Vang v. Prataya et al
ORDER: Prataya's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Motion for a New Trial [Docket No. 339 ] is DENIED. (Written Opinion) Signed by Judge Joan N. Ericksen on August 29, 2017. (CBC)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Case No. 12-cv-1847 (JNE/SER)
Panyia Vang brought this action against Thiawachu Prataya and others. A
stipulated dismissal of one defendant, a settlement with another, and the grant of partial
summary judgment in Prataya’s favor left Vang with claims against Prataya under 18
U.S.C. §§ 1591 and 1595, and 18 U.S.C. §§ 2255 and 2423. A jury trial took place. At
trial, Vang asserted her claim under §§ 2255 and 2423(c). The jury returned a verdict in
Vang’s favor in the amount of $950,000. Judgment was entered in accordance with the
verdict. The case is before the Court on Prataya’s Renewed Motion for Judgment as a
Matter of Law and Motion for a New Trial. For the reasons set forth below, the Court
denies the motion.
Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law
Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “provides for post-trial renewal
of a Rule 50(a) trial motion for judgment as a matter of law. A court reviewing a Rule
50(b) motion is limited to consideration of only those grounds advanced in the original,
Rule 50(a) motion.” Nassar v. Jackson, 779 F.3d 547, 551 (8th Cir. 2015); see Bank of
Am. N.A. v. JB Hanna, LLC, 766 F.3d 841, 850 (8th Cir. 2014) (“Because the Rule 50(b)
motion is only a renewal of the preverdict motion, it can be granted only on grounds
advanced in the preverdict motion.” (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 advisory committee’s
note to 2006 amendment)). A motion under Rule 50(a) “must specify the judgment
sought and the law and facts that entitle the movant to the judgment.” Fed. R. Civ. P.
50(a)(2). “Although ‘technical precision’ in stating the grounds for a motion for
judgment [as] a matter of law is not necessary, the motion must be ‘specific enough’ to
notify the district court and the opposing party of the underlying issue.” Hyundai Motor
Fin. Co. v. McKay Motors I, LLC, 574 F.3d 637, 642 (8th Cir. 2009).
In this case, Prataya moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a) at
the close of all the evidence. His attorney stated:
At this time, I would be remiss if I didn’t make a motion for a judgment as
a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure [50(a)]. We’re
asking the Court to make a finding that a reasonable jury would not have a
legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the plaintiff at this point. The
evidence that’s been presented in the Court over the last two days just
simply is insufficient.
This motion lacks the particularity required of a Rule 50(a) motion. See Nassar, 779 F.3d
at 551. Consequently, the Court denies Prataya’s Rule 50(b) motion.
Even if Prataya’s Rule 50(a) motion were sufficiently specific, the Court would
deny his Rule 50(b) motion. A court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law
against a party “[i]f a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the
court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to
find for the party on that issue.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). To decide a motion for
judgment as a matter of law, the court must:
(1) resolve direct factual conflicts in favor of the nonmovant, (2) assume as
true all facts supporting the nonmovant which the evidence tended to prove,
(3) give the nonmovant the benefit of all reasonable inferences, and (4)
deny the motion if the evidence so viewed would allow reasonable jurors to
differ as to the conclusions that could be drawn.
Stults v. Am. Pop Corn Co., 815 F.3d 409, 418 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting Jones v.
Edwards, 770 F.2d 739, 740 (8th Cir. 1985)); see Bamford, Inc. v. Regent Ins. Co., 822
F.3d 403, 410 (8th Cir. 2016) (“To make this determination, the court reviews all record
evidence, and views it in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. The court
draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the prevailing party, without making
credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” (citation omitted)).
At trial, Vang testified about the sexual contact between her and Prataya. She and
members of her family testified about her date of birth. Documents were introduced to
establish her date of birth, and photographs were introduced to corroborate her age. The
evidence received at trial established a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for the jury to
find for Vang.
