Mary K. Rochford
Mary K. Rochford

Citing “scant” evidence of emotional distress, an appeals panel has reduced a $2 million award for an ex-police conduct reviewer who claimed he was fired for refusing to cover up instances of unjustified force.

The 1st District Appellate Court has entered an order lowering a noneconomic award for Lorenzo Davis to $100,000, writing the initial amount was both unreasonable and lacked precedent.

Justice Mary K. Rochford authored a unanimous 26-page opinion, noting Davis testified he was surprised and depressed by his firing from the Independent Police Review Authority in July 2015, but there was little detail about those feelings.

Davis also testified on cross-examination that he didn’t believe his depression was severe enough to seek help, the panel noted.

“As discussed, plaintiff offered no medical or expert testimony as to his emotional distress, nor did any friends, family, neighbors or co-workers provide any type of testimony regarding ongoing emotional or physical effects,” the panel wrote in the decision Friday.

“On this scant record, we can find no evidentiary support for the jury’s award of $2 million for emotional distress.”

Davis had filed a two-count complaint citing both the Whistleblower Act and common law retaliatory discharge, claiming his superiors at the review panel forced him to change his conclusions about officers’ use of force.

He testified about two cases in particular, the shooting death of an unarmed juvenile in 2013 named Cedrick Chatman and the use of a baton by an officer to strike a minor known as C.W. in the head, in which he found the officers involved were not justified in their actions.

He claimed his superior, Deputy Chief Steven Mitchell, “yelled” at him to change the Chatman finding just before he was terminated and described his work in his final performance evaluation as “marginal,” citing five other cases in which he similarly refused to change his reports “to reflect the correct findings” as stated by his superiors.

Mitchell testified that he independently reviewed footage and files in the Chatman case. He said that he was not telling Davis to “lie” about the incident, but that he disagreed with the finding that the use of force was not justified.

He believed Davis was being insubordinate. Chief Administrator Scott Ando also agreed the shooting was justified and said Davis accused both he and Mitchell of harboring a vendetta against him.

He said he grew “tired of the insubordination” in July 2015 and fired Davis while they were disputing his work. He was escorted to his desk to gather his belongings and escorted out of the building.

Other employees testified positively about Davis’ work and attitude at the authority and that they were similarly told by superiors to reverse certain findings of unjustified use of force.

A jury found in favor of Davis, awarding him $800,000 for lost salary and $2 million for emotional damages. He had testified that he felt depressed, humiliated and surprised the day he was fired.

On the stand during trial, he said he still had issues talking about it and paused to collect himself, before adding that his whole career up to that point — as a schoolteacher, police officer and lawyer — was about helping the community and that he felt he could no longer help after he lost his job.

Cook County Associate Judge James E. Snyder denied motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial on damages. He partially granted a motion for remittitur, reducing the salary and benefits award by about $50,000, making the total just more than $2,750,000.

The city appealed, arguing the $2 million for emotional distress was beyond fair and reasonable compensation, and that it “shocks the judicial conscience,” among other claims.

Rochford, joined by Justices Thomas E. Hoffman and Mathias W. Delort, agreed with the city that there was too little evidence to support a $2 million emotional damages award. Although the panel also acknowledged Davis’ arguments that lengthy testimony and expert witnesses aren’t always indicative of the severity of distress, the justices wrote there just wasn’t enough support in the record for that large of an award.

“Plaintiff gave no other testimony on direct examination regarding his emotional distress or the severity thereof. Plaintiff did not indicate during direct examination that he was in any way incapacitated by his emotional distress or that the emotional distress from his termination impacted his daily living. Plaintiff testified to no physical symptoms,” Rochford wrote.

The justices also wrote Davis never claimed the fact that his firing was publicized in the local media made it particularly stressful.

“To the contrary, plaintiff testified that he agreed to give more than 10 interviews to the press about his termination, thereby indicating his willingness to bring publicity to it,” she wrote.

The city also claimed it only found one employment case in which a reviewing court upheld a verdict of more than $2 million for emotional distress. That case, Griffin v. City of Opa-Locka, an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case from 2001, involved a sexual assault of a woman by her supervisor.

Davis countered there were other cases in which courts had upheld similarly large emotional distress verdicts. A 2007 ruling from the Southern District of New York, Osorio v. Source Enterprises Inc., and Bailets v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, a 2018 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, upheld $4 million and $1.6 million noneconomic awards, respectively.

But the panel wrote those were distinguishable. In the former, an editor of a publication testified “at some length” about the harm her firing caused in the industry, her anxiety and problems in subsequent job searches. She also had claimed her superiors discriminated against her based on gender.

In the latter case, an employee was fired after he reported waste and wrongdoing by a contractor. He testified he had no shortage of sleepless nights, would ruminate over his firing and lament putting his family through the ordeal while crying to his wife. Such manifestations of the distress, the Pennsylvania high court ruled, justified the award.

“In contrast to Osorio and Bailets, plaintiff here did not testify to any severe emotional and physical effects resulting from his wrongful termination by the [c]ity, but instead admitted at trial that the emotional consequences of his termination were not so severe as to require medical help,” Rochford wrote.

“Plaintiff also made no claim in his complaint for loss of reputation and did not testify to any purported harm to his reputation. It is the lack of any testimony or other evidence of the severity of plaintiff’s emotional distress that compels us to find that the $2 million awarded him shocks the judicial conscience.”

Torreya L. Hamilton, of The Hamilton Law Office LLC, represented Davis. She could not be reached for comment.

A spokesperson for the city also could not be reached.