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A Manhattan judge yesterday wiped out most of an $11.2 million discrimination verdict won by a gay man who worked for real estate magnate Leona Helmsley, saying the award ran afoul of constitutional limits. The judge, Supreme Court Justice Walter B. Tolub, also suggested that the enormous verdict had less to do with Helmsley’s actions than the jury’s distaste for her personality and her insensitivity during the trial, which he noted had kept “the spectre of the ‘Queen of Mean’ alive in the Courtroom.” Justice Tolub reduced a $10 million punitive damages award to $500,000 and vacated $1.1 million for past and future lost wages. The jury determined that the plaintiff, Charles Bell, 42, was fired as a manager of the Park Lane Hotel because he was gay, but Justice Tolub said Bell’s claim for lost wages could not stand because the jury also found that he would have been fired anyway for using drugs and fudging his r�sum�. Also fatal to the claim was that Bell turned down Helmsley’s offer for a new job at better pay after he was fired, Justice Tolub said in Bell v. Helmsley, 111085/01. Justice Tolub said that Helmsley’s behavior toward Bell — both at the workplace and in court — was “certainly inappropriate,” but was targeted only at him and did not suggest that Helmsley “discriminates generally against gay people in hiring or firing.” All told, Bell was left with $54,000 for past and future pain and suffering, and nearly 10 times that figure in punitive damages — an amount Justice Tolub described as at “the outer permissible limits” of such damages in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 ruling in BMW of North America v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 and other New York precedents. The judge described the punitive damages claim as “that most vexatious of problems, an area of law that cries out for legislative guidelines.” However, he added that such damages “are not a game of Lotto and … Mrs. Helmsley is not a 4 billion dollar pi�ata for every John, Patrick or Charlie to poke a stick at in the hopes of hitting the jackpot.” At the close of trial, the judge told the jury that Helmsley was worth between $3.2 billon and $4 billion. Steven G. Eckhaus of New York’s Eckhaus & Olson, who represented Helmsley, said he was pleased with the decision, but added that it did not go far enough. “As gratified as we are by the decision, we do intend to appeal,” Eckhaus said. “Mr. Bell will never see a penny from this verdict,” he added, nor will his attorneys collect fees. Bell’s attorney, Geri S. Krauss of Herrick, Feinstein, could not be reached for comment. Krauss has asked Justice Tolub to award about $1.7 million in attorney fees, citing the delays caused when Helmsley fired five previous attorneys. Justice Tolub did not rule on the fee request. The jury’s verdict came after a three-week trial, during which Helmsley, 82, protested that Bell’s claims were baseless and that he was a bad employee who broke company rules and gave away free rooms. But Helmsley apparently tried the patience of her fellow citizens, delivering a “sneer” and a “brief, (21 minutes by some estimates), belligerent, confused, agitated, and insensitive presentation” that “only resulted in inflaming the jury,” the judge wrote. Though the jury awarded Bell $10 million in punitive damages, it did not find that he was harmed in a significant way, only awarding him $54,000 in damages — a discrepancy the judge suggested was irreconcilable. In the Appellate Division, 1st Department’s 1998 ruling in McIntyre v. Manhattan Ford, Lincoln-Mercury Inc., 256 AD2d 269, Justice Tolub noted, the conduct alleged was “far more egregious” than in this case, yet the appellate court reduced a $3 million punitive damages award to $1.5 million. McIntyre involved allegations of repeated psychological and even physical abuse against a woman by her employer, including throwing objects at her and ridiculing her pregnancy and eventual miscarriage. In contrast, Justice Tolub said, Bell’s abuse was “sporadic” and “verbal in the main,” and included “three incidents of touching (twice pulling Bell’s goatee and once lightly slapping him). “If one and a half million dollars was the outer constitutionally permissible limit in McIntyre, then clearly a $10 million dollar award in the instant case is grossly excessive,” the judge wrote.

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