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Smith v. Clyde

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 3, 2015

ANDREA SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
T.W. CLYDE, O.D., P.C., d/b/a PIKES PEAK EYE CARE, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS’ FEES AND DENYING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

William J. Martínez United States District Judge

Plaintiff Andrea Smith (“Plaintiff”) brought this action against her former employer, Tom W. Clyde, O.D., P.C., doing business as Pikes Peak Eye Care (“Defendant”), for sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. (ECF No. 1.) A jury trial commenced on April 6, 2015, and on April 9, 2015, the jury rendered a verdict in Plaintiff’s favor, awarding her $500 in compensatory damages and $2, 000 in punitive damages. (ECF No. 76.) Final judgment was entered on April 28, 2015. (ECF No. 81.) This matter is now before the Court on Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorneys’ Fees (ECF No. 82) and Defendant’s Motion for New Trial (ECF No. 87). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant’s Motion is denied and Plaintiff’s Motion is granted, although the requested fee award is reduced.

I. DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

Defendant’s Motion raises four issues that it argues merit a new trial: (1) Defendant was not permitted to inform the jury that a verdict in favor of Plaintiff would expose Defendant to a potential award of attorneys’ fees; (2) evidence of Plaintiff’s criminal convictions was improperly excluded; (3) Defendant’s request for a Rule 35 mental examination was improperly denied; and (4) Defendant’s Rule 50(a) motion as to punitive damages was improperly denied.[1] (ECF No. 87.) The Court will address each issue in turn.

A. Possible Attorneys’ Fees Award

Defendant argues that the Court erred by ruling that Defendant would not be permitted to inform the jury that Defendant could be obligated to pay Plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees if Plaintiff prevailed on her claim. (ECF No. 87 at 1-2.) Defendant’s argument refers to counsel’s cross-examination of Plaintiff on the first day of trial, when the following exchange occurred:

[Defendant’s counsel]: If they award you any amount at all then your attorneys will ask for attorney fees, correct? [Plaintiff’s counsel]: Sorry, your Honor, objection. [The Court]: Sustained. Next question.

Neither Plaintiff nor the Court articulated the basis for the objection or the ruling at the time. However, Defendant’s Motion makes no legal argument as to why this ruling was error, and cites no authority whatsoever. Instead, Defendant simply argues that the jury’s decision was made without knowing “the full consequences of its verdict” and thus it “deliberate[d] in the dark.” (Id. at 3.)

The Court now holds that its ruling was proper pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 403. While the question of Defendant’s liability for attorneys’ fees was arguably relevant to the jury’s determination of damages, whether fees would be awarded remained an issue for the Court to determine. The probative value of raising this issue was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice if the jury were to consider an award of fees to Plaintiff’s attorney in determining how much damage Plaintiff herself suffered, as well as the risk of confusing the issues by raising collateral matters to the jury question of whether intentional discrimination had occurred. Accordingly, exclusion was proper under Rule 403.

Furthermore, the Court wholly rejects Defendant’s argument suggesting that the jury might have found in Plaintiff’s favor despite not truly believing that Defendant committed unlawful discrimination, because “[a] jury is presumed to follow its instructions.” Weeks v. Angelone, 528 U.S. 225, 226 (2000). The Court must therefore presume that the jury found in favor of Plaintiff on her discrimination claim because it concluded that Plaintiff had proven, by a preponderance of the evidence, that her pregnancy was a motivating factor in Defendant’s decision to demote or terminate her. (See ECF No. 73 at 17.) The jury’s understanding of the totality of Defendant’s monetary liability was not an element in the jury’s determination of liability, and could only have affected the amount of the damages award.

The Court concludes that Defendant has not shown that it merits a new trial based on the exclusion of any reference to Defendant’s exposure to an attorneys’ fees award, and Defendant’s Motion is denied in that respect.

B. Plaintiff’s Prior Convictions

Defendant next challenges the Court’s ruling on its Motion in Limine as to Plaintiff’s prior convictions for criminal impersonation and theft, which occurred approximately 12 years prior to trial. (ECF No. 87 at 3.) In the Court’s Order Denying Defendant’s Motion in Limine, the Court cited Federal Rule of Evidence 609(b) in holding as follows:

As for Plaintiff’s convictions for criminal impersonation and theft, the Court has considered the arguments of the parties and finds that, while it is a close question, these factors ultimately weigh against allowing admission of this evidence. The Court agrees with Defendant that Plaintiff’s credibility is central to the issues in this case, as Defendant contends that his reason for terminating her was due to her dishonesty and “theft” of pay for hours she allegedly did not work, and that Plaintiff’s testimony is important to the case. (See ECF No. 48 at 2.) Thus, ...

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