A five-judge panel of the New York Appellate Division in Manhattan reversed a $20 million judgment against The Supper Club, a New York nightclub, awarded by a jury two years ago in an anti-gay discrimination lawsuit. The court termed the award, described by observers as the largest damage award ever made to any single plaintiff in an employment discrimination case, “grossly excessive,” and ordered a new trial in Steven Minichiello’s suit against the nightclub and several of its employees.
The court also found that Minichiello’s lawyer had improperly inflamed the jury against the defendants, and that errors were made by the trial judge.
Minichiello was hired in 1992 to be the Supper Club’s late night manager, responsible for its disco and later for its cabaret, according to the court decision. He was discharged in 1995 and then filed suit, claiming he had been harassed and then discharged because of his sexual orientation.
As summarized by the court, Minichiello alleged that “he was repeatedly subjected to humiliation and to discriminatory epithets regarding his sexual orientation and that, two weeks before he was discharged, he was physically held down by two individuals while [Andre] Cortez (general manager of the club) threatened to cut off his ponytail with a pair of scissors.”
There was a long trial before Justice Emily Jane Goodman in New York County Supreme Court, at the end of which a jury found that Minichiello was subjected to an unlawful hostile environment and had been discriminatorily discharged, in violation of the New York City gay rights law. The jury also found that Cortez had committed assault and battery against Minichiello. The jury awarded him lost wages, compensatory damage for pain and suffering and humiliation, and punitive damages, the whole totaling more than $20 million dollars.
The appellate court’s opinion asserts that Minichiello’s trial lawyer, Alan J. Rich, had deliberately injected prejudicial and irrelevant material into the trial, and that Goodman should have taken action to avoid prejudicing the jury by reigning him in. Instead, the court found that she had actually demonstrated “marked antipathy toward defense counsel,” a retired Supreme Court Justice, Edward J. Greenfield.
Among other things, Rich was charged with attempting to tar one of the defendants, Martin Thiesing, a partner in the company that owned the Supper Club and a German national with an accent, with “forced analogies to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.”
The court was also critical of Goodman’s refusal to grant the defendants’ request that she point out to the jury that two important witnesses whose evidence would be important to the issue of damages––Minichiello’s therapist, Susan Corcoran, and his treating physician, Dr. Keston –– had never been presented to testify at the trial.
The overall tenor of the appellate opinion suggests that the court concluded that Goodman had allowed her sympathy for the plaintiff’s case to overcome the need to preserve sufficient courtroom neutrality so that the jury could form its own opinion without being influenced by the judge or by extraneous information presented by Rich.