The Washington Post

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

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.


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Making family dinnertime happen
How to make Sean Brock's 'Heritage' cornbread
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
In search of the Delmarva fox squirrel
The most interesting woman you've never heard of
Play Videos
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
The Post taste tests Pizza Hut's new hot dog pizza
5 tips for using your thermostat
Play Videos
Philadelphia's real signature sandwich
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.