United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON POST-TRIAL MOTIONS
Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.
Michael Kennedy filed suit against defendant Supreme Forest
Products, Inc., alleging that it violated the federal Surface
Transportation Assistance Act, 49 U.S.C. § 31105, by
terminating his employment for refusing to drive trucks of
mulch that were loaded beyond the federal weight limit. After
a five-day trial, a jury found in favor of plaintiff and
awarded $11, 900 in compensatory damages and $425, 000 in
punitive damages. Defendant now moves for judgment as a
matter of law or for a new trial, while plaintiff in turn
moves for an award of attorney's fees and costs. For the
reasons below, I will deny defendant's motions except
that I will reduce the punitive damages award to the
statutory limit $250, 000. I will otherwise grant in part and
deny in part plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees
facts set forth below are based on evidence introduced at
trial and presented in the light most favorable to the
jury's verdict in plaintiff's favor. Defendant is a
company that was in the business of selling mulch and similar
earth-and-forest-related products. Plaintiff worked for
defendant as a truck driver for about 12 years to deliver
loads of the company's product to customers.
Surface Transportation Assistance Act (“STAA”)
protects employees from retaliation by their employers on
account of a complaint of a violation of federal safety
regulations in the transportation industry. The Act provides
in relevant part that a person may not discharge an employee
who refuses to operate a vehicle because the operation
violates a federal safety regulation. 49 U.S.C. §
31105(a)(1)(B)(i). Plaintiff alleged that he was discharged
on April 3, 2014, after he refused to operate trucks that
were loaded in violation of a federal safety regulation that
limits the weight of trucks on interstate highways to no more
than 80, 000 pounds. See 23 C.F.R. § 658.17(b).
trial evidence showed that for many months prior to his
discharge the company routinely loaded its trucks in excess
of 80, 000 pounds. In 2013, defendant hired Martin Paganini
as general manager to help the company improve financially
after a period of low sales. Until Paganini's arrival,
defendant had generally loaded its delivery trucks with not
more than 60 yards of mulch at a time. With Paganini's
arrival, however, the company began loading trucks with more
mulch, frequently up to 70 yards. Loading trucks with more
mulch was more profitable for the company because it
decreased the total number of loads necessary to drive to
evidence showed a 70-yard load of mulch would violate the
federal weight limit. Plaintiff himself testified that based
on his lengthy experience and on the basis of his truck's
mechanical suspension gauge, a load of 70 yards of mulch
would put a truck over 80, 000 pounds. Similarly, Walter
Whitbeck-a former company employee who had loaded trucks for
many years-also testified that 70 yards of mulch would weigh
over 80, 000 pounds.
covertly recorded Paganini making statements that a jury
could have reasonably understood to mean that he not only
knew but also required that the company's trucks haul
loads over the legal weight limit. A covert tape recording of
one of the company's meetings included the voice of
plaintiff and another employee who raised concerns about the
truck loads being overweight. Paganini said:
“There's going to be times that - we all know that
we are heavy haulers, we're going to haul, you know, 86,
85, you know.” Doc. #77-11 at 38. Plaintiff voiced his
concerns to Paganini about how an overweight load
“changes the whole dynamics of your piece of equipment,
” and how “you're constantly biting your
nails all day long” with an overweight load.
Id. at 42. Plaintiff asked: “[I]f I get pulled
over and I go to jail, are you going to bail me out?”
Id. at 43. Paganini replied: “Absolutely. . .
. [N]ow, listen, this discussion can open a can of
employee said that it was “gross negligence” to
haul a load of more than 80, 000 pounds. Ibid.
Listen, we are heavy - we're haul heavy over here.
We've done it that way for the last 20 to 30 years, and
it's not going to be asked of you to do it every day,
every load, but there are going to be times that you're
going to haul heavy.
Ibid. Paganini went on to explain how the company
had lost money before by hauling loads that were too light
and that it had to haul heavy loads in order to make money:
Nobody - nobody has ever sat down to figure out where our
margins of profit were, and so I did. I figured it out as far
as where the weight was, where the profits were, and what we
need to haul in order to s[t]ay solvent as a company.
Id. at 44.
these highly inculpatory statements of Paganini, there was
additional documentary evidence that a reasonable jury could
have found to be conclusive corroboration of plaintiff's
claim. The company had its own scale that was used to weigh
its trucks, and hundreds of weight tickets from the
company's own scale showed overweight loads for
defendant's trucks from December 2013 into April 2014.
Doc. #77-14; Doc. #209 at 52.
own website corroborated plaintiff's claim that a 70-yard
load of mulch would put a truck in violation of federal
weight limits. The company's website listed a range of
weights for mulch-between 800 to 1, 000 pounds per yard,
depending on the mulch's moisture content. Assuming a
70-yard load at the very low end of the company's
weight-per-yard estimate (800 pounds per yard), this would
mean that a normally sized, 35, 000-pound delivery truck with
a 70-yard load would weigh 91, 000 pounds-far in excess of
the federal weight limit.
complaint in this case focused on April 3, 2014. Plaintiff
testified that on that day he was asked to drive two loads of
70 yards of mulch, and that after refusing to drive both
loads, he was fired. To corroborate his claim that the
particular truck that day was overweight, plaintiff submitted
a “load manifest” dated April 3, 2014, which
indicated a load of 70 yards of premium bark mulch to be
driven from Southington, Connecticut to Hartford,
Connecticut. Doc. #205 at 222-24. He testified that
“[t]he weights were getting out of control, ” and
“by increasing 10 more yards of premium bark mulch [it]
was going to be extremely heavy, ” and “I
didn't want no part of it.” Doc. #205 at 229.
submitted another covert audio recording of a conversation
between him and Paganini that day in which he told Paganani
that he refused to drive because he was being asked to drive
a truck that was overweight. Paganini told plaintiff to
“go home . . . because I'm just not going to deal
with the chicken shit right now.” Doc. #77-11 at 6-8.
Paganini then told plaintiff that human resources would be in
touch “within a day or so.” Id. at 10.
But nobody got in touch with plaintiff for several days. On
April 7, plaintiff contacted defendant's human resources
department, which informed him that it was sending him a pink
slip. The jury could reasonably have concluded from this
course of conduct that defendant discharged plaintiff because
of his refusal to haul overweight loads of mulch.
Rule 50, a motion for judgment as a matter of law will be
granted only if “a reasonable jury [did] not have a
legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the
party” that prevailed at trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1).
A party seeking judgment on this basis bears a “heavy
burden, ” and will succeed only if “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.”
Matusick v. Erie Cnty. Water Auth., 757 F.3d 31, 52
(2d Cir. 2014). I must view the evidence “in the light
most favorable to the party against whom the motion was made
and . . . give that party the benefit of all reasonable
inferences that the jury might have drawn in his favor from
the evidence.” Harris v. O'Hare, 770 F.3d
224, 231 (2d Cir. 2014), as amended (Nov. 24, 2014).
Moreover, notwithstanding a movant's reliance on trial
evidence that favored the movant's version of events, a
court considering a Rule 50 motion “must disregard all
evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not
required to believe.” ING Glob. v. United Parcel
Serv. Oasis Supply Corp., 757 F.3d 92, 97 (2d Cir.
59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that
the Court may grant a new trial “for any reason for
which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at
law in federal court.” The standard for granting a
motion for a new trial is lower than the standard for
granting a Rule 50 motion-a judge “may weigh the
evidence and the credibility of witnesses and need not view
the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict
winner.” Raedle v. Credit Agricole Indosuez,
670 F.3d 411, 418 (2d Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). Still,
the Second Circuit has emphasized “the high degree of