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Roswick v. Mid Dakota Clinic, P.C.

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

November 13, 2019

Dr. Robert J. Roswick, Plaintiff,
v.
Mid Dakota Clinic, P.C., Defendant.

          J. Ashwin Madia, Esq., Madia Law LLC,, Minneapolis, MN on behalf of Plaintiff.

          Scott K. Porsborg, Esq., and Sarah E. Wall, Esq., Smith Porsborg Schweigert Armstrong Moldenhauer & Smith, Bismarck, ND, on behalf of Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANN D. MONTGOMERY, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the undersigned United States District Judge for rulings on Plaintiff Dr. Robert J. Roswick's (“Dr. Roswick”) Motion for Attorney Fees and Costs [Docket No. 227], Motion to Amend Judgment to Award Equitable Relief [Docket No. 247], Motion to Alter Judgment to Award Interest [Docket No. 251], and Motion for Partial New Trial on Punitive Damages [Docket No. 254]. Also before the Court are Defendant Mid Dakota Clinic, P.C.'s (“MDC”) Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law [Docket No. 244] and Motion for New Trial, or in the Alternative, Motion for Remittitur [Docket No. 246]. For the reasons set forth below, Dr. Roswick's motions for attorney fees, equitable relief, and interest are granted in part, his motion for a partial new trial is denied, and MDC's motions are denied.

         II.BACKGROUND

         On March 7, 2017, Dr. Roswick filed this Title VII retaliation case against his former employer, MDC. Dr. Roswick alleged he was suspended by MDC's Board of Directors (“Board”) and subsequently terminated by MDC's physician shareholders in retaliation for opposing MDC's “racially discriminatory actions” allegedly taken against Dr. Jayaram Bharadwaj (“Dr. Bharadwaj”), an Indian-American physician. Compl. [Docket No. 1] ¶¶ 23, 34. Dr. Roswick's suspension and termination was prompted by a January 21, 2015 email he sent to 26 shareholder physicians at MDC. In the email, Dr. Roswick expressed concern that the Board did not follow MDC's bylaws when it suspended Dr. Bharadwaj and stated that “[n]o suspension has ever been handled this way with a white American born doctor.” Trial Ex. P-278 [Docket No. 250, Attach. 3]. In addition to the Title VII retaliation claim, Dr. Roswick asserted a claim against MDC and its Board members for breach of fiduciary duty under North Dakota law. Compl. ¶¶ 37-41.

         MDC denied the allegations in the Complaint and argued Dr. Roswick was suspended and terminated for filing a false complaint of discrimination, not for engaging in protected conduct. MDC contended Dr. Roswick's false allegation was the proverbial last straw in a history of disruptive behavior by Dr. Roswick after his removal as president of the Board in 2012.

         On February 13, 2019, the Court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the breach of fiduciary duty claim, and denied MDC's motion for summary judgment on the Title VII claim. See Summ. J. Order [Docket No. 117]. Regarding the Title VII claim, the Court held that whether MDC discharged Dr. Roswick because he engaged in protected conduct, as Dr. Roswick argued, or because MDC believed in good faith that Dr. Roswick made a knowingly false allegation of discrimination, as MDC argued, raised a genuine issue of fact. The Court explained:

As the Eighth Circuit has repeatedly recognized, an employer cannot legitimately fire every “employee who files a Title VII claim and is disbelieved, ” yet on the other hand a plaintiff cannot “file false charges, lie to an investigator, and possibly defame co-employees, without suffering repercussions simply because the investigation was about [discrimination].” Richey, 540 F.3d at 784 (quoting Gilooly v. Missouri Dep't of Health & Senior Servs., 421 F.3d 734, 740 (8th Cir. 2005)). “Differentiating individual cases between the two extremes . . . is a difficult endeavor at the summary judgment stage.” Id. (quoting Gilooly, 421 F.3d at 740). The evidence here raises a genuine issue of fact for a jury as to where in the spectrum this case falls.

Id. at 18.

