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Salim v. Dahlberg

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

March 16, 2016

MOHAMED M. SALIM, Plaintiff,
v.
EDWARD DAHLBERG, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

LEONIE M. BRINKEMA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Before the Court is the Defendant's Rule 59 Motion, in which he argues that he should be granted a new trial because the court lacked jurisdiction to hear and decide this civil action. Defendant argues in the alternative that even if the court had jurisdiction over the action, it erred in exercising its discretion to maintain supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims after the single federal claim was dismissed.[1] Defendant also argues that the amount of damages awarded by the jury is against the weight of the evidence, that the verdict violated the defendant's First Amendment right to free expression, and that two evidentiary rulings made by the Court were erroneous. Plaintiff, in a brief opposition, argues that defendant's jurisdictional arguments are meritless, that defendant has waived or is estopped from raising any First Amendment defense, and that the Court's evidentiary rulings do not provide a basis for a new trial. The parties also dispute whether the size of the verdict demonstrates that the jury acted out of passion or prejudice.

I. BACKGROUND

On April 9, 2015, plaintiff Mohamed M Salim ("Salim" or "plaintiff), a Somali-born Muslim who is a naturalized United States citizen, filed a complaint against defendant Edward Dahlberg ("Dahlberg" or "defendant"), alleging that Dahlberg, a white Christian born in the United States, had violated Salim's civil rights and had assaulted and battered him. See Compl. [Dkt. No. 1], April 9, 2015. Specifically, Salim, who was working as a taxi driver, claimed that after he picked Dahlberg up from a Northern Virginia country club shortly after midnight on April 26, 2014, Dahlberg engaged in an alcohol-fueled rant against Muslims and Arabs that culminated in Dahlberg punching Salim multiple times. Salim recorded a portion of their interaction using his cellphone, and the complaint attached a copy of the transcript of that recording, which showed that Dahlberg made multiple comments that associated Muslims with terrorism. In part, Dahlberg stated "If you're a Muslim, you're a f...ing jihadist;" demanded that Salim "denounce those f. ..ing assholes that flew jets into the World Trade Center;'" declared that he would "slice your f... ing throat right now" if "you're a f...ing Muslim flying jets into the World Trade Center;" and called Salim "a f...ing Muslim piece of f...ing sh*t." Compl., Ex A. [Dkt. No. 1-1], Recording Tr. 3:19-20, 6:6-7:16.

In Count I of his five-count complaint, Salim alleged that Dahlberg took these actions on the basis of Salim's race and religion and that Dahlberg had therefore violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which provides that all persons in the United States "shall have the same right...to make and enforce contracts." In Count II, Salim raised a claim under Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-42.1, which provides a cause of action to "any person who is subjected to acts of (i) intimidation or harassment or (ii) violence directed against his person...where such acts are motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity." Counts III, IV, and V of the complaint respectively alleged that Dahlberg had committed an assault and a battery against Salim and had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Salim. Because both parties were domiciled in Virginia, making them non-diverse, the only basis for the court's jurisdiction was the federal question raised in Count I.

The defendant's answer raised a number of defenses, including failure to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Answer [Dkt. No. 6] 1, May 4, 2015. In conjunction with his answer, Dahlberg filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and (6) [Dkt. No. 4], May 4, 2015, arguing in part that the § 1981 claim should be dismissed because the provision prohibits discrimination only on the basis of race and not on the basis of religion. That motion also argued that the state law claims should be dismissed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c) because the only basis for the Court's jurisdiction over those claims was through its supplemental jurisdiction based on Salim's "defective claim" under § 1981. Mem. Supporting Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6) [Dkt. No. 5] ("Mot. to Dismiss Br.") 2, May 4, 2015. The defendant argued that the parties' conversation during the cab ride focused on religion and terrorism and contained no references to Arabs or to Salim's race, meaning that there was no basis for the § 1981 claim. Id. In opposing the motion to dismiss, the plaintiff argued that race discrimination and religious discrimination may overlap, particularly in the case of individuals coming from Arab nations where the majority of the population is Muslim and especially in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks ("9/11"). Pl's Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. No. 10] ("Mot. to Dismiss Opp'n") 2-3, May 14, 2015.

