Large jury verdicts make the news. The large number is what everyone hears. It sets expectations. But those expectations may not be reasonable. For example, most people know about the $2.86 million award against McDonald’s for serving a too hot cup of coffee (which was predominately based on two days’ worth of coffee sales). What most people do not know is that the judge reduced that verdict to $640,000 – while still a nice win considering that the demand to settle was once $20,000 to cover the medical care for her third-degree burns, it is not the huge windfall that the public thinks happened.
A recent case demonstrates this situation in the employment setting. In the case of Veikos v. The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Cathrine Veikos was an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2006, Veikos gave birth to a child. She had been previously promised a one-year extension to her tenure probationary period due to the birth of her child. However, when she attempted to use that one-year extension in 2009-2010, citing the delay to her scholarship caused by the birth of her child. In retaliation, the school denied her tenure. Given the conduct, comments, and male gender of the people who voted to deny her tenure, Veikos had good reason to assume that the denial of tenure was done out of misogyny. When Veikos complained that the tenure situation was pregnancy and gender discrimination and asked that her application for tenure be reevaluated, the school terminated her employment almost immediately thereafter.
In 2011 and 2012, Veikos filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) alleging gender discrimination, wrongful termination, and retaliation on the part of the university. Showing just how long it can take to navigate government employment law agencies, it took until June of 2020 for the PCHR to find that her dismissal was probably due to gender discrimination. The extreme length of time it took Veikos to navigate the government agencies underlines the importance of calling the right attorney to help one navigate the legal process.
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In September 2020, Veikos filed her gender discrimination and wrongful termination complaint against the university in the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. After a trial, the jury had a mixed verdict. The jury found that there was not enough evidence to determine that gender discrimination took place; however, the jury also found that the university retaliated against Veikos for reporting gender discrimination by firing her. With the jury having found that the university’s firing of Veikos was illegal, the trial moved into the damages phase.
Damages in this case fell into two categories: economic damages (the direct damage in lost wages and missed economic opportunities suffered by Veikos due to the firing) and non-economic damages (everything else, primarily emotional damages). These non-economic damages are also called unliquidated damages. In this case, the judge concluded that Veikos suffered $382,784 in economic damages. Meanwhile, the jury found that Veikos suffered $1,000,000 in emotional damages. At the end of this initial stage of a trial, the university owed Veikos a total of $1,382,784.
However, there are certain motions that can be filed after a civil trial that are not possible in the criminal trials that the average American is more familiar with. Among these motions are a motion for a judgment of a matter of law, a motion for a new trial, and a motion for remittitur. The university filed all three of these motions. The judge denied the first two motions but granted the motion for remittitur.
What is remittitur?
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) govern the procedures for civil cases in the United States federal courts. Remittitur is a concept related to damages awarded in civil cases, particularly in the context of jury verdicts. It involves a process through which a judge can review and potentially reduce a jury’s award of damages if they find it excessive.
Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure covers various post-trial motions, including motions for a new trial or to alter or amend a judgment. It is within this rule that the concept of remittitur can be relevant.
In the context of Rule 59, remittitur typically comes into play when a jury awards a sum of money to the plaintiff as damages, but the judge believes that the awarded amount is unreasonably high or excessive based on the evidence presented during the trial. Instead of ordering a completely new trial, which can be time-consuming and costly, the judge might offer the plaintiff a choice: either accept a reduced amount of damages determined by the judge or go through a new trial to determine the damages. Every state except Oregon also has their own version of remittitur that follows roughly the same principle.
The purpose of remittitur is to balance the rights of the parties and prevent what the court might view as overly generous or punitive awards from standing. This process also aims to encourage parties to settle the matter without the need for a new trial, as the threat of potentially receiving a lower amount could motivate the plaintiff to accept the reduced damages.
How can a judge reduce my jury award?
Unfortunately, a judge is fully within their rights under federal law to reduce civil awards if they feel the award in question was unreasonable when it comes to unliquidated damages (emotional damages, punitive damages, etc.). The judge is then free to reduce the award to what the Judge feels appropriate. Effectively, the judge overrules the jury trial when it comes to damages and replaces it with their own judgement instead. The plaintiff must then either accept this reduced award or try the case all over again. This process is called “Remittitur”.
Now, judges might object to how I have characterized remittitur. They might say that a plaintiff is free to reject remittitur and try the case over again. However, trial is an intense and uncertain experience; a witness might not testify, a new jury may decide differently. The choice to go back to trial is not an easy one. Furthermore, judges may not appreciate how destructive remittitur can be on the morale of a plaintiff. As a society, we hold the right to a trial by jury to be sacred. Yet remittitur is when a judge denies a judgement that a jury has already given a client and effectively tells the plaintiff that the jury’s decision does not matter.
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Is there a limit to how much a judge can reduce a verdict?
There is no specific fixed limit in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that dictates how much a judge can reduce a jury’s verdict through the remittitur process. The judge’s decision to reduce a verdict and the extent of that reduction typically depend on the specific circumstances of the case, the evidence presented, and the judge’s assessment of whether the awarded damages are excessive or unreasonable.
However, the judge’s decision to reduce a verdict is subject to review and scrutiny. If a judge’s reduction of the verdict is deemed to be arbitrary or an abuse of discretion, it can be challenged on appeal.
How many times can a judge reduce a verdict?
Obviously, there is a fear that a judge will just keep reducing verdict after verdict until a jury gives a result that the judge agrees with. While that may be the case under federal law, under Ohio law a judge can only grant a motion for remittitur once. As long as one is bringing their case in Ohio, there is no potential for an endless loop of trials.
Surely a judge cannot reduce my jury award by that much!
A judge can absolutely reduce your jury award by an incredibly large amount. Unfortunately, Cathrine Veikos discovered this fact in the worst possible way. When the judge granted remittitur in her case, the judge lowered her non-economic damages from $1,000,000 to $100,000. In other words, the judge believed that the jury had erred by granting Veikos $1,000,000 in non-economic damages, so he reduced that amount to an amount that he believed was reasonable: $100,000. This left Veikos with a total of $482,784, should she accept the remittitur.
Veikos filed a motion to have the judge reconsider the remittitur. The judge denied that motion. As the case stands now, Veikos will have to choose between accepting the award, appealing it, or going through the uncertainty of a new trial.
How do I avoid remittitur?
Unfortunately, the only way to avoid the risk of remittitur is to settle the case rather than getting a jury award. Remittitur is one of many risks that trials bring, in addition to other risks such as motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, fickle juries, and immovable judges. These risks are why we fight for the best possible settlement before we get to trial, so you can get the money that you are owed and continue on with your life.
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Can a judge add damages as well?
You might be wondering “If a judge can reduce a jury award if the judge believes the unliquidated damages are too high, then surely the judge can increase the jury award if the judges believes the damages are too low, right? It would only be fair…” While you are correct that it would only be fair to have judges add damages as well, that is not the case in federal court and many state courts. The process is called “additur”. Thankfully Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky all have additur, although Kentucky’s additur is quite difficult to attain.
At the end of the day, the American court system is not currently set up to defend the rights of working people, but the rights of the 1 percent. You need a dedicated group of experienced lawyers to fight for you through this unfair system. You need to call the right attorney.
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How do I get a good settlement?
While the exact answer changes from case to case, the most important step is simple: call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical). Call our lawyers in Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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