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Minter v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

August 28, 2013

DENISE MINTER et al.,
v.
WELLS FARGO BANK, N.A. et al.

MEMORANDUM

WILLIAM M. NICKERSON, District Judge.

Before the Court is a motion for a "new trial" filed by Plaintiffs. ECF No. 657. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for review.[1] Upon review of the papers, facts, and applicable law the Court determines that (1) no hearing is necessary, Local Rule 105.6, and (2) the motion will be denied.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Over the course of 17 days between May 6, 2013, and June 6, 2013, the parties tried two of Plaintiffs' theories that Defendants violated § 8(c) of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) to a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of Defendants on both.[2] With regard to the second of these theories, the jury found that Defendants did not violate RESPA, in part because Plaintiffs failed to prove that Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc., (Long & Foster) "referred or affirmatively influenced the Plaintiffs to use Prosperity Mortgage Company for the provision of settlement services." ECF No. 615 (Verdict Sheet, Question No. 3) at 2. Plaintiffs now seek relief from that finding so that they, and tens of thousands of absent class members, ECF No. 657-1 at 1 & 27; ECF No. 673 at 16 n.10, can proceed to try alternative claims under § 8(a) of RESPA.[3] It is this desired trial of their § 8(a) claims which Plaintiffs have dubbed a "new trial" for the purposes of their motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59.[4]

Plaintiffs assert that a new trial is warranted here for two reasons. First, they argue that the jury's verdict runs counter to the clear weight of the evidence. Second, they argue that counsel for Long & Foster admitted during closing argument that his client did refer Plaintiffs to Prosperity Mortgage Company (Prosperity). The contents of the record are not seriously disputed by Defendants, only the effect which it must be given.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) provides, in relevant part:

(1) Grounds for New Trial. The court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues - and to any party - as follows:
(A) after a jury trial, for any reason which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court...

"[T]he granting or refusing of a new trial is a matter resting in the sound discretion of the trial judge, and [] his action thereon is not reviewable on appeal, save in the most exceptional circumstances." Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Yeatts , 122 F.2d 350, 354 (4th Cir. 1941); see also Whilhelm v. Blue Bell, Inc. , 773 F.2d 1429, 1433 (4th Cir. 1985). Thus, "[o]n such a motion it is the duty of the judge to set aside the verdict and grant a new trial, if he is of opinion that the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, or is based upon evidence which is false, or will result in a miscarriage of justice." Yeatts , 122 F.2d at 352 (emphasis added). The court "may weigh evidence and assess credibility in ruling on a motion for a new trial." Wilhelm, 773 F.2d at 1433. At bottom, however, in evaluating a motion for a new trial, the court's focus should be on whether substantial justice has been done; that is, whether a new trial is required to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Yeatts , 122 F.2d at 354; 11 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary K. Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2803 (2d ed. 1995) ("Courts do not grant new trials unless it is reasonably clear that prejudicial error has crept into the record or that substantial justice has not been done.") & § 2805 ("The court has the power and duty to order a new trial whenever, in its judgment, this action is required in order to prevent injustice.").

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs' briefing - in particular, their reply - is littered with accusations of error on the part of the Court and the jury. See ECF No. 657-1 at 12-17. Plaintiffs assert that the Court's "error' was in submitting Question No. 3 to the jury in the first place, " ECF No. 673 at 12 (emphasis in original), and the jury's error was rendering a "plainly incorrect" answer to that question against what Plaintiffs are now calling the "clear - in fact undisputed - weight of the evidence." ECF No. 657-1 at 1. Thus, Plaintiffs argue that the Court must grant them a "new trial" to avoid the manifest injustice of resolving their § 8(a) claims on, what they deem to be, "the basis of a lie." ECF No. 673 at 3.

Plaintiffs' cries of injustice ring hollow, however, because it was they who suggested that a question similar to Question No. 3 be included on the verdict sheet at all - a request which the Court obliged by posing such a question in almost exactly the form they requested. Compare ECF No. 556 (Plaintiffs' Proposed Verdict Form) at 1 ("Do you find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Class Representatives Jason and Rachel Alborough and Denise Minter were referred by Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc. to Prosperity Mortgage Company ("Prosperity")?"), with ECF No. 615 (Verdict Form Submitted to Jury) at 3 ("Have Plaintiffs proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc., referred or affirmatively influenced the Plaintiffs to use Prosperity Mortgage Company for the provision of settlement services?"). Plaintiffs' submission of Question No. 3 and their failure to object to, or seek revision of, that question after all of the supposedly obvious indications that the question was no longer necessary, is a sufficient basis for denying their motion.[5] See Calef v. FedEx Ground Packaging System, Inc. , 343 F.App'x 891, 905 (4th Cir. 2009) (unpublished) (affirming denial of new trial where appellant failed to object to special interrogatories); Castle v. Leach Co. , 4 F.Supp.2d 128, 130 (N.D.N.Y. 1998) (holding that plaintiffs waived right to seek new trial when they did not object to the verdict sheet, which mirrored the plaintiff's proposal, before it was submitted to the jury); 11 Wright, Miller & Kane Federal Practice and Procedure § 2805 ("A principle that strikes very deep is that a new trial will not be granted on grounds not called to the court's attention during the trial unless the error was so fundamental that gross injustice would result."). The only reasonable conclusion that the Court can draw from these circumstances is that whether Plaintiffs were referred was a fact that Plaintiffs recognized as disputed right up until the moment they disagreed with the jury's resolution of that issue in favor of Defendants.

For similar reasons, Plaintiffs' alternative argument also fails. Plaintiffs assert that a statement made by Long & Foster's counsel, Jay Varon, during closing arguments constituted a judicial admission that his client referred Plaintiffs to Prosperity which "removed that fact from contention" and thus eliminated any need to pose Question No. 3 to the jury. ECF No. 657-1 at 24. Whether to treat a statement as a judicial admission that has the effect of excluding certain evidence is a determination that is within the court's discretion. Meyer v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co. , 372 F.3d 261, 264 (4th Cir. 2004) (quoting MacDonald v. Gen. Motors Corp. , 110 F.3d 337, 340 (6th Cir. 1997)); United States v. Belculfine , 527 F.2d 941, 944 (1st Cir. 1975) (citing United States v. Cline , 388 F.2d 294, 296 (4th Cir. 1968) (holding that whether "to treat, as conclusive, concessions made by Government counsel... was a matter for the judgment of the judge")). When deciding how to exercise that discretion, a court should be driven by "considerations of fairness." Belculfine , 527 F.2d at 944. And, while a judicial admission by counsel is "usually treated as absolutely binding, " New Amsterdam Casualty Co. ...


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