The Court of Appeals has reinstated a jury verdict in a disability discrimination case involving the forced removal of a disabled man from his home for medical treatment. After the jury awarded the plaintiff $400,000 in damages, the trial court took away the verdict. The Second Circuit gives it back (but agrees that the damages were too high).
The case is Green v. City of New York, decided on December 30. This case was previously in the Court of Appeals in 2006, when the Second Circuit reversed summary judgment and sent it back for trial. 465 F.3d 65 (2d Cir. 2006). A moral of this story is that if the Court of Appeals says there is enough evidence for the plaintiff to win, the trial court cannot grant a post-trial motion in the defendant's favor if the plaintiff does prevail at trial.
The summary order in this case does not do justice to the facts. For that, you have to read the district court opinion, at 2007 WL 2584752 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 6, 2007), which describes a chaotic and violent scene when 911 emergency responders arrived at Walter Green's Upper West Side penthouse after this Lou Gehrig's Disease victim fell unconscious, his mechanical respirators had failed and he was suffering from a serious respiratory infection. After the family tried to send EMS away, EMS would not leave and, after a confrontation that included foul language, a physical assault and someone barricading the front door with furniture, paramedics took Mr. Green to the hospital over his wife's objection. The City's expert said that Mr. Green could have died had EMS not taken him to the hospital, which successfully treated his pneumonia over a seven-day stay.
This is quite a story. When the Court of Appeals cleared this case for trial in 2006, it reasoned that "the evidence in this case could support a jury finding that [Lieutenant] Giblin perceived Walter [Green] as incompetent because of Walter's extreme physical disability and therefore denied him the right to use the City's evaluation system" for refusals of medical assistance. But after the jury returned a verdict in Mr. Green's favor, Judge Berman wrote, "if ever there was a case which warranted granting a Rule 50(b) motion and reversing a jury determination of liability (and damages), this is that case." At a minimum, Judge Berman ruled, the City is entitled to a new trial because the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.
But Wait a Minute!, the Court of Appeals (Pooler, Katzmann and Preska [D.J.] says. We ruled in 2006 that this set of facts could support a jury verdict, and the trial evidence was not substantially different from the summary judgment record that predicated the favorable 2006 appellate ruling. The panel states, "The only difference in the evidence at trial were new opinions stated by the City’s medical expert, who was not present at the scene, about post-hoc medical justifications for the City’s actions. This objective medical evidence does not speak to the subjective intent inquiry required by the ADA – whether the City denied Walter Green the right to access the City’s services for refusing medical treatment based on discriminatory animus in the form of paternalistic stereotypes." The verdict is thus reinstated, but the trial court is ordered to take up the issue of damages as the Second Circuit agrees that $400,000 is too compensatory damages.
Interesting sidenote to this opinion. First, it's a summary order, a rare format when the Court of Appeals reverses the district court. Summary orders are even rarer when the Court of Appeals reinstates a jury verdict. Even rarer still, this is a summary order with a dissenting opinion (Judge Preska) stating that the district court was entitled to order a new trial. Also unique is how long it took the Court of Appeals to issue the opinion. After oral argument, both sides agreed to post-argument mediation. When that failed in Spring 2009, the Second Circuit got back to work on the case, issuing a relatively brief opinion eight or nine months later.