INTRODUCTION This case originally started with Jacqueline Young and twelve other employees that filed a federal racial employment discrimination against BellSouth Telecommunications
This case originally started with Jacqueline Young and twelve other employees that filed a federal racial employment discrimination against BellSouth Telecommunications. They originally hired another law firm but due to lack of professionalism, Young approached Becker & Poliakoff. This case was named Jackson vs BellSouth Telecommunication, Becker & Poliakoff made a settlement in 2002 for $8 million and the firm received $2.9 million.
Young asked to file a separate federal lawsuit against BellSouth for alleged continuing discrimination. This new litigation was dismissed due to statute of limitations. There was a conflict of interest by the law firm while representating the plaintiff in this new lawsuit, while settling the Jackson case. Young made a case that the law firm deliberately delayed telling her about the dismissal of her case until after the Jackson case was settled.
This is the case between Plaintiff Jacquelyn Young vs. Defendant Becker & Poliakoff. The case was determined by Court of Appeals of Florida, Fourth District. The plaintiff Jacquelyn Young hired the law firm Becker & Poliakoff to represent her in a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against her employer. While the firm filed an action, they made a mistake by submitting the wrong U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) right-to-sue letter. While the courts dismissed her case the law firm did not re-file using the correct letter or try to dismiss the motion. However, given the law firm had this knowledge they withheld this information from the plaintiff.
There are several facts that surround this case. Originally, the Jackson vs. BellSouth Telecommunications was brought to the law firm of Ruden McClosky for alleged misconduct of a prior employment discrimination which was filed as Adams vs BellSouth Telecommunications. In the Adams lawsuit, Ruden McClosky, represented the plaintiff and negotiated a settlement. In the second Jackson case that was handled through Becker & Poliakoff, the plaintiffs stated that Ruden McClosky made a favorable side deal with BellSouth and agreed into undisclosed agreements that were illegal. Young was among the several plaintiffs in the Jackson case who hired Becker & Poliakoff to represent them against BellSouth and Ruden McClosky.
While Becker & Poliakoff were handling the second lawsuit they failed to attach the correct EEOC right to sue letter. The Federal District Court dismissed the case stating that the claim was not filed within 90 days after receipt of the EEOC letter. The firm failed to refile the correct letter along with not informing the plaintiff for thirteen months. Young alleged that the firm had waited to track her case until its other case was settled. The jury concluded that Becker & Poliakoff were aware about the case being dismissed but withheld the information from Young, until the settlement was secure the $2.9 million fee. (McAvoy, 2012).
In this case, both parties had appealed was brought to Court of Appeals of Florida, Fourth District. Both parties had reasons, plaintiff wanted to recover wages for compensatory damages, lost wages, damages for pain and suffering. The Defendant claimed the damage award is excessive and should be set aside or remitted further. Becker & Poliakoff argue that the only “loss” cognizable in this case would have been loss of wages and that mental anguish were not properly awardable.
The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff for $394,000 in compensatory damages because of the law firms breach of fiduciary duty. It also awarded $4.5 million in punitive damages in punitive damages, although the trial court remitted them to $2 million, finding that the amount was not supported by evidence and the law firm had sufficient financial resourced to support such a verdict without facing bankruptcy. The plaintiff rejected the new trial and appealed and the law firm cross appealed.
During the cross-appeal by Becker & Poliakoff they raised two issues; (1) that the trial court erred in denying its motion for directed verdict and (2) that the trial court reversibly erred in limiting cross-examination of a crucial witness for the plaintiff.
While reading the case, two other issues came in to play; (1) did the law firm breach their fiduciary duty by not notifying Young in a timely manner which was the reason why her case was dismissed and (2) how does the court determine an exact value of punitive damages without putting the defendant out of business?
THE APPLICABLE LAWS
The plaintiff was a victim of a tort and has the right to sue the wrongdoer and has the right to recover from among three types of damages; compensatory, nominal, and punitive. In this situation we are looking into compensatory and punitive damages. Under the State of Florida, a trial court’s determination of whether a damage award is excessive, requiring a new trial, is reviewed by an appellate court under the abuse of discretion standard. Florida Statues offers conditions for estimating awards of damages and dictates that courts awards of damages make certain that they are adequate and not excessive.
In evaluating punitive damages award, the trail court must also determine the award within constitutiona process requirements. “The three criteria a punitive damages award must satisfy under Florida law to pass constitutional muster are; (1) ‘the manifest weight of the evidence does not render the amount of punitive damages assessed out of all reasonable proportion to the malice, outrage, or wantonness of the tortious conduct;’ (2) the award ‘bears some relationship to the defendant’s ability to pay and does not result in economic castigation or bankruptcy to the defendant;’ and (3) a reasonable relationship exist between the compensatory and punitive amount awarded.”
THE COURT HOLDING
In this case, the trail court found that $4.5 million punitive damages overcame the excessiveness limitation under the Florida Statutes. The court reasoned that the first and third criteria mentioned above were met. The award was relatable to inexcusable conduct of the defendant and had a reasonable association between the compensatory and punitive amount awarded. However, it found that the award fell short on the second criteria; it was excessive because it was too much for defendant to bare without bankruptcy.
After noting that the jury apparently discredited evidence presented by the defense regarding Becker ; Poliakoff’ s financial picture, the trial court turned to testimony of Young’s financial expert, Dr. Pettingil, in determining that the $4.5 million punitive damages award would bankrupt Becker ; Poliakoff. In short, the trial found that Dr. Pettingil’s opinion placed the law firm net worth at $9.7 million to $11.1 million, and that a $4.5 million punitive damages award constitutes forty percent of the net worth of the company. This amount, the court reasoned, was “too large” and exceeded “the highest amount that be can be sustained based upon the evidence.”
When we study this case, we are in understanding that Thomas Romeo was the Becker & Poliakoff associate who filed Young’s case in 2001against her former employer, BellSouth Telecommunications. Romeo explained to the jury about the actions he took on Young’s behalf both before and immediately after he filed the lawsuit. He explained the procedures for filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, issues relating to class action suits and methods for checking client conflicts when opening a case. Romeo also described the claims he filed in 2001 complaint and explained the statutory basis for filing the specific federal and state race discrimination claims.
Becker & Poliakoff argue that that the trial court abused its discretion by not granting its motion for directed verdict because the evidence did not establish that the law firm caused Young to lose the ability to proceed with her discrimination claims against BellSouth. Defendants claimed that Young voluntarily abandoned her discrimination suit against BellSouth, despite the viability of her claims, thereby precluding any action against Becker & Poliakoff for legal malpractice.
Young introduced sufficient evidence to demonstrate that her voluntary dismissal of the later filed 2003 suit did not constitute an abandonment or waiver of her claims and did not cause her loss. Under the facts and reviewing all evidence that was in favor for Young, the court did not find that Young abandoned or waived her claims or that Becker & Poliakoff’s mishandling of her case could have been corrected by pursuit of the second suit. The court concluded that the trial court properly denied the motion for directed verdict.