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Hannah v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 6, 2017

KIM HANNAH, THOMAS IRVING, and MICHAEL BARHAM, Plaintiffs,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC. and WAL-MART STORES EAST, L.P., Defendants.

          RULING ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SEPARATE TRIALS

          VICTOR A. BOLDEN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendants, Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (together “Wal-Mart”) seek to separate the trials of Plaintiffs, Kim Hannah and Michael Barham. Mot. for Sep. Trials, ECF No. 318. Plaintiffs oppose Defendants' motion, arguing that common questions of law and fact require that the two cases be kept together. Pls. Mem. in Opp., ECF No. 351. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED.

         I. Procedural Background

         This case arises out of the termination of three former Wal-Mart managers, Kim Hannah, Michael Barham and Thomas Irving, Jr. Order on Mot. for Summary Judgment at 3, ECF No. 255. Ms. Hannah and Mr. Irving were both employed as Market Human Resources Managers, a position that involved providing human resources services within a particular geographical region. Id. at 2. In contrast, Mr. Barham was employed as a Market Asset Protection Manager, which involved providing loss prevention services within a particular geographical region. Id. Ms. Hannah, Mr. Barham and Mr. Irving, all African-American employees, were terminated in April 2010 in connection with a nationwide reorganization conducted by Wal-Mart in 2009- 2010, known internally by the name “Project Apple.” Id. at 3. After learning of their termination, all three individuals applied to other positions within the company. Id. at 9-10. Wal-Mart eventually re-hired Mr. Barham in a different role, but it did not re-hire Ms. Hannah and Mr. Irving. Id.

         Ms. Hannah, Mr. Irving and Mr. Barham brought this lawsuit against Wal-Mart in September 2012, [1] alleging various claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”). Am. Compl., ECF No. 6. In October 2014, Wal-Mart moved to sever Mr. Barham's claims from the claims brought by Ms. Hannah and Mr. Irving under Fed.R.Civ.P. 21; three months later, in January 2015, Wal-Mart moved for summary judgment on all of Plaintiffs' claims. Defs. Mot. to Sever, ECF No. 180; Defs. Mot. for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 205. In February 2016, the Court partially granted Wal-Mart's motion for summary judgment and denied Wal-Mart's motion to sever. Order on Mot. for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 255.

         The Court's summary judgment ruling narrowed the scope of this case, dismissing most of the nine separate employment claims initially alleged against Wal-Mart and leaving only the retaliatory failure to rehire claims brought by Mr. Irving, Ms. Hannah and Mr. Barham and the discriminatory termination and failure to rehire claims brought by Mr. Barham. Id. at 38. The Court also concluded that severing the claims was not appropriate in light of the common questions of law and fact with respect to the surviving claims. Id. at 37.

         Following the Court's ruling, Wal-Mart moved for reconsideration of the Court's decision, seeking dismissal of the remaining claims. Defs. Mot. for Reconsid., ECF No. 271. The Court agreed that reconsideration was appropriate with respect to some claims, and ultimately dismissed the following additional claims: (1) all claims as to Mr. Irving; (2) the majority of the retaliatory failure to rehire claims as to Mr. Barham; and (3) several of the retaliatory failure to rehire claims as to Ms. Hannah. Order on Reconsid., ECF No. 295. The Court's ruling further narrowed the case to include only the following claims: (1) as to Mr. Barham, discriminatory termination, discriminatory failure to rehire, and retaliatory failure to rehire claims; and (2) as to Ms. Hannah, retaliatory failure to rehire claims. Id. at 9.

         Wal-Mart now moves to separate the trial of Mr. Barham's claims from the trial of Ms. Hannah's claims under Fed.R.Civ.P. 42, arguing that the Court's ruling on Wal-Mart's motion for reconsideration has eliminated many of the common questions between these two Plaintiffs' claims. Mot. for Sep. Trials, ECF No. 318.

         II. Standard of Review

         Motions to separate trials are governed by Rule 42 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 42(b) provides that, “[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize, the court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues” or claims. Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b). A motion to separate trials under Rule 42 is determined under the same principles used in connection with a motion to sever claims under Rule 21.[2] Morris v. Northrop Grumman Corp., 37 F.Supp.2d 556, 580 (E.D.N.Y. 1999). “The decision whether to grant a severance motion is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court.” State of N.Y. v. Hendrickson Bros., 840 F.2d 1065, 1082 (2d Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 848 (1988); see also Katsaros v. Cody, 744 F.2d 270, 278 (2d Cir. 1984) (affirming bifurcation of third-party claim and separating trial on liability and damages phases where the separate trials would require different types of evidence and there was no prejudice resulting from bifurcation).

         In order to determine whether claims should be tried separately, courts generally consider four factors: “(1) whether the claims arise out of the same transaction or occurrence; (2) whether the claims present some common questions of law or fact; (3) whether settlement of the claims or judicial economy would be facilitated; (4) whether prejudice would be avoided if severance were granted; and (5) whether different witnesses and documentary proof are required for the separate claims.” Tardd v. Brookhaven Nat. Lab., No. 04 CV 3262 (ADS), 2007 WL 1423642, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. May 8, 2007) (citing Cestone v. General Cigar Holdings, Inc., No. 00 Civ. 3686 RCCDF, 2002 WL 424654, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 18, 2002)); see also Dickerson v. Novartis Corp., 315 F.R.D. 18, 24 (S.D.N.Y. 2016) (“‘Severance requires the presence of only one of these conditions, ' although courts ‘view severance as a procedural device to be employed only in exceptional circumstances.'” (citing Oram v. SoulCycle LLC, 979 F.Supp.2d 498, 503 (S.D.N.Y. 2013)); Svege v. Mercedes-Benz Credit Corp., 329 F.Supp.2d 283, 284 (D. Conn. 2004) (“On a case-by-case basis, the Court should examine, among other factors, whether bifurcation is needed to avoid or minimize prejudice, whether it will produce economies in the trial of the matter, and whether bifurcation will lessen or eliminate the likelihood of juror confusion”).

         III. Discussion

         Wal-Mart argues that separate trials will avoid prejudice and increase judicial economy and efficiency in this matter. Defs. Mem. in Supp., ECF No. 319. In support of its arguments, Wal-Mart explains that the remaining claims as to Ms. Hannah and Mr. Barham involve a separate set of facts, evidence and legal issues. Id. at 12-13. Wal-Mart further asserts that separating the two sets of claims will avoid potential prejudice as to Wal-Mart with respect to Ms. Hannah's case. Id. at 14. Plaintiffs disagree, insisting that, because there is some overlapping testimony remaining between the two sets of claims and the Court could utilize limiting jury instructions to eliminate prejudice, the continued consolidation of trial is justified as to these two Plaintiffs. Pls. Mem. in Opp, ECF No. 351.

         Although the claims in this case initially arose out of the same transaction or occurrence - namely, the corporate reorganization that purportedly led to the termination of Ms. Hannah, Mr. Barham and Mr. Irving - most of the common ground between the parties was eliminated when the Court decided to reconsider its summary judgment ruling. The only claim remaining as to Ms. Hannah is a retaliatory failure to rehire claim. Order on Reconsid. at 9. This claim ...


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