The Lawletter Vol 38 No 6
A "golden rule" argument asks jurors to place themselves in the position of a party. For example, an attorney may ask jurors how much the loss of the use of their legs would mean to them or ask them to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Virtually all courts have considered such arguments to be improper if made in regard to damages. However, courts appear to be split as to whether such arguments are permissible with reference to liability.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently addressed this issue in Caudle v. District of Columbia, 707 F.3d 354 (D.C. Cir. 2013). In Caudle, several employees sued their employer for retaliation under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During closing argument, their attorney made four statements to the jury that were challenged on appeal.
First, counsel instructed the jury to "ask yourself, would you hesitate to speak up if you knew that speaking up would mean that your boss would call a meeting with your entire office[?]" Id. at 358 (emphasis omitted). Second, counsel argued, "Ask yourself this: Wouldn't you think twice about complaining about workplace discrimination[?]" Id. (emphasis omitted). Third, counsel asked the jurors "to put yourselves in the plaintiffs' shoes. What would it do to you to have your complaint broadcast to your entire office, to be the only one excluded[?]" Id. (emphasis omitted). Finally, counsel argued:
By protecting plaintiffs' right to complain about unlawful conduct without reprisal, you preserve the rights not just of plaintiffs but of everyone. By ensuring that plaintiffs are made whole for what they have endured, you ensure that others will be free to exercise their rights without fear. Yours is an important job and we trust that you will [do what] is right and ensure that justice is done.
Id. (emphasis omitted).
The Caudle court noted that at least four circuits have held that golden rule arguments are proper when they relate to liability, while the Third Circuit found no distinction between golden rule arguments relating to damages versus liability. The Caudle court decided that a golden rule argument is improper regardless of whether it relates to liability or to damages and that such an argument may require a new trial. The court concluded that the rationale for prohibiting a golden rule argument as to damages—preventing a verdict based on inappropriate considerations such as emotion—applies equally to liability arguments.
Turning to the specific arguments by plaintiffs' counsel, the Caudle court found that all four were inappropriate. The first three arguments were improper because they asked the jurors to decide how each of them—not how a reasonable person—would feel in the plaintiffs' situation. The fourth argument was not a golden rule argument, but the court found it to be inappropriate as well. It was a "send a message" argument which, like the golden rule arguments, diverted the jury's attention from its duty to decide the case based on the facts and law as opposed to emotion, personal bias, or interest. Id. at 361.
Next, the court found that a new trial was warranted, for several reasons. The case was a close one, yet the jury awarded $1 million in damages. Counsel's statements related to central issues in the case, and there were multiple improper arguments. The court found that the trial court's general instruction—to decide the case without prejudice, sympathy, fear, favor, or public opinion—was insufficient to eliminate unfair prejudice in the case.