Corrections Officer Recovers $1.67 Million In Retaliation Case

Charles Hughes was a corrections lieutenant for the State of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. While employed at the Department, Hughes was a member of the correctional police officers’ union. In 1995, he became a job steward. In that capacity, he represented union members in lower-level grievances and small internal affairs interviews. In 1998, Hughes was elected chapter president of the Union, a position he held until his termination.

There seems to be no question but that some supervisors in the Department viewed Hughes as, at best, an irritant. Hughes had made controversial public statements that for safety reasons, black and white inmates should not share the same cell. Hughes also criticized an HBO comedy show hosted by the prison, believing that many statements from the performers amounted to racial or gender harassment. The warden of the prison reacted by making comments about Hughes, such as “We got him…they will string him up,” “We have him up against the wall,” “Hughes’ ass would be nailed against the wall,” and “I think the reason Hughes is attacking this administration is due to the fact that he has sustained adverse action with another one coming that will nail his ass to the wall.”

Eventually the Department fired Hughes, not once but twice. Hughes appealed the terminations to the California State Personnel Board, which reversed both terminations. Hughes then sued the Department, contending that he was the victim of retaliation for exercising his free speech and union rights. A jury agreed, and awarded Hughes damages in the total amount of $1,670,393.37, comprised of $233,172.06 in lost earnings, $187,221.31 in lost overtime earnings, $1,000,000 for past noneconomic loss, and $250,000 for future noneconomic loss.

The Department challenged the jury’s verdict through an appeal to the California Court of Appeals. The Department’s primary argument was that there was no evidence supporting Hughes’ claim for non-economic losses.

The Court upheld the jury’s verdict. The Department first contended that physical distress and psychological damages were unsupported by evidence and that Hughes was not entitled to “litigation stress” damages. As to future pain and suffering damages, the Department contended that Hughes offered no evidence to support such an award.

The Court held that “each of the Department’s arguments concerning the noneconomic damage award is an attempt to reweigh or reevaluate the evidence on appeal. Plaintiff’s expert provided testimony that supported a reasonable inference that the stress from the terminations was a contributing cause of two serious medical conditions – diabetes and hypertension – and an aggravating factor as to two preexisting medical conditions – sleep apnea and a digestive tract disorder.

“As for psychological damage, Hughes’s wife testified that he became a ‘different person’ after the terminations, particularly around his children. She also testified that he was stressed by the terminations and, as a result, overate, developed high blood pressure, and was not sleeping at night, testimony from which the jury could have reasonably inferred that Hughes suffered psychological distress that manifested itself in those physical symptoms.

“As for litigation stress damages, Hughes contends, and we agree, that the Department forfeited this issue by failing to raise it in the trial court. Once Hughes and his wife testified about stress arising from the litigation without objection, the Department was required to raise the issue with the trial court by, for example, asking the trial court to admonish the jury or by requesting a jury instruction that allowed the jury to differentiate between stress caused by the terminations and stress caused by the litigation. The Department’s failure to do so deprived Hughes of the opportunity to argue the issue in the trial court, and it prevented the trial court from providing guidance to the jury on the issue.

“As to future pain and suffering, Hughes testified that he was concerned about his reputation and, specifically, concerned that his firing had been the topic of a current events assignment in his daughter’s class. He also testified that he was concerned about the effect the terminations would have on his career and concerned that he may not be able to promote in the future. That testimony constituted substantial evidence and supported a reasonable inference that Hughes would experience future pain and suffering.”

Hughes v. California Department of Corrections, 2014 WL 251903 (Cal. App. 2014).