Judge Did Not Err in Recalling Jury When Courtroom Deputy Announced That They “Made a Mistake” on the Verdict Form, Second Circuit Holds

In Emamian v. Rockefeller Univ., No. 19-127 (2d Cir. Aug. 19, 2020), the Second Circuit upholds a jury verdict over the defendant’s objection that a discharged jury should not have been recalled to continue deliberations and submit a new verdict form.

After a six-week jury trial of a race and national-origin discrimination claim under the New York City Human Rights Law, a jury awarded $250,000 in back pay and $2,000,000 in emotional distress damages (later remitted to $200,000).

The verdict form, though, contained an possible inconsistency – in response to different questions, the jury indicated that it did and did not find that the employer intentionally discriminated.  The judge discharged the jury after the courtroom deputy read the verdict form, without mentioning the damages. Plaintiff’s counsel approached the bench and, as a precaution, the judge detained the jurors.

“As Emamian’s counsel alerted the court at sidebar to what counsel viewed as a potential inconsistency in the verdict, the courtroom deputy stated, in open court: ‘Judge, they made a mistake.’ …. In response, the court asked the jurors if they needed to ‘go back into the jury room and straighten something out’ and whether they needed ‘another verdict form’; upon receiving affirmative responses to both questions, the court permitted the jury to reconvene, return to the deliberation room, and complete a new form.”

The judge put on the record that “it was the jury foreperson who ‘realized that there was something amiss’ when no dollar amounts were read in connection with the pronouncement of the verdict and who raised the matter with the courtroom deputy.”

The jury returned 15 minutes later with a corrected verdict. On appeal, among other issue, the defendant argued that once the jury was formally discharged, the district court had no power to recall them to correct the verdict form.

The Second Circuit affirms, holding that the district court had the power to rescind the discharge order. In Dietz v. Bouldin, 136 S. Ct. 1885 (2016), the Supreme Court held that district courts have “a limited inherent power to rescind a discharge order and recall a jury in a civil case where the court discovers an error in the jury’s verdict.”

The defendant argued that such power was lacking here, because it was possible to reconcile the jury verdict and thus there was no inconsistency on the face of the document. But the panel holds that  Dietz “encompasses not only circumstances in which a jury fills out a verdict form reflecting a verdict that is legally impossible on its face, but also certain other kinds of mistakes, such as errors in the pronouncement or transmission of the verdict, which could be brought to the court’s attention by the jury itself.”

Thus, the panel holds that the court’s “inherent power extends to … where the jury itself sua sponte advises the district court of a mistake in the verdict immediately after that verdict is rendered.”

The panel also holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in recalling the jury. “[T]here was essentially no delay between discharge and recall; indeed, the jurors had not yet left the courtroom, minimizing any potential exposure to external influences.” The deputy’s pronouncement that the verdict form was mistaken, moreover, could not have prejudiced the jury. “[T]he courtroom deputy’s comment here simply relayed to the judge the circumstances which the jury foreperson brought to the attention of the deputy.” The short turnaround time “suggests an easily remedied transmission error on the initial form rather than a concerted effort to revise the verdict to achieve a particular legal outcome.” Finally, there was no evidence that the jury sought post hoc to alter the findings to conform to a specific outcome. “[W]hen the jurors themselves identified an error and sought an opportunity to correct it, it was eminently reasonable for the district court to determine that the verdict form reflected a transcription error or a transmission problem….”

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