A federal judge has thrown out a $2 million jury verdict in favor of a police officer who argued he was retaliated against by superiors who blocked his promotions because he is a white man.
Northern District Judge Thomas McAvoy (See Profile) held that the jury’s verdict was out of line both with the injuries he said the officer suffered at the hands of his employer and with awards courts have made in similar job discrimination actions.
“Significantly, upon consideration of the weight of the evidence at trial on the issue of damages and the credibility of Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ witnesses, the Court finds that the evidence concerning the extent of any mental anguish was marginal and plainly insufficient to substantiate a verdict of $2,000,000 or anything remotely close thereto,” McAvoy wrote in Miller v. City of Ithaca, 3:10-cv-597. “The verdict was far outside the range of reasonableness.”
Ithaca police officer Christopher Miller contended the retaliation against him began in 2005 when he first complained that he was being passed over for promotion despite scoring the highest among candidates on qualifying tests. Miller, who joined the Ithaca force in 2000, ultimately filed claims with the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission, the state Division for Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
At trial earlier this year in federal court in Binghamton, Miller argued that the Ithaca Police Department subjected white, male officers to greater scrutiny than female and minority officers, and treated white men on the force as “second-class citizens.”
Miller alleged he was given foot patrol duty on strenuous and difficult beats to punish him for complaining about the department.
The jury awarded Miller $2 million from the city of Ithaca and $1 each from four defendant police supervisors (NYLJ, Oct. 22).
But McAvoy wrote that Miller only spent a few weeks on the foot patrols, “not a particularly long period of time.” There was also evidence that at least one of the patrols Miller complained about was a squad car patrol that some other officers favored, the judge said.
In addition, McAvoy found that there was “no evidence that the beat assignments affected Plaintiff’s pay, tenure, benefits, seniority, overtime opportunities, or any other significant terms or conditions of his employment.”
“The Court finds that the jury reached a seriously erroneous result in concluding that the beat assignments were sufficiently adverse to be actionable,” McAvoy wrote. “Such a conclusion was against the weight of the evidence and warrants a new trial.”
McAvoy said he agreed with the defendants that $2 million, based solely on non-economic losses, is “patently excessive and shocks the conscience.”
The judge cited similar cases, such as Lore v. City of Syracuse, 670 F.3d 127 (2012), in which he said far smaller awards were made for retaliatory events against employees that were more serious than those alleged by Miller.
In addition, McAvoy said there is significant evidence that another claim made by Miller that was accepted by the jury—for the issuance of the notice of termination against the officer by the department—would have occurred anyway and was justifiable under the facts of the case.
McAvoy pointed out that Miller had experienced a series of on-duty problems while on the Ithaca force, including an instance where he falsified a log of the license plates of vehicles he claimed to have pulled over during an anti-drunken-driving sweep. For that and other improprieties, McAvoy pointed out that the Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office had informed Ithaca police officials in September 2009 that it felt it could no longer use Miller as a witness because of his disciplinary record.
McAvoy said Ithaca officials initiated their notice of termination against Miller in 2010 after discovering he lied on his application for the Ithaca force when he said he had no previous law enforcement experience. In fact, McAvoy noted, Miller had once been dismissed from the Vinton, Va., police force during his probationary period for poor job performance.
Regardless of any “retaliatory motive,” McAvoy said it is clear to him that “Plaintiff engaged in sufficient misconduct such that Plaintiff would have been issued a notice of termination” by Ithaca police.
The termination proceeding against Miller is still pending.
In light of his ruling ordering a retrial and uncertainty over which side can be deemed the prevailing party in the action, McAvoy said it was “premature” to decide the question of attorney fees.
A.J. Bosman of the Bosman Law Firm in Rome, which is representing Miller, sought $740,384 in fees. Anne-Marie Mizel, Arch Stokes and other attorneys from Stokes, Roberts & Wagner in Ithaca and Pittsburgh asked for $173,167 for their work defending Ithaca.
Bosman said she was disappointed that McAvoy “didn’t place more faith in the jury,” which she said worked diligently through a month-long trial and deliberated for four days before rendering a verdict.
“I think the jury did a very good job. They followed the law. They made an assessment of what the damages were with respect to the damage to his [Miller's] reputation, his emotional distress, his loss of enjoyment of life,” she said in an interview. “Juries, in my opinion, are uniquely situated to be able to make an assessment of the facts and to value injury and harm in their communties.”
Bosman added that decisions like McAvoy’s have led her to believe that “judges tend to be skeptical of emotional distress or reputational damages” as opposed to physical injuries.
“Part of that is a value determination that I think it out of line with respect to appreciating emotional harm to be on the same level as physical harm,” she said. “I think there is a bias against emotional harm that is unfortunate.”
In a statement issued after McAvoy’s Dec. 21 decision from Binghamton, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said, “The city looks forward to complete vindication in the coming months.”
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