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The Seven-Year Think: And You Thought You Were Indecisive

Viola Scott's case against Crestar Bank was a fairly simple claim of discrimination: Scott--a black woman and native-born American who worked as a teller at the old Perpetual Bank (which turned out to be not all that perpetual, becoming part of Crestar back in 1992 and then Sun Trust in 1998)--contended that her boss at the bank, a Haitian-born black woman, treated her poorly, singled her out for criticism and eventually had her fired for providing an apartment complex manager with salary information about another teller who was seeking to rent an apartment.

Why am I interested in a case that took place in the late 1990s, even if it did go through two trials? Why should we care about a case that the court itself considered unremarkable? Because the D.C. Court of Appeals finally issued its decision in this case this summer--fully seven years after the parties' lawyers argued it. Seven years from argument to decision is not a record, but it's pretty unusual. More on that in a moment, but first, back to Viola Scott:

Sacked, Scott claims to have suffered sleeplessness, loss of appetite, frequent headaches and crying spells. After a four-day trial in D.C. Superior Court, a marvelously generous jury found for Scott, concluding that she had been discriminated against because of her national origin, and awarded her $1 million in damages.

But the judge in the case, Richard Levie, thought the jury's award was excessive and its verdict unfounded and perhaps unfairly arrived at. After hearing arguments from both parties, the judge tossed out the jury's verdict and the damages award and ordered a new trial. Reason: Scott's lawyer, in his closing argument, got a little carried away:

Crestar is a big bank. They are real successful in the banking industry. They are everywhere now -- the District, Maryland, Virginia, other places. . . . But I think sometimes you got to get through to somebody that the law applies to them too.

This is a version of what lawyers call the "send them a message" closing argument, which is generally considered not kosher. Juries are supposed to figure out the facts and consider the law, not serve as social messengers. So the judge tossed the jury's work and blamed the lawyer (and himself, for not having interceded when the lawyer went out of bounds.)

In the second trial, the bank won. Scott got nothing.

Scott, naturally, appealed, arguing that the first jury was right and the judge shouldn't have discarded the jury's fine work.

Seven years later, the appeals court stuffed Scott, saying that the first trial judge was entirely within his rights to dump the verdict and that the $1 million verdict perfectly fit the legal definition of excessive, which is 'beyond all reason, or . . . so great as to shock the conscience.' Since Scott as a teller earned all of $24,000 a year, and by her own account suffered only minor physical symptoms after she was fired, the right to win a cool million was pretty far from justifiable.

"We are satisfied that the record fully supports the trial court's determination," the appeals court ruled last month.
The trial judge reasonably concluded that Scott's lawyer in his closing argument "instigated prejudice on the part of the jury, casting Crestar as a large, rich, and uncaring Goliath and Ms. Scott as a financially overmatched David."

The appeals court decision is short and sweet. There's no unusual legal wrangling. The case is about as straightforward as they come.

Yet the years passed and Scott and Crestar heard nothing. 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and finally a decision. On the very last page of the 24-page ruling, there is one last footnote. It says:

"The court sincerely regrets the unusual delay in issuing this opinion."

That's it. No explanation. Zippo.

So I asked D.C. courts spokesman Leah Gurowitz for some more detail.

"You are correct," she emailed back. "The opinion in Scott v. Crestar took a long time and the Court regrets the delay."

But she couldn't really offer much more in the way of a reason. "There was nothing unusual about this particular case that caused the delay," she said. "It was more the sheer volume and complexity of the cases that the Court has to handle each year because of its broad mandatory jurisdiction to review all matters from the Superior Court, the Office of Administrative Hearings, and other governmental agencies of the District of Columbia, hence the explanatory note of regret."

This case is indeed the outlier. The D.C. appeals court takes an average of 575 days to issue an opinion, which is very long, but not insanely longer than other appeals courts. In the federal courts, the average delay from argument of a case to issuance of a decision is about a year.

We will likely never know exactly what caused this degree of delay. I like to think that the briefs were eaten by someone's dog or child. But perhaps you have a better explanation. Come ahead with it--we're not getting anything better from the court, so we might as well figure it out on our own.

