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Ex-Ohio officer who hit wife loses lawsuit appeal

By Phil Trexler   
Beacon Journal staff writer

A former Akron police officer, fired after breaking his wife's jaw during a quarrel, is not entitled to a jury's $1.7 million discrimination award, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The 5-2 decision upholds an appellate court ruling that wiped out the jury's award to Gerald Williams, a black patrolman who sued the city contending he was fired while white officers who committed similar offenses kept their jobs.

``We are frankly shocked at the decision,'' said Akron civil rights attorney Dennis Thompson. ``Ohio is now alone in a judicial wilderness.''

Thompson said the Supreme Court's ruling contradicts those made in discrimination cases across the nation and allows appellate courts to override jurors, who listened to testimony and considered the evidence.

``It essentially permits courts to discriminate against discrimination cases,'' Thompson said. ``It ensures that justice is not blind.''

Thompson said he will ask the Supreme Court to reconsider before pursuing other options, including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

Williams sued the city after he was fired from the department in 1997 following a domestic quarrel with his wife in which he punched her and broke her jaw. His wife, Pamela, underwent surgery and her jaw was wired shut for six weeks.

A Summit County jury of seven white people and one black person heard the case in February 2002 and awarded Williams $1 million in compensatory damages and $720,000 in lost wages.

Williams and his attorneys presented evidence of seven white officers, who they said committed similar offenses yet did not lose their job.

City attorneys argued that Williams' actions were more severe and, unlike the white officers, he lied to internal police investigators.

After hearing the former officer's evidence at trial, the city asked Common Pleas Judge James R. Williams to dismiss the case before the jury could deliberate. The judge refused and Williams won.

The city appealed and on New Year's Eve 2003, the 9th District Court of Appeals tossed out the verdict, finding that Judge Williams should have dismissed the case for lack of evidence of discrimination.

``This (Supreme Court) decision certainly confirms what we've said all along: There should never have been a jury verdict,'' said city attorney Patricia Ambrose Rubright.

``The ruling does not rob a jury of determining a valid case. This case was insufficient as a matter of law, and a jury should never deliberate a case where a plaintiff has not offered sufficient evidence. That would be a travesty.''

In writing for the majority, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton said it was appropriate under Ohio law for the appellate court to review the evidence presented at Williams' trial.

``Disallowing such appellate review would create a separate standard for discrimination cases as distinct from other civil actions,'' she wrote. ``We find no justification to create a separate class for appellate review just for discrimination cases.''

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Alice Robie Resnick echoed Thompson's assertion that Ohio is now alone in how it handles discrimination cases.

Other courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have found it inappropriate for an appeals court to retry a case to determine if a plaintiff proved his or her claims, she wrote.

Williams, 43, is employed as a security guard. He and his wife, who supported him during his lawsuit, now are divorced.

 Akron Beacon Journal (http://www.ohio.com/)

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