and that (2) "plaintiff proved by a preponderance of the evidence that her involvement in a protected activity was a motivating factor for the conduct [the jury] found to be an adverse employment action;" but reject the jury's findings that (3) "defendant proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the conduct [the jury] found to be an adverse employment action was also motivated by a legitimate reason;" and that (4) "defendant proved by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decisions regarding the conduct [the jury] found to be an adverse employment action even if plaintiff's participation in a protected activity played no role in the decisions." (Special Verdict Form 5, ECF No. 134); (see also Resp. in Opp'n 8, ECF No. 141 ("Plaintiff wants to embrace the jury's responses to Questions 6 and 7 of the Special Verdict Form, but completely disregard the jury's responses to Questions 8 and 9.")) Thus, for purposes of this motion, the Court will re-examine only the latter two findings.

1. The Jury's Finding of a Legitimate Reason For the Adverse Employment Action Was Not Contrary to the ...


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