By Marc Fisher |  August 29, 2007; 7:36 AM ET
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... this case probably ended up at the bottom of a stack of already low priority cases that was passed from judge's office to judge's office until someone realized it was nearly seven years old. Or, perhaps the court spent the last 17 months listening to WaPo radio!

Posted by: Just a guess... | August 29, 2007 8:18 AM

If people and businesses didn't sue for every little thing, real cases could be heard and resolved in a timely fashion.

Posted by: DCAustinite | August 29, 2007 9:12 AM

Perhaps it was on the docket of the esteemed Mr. Roy Pearson?

Posted by: MAX | August 29, 2007 9:39 AM

I don't get it - if the award in this case was deemed excessive, a mere million, then why on earth can't the Pearson case be thrown out?

Posted by: Rosslyn | August 29, 2007 9:46 AM

Wow, that is a really, really, long time between argument and decision! Sounds like DC needs to add some more judges to the Court of Appeals so that more panels can hear more cases and decide them more quickly. Or they need to create an intermediate appellate court and make the CA's jurisdiction discretionary, as Maryland finally did some years ago, to take some pressure off.

Posted by: courthouseguy | August 29, 2007 10:17 AM

So it took them 7 years, at least they seem to have gotten it right.

Posted by: Paul | August 29, 2007 10:27 AM

Marc, you are incorrect as to the federal courts of appeals. While the average time from filing the notice of appeal to disposition is 12 months, the average time from oral argument to disposition is only two months.

Posted by: mark | August 29, 2007 12:13 PM

Sounds like the work of Al Kayder and his band of "dumbest-ic trrrisss" to me! Thanks to your publication of this saga, Shrub will now appoint a DC Court of Appeals judge to head FEMA.

Posted by: Valerie Plame | August 29, 2007 12:13 PM

Just another lazy person looking for a quick million.

Posted by: Working Up In Here | August 29, 2007 12:37 PM

Maybe the paperwork was in the missing pants?

Posted by: Anonymous | August 29, 2007 12:43 PM

I was devestated by this article. I want a million dollars.

Posted by: sheba | August 29, 2007 1:41 PM

Rosslyn: The Pearson case had no award to be found excessive by the judge or an appeals court. Greedy people sue for huge amounts all the time. Pearson got exactly what he deserved - zilch, nada, nothing.

Seven years is a ridiculous time for an appeal to take. But the explanation given by courts' spokesman Leah Gurowitz is a clue. The court mat "review all matters from the Superior Court, the Office of Administrative Hearings, and other governmental agencies of the District of Columbia." Probably the sheer magnitude of appeals from Hot-Pants Pearson's decisions caused some of the backlog.

Posted by: scilicet | August 29, 2007 2:50 PM

This just in from the fashion front:

La. towns say no more baggy pants

Wed Aug 29, 10:23 AM ET

NEW ORLEANS - Hike up those pants. Droopy drawers that bare skin or underwear might soon be forbidden fashion on the streets of Alexandria and Shreveport, and violators could be forced to part with some cash.

"I'm tired (of) looking at behinds," Shreveport Councilwoman Joyce Bowman said after Tuesday's 4-3 vote to ban fanny-flaunting trousers.

Nobody can be arrested just for violating the ordinance, but they could be fined or required to perform community service. The maximum fine for a first offense is $100.

Alexandria's City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ban the baring. Its ordinance allows some sag, but 3 inches or more can bring a fine of $25 to $200 and a requirement for community service.

If the mayors of Shreveport and Alexandria sign the ordinances, they will bring Louisiana's total to at least six, with at least two more cities considering bans.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's City Council has held a hearing on a measure to outlaw saggy pants that reveal shorts or thongs.

A similar proposal in Stratford, Conn., was soundly rejected this week after critics argued it would be unconstitutional and unfairly target minorities.

Some opponents cite other objections.

"Are you going to have a 'sagging' court?" Michael Williams asked Shreveport's council. "The police have more important things to do than chase young boys and girls and say 'pull your pants up.'"

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