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Benson v. Tyson Foods, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 1, 2018

VANITY BENSON, Plaintiff - Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas

          Before WIENER, GRAVES, and HO, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM

         Plaintiff Vanity Benson ("Benson") appeals from a jury verdict in favor of defendant Tyson Foods, Inc. ("Tyson") for disability claims that Benson brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. On October 14, 2016, a jury ruled in favor of Tyson at trial. At that time, Benson's counsel did not move for judgment as a matter of law. Final judgment was entered on December 8, 2016.

         On January 4, 2017-almost three months after the jury had been dismissed-Benson's lawyer filed a motion for leave to interview jurors post-trial. The next day, Benson moved for a new trial, arguing that the jury ignored the evidence when it concluded that she was not disabled. The district court denied both requests, and Benson appealed.

         We turn first to her motion for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, and review the district court's denial of that motion for abuse of discretion. Lincoln v. Case, 340 F.3d 283, 290 (5th Cir. 2003). Where a jury verdict is at issue, "there is no . . . abuse of discretion unless there is a complete absence of evidence to support the verdict." Sam's Style Shop v. Cosmos Broad. Corp., 694 F.2d 998, 1006 (5th Cir. 1982). Here, the jury had ample evidence that Benson was not disabled. Dr. Jeremy Urbanczyk testified about the extent of Benson's injury, including that her foot had healed correctly and that she required no further treatment. Benson acknowledged that she was able to play basketball and work two jobs that required her to stand on her feet. And Benson admitted to fictionalizing details in the initial account of her foot injury, thus undermining the credibility of her testimony. From this evidence, the jury could reasonably conclude that she was not disabled. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial.

         We also consider the appeal of the district court's order denying her counsel's request to speak to jurors in order to learn the basis of the verdict and improve his trial advocacy. In Haeberle v. Texas International Airlines, 739 F.2d 1019, 1022 (5th Cir. 1984), we held that "[t]he first-amendment interests of both the disgruntled litigant and its counsel in interviewing jurors in order to satisfy their curiosity and improve their advocacy are limited. . . . [T]hose interests are not merely balanced but plainly outweighed by the jurors' interest in privacy and the public's interest in well-administered justice." Since Benson's First Amendment claim is squarely foreclosed by our precedent, we find that the district court committed no error in denying her attorney's request.

         While we are bound by our court's rule of orderliness to follow Haeberle, we note that that opinion is not without its flaws. In particular, Haeberle suggests a distinction between the First Amendment rights of the press and those of the public at large. Id. at 1021-22. Such a division finds no support in either constitutional text or precedent. See Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 684 (1972) ("It has generally been held that the First Amendment does not guarantee the press a constitutional right of special access to information not available to the public generally."). In re Express-News Corp., 695 F.2d 807, 809 (5th Cir. 1982), which Haeberle purports to apply, similarly recognized that the right to gather news does not "guarantee journalists access to sources of information not available to the public generally."

         To be sure, we are mindful that the government may have an interest in regulating the speech of attorneys, given their unique role as officers of the court. See, e.g., Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1030, 1074 (1991) ("[A lawyer is] an officer of the court, and, like the court itself, an instrument . . . of justice. . . . [T]he speech of lawyers representing clients in pending cases may be regulated under a less demanding standard than that established for regulation of the press[.]" (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)). But here, as in Haeberle, the district court articulated no such interest. In light of the First Amendment interests at stake here, which Haeberle did not appear to fully appreciate, district courts in the future would be wise to consider seriously whether there exists any genuine government interest in preventing attorneys from conversing with consenting jurors-and if so, whether that interest should be specifically articulated, in order to facilitate appellate review and fidelity to the Constitution.

         Reviewing the facts and record before us under Haeberle, however, we conclude that the district court did not err in denying Benson's counsel's request to interview the jurors. The district court's judgment is AFFIRMED.

          JAMES E. GRAVES, JR., Circuit Judge, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment

         I join the decision to affirm the district court's order denying Plaintiff Vanity Benson's motion for a new trial. I write separately because, while I agree with the conclusion that Benson should not prevail on the motion seeking access to the jurors, I do not reach that conclusion through adherence to Haeberle v. Texas International Airlines, 739 F.2d 1019 (5th Cir. 1984), a decision which, in my view, does not constrain us in these circumstances.

         A few months after the trial in this case, Benson filed a motion seeking the district court's leave to allow her counsel to interview the jurors "for the purpose of improving future trials." Counsel attested that they were not seeking to discover information to impeach the jury's verdict, but rather to educate themselves and improve their trial advocacy. The motion was filed pursuant to Eastern District of Texas Local Rule 47(b), which provides, "After a verdict is rendered, an attorney must obtain leave of the judge before whom the action was tried to converse with members of the jury." The district court denied the motion in a one-sentence order.

         In Haeberle, like here, the district court denied an attorney leave to interview jurors for purposes of educating counsel and improving advocacy techniques. 739 F.2d at 1021-22. The rule upon which the district court relied dealt ...

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