Pinter-Brown v. The Regents of the Univ. of Cal., 2020 WL 1950808 (Cal. Ct. App. 2020)

The California Court of Appeal reversed a $13 million judgment that was entered against UCLA in favor of one of its former professors of medicine, Dr. Lauren Pinter-Brown, who sued for alleged gender discrimination and age discrimination and harassment (the jury returned a verdict in UCLA’s favor on the age claims). The appellate court determined that the trial judge committed a “series of grave errors” that were “cumulative and highly prejudicial” to UCLA and that evidenced “the trial court’s inability to remain impartial.”

Among other things, the trial judge told the prospective jurors assembled in his courtroom that “the arc of the moral universe is long,” quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, and that “if you are selected as a juror, your job will be to help bend that arc toward justice.” The judge then proceeded to give what can only be described as a multimedia civics lesson about invidious discrimination through the years in which he showed the jurors a video and made solemn reference to civil rights leaders who had marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in the 1960s as well as Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Atticus Finch, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote and the advent of gay marriage. As the judge concluded his remarks, he exhorted the prospective jurors: “[Y]ou as jurors in this case are going to become Dr. King. It’s going to be your job to help bend that arc toward justice by rendering a verdict based on the law and the evidence that you are going to be hearing in this case.”

Not surprisingly, counsel for UCLA immediately moved for a mistrial based upon the judge’s remarks and requested that a new panel of jurors be assembled. The judge denied the motion, assuring UCLA that he gives the same presentation before all trials in his courtroom. After almost three weeks of trial, the jury rendered a verdict of more than $13 million in favor of Dr. Pinter-Brown on the disability discrimination claim, consisting of approximately $3 million in past and future lost wages and $10 million in past and future emotional distress damages. The appellate court reversed the judgment based not only on the trial judge’s prejudicial remarks at the outset of the trial (which the court characterized as a “stirring call to action which stacked the deck against UCLA”) but also because he allowed inappropriate and inapplicable “Me-Too” evidence into the case, which is “never appropriate to prove the employer’s propensity to discriminate.” The Court further held that the trial court committed “inexplicable error” when it allowed the plaintiff to “resurrect” a retaliation claim in the middle of the trial after having summarily adjudicated it against the plaintiff before the trial began.