Motion for a New Trial
Prataya moved for a new trial, arguing that the jury’s verdict is against the weight
of the evidence and that the damage award is excessive. A court may grant a motion for
a new trial “when the first trial resulted in a miscarriage of justice, through a verdict
against the weight of the evidence, an excessive damage award, or legal errors at trial.”
Trickey v. Kaman Indus. Techs. Corp., 705 F.3d 788, 807 (8th Cir. 2013); see Fed. R.
Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A). “On a motion for new trial, the district court is entitled to interpret
the evidence and judge the credibility of witnesses, but it may not usurp the role of the
jury by granting a new trial simply because it believes other inferences and conclusions
are more reasonable.” Van Steenburgh v. Rival Co., 171 F.3d 1155, 1160 (8th Cir. 1999).
The evidence received at trial presented the jury with disputes about whether
Prataya engaged in a sexual act with Vang by using force against her and about Vang’s
age at the time of the sexual contact between her and Prataya. Having considered the
evidence, the Court discerns no miscarriage of justice in the jury’s resolution of the
factual disputes. The verdict is not against the weight of the evidence.
“In general, ‘awards for pain and suffering are highly subjective and should be
committed to the sound discretion of the jury, especially when the jury is being asked to
determine injuries not easily calculated in economic terms.’” Townsend v. Bayer Corp.,
774 F.3d 446, 466 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Frazier v. Iowa Beef Processors, Inc., 200
F.3d 1190, 1193 (8th Cir. 2000)). In light of the evidence received at trial and the jury’s
findings that Prataya engaged in a sexual act with Vang by using force against her when
she was under 18 years of age and that he engaged in a sexual act with her when she was
under 16 years of age, the Court concludes that the damage award is not excessive.
The Court considers Prataya’s remaining arguments under Rule 59. See Nassar,
779 F.3d at 552. First, Prataya asserted that Vang sought punitive damages in her closing
argument notwithstanding the Court’s pretrial ruling that she could not seek punitive
damages. “A new trial should be granted where the improper conduct of counsel in
closing argument [is] ‘plainly unwarranted and clearly injurious.’ A failure to object to
statements made during closing argument waives such an objection.” Billingsley v. City
of Omaha, 277 F.3d 990, 997 (8th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted) (quoting Griffin v. Hilke,
804 F.2d 1052, 1057 (8th Cir. 1986)). Prataya made no objections to Vang’s closing
argument, and the Court discerns nothing in her closing argument that would warrant a
new trial. See Cook v. City of Bella Villa, 582 F.3d 840, 857 (8th Cir. 2009) (“Only in
extraordinary situations, in order to prevent a ‘plain miscarriage of justice,’ will a
reviewing court reverse a judgment based upon errors not objected to at trial.”).
Next, Prataya argued that “the burden of proof should have been clear and
convincing evidence with respect to the underlying criminal acts, and not simply the
preponderance of the evidence.” At the final pretrial conference, the Court rejected this
argument. Nothing in Prataya’s motion calls into question that ruling.
Finally, Prataya maintained that § 2255 is unconstitutional as applied to him. He
maintained that he “essentially had to defend against criminal charges” in this case, that a
defendant in a criminal case has the right not to testify without adverse inference, and that
an adverse inference may be drawn in a civil case from the exercise of the privilege
against self-incrimination. He claimed that he was unable to fully defend himself and
that “forcing [him] to withstand a claim brought under 18 U.S.C. § 2255 without a prior
criminal conviction is in violation of his substantive and procedural constitutional rights.”
Prataya cited no authority to support his argument, and the Court discerns nothing
unconstitutional about the application of § 2255 to him in this case.
Based on the files, records, and proceedings herein, and for the reasons stated
above, IT IS ORDERED THAT:
Prataya’s Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Motion
for a New Trial [Docket No. 339] is DENIED.
Dated: August 29, 2017
s/ Joan N. Ericksen
JOAN N. ERICKSEN
United States District Judge
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