Despite “substantial evidence” supporting a jury’s verdict, a judge may weigh the evidence and set aside the verdict if it is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence. Federal Judge Richard A. Jones did just that in EEOC v. Trans Ocean Seafoods, Inc., No. 15-cv-01563 (W.D. Wash. Sept. 8, 2017). He granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial under FRCP 59(a). In doing so, the court set aside the jury’s verdict for the employer, holding that it knew or should have known of a supervisor’s inappropriate sexual comments based on the “clear weight of the evidence.”
The plaintiffs brought claims alleging sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination. They alleged that they were sexually harassed by their supervisor. At trial, the parties provided conflicting testimony about whether the plaintiffs complained to the employer’s operations manager at an off-site meeting about the supervisor’s harassment. The jury credited the operations manager’s testimony about the off-site meeting, which contradicted the plaintiffs’ testimony. However, it was undisputed that the employer was on notice of complaints about the supervisor’s conduct toward other employees and his prior inappropriate conduct. Indeed, the employer had issued him two prior warnings.
In granting the motion for a new trial, the court weighed the credibility of the witnesses and relied upon documents referencing complaints about the supervisor’s harassment of employees other than the plaintiffs, including the operations manager’s investigation notes and the disciplinary records. The court initially rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the employer’s knowledge of a hostile work environment as to other victims should be imputed to the plaintiffs for purposes of establishing the employer’s liability absent corroborating evidence. However, the court found sufficient corroborating evidence and held that the weight of the evidence demonstrated that the employer was on notice of the supervisor’s improper conduct toward the plaintiffs for at least a year prior to their complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
This case demonstrates that a jury’s verdict is not necessarily the final word. Federal judges have broad authority to weigh evidence, including witness credibility, and may set aside a verdict if it is contrary to the weight of the evidence. It also highlights the importance of taking prompt remedial action when an employer has knowledge of inappropriate comments or conduct.