$540,000 Discrimination Judgment Against Police Sergeant Upheld

By Jeffrey Rhodes September 30, 2020
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A police sergeant could not overturn the $540,000 punitive-damages judgment against him for alleged anti-Semitic harassment of a subordinate officer, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided.

The defendant worked as a sergeant for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and supervised the plaintiff, a police officer of German national origin and Jewish ethnicity. The plaintiff was born in Germany, where some of his family members had died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. He immigrated to the United States, settled in Chicago and joined the CPD.

According to the plaintiff, his sergeant made vicious anti-Semitic comments to him for years. These comments included vitriol that invoked Hitler, the actions the Nazis took in the death camps and the sergeant's regret that Jews live in the U.S. Although the plaintiff repeatedly pleaded with his sergeant to stop the harassment, the sergeant never let up.

In March 2004, the plaintiff's girlfriend was taken to the emergency room after suffering a severe allergic reaction. The plaintiff received permission to visit her in the hospital during his shift. When he returned, his sergeant chastised him for not taking time off and disparaged his girlfriend and her Mexican ancestry.

The plaintiff filed a formal complaint to the internal affairs division about the sergeant's offensive comment and alleged harassment. Two days after filing his complaint, the plaintiff was riding in a patrol car driven by another officer. Attempting to refuel the car at a gas station, the driver discovered that his gas card did not work. He suggested that, because the plaintiff lived in the area, they go to his house to retrieve his gas card, which they did.

The sergeant heard about this and disciplined the plaintiff for failing to contact the dispatcher while he was retrieving the gas card. The sergeant then filed a formal complaint against the plaintiff alleging that he had been insubordinate by leaving the car without contacting the dispatcher and recommending that the plaintiff be suspended. This was the first formal complaint the sergeant had issued for anyone.

An independent group of department officials briefly investigated the sergeant's complaint and suspended the plaintiff for five days. The measure was unprecedented. It was common practice in the department not to bother dispatchers for such a short errand. The driver who suggested the brief stop received only a reprimand.

Later, the plaintiff was passed over for a promotion to the position of canine handler, even though he was rated well-qualified. According to department rules, in order to be eligible for that position, an officer could not have three or more complaints against him that resulted in suspension. The plaintiff did not get the promotion because he had exactly three suspensions in the preceding five years, including the one that resulted from the sergeant's recommendation.

In 2006, the plaintiff filed a similar lawsuit against the city of Chicago and the sergeant. Because the statute of limitations had run out on the only claim he raised against the sergeant, the court dismissed the sergeant from that case. The plaintiff won a jury verdict of $30,000 against the city.

In 2008, the plaintiff brought a lawsuit against the sergeant and the city complaining of harassment and discrimination based on race, religion and national origin. The district court dismissed the city from the lawsuit but allowed the claim against the sergeant to proceed.

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The plaintiff ultimately received a jury verdict against the sergeant in the amount of $540,000, which the jury assigned as punitive damages. The jury awarded no compensatory damages. Later, the parties allowed the court to assess compensatory damages of $54,315.24, which the city voluntarily paid.

The sergeant appealed the punitive-damages award. He argued that the award was excessive because his actions were not violent or physical, because the punitive damages were far in excess of any compensatory damages, and because the award exceeded the limit of $300,000 under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The 7th Circuit rejected these arguments. It determined that the actions, though verbal rather than physical harassment, were sufficiently reprehensible to support the award of punitive damages. The court found that the plaintiff could claim the amounts of $30,000 and $54,315.24 that the city paid as compensatory damages to support the punitive-damages award.

Finally, the 7th Circuit noted that the Title VII limit on punitive damages did not apply to an individual supervisor and thus was not relevant. The appeals court upheld the punitive-damages award.

Sommerfield v. Knasiak, 7th Cir., No. 18-2045 (July 23, 2020).

Professional Pointer: Anti-discrimination laws often allow plaintiffs to assert supervisor liability, and courts may uphold large punitive-damages awards even absent physical harm or comparable monetary losses.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.

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