         Dr. Roswick's retaliation claim was tried to a jury beginning August 5, 2019. The trial spanned five days, and concluded with a verdict on August 9, 2019. The twelve person jury considered the testimony of 23 witnesses and 31 exhibits. During trial, MDC moved for a directed verdict at the close of Dr. Roswick's case, and Dr. Roswick moved for judgment as a matter of law after the close of MDC's case. The Court denied both motions. Over Dr. Roswick's objection, the issue of punitive damages was not submitted to the jury because the Court determined that the record lacked sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude that the standard for awarding punitive damages had been met. The jury verdict found in favor of Dr. Roswick, and awarded $1, 211, 851.00 in lost wages and benefits through the date of trial. Verdict [Docket No. 222].

         MDC now renews its motion for judgment as a matter of law. Alternatively, MDC moves for a new trial or remittitur. Dr. Roswick moves for attorney's fees and costs, front pay, pre- and post-judgment interest, and a partial new trial on the issue of punitive damages.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. MDC's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         MDC renews its motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 50 authorizes the court to allow judgment on the verdict, order a new trial, or direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b)(1-3). The standard of review for granting a Rule 50(b) motion is whether sufficient evidence exists to support the jury verdict. “Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only when all of the evidence points one way and is susceptible of no reasonable inference sustaining the position of the nonmoving party.” Allstate Indem. Co. v. Dixon, 932 F.3d 696, 702 (8th Cir. 2019). In deciding a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court must:

(1) consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, (2) assume that all conflicts in the evidence were resolved in favor of the prevailing party, (3) assume as proved all facts that the prevailing party's evidence tended to prove, and (4) give the prevailing party the benefit of all favorable inferences that may reasonably be drawn from the facts proved. That done, the court must then deny the motion if reasonable persons could differ as to the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence.

Washington v. Denney, 900 F.3d 549, 558-59 (8th Cir. 2018) (quoting Haynes v. Bee-Line Trucking Co., 80 F.3d 1235, 1238 (8th Cir. 1996)).

         To prevail on his Title VII retaliation claim at trial, Dr. Roswick was required to show (1) he engaged in protected conduct; (2) he suffered a materially adverse employment action; and (3) the materially adverse action was causally connected to Dr. Roswick's protected conduct. Wright v. St. Vincent Health Sys., 730 F.3d 732, 737 (8th Cir. 2013).

         MDC argues that the evidence at trial failed to demonstrate that Dr. Roswick engaged in protected conduct or that the protected conduct was the cause of Dr. Roswick's suspension and termination.

         1. Protected Conduct

         An employee engages in protected conduct under Title VII if the employee opposes an employment practice and acts with a good faith, objectively reasonable belief that the opposed practices are unlawful. Bonn v. City of Omaha, 623 F.3d 587, 591 (8th Cir. 2010).

         MDC argues Dr. Roswick admitted he did not engage in protected conduct because he believed only that the Board's actions toward Dr. Bharadwaj could be interpreted as discriminatory, not that the Board's actions actually were discriminatory. However, Dr. Roswick testified that he sent the January 2015 email for both reasons: he believed discrimination was occurring, and he also wanted to protect the clinic from liability because the Board's actions could be perceived as discriminatory.[1] Additionally, the jury could have reasonably found Dr. Roswick was asserting and opposing discrimination in his January 15, 2015 email, because the Board itself stated in a letter to Dr. Roswick that the Board “determined . . . [Dr. Roswick] actually was asserting discrimination and racism.” Trial Ex. P-327 [Docket No. 250, Attach. 8].

         MDC also argues the evidence shows Dr. Roswick did not engage in protected conduct because he did not have a good faith, objectively reasonable belief that MDC discriminated against Dr. Bharadwaj. To support this argument, MDC relies on the following evidence: Dr. Roswick declined to meet with MDC's legal counsel to inform her of the facts supporting his discrimination claim; Dr. Roswick sent MDC a letter stating that he was merely suggesting the Board's actions in suspending Dr. Bharadwaj could be interpreted as discriminatory; Dr. Roswick admitted that physicians frequently have an alternative version of events after being disciplined than what actually occurred and that he was not privy to the circumstances surrounding Dr. Bharadwaj's suspension beyond what he had been told by Dr. Bharadwaj; and Dr. Roswick referred to the widespread dissemination of his January 15 email as an “OOOOpsie, ” which MDC argues is not consistent with the actions of an individual submitting a complaint of race discrimination in good faith. MDC contends this evidence shows Dr. Roswick did not and could not have submitted a good faith complaint of discrimination, as he did not have a reasonable basis of information to make such a claim.

