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McPadden v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P.

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 16, 2016

Maureen McPadden, Plaintiff
v.
Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., Defendant Opinion No. 2016 DNH 160

          Richard E. Fradette, Esq., Robert S. Mantell, Esq., Holly A. Stevens, Esq., Lauren S. Irwin, Esq., Joseph A. Lazazzero, Esq., Christopher B. Kaczmarek, Esq.

          ORDER

          STEVEN J. MCAULIFFE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Maureen McPadden brought suit against her former employer, Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. (“Walmart”), advancing numerous state and federal workplace discrimination claims. Following a five-day trial, a jury found in favor of McPadden on four of those claims and awarded her more than $31.2 million in compensatory, enhanced compensatory, and punitive damages. Walmart moves for judgment as a matter of law on all claims or, in the alternative, seeks a new trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) and 59. Should those motions be denied, Walmart moves for remittitur. McPadden objects.

         For the reasons discussed, Walmart's motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial is denied. Its motion for remittitur of the jury's award of compensatory damages is denied, while its motion to remit the jury's award of punitive damages and enhanced compensatory damages is denied without prejudice to refiling after the New Hampshire Supreme Court has answered the certified questions this court proposes to submit to it. Finally, the jury's advisory verdict on plaintiff's front pay claim is not accepted, and the court enters a substantially reduced front pay award.

         Standard of Review

         As our Court of Appeals has observed, “[a] party seeking to overturn a jury verdict faces an uphill battle.” Marcano Rivera v. Turabo Med. Ctr. P'ship, 415 F.3d 162, 167 (1st Cir. 2005). To prevail on a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50, the moving party must demonstrate that “the evidence points so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that no reasonable jury could have returned a verdict adverse to that party.” Keisling v. SER-Jobs for Progress, Inc., 19 F.3d 755, 759-60 (1st Cir. 1994). Under Rule 59, “[a] district court may set aside the jury's verdict and order a new trial only if the verdict is against the law, against the weight of the credible evidence, or tantamount to a miscarriage of justice.” Casillas-Diaz v. Palau, 463 F.3d 77, 81 (1st Cir. 2006). See also Jones ex rel. United States v. Mass. Gen. Hosp., 780 F.3d 479, 492 (1st Cir. 2015) (“A new trial may be warranted if the verdict is against the weight of the evidence or if the action is required in order to prevent injustice.”) (citations and internal punctuation omitted).

         Finally, the court may, in its discretion, impose a remittitur when it is persuaded that the jury's damage award “exceeds any rational appraisal or estimate of the damages that could be based upon the evidence before it, ” Wortley v. Camplin, 333 F.3d 284, 297 (1st Cir. 2003), or when the evidence supporting the jury's award is “so thin” that the award is “vastly out of proportion” to the maximum recovery for which there is evidentiary support, Trainor v. HEI Hospitality, LLC, 699 F.3d 19, 32 (1st Cir. 2012). Moreover, the court of appeals has held that, “[i]n cases of noneconomic injury, such as emotional distress, remittitur requires further finding that the award is so grossly disproportionate to any injury established by the evidence as to be unconscionable as a matter of law.” Climent-Garcia v. Autoridad de Transporte Maritimo y Las Islas Municipio, 754 F.3d 17, 21 n.1 (1st Cir. 2014) (citations and internal punctuation omitted).

         Discussion

         Maureen McPadden had been a long-term employee of Walmart, where she worked as a licensed pharmacist at various stores, including locations in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In 2010, she began working at the Walmart pharmacy in Seabrook, New Hampshire. As an employee of the Seabrook store, McPadden had a minor, but unremarkable disciplinary history. Her performance evaluations were generally satisfactory, but equally unremarkable. According to Walmart, when McPadden lost a key to the pharmacy she had been issued, it decided that lapse, in light of her disciplinary history, warranted her discharge. And, says Walmart, that is the only reason her employment was terminated.

         The jury rejected Walmart's proffered explanation for its decision to fire McPadden and concluded, instead, that Walmart had been motivated by unlawful gender-based discrimination. The jury also concluded that Walmart retaliated against McPadden for reporting what she honestly believed were serious violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (also known as “HIPAA”) and/or for complaining about prescription errors and safety issues related to staffing deficiencies. Accordingly, the jury found in favor of McPadden on her gender discrimination claims (under both Title VII and New Hampshire's Law Against Discrimination), her New Hampshire retaliation/ whistleblower claim arising out of her reports of alleged HIPAA violations and safety issues, and her state common law wrongful discharge claim.

         To say the jury was generous in awarding damages would substantially understate the magnitude of its award - particularly given that McPadden presented a case of gender discrimination and wrongful termination that, while viable, was not particularly dramatic or severe when compared to the norm. Indeed, after hearing all the evidence, the court noted that, “I certainly don't see this as a particularly strong case. In fact, I think it's probably the weakest case that I can remember ever sending to a jury.” Trial Transcript, Day 5, Vol. 1, at 18. Nevertheless, the jury, as was its prerogative, saw it differently and awarded McPadden damages as follows:

Back Pay (all claims) $ 164, 093.00
Front Pay (all claims) $ 558, 392.87
Compensatory Damages (all claims) $ 500, 000.00
Punitive Damages (Title VII) $ 15, 000, 000.00
Enhanced Compensatory Damages (state gender discrimination) $ ...

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