Positive Decision in Disability Discrimination Case in Fourth Circuit

The Fourth Circuit issued a good decision in a disability discrimination (ADA and Maryland state law claims) case where the jury had awarded a sizable verdict to the plaintiff, and the employer unsuccessfully sought reversal. In particular, the court allowed the emotional distress damages claim to stand, based on the plaintiff's own testimony.

Bingman v. Baltimore County, No. 17-1525 (4th Cir. Dec. 29, 2017)

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. Marvin J. Garbis, Senior District Judge. (1:13-cv-02678-MJG)

Submitted: December 11, 2017 Decided: December 29, 2017

Before WILKINSON, KING, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion.

Michael E. Field, County Attorney, James S. Ruckle, Jr., Assistant County Attorney, Jordan V. Watts, Jr., Assistant County Attorney, BALTIMORE COUNTY OFFICE OF LAW, Towson, Maryland, for Appellant. Francis J. Collins, David Gray Wright, KAHN, SMITH & COLLINS, P.A., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

PER CURIAM:

Larry R. Bingman, who was formerly employed as a laborer with the Bureau of Highways of Baltimore County, Maryland, brought this action against Baltimore County (the County) alleging he was terminated because of his disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 to 12213 (2012) (ADA), and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, Md. Code Ann., State Govt §§ 20-606 to 20-609 (West 2014). A jury rendered a verdict in favor of Bingman, awarding Bingman $400,000 in damages, of which $298,000 consisted of non-economic damages. The County appeals, asserting that the district court erred when it refused to allow the County to present evidence that Bingman applied for and received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, and refused to instruct the jury regarding Bingman's obligation to explain inconsistencies between his disability discrimination claims and SSDI application. The County also argues that the jury's non-economic damages awards are not supported by the evidence presented. We affirm. . . .

. . . . We also discern no error stemming from the jury's non-economic damages award. In this regard, "[a] district court abuses its discretion by upholding an award of damages only when the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence or based on evidence which is false." Gregg v. Ham, 678 F.3d 333, 343 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). In fact, "[a] jury's award of damages stands unless it is grossly excessive or shocking to the conscience." Fox v. Gen. Motors Corp., 247 F.3d 169, 180 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Hetzel v. Cty. of Prince William, 89 F.3d 169, 171 (4th Cir. 1996) (holding that a jury's award of compensatory damages will be set aside on the grounds of excessiveness only if the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence or will result in a miscarriage of justice). Notably, we will defer to a "jury's award of damages for intangible harms, such as emotional distress, because the harm is subjective and evaluating it depends considerably on the demeanor of the witnesses." Fox, 247 F.3d at 180 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Given Bingman's testimony as to the nature of his "emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, [and] loss of enjoyment of life," 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(a)(2), (b)(3) (2012), we do not find that the jury's $298,000 award was "grossly excessive or shocking to the conscience." Fox, 247 F.3d at 180 (internal quotation marks omitted). We also reject the County's bald assertion that the jury should not have been allowed to award Bingman damages based on its wrongful medical inquiry or examination claim. It is undisputed that the County used out-of-date medical authorizations to gather Bingman's cancer-related medical records, and that it made unlawful inquiries when it sought and received records regarding Bingman, rather than limiting its requests to Bingman's back injury. As a result of these unlawful inquiries, the County received information about Bingman's cancer diagnoses and treatments, which it was not allowed to do. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4). Moreover, it is undisputed that Bingman was made to undergo a medical examination based solely on speculation that Bingman's bones may be brittle because of his cancer treatments. Although these events may have ultimately resulted in the County's decision to terminate Bingman's employment, the inquiries and examination were separate acts for which the jury was justified in awarding damages. Accordingly, we defer to the jury's $6000 award. See Fox, 247 F.3d at 180.

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