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King v. Southwest Foodservice Excellence, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

November 18, 2019

LINDA KING, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTHWEST FOODSERVICE EXCELLENCE, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This diversity action came before the Court on plaintiff Linda King's claim that her employer, defendant Southwest Foodservice Excellence, LLC, wrongfully discharged her from her employment for serving on a grand jury in the fall of 2014, in violation of the public policy of Missouri. The matter was tried to a jury who returned a verdict in King's favor and awarded her $156, 500 in actual damages and $75, 000 in punitive damages. Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), defendant Southwest Foodservice renews its motion for judgment as a matter of law on King's claim. Alternatively, defendant requests a new trial. I will deny the motion.

         Judgment as a Matter of Law

         I denied defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of King's case and again at the close of all the evidence. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). In its renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, defendant contends that it is entitled to judgment on King's claim for wrongful discharge for several reasons: 1) the availability of a statutory cause of action under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 494.460(2) extinguished King's ability to bring a common law claim of wrongful discharge; 2) the relevant ninety-day statute of limitations under § 494.460(2) expired before King brought this lawsuit; 3) King failed to establish a prima facie case of wrongful discharge because there was no evidence showing a causal connection between her jury service and discharge; 4) King failed to establish a prima facie case justifying punitive damages because there was no evidence of outrageous conduct; and 5) Missouri's workers' compensation law provides the sole remedy for emotional distress damages.

         A motion for judgment as a matter of law should be granted only if the jury's verdict is utterly lacking in evidentiary support. In re Prempro Prods. Liab. Litig., 586 F.3d 547, 571 (8th Cir. 2009). When deciding a Rule 50 motion, I must construe the evidence most favorably to the prevailing party and draw all inferences in her favor, denying the motion “if reasonable persons could differ as to the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence.” Western Am., Inc. v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 915 F.2d 1181, 1183 (8th Cir. 1990). I may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. In re Prempro, 586 F.3d at 572 (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)). Under these standards, defendant's motion must be denied.

         First, in a Memorandum and Order entered shortly after this case was filed, I thoroughly addressed and rejected the same claims defendant raises in the first and second grounds of its renewed motion here. (See ECF 12.) Nothing presented at trial or in the present motion changes my previous conclusions or serves as a basis for disturbing the jury's verdict. I will deny these grounds of defendant's motion.

         I will also deny defendant's claims that no causal connection between King's grand jury service and her discharge was shown, and that King failed to present a submissible case for punitive damages. Construing the evidence most favorably to King and drawing all inferences in her favor, I find that the evidence presented to the jury, in its totality and after review, supports the jury's conclusions that King's service on the grand jury beginning in August 2014 and continuing through September and October was a contributing factor in defendant's termination of her employment on October 20, 2014, and that defendant acted with reckless disregard to King's rights and interests.

         The following evidence presented to the jury through exhibits and witness testimony supports the jury's conclusions: Immediately upon being summoned by the Circuit Court of St. Louis City in early August 2014, King informed defendant that she was called for grand jury service and, upon being selected as a grand juror, she told defendant of the days she was required to serve. Defendant knew that jury service was a protected status under Missouri law, subject to non-discrimination protections. Shortly after King began her jury service, defendant's human resources representative told her that she would have to choose between her job or jury duty. On August 21, King's immediate supervisor wrote a disciplinary notice for King's failure to perform a specific job duty on August 14, which was a day the supervisor knew that King was serving on the grand jury. This same supervisor sought King's termination for this incident, but defendant's food director said no. The supervisor then began keeping a detailed list of food deficiencies that occurred during the period of King's jury service, but she did not counsel King regarding these deficiencies or attempt to reconcile any misconception regarding who had food-ordering responsibilities during this period - indeed, King and another food service employee thought that the supervisor shared responsibility for placing food orders in King's absence. This supervisor complained that King's absence from the school during jury duty caused her (the supervisor) to spend too much time at King's school and possibly neglect the other schools she supervised. With the assistance of human resources, this supervisor prepared King's termination notice on October 15, which was then presented to the food director with the prepared list documenting the food-deficiencies. Without verifying that it was King's responsibility to place the food orders during her period of jury service or that it was King who placed improper food orders that caused the food deficiencies, the director signed the termination notice. The notice was given to King on October 20. It was during this termination meeting that King was first informed of the documented food deficiencies and that defendant expected her to be solely responsible to place food orders during her period of jury service. King completed her grand jury service in early November 2014.

         From this evidence, a reasonable juror could conclude that King's service on the grand jury was a contributing factor in defendant's termination of her employment, and that King showed with convincing clarity that such wrongful termination was, at the very least, in reckless disregard for her rights and interests, especially given defendant's knowledge that jury service is a protected status. Accordingly, given the evidentiary support for the jury's verdict, I must deny defendant's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law on the bases claimed. I will also deny defendant's related request that I vacate that portion of the jury's verdict awarding King punitive damages.

         Finally, King's recovery in this action for her emotional distress is not barred by Missouri's workers' compensation law. This law provides the exclusive remedy to an employee for “personal injury . . . by accident or occupational disease arising out of and in the course of the employee's employment.” Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.120.1 (2012). Under § 287.120.9, “[a] mental injury is not considered to arise out of and in the course of the employment if it resulted from any disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, layoff, demotion, termination or any similar action taken in good faith by the employer.”[1] Defendant argues that if a mental injury resulting from a good-faith termination is not considered to arise out of and in the course of employment, then such an injury from a bad-faith termination - such as one where punitive damages are warranted - must be considered employment-related and thus covered by the workers' compensation law. Defendant further argues that, regardless, the question of whether King's injury was an “accident” for workers' compensation purposes is one reserved exclusively to the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, and that I and the jury therefore lacked jurisdiction over King's claim of employment-related emotional injury.

         In Ascare v. MasterCard Int'l Inc., a judge of this district held that Missouri's workers' compensation law does not apply to claims of emotional distress that arise directly from unemployment rather than from the termination itself. Ascare, No. 4:10CV1979 JCH, 2012 WL 3548028, at *13 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 16, 2012). “[R]egardless of whether Plaintiff allegedly suffered such distress in the immediate aftermath of [her] termination or during the weeks following [her] termination, such distress did not ‘arise out of and in the course of' Plaintiff's employment.” Id. Here, King adduced evidence at trial showing that her emotional distress directly arose from circumstances that occurred after she was terminated, that is, from her unemployment. She could no longer assist in paying bills. Her home was foreclosed upon and she was forced to move to an apartment, which in turn forced her to give up her dogs. She collected food stamps and went to churches in the neighborhood to obtain food. She cried a lot, could not sleep, and was depressed. While her unemployment was the result of her unlawful discharge, her distress did not arise directly from her actual employment or from the termination itself, but rather from the circumstances that occurred afterward. Accordingly, King's mental injury did not “arise out of and in the course of” her employment, and the workers' compensation law does not apply. Id.. This is true regardless of whether defendant acted in good faith or bad faith when it terminated King's employment. And since the workers' compensation law does not apply in the first instance, whether King's injury was an “accident” under that law is not relevant to the claim and defendant's jurisdictional challenge fails.

         Defendant's final point is denied. I will also deny defendant's related request that I reduce the actual-damages portion of the jury's verdict by an amount reflecting King's emotional distress.

         Motion for New Trial

         As alternative relief, defendant seeks a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A), arguing that I made several evidentiary errors as well as errors in the instructions given to the jury. Defendant also argues that the jury's verdict was unsupported by and/or against the weight of the ...


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