United States District Court, D. Colorado
VICTOR CEJKA, JAMES WALKER, STEVEN WASCHER, and JAMIE LYTLE, Plaintiffs,
VECTRUS SYSTEMS CORPORATION, f/k/a Exelis Systems Corporation, Defendant.
ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S RENEWED MOTION FOR JUDGMENT
AS A MATTER OF LAW AS TO PLAINTIFFS' PUNITIVE DAMAGES
CLAIM [ECF NO. 319]
Michael E. Hegarty United States Magistrate Judge.
to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), Defendant moves the
Court for judgment as a matter of law regarding
Plaintiffs' recovery of punitive damages. Under Colo.
Rev. Stat. § 13-21-102, the jury awarded Plaintiffs
Cejka, Walker, Wascher, and Lytle $100, 000 each in punitive
damages. See Am. J. 1-2, ECF No. 344. Defendant
contends that the evidence at trial was insufficient to
support this award. See ECF No. 319. For the
following reasons, I deny Defendant's
Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) provides that “[n]o later
than 28 days after the entry of judgment . . . the movant may
file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law . . .
.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). In analyzing a Rule 50(b)
motion, courts should construe the evidence in the record in
a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Tyler v.
RE/MAX Mountain States, Inc., 232 F.3d 808, 812 (10th
Cir. 2000). Courts must not “weigh evidence, judge
witness credibility, or challenge the factual conclusions of
the jury.” Deters v. Equifax Credit Info. Servs.,
Inc., 202 F.3d 1262, 1268 (10th Cir. 2000).
“Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate ‘only
if the evidence points but one way and is susceptible to no
reasonable inferences which may support the opposing
party's position.'” Tyler, 232 F.3d at
812 (quoting Finley v. United States, 82 F.3d 966,
968 (10th Cir. 1996)). Motions under Rule 50(b) “should
be cautiously and sparingly granted.” Lucas v.
Dover Corp., Norris Div., 857 F.2d 1397, 1400 (10th Cir.
1988) (quoting EEOC v. Prudential Fed. Sav. & Loan
Ass'n, 763 F.2d 1166, 1171 (10th Cir. 1985)).
principal question here is whether, on the evidence
introduced at trial, a reasonable jury could have found,
beyond a reasonable doubt, that Defendant's conduct was
malicious or willful and wanton. In other words, should I
even have submitted this issue to the jury? I do not dispute
this is a close call. Defendant certainly produced evidence
explaining its actions which, if a jury believed it, would
belie a punitive damages award. However, I believe the
opposite is true-Plaintiffs introduced evidence of malice or
willful conduct which, if the jury believed it, would support
a statutory punitive damages award. I will summarize that
there was testimony that Defendant's decisionmakers, such
as Donald Askew (whose actions were instrumental to the
separation of Plaintiffs from employment) and Country Manager
Kevin Daniel, made derogatory statements about Plaintiffs
which was evidence of potential malice or willful action.
This includes calling Plaintiffs “snakes” or
“traitors.” See, e.g., Trial Tr. (May
22, 2018) at 59:21 to 60:6, 216:13-14 (Wascher); id.
(May 31, 2018) at 30:25 to 31:4 (Michael Zink,
Plaintiffs' witness). It also includes labeling them as
“troublemakers” and engaging in actions that
would keep them “in line.” See Id. (May
22, 2018) at 60:20-25 (Wascher); id (May 23, 2018)
at 320:17-23 (Lytle).
was also evidence that Defendant's Human Resources (HR)
representatives, Nadine Guilbeaux and Venola Riley, were
instant messaging with management even as Plaintiffs met with
HR to discuss confidential workplace issues-see Id.
(May 23, 2018) at 296:6-15, 298:23 to 300:1 (Lytle);
id. (June 1, 2018) at 141:16 to 142:18 (Walker)-with
adverse consequences for Plaintiffs following soon
addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence that despite a legal
obligation to report incidents relating to security to the
United States military, their supervisor became very angry
when he learned such reports were made without his knowledge;
he screamed at them, instructing them to notify the company
first from now on. E.g., Trial Tr. (May 22, 2018) at
238:8-18 (Wascher). Similarly, the United States
military's representative who provided direct day-to-day
oversight regarding Defendant's security contract at
Bagram Air Force Base, Sergeant John Salinas, testified that
Brandon Spann, one of Defendant's supervisors, threatened
him after these reports were made, instructing him that the
security specialists were to go to the company first, not the
military. See Id. (May 23, 2018) at 215:24 to
216:22. Salinas also testified unequivocally that, from his
perspective, the security specialists should come directly to
him with security issues. See Id. at 217:4-8.
course, there were also the terminations of Plaintiffs Lytle
and Cejka, and the forced transfers of Plaintiffs Walker and
Wascher to undesirable small, austere forward-operating bases
in the theater of war, where daily enemy attacks were
experienced, all which formed the underpinning for the
jury's verdicts on Plaintiffs' retaliation claims.
Although this was a contested fact issue, Plaintiffs
contended that the transfers of Walker and Wascher were
against Defendant's stated seniority policy. Knowing
violation of an employer's policies is certainly evidence
of malicious or willful and wanton conduct.
this trial, like many, included an intangible that is
discernible only to someone who watched the entire
proceeding. At times there was a subtle, palpable battle
occurring between and among witnesses and parties. It flared
up with defense witness Robert Redd, who stated (loudly and
angrily) in open court concerning the cross examining
Plaintiffs' counsel, “He is starting to piss me
off.” See Id. (June 4, 2018) at 159:13. It was
evident during the testimony of Donald Askew, Sergeant
Salinas, and Brandon Spann. It was clear that there had been
hard feelings at Bagram Air Force Base between various
constituents, including Plaintiffs (who had formed a clique
in their time at Bagram), the military, and certain employees
of Defendant-an internal psychological battle that had
embittered at least some of the participants. This is
understandable, given the stress that must have accompanied
those serving in Afghanistan during the hostilities there. It
was not excessive, it was not disruptive, but it was real. If
I saw it, the jury did too, and I believe this atmosphere
provided context for what it may (and I do say may, because
trials can be as much about perception as reality) have been
like at Bagram during the time in question.
not have awarded Plaintiffs punitive damages, but that is not
the legal standard. A reasonable jury could have believed
Plaintiffs' characterization of Defendant's actions,
concluded that those actions were, at least at relevant
times, malicious or willful and wanton, and rendered a very
modest punitive damages award for some of the Plaintiffs.
There is no legal error here.
above reasons, I deny Defendant's Renewed Motion for
Judgment as a Matter of Law as to Plaintiffs' Punitive