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Berkowitz v. Berkowitz

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 30, 2015



DENISE J. CASPER, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Defendant Bonnie[1] Berkowitz ("Bonnie") has moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, D. 79, 89, 107, or in the alternative, for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, D. 106. Following a trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff Samuel Berkowitz ("Samuel"). D. 92. Bonnie alleges she was prejudiced by Samuel's trial strategy, D. 106 at 1-2, and also that Samuel's case was legally deficient and barred by a number of affirmative defenses. D. 107 at 2. For the reasons discussed below, Bonnie's motions are DENIED.

II. Standard of Review

Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A) allows a court to "grant a new trial on all or some of the issues-and to any party" following a jury trial, "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). Generally, a district court may order a new trial "only if the verdict is against the law, against the weight of the credible evidence, or tantamount to a miscarriage of justice." Crowe v. Marchand, 506 F.3d 13, 19 (1st Cir. 2007) (quoting Casillas-Díaz v. Palau, 463 F.3d 77, 81 (1st Cir. 2006)). "[A] district court has the power and duty to order a new trial whenever, in its judgment, the action is required in order to prevent injustice, " and the Court may independently weigh the evidence presented at trial. Jennings v. Jones, 587 F.3d 430, 436 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Kearns v. Keystone Shipping Co., 863 F.2d 177, 181 (1st Cir. 1988)). "[T]he trial judge's discretion, although great, must be exercised with due regard to the rights of both parties to have questions which are fairly open resolved finally by the jury at a single trial." Ahern v. Scholz, 85 F.3d 774, 780 (1st Cir. 1996) (quoting Coffran v. Hitchcock Clinic, Inc., 683 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982)). That is, a judge "cannot displace a jury's verdict merely because he disagrees with it or would have found otherwise in a bench trial." Id . (quoting Milone v. Moceri Family, Inc., 847 F.2d 35, 37 (1st Cir. 1988).

Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 provides that a party may file for judgment as a matter of law when "a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis" to find in favor of the nonmoving party. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1); Barkan v. Dunkin' Donuts, Inc., 627 F.3d 34, 39 (1st Cir. 2010). A movant faces an "uphill battle, " as "[c]ourts may only grant a judgment contravening a jury's determination when the evidence points so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that no reasonable jury could have returned a verdict adverse to that party." T G Plastics Trading Co., Inc. v. Toray Plastics (Am.), Inc., 775 F.3d 31, 38 (1st Cir. 2014) (alteration in original) (citation omitted). Conversely, "if instead fair-minded person could draw different inferences from the evidence presented at trial, the matter is for the jury." Espada v. Lugo, 312 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 2002). Accordingly, the "court may not consider the credibility of witnesses, resolve conflicts in testimony or evaluate the weight of the evidence.'" Barkan, 627 F.3d at 39. A non-moving party with the burden of proof, however, must "present more than a mere scintilla' of evidence and may not rely on conjecture or speculation" to defeat a motion for judgment as a matter of law. Id . (quoting Katz v. City Metal Co., 87 F.3d 26, 28 (1st Cir. 1996)).

III. Background

A. Factual Background

The following facts are as drawn from the trial testimony. Samuel was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 and underwent a life-saving operation at the end of that year. D. 107-3 at 103. Following his operation, Samuel was bedridden for twelve to sixteen hours per day. Id . Shortly thereafter, Samuel decided to move to Florida to focus on his health. Id . On or about May 13, 1999, he conveyed his interest in three parcels of real estate in Chelsea, Massachusetts (the "Chelsea Properties") to his wife, Barbara, and to his daughter, Bonnie, so that they could manage the properties while he was away. Id. at 106; 111-112. On June 5, 1998, Samuel gave a general power of attorney to Bonnie, as he trusted her to handle his affairs while he was ill. Id. at 104-111.

Barbara testified that on November 14, 2000, she and Bonnie sold the Chelsea properties for $1.7 million, each receiving 50 percent of the sales proceeds. Id. at 43-46. Samuel testified that Barbara and Bonnie engaged in a series of financial transactions in 1999-2000, the effect of which was to remove securities of approximately $1 million from his control. D. 107-4 at 20. Specifically, Samuel testified that Bonnie forged his signature on a document transferring the securities to an account she held with her mother. Id. at 11; D. 109-5. Samuel also testified that Bonnie never accounted for the securities, D. 107-4 at 22, or told him that the securities were hers. D. 107-3 at 114-115.

B. Procedural History

Samuel commenced this action on March 22, 2011. D. 1. Bonnie moved to dismiss the complaint on April 25, 2011, D. 6, and the Court denied the motion. D. 12. The parties proceeded with discovery. On February 11, 2013, Bonnie moved for summary judgment, alleging Samuel's claims were barred by: (1) the statute of frauds; (2) the statute of limitations; (3) judicial estoppel; and (4) the doctrine of laches, D. 25, which the Court denied, D. 34. Following a trial, a jury returned a verdict in Samuel's favor, finding that (1) Bonnie owed Samuel a fiduciary duty and the fiduciary duty arose from a resulting or constructive trust, (2) Bonnie breached that duty, (3) Samuel suffered damages, (4) Bonnie's breach caused Samuel damages, (5) Samuel did not unreasonably delay in instituting the action and that there was no injury or delay and prejudice to the Bonnie, (6) Bonnie had not shown that she repudiated any trust prior to March 22, 2008 and (7) Samuel suffered damages for breach of fiduciary duty in the amount of $540, 770.50. D. 92. At the close of Samuel's case, Bonnie moved for judgment as a matter of law, D. 79, and again at the close of evidence. D. 89. Following the verdict, Bonnie moved for a new trial, D. 106, and renewed her prior motions for judgment as a matter of law, D. 107. The Court heard the parties on the motions on February 24, 2015 and took the matter under advisement. D. 116.

IV. Discussion

A. Whether A New Trial is ...

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