Appeals court throws out $900,000 verdict in D.C. police discrimination case

February 15, 2013

A federal appeals court has sided with the District in a dispute over whether the police department improperly retaliated against four officers who filed racial discrimination complaints in 2006.

The officers were awarded a $900,000 verdict in 2010. But on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned that verdict.

A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the officers’ attorney had made four inappropriate arguments and that the errors prejudiced the jury.

Jennifer Klar, the lead attorney for the officers, did not return calls, so it could not be learned whether she intends to retry the case.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan issued a statement praising the ruling, highlighting the judge’s criticism of the officers’ attorney. The statement said the plaintiffs were seeking $2.1 million from the District to cover their legal fees.

The four officers — Donald Smalls, William James, Frazier Caudle and Nikeith Goins — won a combined $900,000 in a verdict that was hailed by labor leaders as a rare victory for rank-and-file officers making a civil rights claim against D.C. police. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who at the time chaired the public safety committee, said after the verdict that the city should have settled the case instead of risking a trial.

The officers, who are black, had alleged that four days after they submitted an anonymous racial discrimination complaint against a police lieutenant, they were told to reapply for their jobs in a new vice unit in the 1st District. Jurors deliberated for five hours after an 11-day trial. A fifth officer, Sholanda Miller, also won at trial, but the jury did not award her any money.

The appeals court judges took issue with the so-called “golden rule” argument invoked by the officers’ attorney when the jurors were asked “to place themselves in the position of a party,” according to the court ruling.

That practice, the judges said, is “universally condemned” because it draws on emotion rather than facts. In one instance, according to the decision issued Friday, the attorney asked jurors to “put yourselves in the plaintiff’s shoes” in “determining how to make the plaintiffs whole.”

The court ruled that the trial judge’s attempts to overcome the statements by sustaining objections and telling the jury to ignore the comments were not enough.

“As the conduct of the appellees’ counsel in this case was egregious, we conclude that the generic instruction did not sufficiently counter the prejudice,” the judges ruled.

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