This nation is currently engaged in vigorous discussion about how to address brutality and targeting of minorities committed by law enforcement. In some cases, even where liability is admitted as to racially targeted policing, a court may significantly reduce the amount of damages awarded by a jury to victims of police brutality through use of a procedure call “remittitur.” Remittitur occurs when a trial judge determines that a jury award is excessive, and offers the plaintiff the option of accepting a reduction in the jury verdict or proceeding to a new trial. Although the Seventh Amendment provides that “no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States,” courts have insisted that remittitur results only where a jury verdict is excessive as a matter of law.
The Supreme Court of the United States has never directly addressed the question of whether remittitur violates the Seventh Amendment. However, dicta found in the 1935 case Dimick v. Scheidt, combined with longterm practice of remittitur in federal courts, has allowed the procedure to occur largely without question. Such acceptance is not based on constitutional precedent or good public policy. Recent scholarship suggests that the trial option presented to a plaintiff as an alternative to reduced damages is illusory due to the increased cost, delay, and risk of losing a new trial. Further, damages awarded by a jury to compensate for pain and suffering or emotional distress involve a subjective determination of fact. Here, a judge has little basis for supplanting the jury’s determination with a subjective conclusion about damages of his or her own.
Recently, the Seventh Circuit addressed the use of remittitur in Adams v. City of Chicago. There, two brothers appealed a remittitur order that reduced damages awarded to them for claims brought under the Fourth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and malicious prosecution in violation of Illinois state law. Although the Seventh Circuit reversed the order of remittitur in that case, its dismissal of the plaintiff’s argument that the order of remittitur violated their rights under the Seventh Amendment failed to issue a decision that would prevent similar harm to future victims of police brutality. This Article considers the application and ramifications of remittitur in a civil rights context. Through an analysis of the trial option and the process by which a judge determines that a jury award is excessive in civil rights cases, this Article argues that the practice of remittitur serves no constitutional or public policy interest when a plaintiff sues for violation of his or her civil rights.
Kelsey N. Weyhing,
Remittitur in Civil Rights Cases: Where the Seventh Circuit Went Wrong in Adams v. City of Chicago,
Seventh Circuit Rev.
Available at: http://scholarship.kentlaw.iit.edu/seventhcircuitreview/vol11/iss2/4