In an extraordinary legal turnaround, a federal judge vacated a jury’s verdict and ordered a new trial in the racial-discrimination case filed by fired Medina Police Chief Jeffrey Chen.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly issued an order Friday saying the eight-member jury was improperly influenced by lawyer misconduct when it concluded Chen was a victim of discrimination and awarded him $2 million in damages.
Zilly said Chen’s lawyer, Marianne Jones, defied a pretrial order by repeatedly bringing up racially charged comments allegedly made by former city officials and others who played no role in the city’s decision to fire Chen.
Jones “relied primarily on innuendo and subterfuge rather than on evidence” to establish a racial motivation in Chen’s firing, Zilly wrote.
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By exposing the jury to excluded comments, Zilly wrote, “Jones converted an extraordinarily weak case of discrimination into a $2 million verdict, the bulk of which is unsupported by the evidence.”
Jones said Friday she was surprised by the judge’s order and denied any misconduct.
“The discriminatory evidence was allowed by the court during the trial; the city’s legal team objected at the time and the court chose at the time to allow the evidence in. So for the court now to decide that what was allowed during the trial is now considered attorney misconduct is inconsistent,” Jones said.
Chen will either appeal Zilly’s ruling or go directly to a new trial, Jones said. “We’re confident that the next jury will reach the same conclusion,” she said.
Jones said that when she talked to Chen about the order for a new trial, his main concern was how to tell his children “that they are now going to be subjected to another round of unfathomable torture.” But she said he is prepared to continue the fight to clear his name.
The jury’s March verdict included $25,000 in punitive damages that were to have been paid personally by Donna Hanson, the city manager who fired Chen.
Hanson, who was hired in 2008, lost her job in June under a severance agreement with the City Council, under which she will receive a year’s pay of $156,745, plus $57,976 in retirement, deferred compensation and other benefits.
Chen, a popular chief among many residents of the wealthy community on the east side of Lake Washington, became a cause célèbre when residents learned in late 2010 that Hanson had placed him on administrative leave after he resigned and then attempted to rescind his resignation.
Hanson fired Chen several months later, saying he lied during two investigations and engaged in other misconduct.
Chen’s supporters jammed City Council meetings and signed a petition by the hundreds calling for his reinstatement.
Judge Zilly, in his Friday order, expressed his “deep respect for the jury process” and noted that he had never ordered a new trial in his 25 years on the bench.
But, he continued, “The undersigned judge was completely surprised by the jury verdict in this case, and can only conclude that it was the product of passion and/or prejudice.”
A new trial is required, the judge wrote, “to prevent a miscarriage of justice.” Zilly gave the two sides 28 days to tell the court when they could be ready for a retrial.
The only undisputed evidence that suggested racial bias on Hanson’s part was her question in a meeting about whether “you eat turkey” for Thanksgiving, Zilly wrote. City Clerk Rachel Baker, a vegan, testified she thought the question was directed at her, not at Chen, whose ancestry is Chinese.
Even if Hanson had a racial motive in firing Chen, the judge wrote, the evidence suggested the city would have fired him for lying to investigators, forging memorandums under subordinates’ names, destroying data, improperly using city funds for purchases, snooping in other officials’ emails, and losing the confidence of his subordinates.
If another trial is held, Zilly wrote, he “will more rigorously patrol plaintiff’s counsel’s conduct.”
Zilly wrote that he also would consider allowing the city’s attorneys to present evidence that Chen resigned from the Seattle Police Department before the conclusion of an investigation into whether he received cash reimbursement for his stay in a Las Vegas hotel room that was provided to him free of charge.
The city’s trial attorneys, Suzanne Michael and Stephanie Alexander, did not return phone calls Friday. Medina Mayor Michael Luis declined to comment, saying only, “We’re back in pending litigation.”
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org