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$540K punitive damages award against CPD sergeant for harassing German-born Jewish officer upheld

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

The officer claimed he endured vicious anti-Semitic abuse from the sergeant for years and although he repeatedly asked him to stop, he never let up.

Although the evidence may not have been overwhelming, it was enough for a jury to find a Chicago Police Department sergeant engineered an officer’s wrongful suspension and loss of a promotion because of his German national origin and Jewish ethnicity, ruled the Seventh Circuit. Thus the court below properly denied the sergeant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the officer’s Section 1983 claims as well as his motion for a new trial. Nor, said the appeals court, did the district court err in declining to reduce the $540,000 punitive damages award against the sergeant, who argued that it meant financial ruin for him (Sommerfield v. Knasiak, July 23, 2020, Wood, D.).

Harassment. Born and raised in Germany where some of his family members had died in concentration camps, the officer emigrated to the United States, moved to Chicago, and joined the CPD, where he endured years of anti-Semitic abuse from his supervising sergeant. That abuse, observed the court, “invoked Hitler, the actions the Nazis took in the death camps, and regret that Jews today live in the United States.”

Formal complaint. When the officer’s girlfriend was taken to the ER in 2004, the officer received permission to visit her during his shift. Upon his return, the sergeant told him “if you want to take care of your f**king Mexican girlfriend, you take time off like everybody else.” Fed up, the officer filed a formal complaint (CR) with internal affairs regarding the sergeant’s offensive comment and his relentless harassment.

Insubordinate. Two days later, the officer was in a patrol car with his partner, who was trying to refuel the car at a gas station. The partner’s gas card did not work, however, so he suggested they go to the officer’s house to pick up his gas card. When the officer went into his house, another nearby officer called the sergeant, who demanded that the officer and his partner return to the station, where four other superior officers were waiting. After dismissing the driver, the sergeant accused the officer of violating rules by failing to contact the dispatcher before exiting his vehicle. The sergeant then filed a CR against the officer accusing him of being insubordinate and recommending his suspension.

Suspension. After a brief investigation by several department officials, the officer was suspended for five days even though there was evidence it was common practice not to bother dispatchers for such brief errands. The officer’s partner received only a reprimand. In addition, the investigative report omitted evidence that the sergeant had shouted profanities at the officer while he disciplined him. As a result of the suspension, the officer was later passed over for a promotion to canine handler even though he was rated “well qualified.”

Lawsuits. The officer subsequently sued the city and sergeant in 2006 but because the statute of limitations had run on the only claim he raised against the sergeant, the sergeant was dismissed from the lawsuit. A jury subsequently awarded the officer $30,000 on his remaining claims against the city. He then brought the present action against the city and sergeant in 2008, alleging that the sergeant had harassed him and discriminated against him on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, had retaliated against him based on protected activities, and that the city was responsible for all this. Although the claims against the city were dismissed, the district court permitted some of the claims against the sergeant to proceed to trial and a jury awarded him $540,000 in punitive damages and no compensatory damages.

Final judgment. After three years of post-trial litigation, the district court entered a final judgment awarding the officer $548,703.96, which included the $540,000 in damages awarded by the jury and $8,703.96 in pre-judgment interest. It also found the officer was entitled to another $54,315.24 in economic damages, which it offset by a voluntary payment in the same amount the city had made to the officer while the case was pending.

Responsibility for adverse actions. On appeal, the sergeant argued that he was not the one who imposed the suspension or denied the officer’s promotion and thus the jury could not have found he was responsible for those adverse actions. Disagreeing, the Seventh Circuit found ample evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the sergeant filed the CR after the gas-card incident out of discriminatory animus, and that this triggered the two adverse actions at issue. There was also sufficient evidence from which the jury could find that the sergeant, and not the investigative committee, was the real decisionmaker.

Not only did the sergeant testify that his suspension recommendations were almost always taken, there was evidence this was practice here, given that he spoke with the police sergeants investigating his CR. A jury could also conclude that the sergeant knew about the officer’s ambition to become a canine handler as there was testimony it was well known he was angling for that position. While the evidence was not overwhelming, “that is not the standard,” said the court, declining to set aside the jury verdict.

Proper standard. Citing its 2016 decision in Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, in which it held that “[the] legal standard … is simply whether the evidence would permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the plaintiff’s race, ethnicity, sex, religion, or other proscribed factor caused the discharge or other adverse employment action,” the court clarified that although Ortiz arose under Section 1981, the same standard applies to cases brought under Section 1983. “The evidence before this jury,” said the court, “permitted it to conclude that [the sergeant] engineered [the officer’s] wrongful suspension and his loss of the promotion.” Accordingly, the district court correctly denied the sergeant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.

Punitive damages. Next, the sergeant argued that the punitive damages award was excessive, disproportionate, and violated due process principles. Analyzing the award under the Supreme Court’s three-part test set out in in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, the court turned first to the sergeant’s contention the district court erred in finding his behavior was “extremely reprehensible.” Rejecting the sergeant’s assertion that Gore established a “hierarchy of reprehensibility,” with threats of violence at the top, the court explained that Gore merely set out a series of factors to be considered when evaluating conduct. And here, although the sergeant’s conduct was not physically violent, it was still “extremely reprehensible” as he verbally abused the officer with vicious anti-Semitic slurs for years, degraded him for his Jewish heritage in front of his coworkers, and insulted his girlfriend for her race. “The absence of physical abuse does not render [his] behavior any less reprehensible.”

Disparity. As to the second Gore factor—the disparity between the harm suffered and the punitive damages award—the district court, adding in the $30,000 the jury awarded the officer in the first lawsuit, determined that the final ratio between the punitive damages and actual harm stood at $540,000 to $93,019.20, or roughly 5.8 to 1, which was well within constitutional bounds. Although the sergeant argued that because the jury awarded the officer punitive damages only, it must have been motivated by animus toward him, the court pointed out that punitive damages awards are not conditioned upon the presence of compensatory damages and thus the jury’s award of punitive damages without compensatory damages was not suspect on that basis.

Further, even without considering the $30,000 award the officer received from the city, the ratio would be $540,000 to $54,315.24, or 9.94 to 1. “The single-digit ratio here, in light of the severity of the harassment, was consistent with awards in other cases and did not violate due process.”

Title VII cap. With respect to the third Gore factor, the difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases, while the sergeant pointed to Title VII’s $300,000 statutory damages cap, the court found that irrelevant here. “If Congress had wished to cap the damages available under section 1981, then it would have done so. But it did not, and we see no warrant for what would amount to a judicial amendment to the statute.”

Financial ruin. Nor was the court swayed by the sergeant’s plea to consider his financial circumstances. Retired with medical bills and a negative net worth, the award, he argued, would mean financial ruin for him. But, said the court, “a comparison between the level of punitive damages and the defendant’s financial resources is not mentioned in Gore.” Rather, “sanctions should be based on the wrong done rather than on the status of the defendant; a person is punished for what he does, not for who he is.”