Peterson v. Wilson

141 F.3d 573 (5th Cir. 1998)



An appellate court reviews the district court's grant of a new trial for abuse of discretion. A verdict can be against the great weight of the evidence, and thus justify a new trial, even if there is substantial evidence to support it. What courts cannot do is to grant a new trial simply because the court would have come to a different conclusion then the jury did.


Plaintiff employee challenged the district court's sua sponte decision granting defendant supervisor a new trial after a first jury had held for plaintiff on various constitutional claims. Plaintiff was fired from his job as a college grant administrator for refusing to use grant money for unauthorized purposes. Plaintiff's supervisor threatened to terminate plaintiff if he refused to "play ball." Plaintiff refused and was duly fired. Four months later, on its own motion the district court granted defendant a new trial, stating that jurors had approached the judge and admitted to considering improper factors in reaching a verdict. A second jury ruled in favor of defendant. On appeal, the court held that the first jury's verdict could not be impeached under Fed. R. Civ. P. 606(b) by juror statements as to what transpired inside the jury room. The jurors' admissions of misconduct did not constitute newly discovered evidence upon which to justify granting defendant a new trial. The court's sua sponte grant of a new trial based upon such evidence was a per se abuse of discretion. The court reversed with directions to reinstate the first jury verdict awarding plaintiff damages.


May a trial judge overturn a verdict that is based on his own conclusion that the jury formed its decision based on a misunderstanding of the instructions of the judge?




Any effort to salvage the ruling of the district court is stymied by the record itself which reflects neither a "great weight" of evidence in favor of either party, nor a basis on which the trial court could have granted judgment as a matter of law. Rather, it contains more than sufficient evidence, when credited by the jury, to support the determination that Peterson's termination by Wilson was arbitrary and capricious, in direct retaliation for Peterson's refusal to authorize the expenditure of federal grant funds for improper or illicit purposes. The evidence obviously credited by the jury also supports a finding of pretext, as the nine items listed in the Deyon report evaporate when exposed to the spotlight of credible explanations, including the revelation that Wilson never conferred with the author of the report and did not even fully understand some of the unsustainable charges in this "hatchet job" on which he so readily relied. The firing thus violated Peterson's substantive due process property right in his employment at TSU, which could only be terminated for cause.

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