         Each of these arguments was presented to and rejected by the jury. The evidence, when construed in the light most favorable to Dr. Roswick, was sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that Dr. Roswick's complaint was reasonable and made in good faith. Although Dr. Roswick admitted he was not privy to the reasons for Dr. Bharadwaj's suspension, Dr. Roswick testified that he believed MDC was discriminating against Dr. Bharadwaj by failing to provide him the same due process that MDC previously afforded its physician shareholders. Dr. Roswick further testified that he thought the information told to him by Dr. Bharadwaj-that Dr. Bharadwaj had been suspended and instructed by MDC's CEO to resign prior to a shareholder vote-was true because the information was corroborated by: 1) an email from MDC's medical director to MDC shareholders saying Dr. Bharadwaj was on leave; and 2) a patient telling Dr. Roswick that the patient learned from the clinic that Dr. Bharadwaj would not be returning. Thus, a reasonable jury could conclude from the trial evidence that Dr. Roswick engaged in protected activity.

         2. MDC's Good Faith Belief Dr. Roswick Engaged in Misconduct

         MDC also argues it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Dr. Roswick's termination was based on a good faith belief by MDC that Dr. Roswick engaged in misconduct, not because of protected activity. MDC contends there was no evidence at trial rebutting that MDC reasonably believed Dr. Roswick engaged in misconduct when he asserted that the Board was discriminating against Dr. Bharadwaj. None of the shareholders who testified at trial and voted to terminate Dr. Roswick believed that his complaint was made in good faith. The shareholders were privy to the actual circumstances of Dr. Bharadwaj's suspension. The shareholders also knew of the disruptive behavior by Dr. Roswick that occurred months before he complained of discrimination. After sending the email, Dr. Roswick attempted to minimize it instead of standing by it, thereby signaling to the Board and shareholders that the alleged complaint was not made in good faith and supported by facts.

         Again, these arguments were presented to and rejected by the jury. When all reasonable inferences are construed in Dr. Roswick's favor, the evidence supports a reasonable conclusion that Dr. Roswick was terminated because he engaged in protected activity, not because MDC reasonably believed he filed a false claim of discrimination. The Board's letters informing Dr. Roswick of the reason for his suspension and termination did not state his discrimination claim was knowingly false. Witnesses testified there was no discussion of false statements at the shareholder meeting where Dr. Roswick was terminated. Thus, reasonable persons could differ over whether Dr. Roswick's termination was based on a good faith belief by MDC that he filed a false claim of discrimination.

         Accordingly, MDC's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law is denied.

         B. MDC's Motion for New Trial or Remittitur

         1. New Trial

         MDC contends it is entitled to a new trial, arguing the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the Court erroneously excluded evidence, and Jury Instruction 18 was fatally defective. The decision whether to grant a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) is committed to the discretion of the district court. Pulla v. Amoco Oil Co., 72 F.3d 648, 656 (8th Cir. 1995). “A new trial is required only when necessary to avoid a miscarriage of justice.” Gearin v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 53 F.3d 216, 219 (8th Cir. 1995) (citing McKnight v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 36 F.3d 1396, 1400 (8th Cir. 1994)). “[T]he court is not free to set aside a jury verdict and to grant a new trial merely because it believes the jury could have drawn different inferences or that another result would be more reasonable.” Washburn v. Kansas City Life Ins. Co., 831 F.2d 1404, 1409 (8th Cir. 1987). Additionally, inaccuracies or errors should not serve as a basis for setting aside a verdict unless prejudicial error is shown. Buchholz v. Rockwell Int'l Corp., 120 F.3d 146, 148 (8th Cir. 1997).

