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Kennedy v. Supreme Forest Products, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 15, 2017

MICHAEL KENNEDY Plaintiff,
v.
SUPREME FOREST PRODUCTS, INC., Defendant

          RULING ON POST-TRIAL MOTIONS

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff 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 and costs.

         Background

         The 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.

         The 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).

         Plaintiff's 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 fulfill orders.

         The 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.

         Plaintiff 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 worms.” Ibid.

         Another employee said that it was “gross negligence” to haul a load of more than 80, 000 pounds. Ibid. Paganini responded:

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.

         Beyond 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.

         Defendant's 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.

         The 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Discussion

         Under 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. 2014).

         Rule 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 ...


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