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Wright v. Byron Financial, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

December 4, 2017

Christopher D. Wright Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Byron Financial, LLC, a North Carolina limited liability company Defendant-AppellantWilliam Byron DefendantChristopher D. Wright Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
Byron Financial, LLC, a North Carolina limited liability company Defendant-AppelleeWilliam Byron Defendant

          Submitted: September 20, 2017

          Appeals from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before LOKEN, ARNOLD, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

          ARNOLD, Circuit Judge.

         Christopher Wright used to sell insurance policies for Byron Financial, LLC, a wealth-management firm. By contract, he was supposed to remit fifteen percent of his commissions to Byron Financial and repay it for certain expenses. When his job there ended, he began to sell insurance on his own. But for the next three months, he continued to use Byron Financial to review prospective clients and secure policy offers from insurance carriers, without paying for those services. Wright and Byron Financial then sued one another for breach of contract, with each party claiming that the other owed it money. They went to trial before a jury, and the jury found that only Wright had violated the agreement and that he owed Byron Financial $500, 000.00. Wright moved the district court for judgment as a matter of law on Byron Financial's claim, a new trial, or a remittitur. The district court granted only a remittitur, reducing the jury's verdict to $245, 510.93 without offering Byron Financial the alternative of a new trial. Both parties appeal that ruling, and we reverse and remand.

         Wright maintains that the district court should have granted him judgment as a matter of law or a new trial instead of a remittitur. He argues in the alternative that the remittitur should have been for no more than $49, 628.59. Byron Financial contends that the verdict did not warrant a remittitur, the remittitur was for too little, and, in any event, the district court erred by granting one without giving Byron Financial the option of a new trial.

         Wright contends that he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Byron Financial sought and recovered damages for services that fell beyond the scope of the breach-of-contract claim that it pleaded. He asserts that Byron Financial may not recover for its work on the cases he sent it after he had left his job (the "new cases") because Byron Financial sued him only for violating his employment contract, which, he argues, did not cover the new cases. But Wright did not raise this challenge in his pre-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law. Although he mentioned it in his post-trial renewal of that motion, our review of the district court's denial of his motion "is limited to consideration of only those grounds advanced in the original, [pre-verdict] motion." Nassar v. Jackson, 779 F.3d 547, 551 (8th Cir. 2015).

         In his pre-verdict motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), Wright asserted that Byron Financial could not recover any damages for its work on his new cases because there was no evidence that he had agreed to pay for the work. Although the owner of Byron Financial testified that Wright had orally agreed to compensate it for the work under the terms of his employment contract, Wright contended that the agreement was invalid for various factual reasons. Those arguments did not preserve for our review the separate challenge that Byron Financial's claim predicated upon its work on Wright's new cases did not fall within the scope of its pleadings. Cf. Miller v. Mills Constr., Inc., 352 F.3d 1166, 1171-72 (8th Cir. 2003). Since Wright did not raise that specific challenge in his Rule 50(a) motion, we have no basis to review it. See Milhauser v. Minco Prods., Inc., 701 F.3d 268, 273 (8th Cir. 2012).

          The trial record shows, moreover, that, instead of contesting Byron Financial's supposed amendment of its breach-of-contract claim, Wright consented to it, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(b)(2), when he did not object to Byron Financial's introduction of testimony that he had agreed to extend the terms of his employment contract to cover Byron Financial's work on his new cases. See Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co. v. Hollander, 705 F.3d 339, 348 (8th Cir. 2013). It is clear that Wright had actual notice of Byron Financial's intent to get paid for its work on his new cases because, before trial, he unsuccessfully tried to get the district court to prevent Byron Financial from seeking damages for that work. It appears that the district court did not rule on that motion, choosing instead to wait to see the specific evidence that Wright wanted excluded. But Wright, as we observed above, did not object at trial that Byron Financial's evidence concerned matters beyond the scope of its pleadings.

         Wright maintains that his failure to object did not mean that he was consenting to the trial of Byron Financial's amended claim for relief. He argues that his consent cannot be inferred because the amendment of Byron Financial's pleadings was inconsistent with his stance that his contract could not be extended to new cases once it was terminated. But Wright does not point to any authority that holds that implied consent cannot be found if the unpleaded issue is inconsistent with a position he once took. The two cases he relies on stand only for the proposition that "a district court does not abuse its discretion by allowing [amendment by implied consent] if the amendment seeks to raise an issue not inconsistent with the position taken by the non-moving party earlier in the proceedings. " Baker v. John Morrell & Co., 382 F.3d 816, 831 (8th Cir. 2004); see also Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., 705 F.3d at 348. We have not held the obverse of that rule to be true, as Wright assumes we have. Since he does not provide us with any reason to take that leap now, we do not do so.

