Second Circuit Upholds Verdict in Favor of FDNY in Discrimination Suit

A former FDNY firefighter who claims to have been sexually assaulted and racially discriminated against on his first day in the firehouse, has lost his latest legal battle. The US Second Circuit Court of Appeals has declined to overturn a jury verdict in favor of the city in a suit brought by Gordon Springs.

Springs has filed, by my count, four lawsuits against the city and/or fellow firefighters since joining FDNY in 2015. The ruling handed down by the Second Circuit pertains to Springs’s claims that he was retaliated against after filing his initial complaints of discrimination with the EEOC. The case originally included claims against Commissioner Nigro, his former lieutenant and three firefighter-colleagues. Those claims were either dismissed by the trial court, or voluntarily dismissed by Springs after the trial judge bifurcated the case as explained below, thereby preserving them to be heard in state court.

Springs claimed in his appeal that the trial judge’s decision to bifurcate the retaliations claims against the city from the state law claims against the firefighters, was unfairly prejudicial to his case. He also claimed the jury instructions were prejudicial and that both errors warranted a new trial.  The Second Circuit disagreed:

  • Springs … asserts that the November 2019 bifurcation order was highly prejudicial because it “effectively forced” Springs to “try a severed case only against the City on the retaliation claims,” and deprived the jury of “the benefit of having evidence of the underlying discriminatory conduct of the Individual Defendants.”
  • We … disagree.
  • As Springs concedes in his reply brief, the trial judge did, in fact, permit him to testify, over the objection of opposing counsel, “to the actions taken by the Individual Defendants that led him to file the EEOC complaints triggering the retaliatory actions against him,” and the trial record reflects that the court permitted “general description[s]” of the incidents that precipitated Springs’s EEOC complaints.
  • Springs may now claim that this allowance was “insufficient,” but he cannot claim that the jury was deprived of factual background in assessing his retaliation claims against the City.
  • We similarly see no basis for disturbing the jury verdict on the ground that Springs was initially denied a continuance when the bifurcation order was entered on the eve of the originally scheduled joint trial.
  • At the start, the claims against the City did not proceed to trial for two and a half years.
  • Any argument of disadvantage as to his retaliation claims against the City is, thus, without merit.
  • Springs argues that he was prejudiced by the court’s denial of his request to adjourn the trial against Swift, Grillo and Aristy after his counsel received 750 pages of discovery only the weekend before trial.
  • He contends that his counsel was left with the “Hobson’s choice” of either going to trial in 48 hours without the opportunity to fully consider the new material or dismissing his surviving claims against these individual firefighters.
  • But to the extent Springs asserts that his would-be trial against the individual firefighters was prejudiced by a combination of the bifurcation order and the denial of a continuance, that claim is moot.
  • An “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right” constitutes a “waiver” that extinguishes the right.
  • Springs voluntarily dismissed his claims against Swift, Grillo and Aristy after “great deliberation and research” and consultation with opposing counsel.
  • Accordingly, none of Springs’s appellate contentions regarding any defendant other than the City are cognizable.
  • Springs next contends that the district court’s jury instructions and certain of the district court’s statements during trial exhibited judicial bias, depriving him of a fair trial.
  • During a sidebar with the parties, the trial judge admonished Springs’s counsel for permitting Springs to testify to matters that the court had previously ruled inadmissible.
  • The judge subsequently instructed the jury to disregard that part of the testimony because it concerned a different lawsuit “[t]hat . . . was dismissed.”
  • Springs asserts that this instruction was factually inaccurate and highly prejudicial because it suggested to the jury “that plaintiff was a serial filer of baseless federal claims and that they should do what a federal judge had already done, which was to summarily dispose of plaintiff’s claims in this case.”
  • Springs argues that the trial judge’s efforts to instruct him to answer questions on cross examination crossed the line of impartiality when the judge told him not to “play games” in responding to a question and repeatedly ordered him to answer questions “yes or no” and not seek to “outsmart” opposing counsel.
  • For the following reasons, we disagree that these interactions deprived Springs of a fair trial.
  • First, because Springs did not object to the jury instruction at trial.
  • Because Springs’s prior lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice for failure to state a claim, the judge’s instruction, contrary to Springs’s argument, was factually correct.
  • We see no basis for concluding, moreover, that the instruction in any way draws into question the integrity of the trial.
  • Second, as to the comments made during testimony by Springs, while we recognize that a judge should strive to create an “atmosphere of perfect impartiality,” the law assures litigants a fair trial, not a perfect one.
  • We are not persuaded that the record evinces judicial bias against Springs, much less so as to draw into question the fairness of the proceeding.
  • In sum, we conclude that the trial judge’s jury instruction and comments made during Springs’s testimony did not deprive him of a fair trial. His argument to the contrary is without merit.

The court did grant Springs one favorable ruling. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge entered final judgment for the city stating that the jury “returned a verdict in favor of Defendants on all claims.” This in turn opened a question about whether judgment included all of Springs’ claims, or left the voluntary dismissal of the state law claims open for further proceedings. The Second Circuit clarified the record that those state law claims were dismissed without prejudice and could be pursued in state court.

Here is a copy of the decision.

Here are some earlier headlines from the cases:

FDNY Sued Over Sexual Assault Hazing

We’re Not Animal House

FDNY Prevails in Discrimination Suit, Appeal Filed

FDNY Prevails in Second Discrimination Suit by Gordon Springs

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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