Putting a dollar value on pain and suffering in civil rights cases is one of the trickiest parts of the job, both for the lawyers who have to advise their clients, and for the jurors who are asked to make a decision. The only way to assess these damages awards is to compare them with damages in other cases. Post-verdict, the courts have the opportunity to tell us what these cases are worth. This is one of those cases.
The case is Miller v. City of Ithaca, 3:10-cv-597 (GLS/DEP), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168614 (N.D.N.Y. Dec. 17, 2015). This is a retaliation case brought under Title VII and state law. The jury said the City retaliated against plaintiff, a City police officer, in giving him undesirable beat assignments. The jury valued that case at $220,000. The jury also said the City gave plaintiff a retaliatory Notice of Discipline (NOD), awarding him $260,001 in damages for that claim. The City wants these awards reduced, so the district court applies the remittitur analysis.
Judge Sharpe notes that courts have devised "a three-tiered framework for gauging the excessiveness of emotional damage awards." The least severe "garden variety" damages range from $30,000 to $125,000. More significant emotional distress falls within the $100,000 to $500,000 range. "Significant claims are based on more substantial harm or more offensive conduct, are sometimes supported by medical testimony or evidence, evidence of treatment by a healthcare professional and/or medication, and testimony from other, corroborating witnesses." Bear in mind that the jury is not told about this framework. The court just tells the jury to give the plaintiff an amount that will fairly compensate her for the pain and suffering. This is why you see huge damages awards in the newspaper for some cases, and peanuts for other cases that are worth much more.
The $220,000 for the beat assignments is too high, Judge Sharpe says. "Miller's own testimony demonstrates that he suffered minimal symptoms as a result of the beat assignments change." In summarizing plaintiff's testimony, the Court writes:
I had had stress from the constant things that they did to me, and then the Notice of Termination was just -- it was like the nail in the coffin that just was the worst thing ever. I knew that they had -- as they said, tryin' to force me out one way or another, but I never thought that they would stoop to that level of retaliation. Miller's testimony clarified that the harm from the beat assignments change was "drastically different" from that of the NOD, with the former being less severe because he "still knew [he] had a job, still was workin', [he] had everything that [he] needed, so to speak, in terms of takin' care of [his] family." Miller explained that he "had some problems from when" his beats were changed, "[b]ut [he] was dealin' with it." Additionally, Miller claimed that he started to feel the effects of the beat assignments change on the night of July 20, which impossibly predated the change to his beats by three days. Miller's subjective testimony about the seemingly minimal effect that the change in beats had on him places the verdict as to that claim into the garden variety category.
The judge reduces the pain and suffering for the beat assignments claim from $220,000 to $50,000. Anything more than that is a windfall, the Court says, based on sympathy for Miller.
The jury also gave plaintiff $260,001 for the NOD. The following summarizes Miller's evidence on his pain suffering from the NOD: "Miller offered proof that, as a result of defendants' liable conduct, he suffered sleeplessness, hypervigilance, depression, anger, erectile dysfunction, agoraphobia, aniexty, panic attacks, incontinence, shaking, headaches, fearfulness, weight loss, and drinking problems. He sought medical treatment and was prescribed medication in connection with his symptoms."
This evidence will net you a lot of money at trial, if you prove your claim. As Miller suffered "significant" pain and suffering under the three-tiered damages model in the Second Circuit, the district court allows the $260,001 damages award to stand.
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Stephen Bergstein is a civil rights lawyer in Orange County, N.Y. He has briefed or argued more than 200 appeals in the state and federal courts.