United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division
DAVID D. VANVALKENBURG, Plaintiff,
OREGON DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL W. MOSMAN Chief United States District Judge.
David VanValkenburg brought this suit against the Oregon
Department of Corrections (“ODOC”), alleging
violations of federal and state anti-discrimination laws
while he was in custody. Mr. VanValkenburg's state-law
claim was tried to a jury, beginning on November 1, 2016. The
jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. VanValkenburg,
awarding him $400, 000 in noneconomic damages . On
December 5, 2016, ODOC filed post-trial motions for judgment
as a matter of law, a new trial, and remittitur . Mr.
VanValkenburg responded in opposition , and ODOC replied
. For the reasons explained below, ODOC'S motions
VanValkenburg is a hearing-impaired individual who was housed
at multiple prisons run by ODOC from 2000 to 2014. In 2014,
he brought this case against ODOC based on allegations that
it violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws when
it failed to provide him with accommodations for his hearing
disability that would allow him to meaningfully participate
in prison programs and services provided to inmates. Mr.
VanValkenburg's claims were grounded in violations of
federal and state anti-discrimination laws. He sought
injunctive relief, economic, and noneconomic damages. After
receiving full briefing on ODOC's Motion for Summary
Judgment, this Court dismissed Mr. VanValkenburg's claims
for injunctive relief, and his alleged emotional distress
damages based on his Americans with Disabilities Act
(“ADA”) claim. The Court also narrowed the period
of time from which Mr. VanValkenburg could recover damages to
instances of discrimination that occurred on or after May 5,
2012, for his federal-law claim and September 23, 2013, for
his state-law claim.
a telephone oral argument on September 20, 2016, ODOC
conceded that Mr. VanValkenburg was a qualified individual
with a disability, and that his need for accommodation was
obvious. But, ODOC contended that Mr. VanValkenburg's ADA
claim was procedurally barred because he failed to exhaust
his administrative remedies. As a result, on October 17,
2016, I held a bench-trial on the issue of exhaustion, where
I found that he had not exhausted his administrative
remedies, and dismissed Mr. VanValkenburg's ADA claim.
November 1, 2016, a jury trial commenced on Mr.
VanValkenburg's remaining state-law claim for alleged
disability discrimination between September 23, 2013, and his
release from prison in 2014. The issues for trial were
whether the accommodations ODOC provided so that Mr.
VanValkenburg could equally participate in its programs and
services were reasonable, and whether further accommodations
would have posed an undue burden on ODOC. Specifically, Mr.
VanValkenburg alleged that he was discriminated against when
ODOC (1) failed to provide him with effective communication
for five medical appointments, (2) refused to consider his
application to work in the prison canteen, (3) failed to
provide him with effective communication to participate in
the “Road to Success” class, and (4) failed to
provide him with equivalent access to the videophone system
as hearing inmates had to prison phones. In presenting his
case to the jury, Mr. VanValkenburg introduced documentary
evidence, testimony from an expert witness, and testimony
from a state-wide disability services coordinator. He also
testified on his own behalf. ODOC moved for judgment as a
matter of law before jury deliberations began. I DENIED
ODOC's motion. After a three-day trial, the jury found in
favor of Mr. VanValkenburg on these claims and awarded him
$400, 000 in noneconomic damages.
to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, ODOC has renewed its
motion for judgment as a matter of law. In the alternative,
ODOC moves for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 59(a). Finally, ODOC moves for an order of
remittitur and/or conditioning the denial of its motion for
new trial on a reduction of the jury's damages award to
$25, 000 total. Mr. VanValkenburg objects to all three
Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law
succeed in their motion for judgment as a matter of law, the
defendants must show that “a reasonable jury would not
have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the
party on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a); see
also Fed R. Civ. P. 50(b) (allowing for a renewed motion
for judgment as a matter of law after trial). “[I]n
entertaining a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the
court should review all of the evidence in the record.”
Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S.
133, 150 (2000). The “court must draw all reasonable
inferences in favor of the nonmoving party” and
“give credence to the evidence favoring the
nonmovant.” Id. at 150-51. Judgment as a
matter of law is appropriate when “the evidence,
construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party
permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion
is contrary to the jury's verdict.” Acosta v.
City of Costa Mesa, 718 F.3d 800, 828 (9th Cir. 2013).
Additionally, the court must uphold the jury's verdict
“if it is supported by substantial evidence, which is
evidence adequate to support the jury's conclusion, even
if it is also possible to draw a contrary conclusion.”
Pavao v. Pagay, 307 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 2002).
reviewing all of the evidence in the record, I have
determined that the jury's verdict is supported by
substantial evidence in the record. From the outset, it is
important to note that ODOC conceded before trial that Mr.
VanValkenburg's disability and need for accommodations
were obvious. Thus, the questions for the jury were limited
to whether ODOC's accommodations were sufficient, and, if
not, whether further accommodations posed an undue burden on
ODOC. Evidence presented to the jury supports Mr.
VanValkenburg's claim that ODOC discriminated against him
when it failed to (1) provide him with effective
communication during five of his medical appointments, (2)
consider him for the canteen position, (3) provide him with
effective communication at the Road to Success class, and (4)
provide him with equivalent access to the videophone as
hearing people had to the prison phones.
the medical appointments, Mr. VanValkenburg's expert
witness testified about his difficulty communicating by
writing or lip-reading. At trial, ODOC did not dispute that
prison medical staff used those methods of communication to
communicate with Mr. VanValkenburg during the medical
appointments at issue. Mr. VanValkenburg's testimony
confirmed these facts and his preference for communicating
through qualified sign language interpreters. In addition,
Mr. VanValkenburg described the frustration, confusion, and
fear that resulted from his inability to speak with and ask
questions to his doctors. While ODOC suggested that providing
a qualified ASL interpreter at these medical appointments
would have posed an undue burden, this evidence was disputed
and other evidence suggested that ODOC failed to pursue other
accommodations that were available. Accordingly, the
jury's finding of discrimination as to Mr.
VanValkenburg's medical appointments is supported by the
the canteen position, Mr. VanValkenburg introduced evidence
of an inmate communication form that responded to his request
to apply for an opening in the canteen. On the face of that
form, the prison responded that he could not apply for the
position because of his disability. Based on that statement
and testimony from Ms. Carsner about ODOC's failure to
investigate ways to accommodate Mr. VanValkenburg, the jury
could find that ODOC discriminated against him. Although ODOC
argued that he ultimately received a higher paying position,
such evidence would only serve to undermine economic damages,
which he did not seek at trial. Indeed, to support his claim
for noneconomic damages, Mr. VanValkenburg testified about
the mental anguish he experienced by not being allowed to
apply for the position.
the Road to Success course, Mr. VanValkenburg testified that
he was unable to take the class, which is intended to prepare
incarcerated individuals for successful release, because he
was not provided with a translator after requesting one at
least twice. While ODOC tried to rebut Mr.
VanValkenburg's testimony with documents that suggest he
agreed to participate in one-on-one meetings with his
counselor and parole officer instead of taking the course,
Mr. VanValkenburg denied these claims. The jury was entitled
to evaluate Mr. VanValkenburg's credibility and believe
his testimony. ...