Attorneys who violate the “Golden Rule” when providing a closing summation to a jury at trial risk losing a verdict for their clients, so says the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division in Morgan v. Willie Maxwell II, et. al., 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 718 (decided April 26, 2021). Plaintiff Shawna Morgan (Morgan) was an administrative assistant for musical rap artist Willie Maxwell, II a/k/a “Fetty Wap”, his touring company Fetty Wap Touring, Inc (collectively the Fetty Wap Defendants), and Goodfella4life Ent., d/b/a RGF Productions, Inc. (RGF), his recording label. Prior to the trial, the Fetty Wap Defendants settled Morgan’s claims alleging breach of contract damages and defamation. Following a 5-day trial the jury entered a verdict in favor of Morgan and against RGF, the remaining defendant, in the sum of $1,167,065.63, representing an award of $980,000 for RGF’s alleged defamation of plaintiff, breach of contract damages totaling $66,294.42, and pre-judgment interest in the sum of $120,771.21. RGF appealed the verdict.
In addition to claims for unreimbursed expenses and unpaid commissions, Morgan’s lawsuit alleged the defendants defamed her when subsequent to her firing in April 2017, TMZ, a gossip website, published an article based on falsehoods propagated by the defendants alleging Morgan was fired for stealing money, and then RPG maliciously double-downed when it falsely alleged Morgan had misrepresented herself as a booking agent and illegally charged outside fees for her services.
At the close of trial, Morgan’s attorney argued to the jury:
You’re empowered to award Ms. Morgan damages for emotional suffering, and I implore you to think about how you would feel in her position and to be generous in assigning a dollar value to that pain and suffering. If it’s easier, think about how you would feel if it happened to someone that you care about. Think about someone that you care about and put them in Ms. Morgan’s position and think about what it would take to bring that person back. (emphasis in original)
. . . .
You have significant discretion and a big responsibility. If you believe that punitive damages are in order, you should think about what dollar figure it would take to deter RGF and people like Mr. Robinson from acting this way in the future. emphasis in original)
It’s been our suggestion from the start that some multiple of $250,000, the amount she was accused of stealing, is a very good place to start. I ask you to put yourselves again in Ms. Morgan’s shoes and think about what dollar amount would be an appropriate punishment for someone who has done something like this to you or to someone you care about. (emphasis in original)
Once Morgan’s counsel finished his summation, RPG’s attorney stood up and moved for a mistrial arguing that Morgan’s attorney violated the “golden rule doctrine” by asking jurors to “put [them]selves . . . in Ms. Morgan’s shoes.” In response, the trial judge denied the mistrial motion without explanation. On appeal, the appellate court held the trial judge’s failure to grant the application, or at a minimum supply the jury with a curative instruction, required a new trial on damages only.
The “golden rule doctrine “is based on the principle that “you should do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you.” Geler v. Akawie, 358 N.J. Super. 437, 464 (App. Div. 2003). It is improper for an attorney to invoke this rule because it may encourage “the jury to depart from neutrality and to decide the case on the basis of personal interest and bias rather than on the evidence.” Id. at 464-65 (quoting Spray-Rite Serv. Corp. v. Monsanto Co., 684 F.2d 1226, 1246 (7th Cir. 1982), aff’d on other grounds, 465 U.S. 752 (1984)). A golden rule argument suggests to jurors that they should “adopt what they would want as compensation for injury, pain and suffering.” Id. at 464. Governed by these principles, the appellate court was satisfied Morgan’s attorney improperly referenced the golden rule during summation when arguing for damages thereby invalidating the damages verdict. In remanding the case for a new trial on damages only, the appellate court concluded that although Morgan’s attorney’s “came close to encouraging the jury to decide the liability issues for personal reasons” his remarks were not “so prejudicial” as to necessitate a mistrial.
Do not hesitate to call the attorneys at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help, if you believe you have an employment claim requiring resolution at trial. At Mashel Law, located in Marlboro, New Jersey, we are dedicated to protecting the rights of employees.