United States District Court, D. Utah
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS'
RENEWED MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW
N. PARRISH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
case comes before the court on Defendants' Motion for
Judgment as a Matter of Law filed at the close of
Plaintiff's case-in-chief on August 24, 2018 (ECF No.
215). The court submitted the action to the jury subject to
its later review of the legal questions raised by the motion.
See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b). Defendants orally renewed
their Motion at the close of all the evidence, and again
after the jury returned a verdict. Plaintiff responded on
August 28, 2018 (ECF No. 223).
court should grant judgment as a matter of law only when a
party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial
and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a
legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on
that issue.” Eisenhour v. Weber Cty., 897 F.3d
1272, 1280 (10th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks
omitted). “In other words, judgment as a matter of law
is appropriate only if the evidence points but one way and is
susceptible to no reasonable inferences which may support the
nonmoving party's position.” In re Cox Enters.,
Inc., 871 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2017) (internal
quotation marks omitted). The standard “mirrors the
summary judgment standard in that ‘the trial judge must
direct a verdict if, under the governing law, there can be
but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict.'”
Auraria Student Hous. at the Regency, LLC v. Campus Vill.
Apartments, LLC, 843 F.3d 1225, 1247 (10th Cir. 2016)
(quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S.
242, 250 (1986)).
jury trial involved two separate claims against two different
defendants. Against the University of Utah, plaintiff brought
a whistleblower claim under the Utah Protection of Public
Employees Act (“UPPEA”). Against Dr. William
McMahon, plaintiff asserted a federal liberty interest
procedural due process claim. Defendants moved for judgment
as a matter of law on both claims.
whistleblower claim, the University sought judgment as a
matter of law on two grounds: (1) that Dr. Zimmerman's
whistleblower claim was time-barred; and (2) that there was
no causal connection between Dr. Zimmerman's complaints
and any adverse employment action. On the liberty interest
claim, Dr. McMahon moved for judgment as a matter of law on
three grounds: (1) that Dr. Zimmerman's procedural due
process violation claim was fatally flawed due to her failure
to adduce proof that her reputation was impugned, that the
allegedly stigmatizing statements were false, that the
statements foreclosed employment opportunities for Dr.
Zimmerman, or that the statements were published; (2) that
the evidence fell short of the standards required to expose
Dr. McMahon to punitive damages liability; and (3) that there
was no basis for including any research grant funds in any
award of damages. Because the jury found in favor of Dr.
McMahon on the liberty interest claim, his arguments as to
those issues are moot.
the jury returned a verdict in favor of Dr. Zimmerman on her
whistleblower claim. Accordingly, defendants' motion for
judgment as a matter of law remains pending insofar as it
relates to Dr. Zimmerman's UPPEA claim. The court
addresses both of the University's whistleblower
arguments in turn, and for the reasons set forth below,
denies its motion.
UPPEA Limitation Period
argue that Dr. Zimmerman's UPPEA claim is barred by the
statute of limitations because she failed to file it within
180 days of the date on which she received notice that her
employment contract would not be renewed. In so arguing,
defendants seek to relitigate a purely legal issue-one that
has been the subject of proceedings in this court as well as
the Utah Supreme Court-in the guise of a purported
evidentiary failure. Defendants argue that Dr.
Zimmerman's whistleblower cause of action accrued-and
thus the clock began to run-after Dr. McMahon gave Dr.
Zimmerman notice of her non-renewal in December of 2012.
advanced this same argument in proceedings before the Utah
Supreme Court after this court certified the limitations
question raised by the facts of this case. See
Appellees' Resp. Br. on Certified Questions, 2017 WL
8788117, at *16-20. The court can safely assume that if that
court agreed with defendants' analysis, it would have
adopted it. Instead, the Utah Supreme Court explained that
the timeliness of a whistleblower claim turns on whether the
damages sought flow from an event that is time-barred or
timely. The court takes the Utah Supreme Court at its word
when its opinion declared that “[t]o the extent [Dr.
Zimmerman's] damages are causally connected to the notice
of termination they would be time-barred; but to the extent
they are causally connected to the actual termination of
employment they would not be time-barred.”
Zimmerman v. Univ. of Utah, 2018 UT 01, ¶ 35,
417 P.3d 78, 85 (Utah 2018).
the jury awarded only economic damages to Dr. Zimmerman,
which the parties agreed consisted only of lost wages. The
court instructed the jury to this effect, and identified the
date of her actual termination as the earliest date for which
Dr. Zimmerman's lost wages could be compensable.
See ECF No. 219, Instruction No. 37. The court
cannot see how the lost wages awarded could be causally
attributable to anything but Dr. Zimmerman ceasing to be
employed by the University. Because damages caused by that
event are not time-barred, defendants' arguments on this
point are unavailing.
from reciting the same arguments they unsuccessfully urged
before the Utah Supreme Court, defendants have not
articulated any evidentiary failure that should have
precluded the jury's consideration of Dr. Zimmerman's
whistleblower claim. Accordingly, the court finds that
defendants are not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on
the issue of limitations.