This case provides a good introduction into how employment discrimination cases are decided in the Second Circuit. The plaintiff alleges retaliation for speaking out on financial abuses, and brings this action under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which courts resolve under traditional employment retaliation standards.
The case is Yang v. Navigators Group, a summary order decided on December 22. The district court threw out Yang's case on summary judgment. The Court of Appeals (Leval, Sack and Raggi) revives the claim, and it heads to trial. Here is how the district court got it wrong:
1. The district court said Yang did not engage in protected activity when she communicated concerns about some investment risk models because she only offered her own deposition and affidavit testimony about her protected activity. But the Court of Appeals reminds us that this "self-serving" testimony is enough to create an issue of fact for trial. We do not need corroborating evidence if the plaintiff testifies from her personal knowledge that something happened. For more on this concept, see Danzer v. Norden Sys. Inc., 151 F.3d 50, 57 (2d Cir. 1998) and Walsh v. N.Y.C. Hous. Auth., 828 F.3d 70, 80 (2d Cir. 2016). This is an important pointt in discrimination/retaliation cases, as plaintiffs often find they cannot find corroborating witnesses, most of whom will disappear once the lawsuit is filed because they do not want to suffer their own retaliation for assisting the plaintiff-traitor.
2. The district court also said that plaintiff cannot prove she was fired because of her outspoken objections. She was fired two weeks after plaintiff opened her mouth. That is normally close enough to draw a retaliatory inference, but the district court said there was an intervening factor that cut off the causal connection: she gave a disorganized and incoherent presentation to defendant's senior executive team. Intervening factors can in fact kill off a retaliatory inference, and defense lawyers are always looking for this kind of evidence, but the parties here dispute what happened at that meeting. The jury has to resolve this evidentiary conflict, not the district court. As an aside, the district court relied on another district court case in support of its holding that the intervening cause entitled management to summary judgment. But that district court ruling has since been overturned by the Second Circuit, Sharkey v. JP Morgan Chase, 2016 WL 4820997 (2d Cir. Sept. 12, 2016).
3. Plaintiff also wins this appeal because defendant offered conflicting reasons for her termination. Those conflicting reasons suggest defendant was dissembling to shield a retaliatory motive. While defendant cites generalized performance concerns to justify plaintiff's termination, she was never told of these concerns during her employment. Rather, plaintiff says she was only told she was fired because she did not fit into defendant's "culture" and lacked a "hands on" approach to her position. This is an interesting holding. Usually, the "inconsistent explanations" theory of retaliatory or discriminatory intent involves different reasons offered by defendant once the case proceeds to litigation. In this case, we look at what management told plaintiff prior to her termination and compare it with defendant's explanations post-lawsuit.
This case will be of interest only to lawyers who try cases in federal court. The Second Circuit applies a few interesting rules that can make or break the appeal for those of us unlucky enough to lose at trial.
The case is McFadden v. County of Monroe, a summary order decided on December 6. Losing at trial is awful, no matter what side you're on. Think about what it takes for a case to go to trial. The case proceeds to discovery for six months to a year, followed by motion practice, when each side tries to convince the judge either that you have a great case (plaintiff's argument) or there is no case at all and a jury trial would be a waste of time (defendant's argument). If the case cannot settle (most cases settle prior to trial) it means the parties have dug into their positions such that any settlement offer or demand is regarded as an insult and the other side can go to hell. In this context, hell is trial, where eight strangers sit in judgment of your clients. After a week of testimony and trial madness, the jury reaches a verdict. The losing side picks itself off the floor and looks for a way to bring an appeal.
Most jury verdicts are essentially unreviewable on appeal unless the lawyer can argue that the trial court did something wrong that denied you a fair trial. One way to do that is to challenge the jury instructions on appeal. A bad jury instruction can go a long way toward a meritorious appeal. But even those arguments can lose. That's what happened here.
This is an employment discrimination case. The jury ruled against the plaintiff, who relied on the Cat's Paw theory of liability. Cat's Paw is a judge-made doctrine that says if the decisionmaker is a nice guy who happened to rely on the recommendation of a racist or sexist supervisor in terminating your employment, you can win the case because the racist or sexist supervisor tainted the process. Judges like Cat's Paw cases because it allows them to drop a footnote telling us about the Aesop's Fable from which the Cat's Paw language derives. It has something to do with a monkey, chestnuts, a fire and a cat.