         a. Weight of the Evidence

         A trial court may only grant a new trial if it believes “that the verdict was so contrary to the evidence as to amount to a miscarriage of justice.” Butler v. French, 83 F.3d 942, 944 (8th Cir. 1996). “In determining whether a verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the trial court can . . . weigh the evidence, disbelieve witnesses, and grant a new trial even where there is substantial evidence to sustain the verdict.” White v. Pence, 961 F.2d 776, 780 (8th Cir.1992) (quotation marks omitted). However, “a trial court may not grant a new trial simply because the trial court would have found a verdict different from the one the jury found.” Butler, 83 F.3d at 944. Rather, “[t]he court should reject a jury's verdict only where, after a review of all the evidence giving full respect to the jury's verdict, the court is left with a definite and firm conviction that the jury has erred.” Ryan v. McDonough Power Equip., Inc., 734 F.2d 385, 387 (8th Cir.1984).

         Based on the evidence at trial, the Court is not left with a firm conviction that the jury has erred or the verdict is a miscarriage of justice.

         b. Evidentiary Rulings

         Prior to trial, MDC filed a motion in limine asking the Court to exclude testimony by Dr. Roswick and by non-decisionmakers at MDC regarding Dr. Roswick's job performance. Dr. Roswick opposed the motion, arguing the evidence was necessary to rebut MDC's argument that Dr. Roswick had engaged in disruptive behavior months before sending the January 2015 email. Dr. Roswick argued he was wrongly reprimanded in October 2014 for disruptive behavior based on six incidents that were not true, and that evidence of his job performance was necessary to show that at the time MDC's shareholders voted to terminate him they knew the incidents were false. In reply, MDC argued:

The propriety of any discipline of Plaintiff prior to his suspension is simply irrelevant to whether he was retaliated against for a claim of discrimination. Again, this is a retaliation action for a claim of discrimination, not a wrongful termination action by Plaintiff for an untruthful disciplinary action. Thus, exclusion of Plaintiff's testimony and other non-decisionmakers regarding Plaintiff's job performance is necessary to prevent the jury from being confused as to the relevant issues to be decided.

Def.'s Reply Mem. [Docket No. 127] at 2.

         The Court found MDC's reasoning persuasive and preliminarily ruled in a Pretrial Order that “[t]he only relevance of the six incidents is to show that the Board perceived Dr. Roswick's behavior as disruptive. Therefore, evidence of the facts and circumstances underlying the pre-October 2014 incidents is inadmissible. Evidence underlying the pre-October 2014 incidents also threatens to confuse the jury and cause undue delay by creating mini-trials on irrelevant issues.” Pretrial Order [Docket No. 205] at 3. The Pretrial Order stated the parties would have “an opportunity for preserving objections to these rulings . . . on the first day of trial.” Id. at 2.

         On the first morning of trial, Dr. Roswick objected to this evidentiary ruling but MDC did not.[2] MDC accepted the ruling and noted that the six incidents involved matters of peer review and threatened to create six mini-trials within the case. MDC then proposed that the Board's October 2014 letter of reprimand be submitted to the jury with the specifics of the six incidents redacted. The Court approved MDC's proposal, and the redacted October 2014 letter was received into evidence at trial. See Trial Ex. D-43 [Docket No. 250, Attach. 10]. The unredacted portions of the letter, which the jury was allowed to view, stated that Dr. Roswick's actions over the past several months had been disruptive, that the Board expected him to cease his disruptive behavior going forward and “utilize proper avenues to express [his] concerns, ” and that “[i]f the disruptive behaviors do not cease the Board may take disciplinary action which could result in employment termination.” Id. Dr. Roswick's signature acknowledging receipt of the letter was not redacted. Id.

         MDC now argues the Court erred by excluding evidence of the specific facts and circumstances underlying the six pre-October 2014 incidents. MDC contends the Court excluded the evidence sua sponte, and that if the jury had heard evidence about the circumstances of the prior discipline the jury would have understood the disruptive pattern of Dr. Roswick's behavior and the ...


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