by Benjamin Tschirhart
On June 22, 2022, an attorney for theVirginia Department of Corrections signed off on an agreement to pay $87,000 to settle a state prisoner’s claims that he was kicked in the testicles by a guard.
The incident occurred on July 15, 2016, when a guard identified as T. Large conducted a search of Jason R. Jordan’s cell at Red Onion State Prison. In a pro se complaint later filed in federal court for the Western District of Virginia, Jordan alleged that the guard broke his radio during the search and delivered a boot to his groin in retaliation for grievances and lawsuits he had filed.
At trial, Large denied the allegations. Though the jury hung on Jordan’s excessive force claim, it believed his retaliation claim and awarded $25,000 in in compensatory damages. Large then moved to set aside the verdict and requested a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, arguing that the jury’s inability to reach consensus on the excessive force claim was “irreconcilably inconsistent” with its retaliation finding.
The district court agreed, reasoning that awarding damages on the retaliation claim relied on believing that Large kicked Jordan in the testicles – since compensatory damages require physical injury. Without “a prior showing of physical injury,” as laid out in 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, a prisoner may recover only nominal damages. Therefore, the retaliation verdict was set aside and a new trial was ordered. Jordan’s motion for attorney fees was also denied.
At the second trial, the jury found in favor of Large on both counts. By that point Jordan was represented by attorney Elaine D. McCafferty of Woods Rogers PLC in Roanoke. On his behalf, she filed an appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Taking up the case, the Court exercised its jurisdiction to review the earlier decision for abuse of discretion. On March 4, 2022, the three-judge panel – consisting of Pamela A. Harris, Julius N. Richardson, and Arthur M. Quattlebaum, Jr. – concluded that a court cannot use a hung jury to conduct an inconsistent verdict analysis.
“A jury’s failure to reach a verdict cannot by negative implication yield a piece of information that helps put together the trial puzzle,” the Court said, citing United States v. Hornsby, 666 F.3d 296 (4th Cir. 2012). That’s because “there is no way to know why a jury deadlocked,” the Court continued. “Maybe a juror with strong opinions about what criminals deserve in prison refused to compromise…we do not know what any juror was thinking, much less the jury as a whole.”
For this reason, the Court found error in invalidating the retaliation verdict based on the jury’ deadlock on the excessive force charge. It therefore reversed the district court’s order for a new trial, reinstated the jury verdict against Large for $25,000 and remanded the case. See: Jordan v. Large, 27 F.4th 308 (4th Cir. 2022).
Back at the district court, the parties proceeded to reach their settlement agreement. In addition to McCafferty, Woods Rogers attorneys Charles J. Dickenson and Leah M. Stiegler provided Jordan reprentation. See: Jordan v. Large, USDC (W.D. Va.), Case No. 7:16-cv-00468.
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