Plaintiff argues that he was denied a fair trial because the trial court did not charge the jury on Cat's Paw. He also argues that the court should have told the jury that a retaliation plaintiff can win his case with proof of "a convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence that would support the inference that retaliatory animus was at work."
Let's look at the mosaic argument. This language comes straight from a Seventh Circuit case, Smith v. Bray, 681 F.3d 888 (7th Cir. 2012). The "mosaic" theory of discrimination proof has turned up in Second Circuit cases, as well. It's another way of saying the plaintiff can win the case with bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence that together make out a mosaic of discrimination. But the mosaic language is useful only for resolving summary judgment motions, where the trial judge decides if the plaintiff has enough evidence to win the case. "Mosaic" is not a legal standard. For that reason, the Seventh Circuit said in the Smith case that any judge who mentions "mosaic" in the jury charge will probably be reversed on appeal. Since the trial court in McFadden's case did tell the jury he can win the case on circumstantial evidence, the jury charge was OK.
Equally interesting, at least for the trial lawyers, is why the Second Circuit (Katzmann, Winter and Calabresi) rejects the Cat's Paw argument. Yes, Cat's Paw language can go into the jury charge. But it was not reversible error for the trial court to omit that language from the jury charge. Since McFadden did not object to the jury charge during the trial, he can only win the appeal if the omission was "plain error," which is another way of saying the trial judge totally blew it. The trial court did not blow it in this case because the Second Circuit had neither accepted nor rejected the Cat's Paw approach when the trial took place. Since plain error only exists when the the trial court's ruling was contrary to law at the time of the ruling, McFadden cannot win the appeal on this basis. Which means the verdict stands.
The Second Circuit recently issued a lengthy ruling that upheld a false arrest and excessive force judgment in favor of a 17 year-old plaintiff who was awarded $196,500 in damages. Here I discuss the second plaintiff's claim, which lost at trial. The Court of Appeals ordered a retrial for this plaintiff.
The case is Dancy v. McGinley, decided on December 7. While Elting won his false arrest/excessive force claims, the jury rejected Dancy's excessive force claim. The Second Circuit (Chin, Livingston and Carney) says the trial court did not give the proper jury instruction on Dancy's excessive force claim.
Officer Williams testified that, at the time of Dancy's arrest, he deliberately bent Dancy over a police car but that he did not cause Dancy to suffer his injuries, which included a broken jaw. He also said he never intended to harm Dancy. The trial court instructed the jury that it had to find that Williams "acted intentionally or recklessly" rather than "merely negligently" in his interaction with Dancy. The court suggested that if Williams' actions were "merely negligent," Dancy could not win the case. The jury ruled against Dancy.
Here is the lay of the land in Fourth Amendment cases alleging excessive force. Plaintiffs "must prove the officer intended to commit acts that constituted a seizure in the first instance." But intent is not relevant "as to the officer's underlying motivation for his actions during the seizure. ... An officer's good intentions are immaterial and will not justify an objectively reasonable use of force." In other words, "objectively unreasonable actions during the course of a seizure, even if based on a mistake, are unconstitutional." Once a seizure is initiated, the officer's objectively unreasonable conduct may violate the Fourth Amendment, even if he did not intend to injure the plaintiff. While Fourth Amendment cases require intentional actions by police officers, "in the excessive force context, the intent in question can only be the intent to perform some action, not that a particular result be achieved." In reaching these legal conclusions, Judge Chin draws in part from cases from around the Circuits.
What this means for Dancy is that the district court should not have charged the jury that "if the defendant's acts were merely negligent ... the jury must find that the plaintiff has established his claim." The jury could have believed from this instruction that an officer must have intended the results of his actions or consciously disregarded their consequences. Dancy could have won this case simply by proving that Williams applied some degree of force and did so deliberately. The jury was not able to conclude that Williams intentionally used force, but that he was not liable if he did not intend that the force cause Dancy's injuries. The Court stated:
Under the district court's instruction, the jury could have concluded that there was no violation because Williams did not intend to use enough force to break Dancy's jaw. But given Williams's admission that he intentionally used some amount of force on Dancy, it is irrelevant whether he intentionally applied force sufficient to break Dancy's jaw or otherwise intended to injure Dancy.
