Justices Seem Eager To Trim Jury Award For Whistleblower Who Sought Tougher Police Oversight
A three-judge Illinois appellate panel on Tuesday offered a sympathetic ear to Chicago attorneys trying to slash a jury award to a former city investigator wrongfully fired for blowing the whistle on a dysfunctional agency that routinely let police officers off the hook for questionable shootings.
A Cook County jury in 2018 awarded $2.8 million to Lorenzo Davis, dismissed in 2015 from the Independent Police Review Authority, now known as the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
The city’s appeal does not contest the nearly $751,500 awarded to Davis for lost salary and benefits but asks that $2 million awarded for his emotional distress be reduced to $60,000.
During Tuesday’s oral arguments at the Michael A. Bilandic Building in downtown Chicago, the 1st District Appellate Court judges appeared open to the city’s arguments.
“Do you think it’s reasonable to award $2 million for emotional distress for someone who admits the distress wasn’t severe enough to seek medical treatment?” Justice Thomas E. Hoffman asked an attorney for Davis, quoting some of the fired investigator’s testimony during the trial.
“This is so out of proportion to the testimony about the emotional damages that something else had to be going on here,” Hoffman said.
What was going on, Chicago Assistant Corporation Counsel Justin A. Houppert argued, was “passion and prejudice” against the city stirred up by Davis’s attorneys by “interjecting graphic depictions” of alleged police misconduct throughout the trial.
“The jury was flooded with evidence about shootings,” Houppert said. “There is simply no evidence to justify an award of this magnitude.”
Davis’s lead attorney, Torreya Hamilton, countered that the jury award was “appropriate for a person who lost his life’s purpose.”
“His career was wrecked,” Hamilton said. “It was ended at an age and under circumstances that multiplied the distress.”
Davis, 65 when he was fired, was dismissed on July 9, 2015, after working seven years for IPRA. During the last three of those years, he supervised a team of investigators. Before that, he had spent 23 years as a Chicago police officer, earning a law degree as he rose to the rank of commander.
Hamilton also slammed city attorneys for arguing that the $2 million would be the largest emotional damages award ever upheld by a reviewing court in an Illinois employment case. She pointed to numerous Illinois court precedents against “this sort of verdict-comparison analysis.”
The six-day trial, held in June 2018, ended with the verdict favoring Davis after jurors deliberated just 55 minutes.
“The jury found he was fired for refusing to engage in criminal activity,” Hamilton said Tuesday.
The $2.8 million award at first included $800,000 for the lost salary and benefits — an amount the trial judge later trimmed to $751,497.
The verdict repudiated Scott Ando, the IPRA chief administrator who fired Davis. Ando, a former federal drug agent, had been put in charge of the agency by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013.
The agency’s responsibilities included investigating shootings by police. Between its 2007 inception and Davis’ 2015 firing, IPRA had never found an officer at fault for an on-duty shooting.
At Davis’ trial, Ando testified that he himself had reviewed 250-300 shootings by cops and found none unjustified.
When the team of investigators supervised by Davis found officers at fault for some shootings, Ando ordered him to change his findings and rewrite his analyses. Davis refused, leading to his termination.
Davis’s lawsuit argued the firing was retaliatory and that it violated the Illinois Whistleblowers Act.
Months after firing Davis, Ando himself was forced out of his job during a public outcry over a dashcam video that showed Police Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting teenager Laquan McDonald.