Friday, June 17, 2011

A Legal Irony or Just a Factual Irony?

I worked as a paralegal at the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld from 1988 to 1991.  I was fired in late October 1991 a few days after I complained to the firm's attorney managers that I believed I was a victim of job harassment.  I filed a complaint with a state human rights agency that alleged that my job termination was discriminatory in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977.  In response Akin Gump alleged that the peculiar nature of my harassment complaint suggested to the firm's managers that I might suffer from mental illness.  The firm further alleged that it had consulted two mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist, who advised that I appeared to suffer from mental illness; the psychiatrist advised the firm that I might become violent, or so the firm claimed.  The firm advised the state human rights agency that it had a valid, nondiscriminatory business reason to terminate my employment; I suffered from mental illness that rendered me a negligence risk to the firm.  The agency ruled in favor of the employer, finding that the employer in fact had a valid, nondiscriminatory business reason to fire me.

I appealed the agency decision with the D.C. Court of Appeals.  I filed two pleadings in the appeal: Brief of Appellant and a Reply Brief.  I appeared in Court at oral argument to present my appeal before a three-judge appeals panel.  I subjected myself to the scrutiny of the Court for a half-hour argument, peppered with questions posed by the judges.

Perhaps I am so deluded that I am unable to appreciate the severity of my illness and the effect of my communications on others, but it is my opinion that the pleadings I filed in court were lucid and coherent.  I also believe that my demeanor and speech at oral argument was appropriate and not suggestive of mental illness.

In short, all of my interactions with the Court -- both in writing and at argument -- belied the employer's assertion that I suffered from mental illness of such severity that it rendered me not suitable for employment.  But of course, judges are not mental health professionals.  I do not know what conclusions a psychiatrist might reach upon reading my pleadings and reviewing my oral argument.

In point of fact, from a legal perspective, my mental state during the court proceedings was immaterial to a consideration of my former employer's allegations about my mental state as it existed during my employment.  The issue before the court was the nature of my mental state during my employment and my behavior in the workplace as well as the impression I made on the attorney managers who concluded that I was not suitable for employment by reason of mental illness.

Be that as it may.

I recently thought of a legal irony involving the following hypothetical.  Let us say that a defendant is charged with murder.  He presents an insanity defense at trial.  The defendant's attorney argues that at the time of the homicide the defendant lacked the mental capacity or required mental state to commit the crime of murder.  Let us suppose that, for whatever reason, the defendant testifies in his own defense at trial.  Let us say that the defendant is not on any psychotropic medication that would remediate any psychotic symptoms.  Let us further say that the defendant's demeanor on the witness stand is appropriate, his speech is lucid, his reasoning is cogent.  In sum, he shows all the characteristics that to the minds of laymen, such as the jurors, betrays psychological normality.  I suppose that the Court would caution the jury that it may only consider evidence of the defendant's mental state as it existed at the time of the homicide.  But seriously, do think any jury would not be influenced by the defendant's lucid appearance at trial?  Do you really think that any jury would find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity?  Wouldn't the defendant's apparent normal mental state during the legal proceedings affect the jurors' judgment regarding that defendant's earlier mental state at the time of the homicide.  In short, wouldn't the defendant's normal appearance at trial be fatal to his insanity defense?

Perhaps a comparison of my employment problems with the hypothetical I present has no legal value.  But I find the comparison ironic, nonetheless.

2 comments:

Gary Freedman said...

I suppose we could call this the "I used to be crazy" hypothetical.

Gary Freedman said...

Jackie Vernon was a great comedian known for his appearances in comedy roasts and as the voice of Frosty The Snowman, a childrens classic.

Jackie was born Ralph Veroni. He started as a trumpet player, and became a comic using his dry wit to create the stage personality of "The Dull Guy". His dead pan delivery was hilarious. His signature "bits" were "The Pet Watermelon", "Slides from My Recent Trip", and "I used to be a Dull Guy".