2d Circuit upholds $196,500 damages award in false arrest/excessive force case (Dancy v. McGinley Part II)
This is Part II of my discussion of Dancy v. McGinley, a recent decision from the Second Circuit that upheld a false arrest judgment in favor of the plaintiff, whose case was sufficiently clear-cut that the trial court ruled in his favor mid-trial, taking the case away from the jury entirely. Part I of my discussion is at this link. In the interests of full disclosure and to dispel any suspicion that this post was written by the Russians, I co-litigated this case with Christopher Watkins, Esq.
Elting did not just allege that Police Officer McGinley had falsely arrested him. He also said that McGinley had caused him to suffer physical injuries. So we have an excessive force claim, as well. When the trial court ruled as a matter of law that McGinley had falsely arrested Elting, she ruled that any injuries sustained by Elting as a result of the arrest were unjustified as a matter of law. Here is Elting's evidence of the physical injuries:
Elting testified that, after McGinley stopped them and said that he suspected Dancy of criminal activity, Elting took out his phone to call his mother -- a local corrections officer. McGinley told him to put his "fucking phone away." McGinley then grabbed Elting by his left arm and spun him around to the ground. Elting landed on his shoulder and his face hit the ground. McGinley twisted Elting's left arm behind his back, and pressed his knee into Elting's back. At the time, McGinley weighed between 205 and 220 pounds while Elting weighed 140 pounds. Other officers arrived and began punching Elting in the back while he was on the ground. Dancy testified that he saw McGinley punch Elting in the ribs while Elting was held to the ground. Another officer punched Elting in the face, causing his head to hit the pavement. He was then handcuffed and lifted up, at which point he saw another officer pointing a gun toward him.
At the police station, Elting was interrogated about the robbery and detained for about eighteen hours. After his mother bailed him out, Elting went to the emergency room. "He was in pain and had bruises and abrasions on his head, face, and torso. There was swelling on the right side of his head and left side of his face. The hospital conducted a CAT scan and chest x-ray, which revealed no fractures. The emergency room medical records confirm the bruising to the right side of head, face, and torso, with the recommendation to allow for natural healing and to take Advil to relieve pain. Its physical assessment documented the following: left eye pain, head pain, bruising on cheeks, elbow, back, swelling of his head and temporal area, tender upper and lower back, and abrasions to his nose and hand." Soon afterwards, "Elting began complaining of pain while urinating, and his mother took him to see his regular physician. Elting reported the same injuries as well as long-lasting migraine headaches and soreness. He reported back pain over his right kidney. His physical injuries healed after two to three weeks."
Elting missed a week of school as a result of the incident, and he sought counseling. The experience "changed [his] outlook on a lot of things," and that he lost "trust [in] the police" and his mother's coworkers in law enforcement. "At the time of trial, he continued to seek counseling as a result of the incident because he 'always expect[s] the worst to happen,'" and he became a withdrawn young man who underwent a personality change, according to Elting's mother.
The jury awarded Elting $115,000 for the false arrest and $100,000 for the excessive force. The trial court reduced the excessive force damages to $81,500. The Court of Appeals (Chin, Livingston and Carney) upholds the $81,500/$115,000 damages award. The general rule is that we defer to the jury's views on damages unless the award "shocks the conscience." We also defer to the trial court's damages assessment in reducing the award. Appellate courts will look to comparable cases in determining whether the damages are too high.
Elting's damages award falls in line with comparable cases, the Second Circuit holds, even if no two cases are alike. Judge Chin notes in particular that Elting suffered "substantial" damages from the false arrest, particularly because of his age -- 17 years old -- and Second Circuit authority that recognizes that "an event such as he experienced here has a deeper and lasting impact on a seventeen-year old than an adult." The Court notes that Elting has lost trust in law enforcement even though his mother is a law enforcement officer. This prompts the Court to draw from Justice Sotomayor's dissenting opinion in a recent Fourth Amendment decision: ""For generations, black and brown parents have given their children 'the talk' -- instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger -- all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them."
The Court of Appeals has upheld the judgment in favor of an excessive force/false arrest plaintiff who prevailed at trial after the district court granted the plaintiff's motion for Rule 50 relief. The second plaintiff, who lost at trial, wins a retrial with new jury instructions on his excessive force claim. This case raises a variety of issues, to be discussed in a series of blog posts.
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.