Thursday, June 6, 2013

Now I have seen it all: witness had a financial stake in the trial's outcome

This is a civil rights claim alleging that the plaintiff was rounded up by the police and taken to a mental health facility against his will. He sued the police for false arrest and excessive force, and the jury awarded him a lot of money: $625,000, which the judge reduced post-trial to $450,000. But the plaintiff withheld from the defendants a shocking secret that could have blown the trial apart. For that reason, the verdict is gone.

The case is Thomas v. City of New York, 09 Civ. 3162 (ALC), 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 78510 (S.D.N.Y. 2013), a Southern District of New York ruling issued on June 4. After the trial ended, the City filed an appeal. That appeal never happened because the City discovered that the plaintiff had engaged in shenanigans that tainted the verdict and warranted a new trial.

Here is what happened. The plaintiff's girlfriend, Marrow, was a witness to this he-said she-said case that turned on witness credibility. Prior to trial, the plaintiff and his girlfriend entered into a contract that promised Marrow 20 percent of the recovery in the event that Thomas won at trial. If Thomas lost at trial, Marrow would pay out 10 percent of the defendants' legal fees. So Marrow had a real financial stake in the outcome of the trial. No one knew about this contract, which is prohibited under New York law, and when Marrow as cross-examined at trial about whether she had a financial interest in the case, she did not tell the jury about the contract, and she was cagey about whether she would benefit from a Thomas trial victory. As Marrow withheld from the jury her true financial stake in the case, Thomas sat there like a lump in the knowledge that Marrow was not playing it straight with the court.

The contract became known to the world when Thomas decided against honoring the contract. Marrow sued Thomas in state court to enforce the contract. The district court ruling provides the transcript from State Supreme Court's colloquy with Thomas about the contract. Thomas got cute about the agreement (he said that Marrow forced him to sign it or she would not testify at trial) before he finally acknowledged the agreement's existence.

The City told the federal judge about the contract and move for a new trial. That motion is granted. This is the kind of serious misconduct that warrants a new trial. Thomas had a duty to disclose the existence of this agreement to the City. It also goes without saying that the jury could have found for the City had it known about the contract. It boiled down to Marrow's credibility, and the City would have argued that her testimony was bought and paid for. The City's lawyers would have destroyed Marrow and Thomas on cross-examination about this illicit contract. Judge Carter writes, "Marrow and Thomas agreed to a contingency arrangement in every sense of the word -- she would benefit only if Thomas was successful and was financial liable if he lost. Her testimony was high stakes for both Thomas's case and her own wallet."

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