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Jung v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Sherman Division

July 11, 2019

SUSAN JUNG
v.
24 HOUR FITNESS USA, INC.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          AMOS L. MAZZANT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Defendant 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc.'s Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (Dkt. #73) and, alternatively, Motion for New Trial (Dkt. #74).[1]Having considered the motions and the relevant pleadings, the Court finds that Defendant's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law should be granted in part and denied in part and Defendant's motion for new trial should be denied as moot.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Factual Background

         Defendant is a corporation that operates gyms. Plaintiff Susan Jung was a member of Defendant's gym located in Lewisville, Texas. On May 3, 2017, Plaintiff arrived at the gym and placed her belongings in a locker. In the locker, Plaintiff discovered and removed a set of keys. Plaintiff sealed her belongings in the locker with a lock and returned the keys to Defendant's employee-Zach Turner-at the front desk. Plaintiff then exercised in the gym.

         During Plaintiff's workout, another gym member returned to the gym searching for the keys left inside Plaintiff's locker. Although Plaintiff previously returned the keys to the front desk, Zach Turner directed another employee to cut Plaintiff's lock from Plaintiff's locker to search for the keys. After failing to find the keys inside the locker, Defendant's employees left Plaintiffs cut lock hanging on the locker:

         (Image Omitted)

         (Dkt. #4 ¶ 8; Dkt. #24-5 at p. 14).

         When Plaintiff returned to her locker and discovered the cut lock, she went to the front desk to ask why Defendant's employees cut the lock. After an explanation, Plaintiff retrieved her belongings from the locker and discovered that her wallet-containing her driver's license, debit and credit cards, and other items-was missing. Plaintiff called the police who generated a report on the incident.

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant on October 4, 2017 (Dkt. #4). Plaintiff alleged invasion of privacy, negligence, and gross negligence claims against Defendant, and Plaintiff sought actual, mental anguish, emotional distress, and exemplary damages (Dkt. #4 ¶¶12-13). Defendant removed the case to this Court on November 3, 2017 (Dkt. #1). On October 17, 2018, the Court granted in part and denied in part a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant (Dkt. #28). Specifically, the Court granted summary judgment on Plaintiffs negligence claim pursuant to a valid and enforceable negligence release found in Plaintiff's membership agreement (Dkt. #28 at pp. 5-12, 16). The Court denied Defendant's request for summary judgment on Plaintiff's remaining claims (Dkt. #28 at p. 16).

         III. Jury Trial and Verdict

         On March 18 and 19, 2019, the parties tried the remaining claims to a jury (Dkt. #62; Dkt. #63). At the end of the trial, the jury returned a verdict finding:

         Invasion of Privacy Questions

         (1) Defendant intentionally intruded on Plaintiff's solitude, seclusion, or private affairs in a manner that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person (Dkt. #68, Question 1).

         (2) Defendant did not act with malice-giving rise to exemplary damages-when it intruded on Plaintiff's solitude, seclusion or private affairs or concerns (Dkt. #68, Question 2).

         Negligence/Gross Negligence Questions

         (1) Defendant's negligence proximately caused the loss of Plaintiff's property from the gym locker (Dkt. #68, Question 3).[2]

         (2) The loss of Plaintiff's property resulted from gross negligence attributable to Defendant (Dkt. #68, Question 4).

         Damages

         (1) The jury awarded Plaintiff $200.00 for the market value of Plaintiff's lost property (Dkt. #68, Question 5).

         (2) The jury awarded no damages for the alleged mental anguish suffered by Plaintiff due to Defendant's actions (Dkt. #68, Question 6).

         (3) The jury awarded Plaintiff $35, 000.00 in exemplary damages resulting from Defendant's gross negligence (Dkt. #68, Question 8).

         IV. Post-trial Motions

         On April 5, 2019, the Court entered judgment on the jury's verdict (Dkt. #72). On May 3, 2019, Defendant filed the motions at issue (Dkt. #73; Dkt. #74). On May 14, 2019, Plaintiff filed a joint response to Defendant's motions (Dkt. #75). On May 21, 2019, Defendant filed replies in support of its motions (Dkt. #76; Dkt. #77). Consequently, Defendant's motions are ripe for review.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Upon a party's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law following a jury verdict, the Court should properly ask whether “the state of proof is such that reasonable and impartial minds could reach the conclusion the jury expressed in its verdict.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b); see also Am. Home Assurance Co. v. United Space All., 378 F.3d 482, 487 (5th Cir. 2004). The decision to grant such a motion lies not within a court's discretion, but is rather “‘a conclusion of law based upon a finding that there is insufficient evidence to create a fact question for the jury.'” Conkling v. Turner, 18 F.3d 1285, 1300 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting In re Letterman Bros. Energy Sec. Litig., 799 F.2d 967, 972 (5th Cir. 1986). Under Fifth Circuit law, a court should be “especially deferential” to a jury's verdict and must not reverse the jury's findings unless substantial evidence does not support the findings. Baisden v. I'm Ready Prods., Inc., 693 F.3d 491, 499 (5th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence is defined as evidence of such quality and weight that reasonable and fair-minded men in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions.” Threlkeld v. Total Petroleum, Inc., 211 F.3d 887, 891 (5th Cir. 2000). A motion for judgment as a matter of law must be denied “unless the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelming in the movant's favor that reasonable jurors could not reach a contrary conclusion.” Baisden, 693 F.3d at 498 (citation omitted). However, “[t]here must be more than a mere scintilla of evidence in the record to prevent judgment as a matter of law in favor of the movant.” Arismendez v. Nightingale Home Health Care, Inc., 493 F.3d 602, 606 (5th Cir. 2007).

         In evaluating a motion for judgment as a matter of law, a court must “draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the verdict and cannot substitute other inferences that [the court] might regard as more reasonable.” E.E.O.C. v. Boh Bros. Constr. Co., 731 F.3d 444, 451 (5th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). However, “[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). “[T]he court should give credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that ‘evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that the evidence comes from disinterested witnesses.”' Id. at 151 (citation omitted).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Defendant's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Defendant moves for judgment as a matter of law asking the Court to set aside the exemplary and actual damages awards contending: (a) Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code § 41.005(a) precludes an award of exemplary damages; (b) the gross negligence found by the jury cannot be imputed on Defendant; (c) Plaintiff did not prove the objective or subjective components of her gross negligence claim; and (d) the Court's summary judgment order precludes the award of actual damages (Dkt. #73 pp. 1-2). The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         A. Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code § 41.005(a)

         Defendant first contends that Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code § 41.005(a) prevents the Court from awarding exemplary damages (Dkt. #73 at pp. 2-8).[3] Section 41.005(a) provides, “In an action arising from harm resulting from an assault, theft, or other criminal act, a court may not award ...


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