The Court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss the § 1981 claim, but ordered that the remaining claims would go forward under the Court's supplemental jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Order [Dkt. No. 24], June 4, 2015. After the parties' cross-motions for partial summary judgment were denied, see Order [Dkt. No. 138], Oct. 30, 2015, the action proceeded to a jury trial. On the third and final day of trial and at the conclusion of the plaintiffs case, the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law with respect to the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was granted. See Trial Tr. 560:20-566:12. The remaining three claims went to the jury, which found that the defendant had assaulted the plaintiff and had violated Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-42.1, but found that the defendant had not committed the alleged battery. Verdict Form [Dkt. No. 184], Dec. 7, 2015. The jury awarded the plaintiff $100, 000 in compensatory damages and $250, 000 in punitive damages. Id. at 2; see also Trial Tr. 733:19-734:1.

The defendant subsequently filed the pending motion for a new trial or remittitur pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. Def.'s Rule 59 Mot. [Dkt. No. 188] ("Def.'s Mot.''), Jan. 5, 2016. In his opposition, the plaintiff argued that the defendant's motion was improperly characterized as a Rule 59 motion rather than a Rule 60(b) motion because it focused on purported jurisdictional defects. Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for New Trial or Remittur [Dkt. No. 191] ("Pl's Opp'n") 2-3, Jan. 14, 2016. In response, the defendant requested that the jurisdictional arguments be treated as if brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60. Def.'s Mot. for Guidance & Direction [Dkt. No. 195] ("Mot. for Guidance") ¶ 6, Jan. 14, 2016. The Court granted that request. Order [Dkt. No. 198], Jan. 15, 2016.

II. DISCUSSION

The defendant seeks a finding that the Court lacked original jurisdiction over the civil action but, in the alternative, argues that the Court erred in exercising its discretion to maintain the action and in two of its evidentiary rulings. The defendant also contends that the jury's verdict violates the defendant's First Amendment rights and is out of proportion to the evidence presented at trial. The plaintiff disputes all of these contentions and argues that the jurisdictional decisions and the jury's verdict should be upheld.

A. Rule 60

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60 provides that a court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons:

(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
(2) newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b);
(3) fraud (whether previously called intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party;
(4) the judgment is void;
(5) the judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged; it is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated; or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable; or
(6) any other reason that justifies relief.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b). To prevail on a Rule 60(b) motion, a party must first "make a showing of timeliness, a meritorious defense, a lack of unfair prejudice to the opposing party, and exceptional circumstances" before he may ''proceed to satisfy one or more of the rule's six grounds for relief from judgment." Werner v. Carbo, 731 F.2d 204, 206-207 (4th Cir. 1984) (citing Compton v. Alton Steamship Co.. 608 F.2d 96, 102 (4th Cir. 1979)). If a movant seeks relief from judgment based on Rule 60(b)(6), "any other reason that justifies relief, " he must demonstrate truly "extraordinary circumstances" not encompassed by the other five grounds for relief and must show that his reason for seeking relief could not have been addressed on appeal instead. Aikens v. Ingram, 652 F.3d 496, 500-01 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting Liljeberg v. Health Servs. Acquisition Corp., 486 U.S. 847, 863 n.11 (1988)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Neither party addresses whether Dahlberg meets these standards or what grounds for relief he is asserting, but because defendant raised his subject-matter jurisdiction argument at the earliest opportunity, albeit in a cursory fashion, the Court will assume without deciding that he satisfies the threshold requirements for a Rule 60(b) inquiry. His argument regarding subject-matter jurisdiction most reasonably falls within the category of "any other reason that justifies relief." Because the Court will find that it had original jurisdiction in the first instance and did not err in exercising its discretion to maintain supplemental ...


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