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.
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