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Cejka v. Vectrus Systems Corp.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

October 9, 2018

VICTOR CEJKA, JAMES WALKER, STEVEN WASCHER, and JAMIE LYTLE, Plaintiffs,
v.
VECTRUS SYSTEMS CORPORATION, f/k/a Exelis Systems Corporation, Defendant.

          ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S RENEWED MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL [ECF NO. 331]

          Michael E. Hegarty United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiffs initiated this employment action on October 30, 2015, against their former employer, Defendant Vectrus Systems Corp. (“Vectrus”), alleging that they suffered adverse employment actions in retaliation for reporting to the United States military what they believed to be conduct by Defendant that adversely affected security at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. This case was tried to a jury for common law retaliatory termination (Claim I) (all Plaintiffs) and violation of 10 U.S.C. § 2409, the Department of Defense whistleblower statute (Claim II) (Plaintiff Walker). The jury found for Defendant on Plaintiff Cross's claim and for the remaining Plaintiffs under both the common law claims (all Plaintiffs) and the statutory claim (Plaintiff Walker). In the interim, Plaintiff Cross has settled with Defendant.

         Here, Defendant seeks a new trial arguing that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, prejudicial error occurred during the trial, and substantial justice has not been done. See ECF No. 331.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 59(a)(1)(A) authorizes a court to grant a new trial “for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). Whether to grant a motion for a new trial is committed to the district court's discretion. See M.D. Mark, Inc. v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 565 F.3d 753, 762 (10th Cir. 2009); see also Iowa Pac. Holdings, LLC v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 853 F.Supp.2d 1094, 1097 (D. Colo. 2012) (describing that discretion as “sound”). “A motion for new trial ‘is not regarded with favor and should only be granted with great caution.'” Iowa Pac. Holdings, 853 F.Supp.2d at 1097 (quoting United States v. Kelley, 929 F.2d 582, 586 (10th Cir. 1991)).

         “If ‘a new trial motion asserts that the jury verdict is not supported by the evidence, the verdict must stand unless it is clearly, decidedly, or overwhelmingly against the weight of the evidence.'” M.D. Mark, Inc., 565 F.3d at 762 (quoting Anaeme v. Diagnostek, Inc., 164 F.3d 1275, 1284 (10th Cir. 1999)). Stated otherwise, the motion should be granted only “if the evidence points but one way and is susceptible to no reasonable inferences supporting the party opposing the motion.” Iowa Pac. Holdings, 853 F.Supp.2d at 1097 (quoting Minshall v McGraw Hill Broad. Co., 323 F.3d 1273, 1279 (10th Cir. 2003)). “When reviewing an allegation that a jury's verdict was not supported by evidence, [I] view the record in the light most favorable to the prevailing party.” Patton v. TIC United Corp., 77 F.3d 1235, 1242 (10th Cir. 1996).

         Whether “the verdict is against the weight of the evidence presents a question of fact, not law.” Id. Even so, I may not weigh the evidence, pass on the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute my conclusions for those of the jury. Iowa Pac. Holdings, 853 F.Supp.2d at 1097. “The jury has the exclusive function of appraising credibility, determining the weight to be given to the testimony, drawing inferences from the facts established, resolving conflicts in the evidence, and reaching ultimate conclusions of fact.” Snyder v. City of Moab, 354 F.3d 1179, 1188 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting United Phosphorus, Ltd. V. Midland Fumigant, Inc., 205 F.3d 1219, 1226 (10th Cir. 2000) (alternations omitted)).

         If a motion for new trial is based on an allegedly improper evidentiary ruling and purported prejudicial error, the movant must show that the evidentiary ruling was “both clearly erroneous and so prejudicial that ‘it can be reasonably concluded that with or without such evidence, there would have been a contrary result.'” Id. (quoting Hinds v. Gen. Motors Corp., 988 F.2d 1039, 1049 (10th Cir. 1993)). “Neither an error in the admission or exclusion of evidence nor an error in a ruling or order of the court, nor anything done or omitted by the court, can be grounds for granting a new trial unless the error or defect affects the substantial rights of the parties.” Id. (quoting Stewart v. S. Kan. & Okla. R.R., Inc., 36 F.Supp.2d 919, 920 (D. Kan. 1999)).

         ANALYSIS

         Undoubtedly this jury trial created several challenges, as any three-and-a-half-week trial is wont to do. It involved several novel legal issues which I address far more thoroughly in separate orders issued this date. However, in the main, the evidentiary presentations went smoothly, counsel were prepared and efficient, the jury was attentive, each side had an opportunity to present their very differing interpretations of the facts, the jury deliberated an appropriate amount of time, and the verdict was split, with Defendant prevailing as to one Plaintiff, and the other four Plaintiffs prevailing and being awarded what can only be described as moderate monetary damages. It is against this backdrop that I address each of the contentions raised by Defendant.

         First, Defendant contends that I should not have permitted the jury to deliberate on Plaintiffs' claims for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy under Colorado law. This is one of the complex legal issues that I have addressed in a separate order, and for which I found for the Plaintiffs. I will not repeat that analysis here.

         Second, Defendant contends that because Plaintiffs relied on a “constructive discharge” theory in pursuing their wrongful termination claims, and because the evidence supports the fact that they were in fact terminated by Defendant and did not resign, a new trial is required. Again, I address this argument (under the very unique facts presented in this case) in a separate order, and again, I have found for the Plaintiffs on this issue.

         Third, Defendant contends that I should not have admitted detailed evidence of “Plaintiffs' alleged reports to the military-much of which was highly salacious (e.g., ‘child pornography,' ‘human trafficking,' ‘espionage,' etc.)-and testimony from military witnesses about its alleged investigation, the November 5, 2013 ‘raid,' and the barment of eight Vectrus employees from Bagram.” Def.'s Mot. for New Trial 2, ECF No. 331. To provide some context, Plaintiffs were security specialists working for Defendant (a defense contractor) at Bagram Air Force Base (BAFB) in Afghanistan. Plaintiffs were among those employees who screened persons wishing to enter into BAFB. Plaintiffs contend they were terminated for informing the military of wrongdoing (affecting security) by Defendant, while Defendant contends that two of the prevailing Plaintiffs were terminated for misconduct, while the other two were terminated for lack of work.

         As an initial matter, Defendant argues that it was willing to stipulate that Plaintiffs engaged in protected whistleblowing activity; therefore, evidence of the actual details of the reports, as well as the military response, were irrelevant and prejudicial. I could not disagree more. Plaintiffs' theory was that their reports of serious misconduct by Defendant resulted in an unprecedented event in Defendant's corporate history: the United States military conducting an early morning surprise “raid, ” effectively arresting eight of Defendant's employees including senior supervisory personnel, and immediately removing them from the country (by flying them from ...


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