That’s what you get for petty BIC-ering.
A civil rights lawyer who made a federal case out of a pen got a measly $2 after he sued the city because a cop snatched away his pen.
“Once upon a time, we urged people not to make too much of real but petty grievances by saying, ‘Don’t make a federal case out of that,’” wrote US District Judge Colleen McMahon of Jeffrey Rothman’s lawsuit.
“This lawsuit was a violation of that principle writ large.”
Rothman sued the city over an unpleasant interaction with Det. Andrew Wunsch on Dec. 12, 2018, at the reception desk of 1 Police Plaza.
The officer refused to let Rothman in to serve papers on the department because it was after hours.
As Rothman tried to write down his name and shield number, Wunsch grabbed the pen out of his hand then returned it.
McMahon, who presided over the Manhattan federal trial, called the conflict “nothing more than a momentary temper tantrum on the part of Det. Wunsch.”
Rothman reported the conduct to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which recommended that the NYPD discipline Wunsch for being discourteous.
But this wasn’t enough for Rothman, who then sued the city for compensatory damages and punitive damages, alleging his pen was swiped in violation of the Constitution and that Wunsch assaulted and battered him.
He also sued two other officers alleging “unreasonable detention (though he was not detained) and excessive force (though none was used),” McMahon wrote her decision.
A jury heard the case and rejected most of Rothman’s claims but concluded that Wunsch, by taking his pen, had violated the lawyer’s Fourth Amendment rights and awarded him $1.
Rothman had asked for punitive damages but McMahon blocked the request.
After the trial, Rothman asked McMahon to award him an additional $45,662 in attorney’s fees, but in her decision, she granted him just $1.
“The facts of this case that gave rise to the verdict — a pen seized by a police officer in a fit of pique, then returned within moments to its rightful owner — are just too trivial,” McMahon wrote. “Rothman’s verdict is entirely symbolic, and so does not support the award of attorney’s fees he seeks.”
The Chief of the Special Federal Litigation Division of the city’s Law Department called Rothman’s lawsuit especially galling in the midst of a pandemic.
“This case was a waste of city and court resources,” Miller said. “It is really quite something for an attorney who received a $1 jury verdict over a pen to then ask the Court to award him 40,000 times that number in attorneys’ fees — to be paid with taxpayer dollars…Plaintiff thought he could make a couple of bucks off the city — and he did, literally.”
Rothman called the judge’s decision not to award attorney’s fees to his trial lawyer unfortunate but said he had pursued the case on principle.
“I brought this case to deter similar misconduct by this officer and by his colleagues because if he felt he could do this to a lawyer in the middle of police headquarters imagine what he would do to someone who did not have my privilege and my resources,” Rothman said.