Tuesday, September 21, 2021

$1.50 million verdict for pain and suffering reduced to $50,000

The jury enters its verdict and everyone goes home. Except for the lawyers, the parties, and the judge. The jury goes home, unaware that the case will continue as the losing side petitions the court to ether vacate the verdict entirely or reduce the damages award. This case is a good example.

The case is White v. New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2021 WL 282561 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2021), a racial discrimination case brought under Title VII, in which the jury awarded plaintiff $1.5 million in pain and suffering, $183,000 in back pay and another $30,000 in lost pension income. What stands out is the pain and suffering award, for two reasons: first, Northern District juries usually do not award large damages awards like this, and second, lets face it - that's a lot of money for pain and suffering. Very few single-plaintiff seven-figure verdicts have survived in the Second Circuit.

The State asked the trial court to vacate the verdict entirely. Judge Scullin will not do so, noting that while the court "may weigh the evidence and the credibility of witnesses and need not view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict winner," "this is not a permission slip to ignore the jury's role in resolving factual disputes and assessing witness credibility." Moreover, "a court may only grant a motion for a new trial if the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or [its] verdict is a miscarriage of justice." The court does not get into the facts here, but the judge finds there was enough evidence of racial discrimination to support the verdict.

Post trial, the State also asked Judge Scullin to reduce the damages. Initially, the pain and suffering award is immediately reduced to $300,000, the cap under Title VII. But that does not end the analysis. The State argues that even $300,000 is too much for the plaintiff, based on his actual evidence of pain and suffering. 

The trial court thus reviews verdicts over the last 10 years to gain a sense of the going  rate for so-called "garden-variety" pain and suffering cases, where the plaintiff has not received extensive psychological treatment or suffered permanent emotional injuries. If you are looking for recent cases on the pain and suffering value of discrimination cases, this case provides a good summary. Judge Scullin concludes:

After reviewing the factual situations in all of the above-mentioned cases and comparing them to the facts in this case, the Court, applying the "least intrusive standard," concludes that $50,000 is the maximum amount that would compensate Plaintiff for his emotional injuries without being excessive. Therefore, the Court conditionally denies Defendant's motion for a new trial on the issue of compensatory damages on Plaintiff's accepting a remittitur of the compensatory damages award to $50,000.

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