         We consider next Wright's assertion that the district court should have granted him a new trial, rather than a remittitur, because the jury's verdict was motivated by passion and prejudice. See Tedder v. Am. Railcar Indus., Inc., 739 F.3d 1104, 1110 (8th Cir. 2014). We review a district court's denial of a motion for a new trial, as well as its decision to grant a remittitur instead, for an abuse of discretion. Estate of Snyder v. Julian, 789 F.3d 883, 888 (8th Cir. 2015); Thorne v. Welk Inv., Inc., 197 F.3d 1205, 1210 (8th Cir. 1999). Wright's only evidence of passion or prejudice-the jury deliberated for little more than one hour, and its verdict in favor of Byron Financial was for $500, 000.00-raises only the weakest inference of jury misfeasance. Wright asserts that the jury's deliberation was insufficiently long to allow for thoughtful consideration, but "no rule requires a jury to deliberate for any set length of time." United States v. Dolan, 120 F.3d 856, 870 (8th Cir. 1997).

         The size of the verdict, moreover, was not so monstrous, shocking, or plainly unjust as to require a new trial. See Estate of Snyder, 789 F.3d at 888. Although the verdict was almost double the amount that Byron Financial had requested in its summation, the excess might well have been the product of permissible forces: Byron Financial had asked the jury to award it its fifteen-percent share of Wright's more than $4 million of commissions, the district court had ruled that Byron Financial could not recover a $152, 416.72 debt that the jury already knew about (thereby reducing the amount it could ask for in its summation), and the jury had heard evidence indicating that Wright discussed paying $500, 000 to Byron Financial. Since the district court observed the trial unfold firsthand, we are "extraordinarily deferential" to its decision that only a remittitur was appropriate here. See Dossett v. First State Bank, 399 F.3d 940, 946 (8th Cir. 2005). We see no reason to second-guess that decision.

         Finding the jury's verdict excessive, the district court ordered a remittitur in the amount of $245, 510.93-$206, 395.75 for commissions and $39, 115.18 for expenses -a decision that satisfied neither party. We review a remittitur order for a manifest abuse of discretion. Eckerberg v. Inter-State Studio & Publ'g Co., 860 F.3d 1079, 1087 (8th Cir. 2017). A district court can remit a jury award only when it is so grossly excessive as to be monstrous, shocking, or plainly unjust. Id. The law of the forum state governs when a verdict is excessive, and under Missouri law a verdict is excessive when it exceeds "fair and reasonable compensation." Id. at 1088; see also Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.068. If a remittitur was justified, the issue becomes whether it comports with the "maximum recovery rule, " under which damages may be remitted only to the maximum amount the jury could have reasonably awarded. McCabe v. Parker, 608 F.3d 1068, 1081 (8th Cir. 2010). In undertaking that review, "we assess the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's award, drawing all reasonable inferences in support of [it]." Climent-García v. Autoridad de Transporte Marítimo y las Islas Municipio, 754 F.3d 17, 21 (1st Cir. 2014). When the discrepancy between the remittitur and the maximum amount reasonably supported by the evidence is apparent and the correction basically mechanical, the correction can be made at the appellate level. See Universal Power Sys., Inc. v. Godfather's Pizza, Inc., 818 F.2d 667, 674-75 (8th Cir. 1987).

         As a preliminary matter, we must determine whether the award may include damages for Byron Financial's unpaid work on the new cases. It is clear that both the jury and the district court found that Wright owed Byron Financial for that work since both the verdict and the remittitur include damages for it. Byron Financial maintained at trial that Wright owed it for the work since he had agreed to extend his employment contract to cover it. Wright asserts in response that his contract could not be extended because he and Byron Financial had already terminated it and also because any agreement they may have had to extend it was not in writing. But the district court heard those same arguments and held that Byron Financial could argue to the jury that the contract, though terminated, had been extended, leaving it to the jury to decide which cases the parties' agreement covered. Wright did not object to that ruling, nor does he challenge it now. Moreover, it is hardly foreign to Missouri law, which the parties agree applies to Byron Financial's ...


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