LITTLE ROCK - A federal judge declared a mistrial Friday in a civil suit alleging discrimination and defamation by the Arkansas state treasurer and a top staffer, respectively.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ended the trial on the morning of its fifth day. A day earlier, Jim Harris, chief of staff for state Treasurer Dennis Milligan, was carried out of the federal courthouse on a stretcher and taken to a hospital complaining of chest pains.
After the incident Thursday, lawyers for the plaintiff, David Singer, asked for a mistrial, arguing that the jury would be prejudiced in favor of Harris because of sympathy for his health condition. On Friday morning, with Harris still absent from the courtroom, Miller said he agreed.
“I just don’t see a way of undoing what that jury saw,” Miller said.
Milligan fired Singer as his outreach manager in April 2015, and about a month later Singer filed a suit alleging that Harris had defamed him by writing an office email in which he speculated that Harris had mental problems and by taking steps to ensure that reporters saw the email.
The suit also alleges that Milligan discriminated against Singer based on a perceived disability.
Singer’s lawyers used documents subpoenaed from several news organizations, including the Arkansas News Bureau, in an attempt to show that Harris went outside the standard protocol for responding to requests under the state Freedom of Information Act in order to smear Singer. They also presented testimony seeking to show that Harris’ statements about Singer’s mental health were false.
Lawyers representing Milligan and Harris — with Harris paying for representation himself because he was sued as an individual and not in his official capacity — sought to show through testimony that the release of Harris’ email was legitimate and that the speculation about Singer’s mental health had nothing to do with Singer’s firing.
Harris mentioned in testimony Wednesday that he had heart problems. After he was taken out of the courtroom Thursday, Luther Sutter, an attorney for Singer, told the judge he believed Harris faked his attack.
“I can personally guarantee you that Mr. Harris is going to have a clean bill of health tomorrow,” Sutter said.
Miller told Sutter, “What you just said was the most despicable thing I’ve heard in a long time from a lawyer.”
On Friday, Sutter told the judge he had a basis for his remark about Harris.
“If I didn’t have a good-faith belief in what I said, it would have been despicable. I had a good-faith basis. I’ve got training as an Army field medic. I looked over there, and the medics did not start a heart-attack protocol,” Sutter said.
“You also said here at the bench that you could go over there and resuscitate him but you weren’t going to do it,” Miller said.
Miller also asked why Singer did not want to continue with the trial, if he believed Harris was faking, so he could put Harris on the stand and undermine his credibility by showing jurors he faked the attack.
Singer’s lawyers said they should not have to bear the burden of proving a new element in the case and said extending the trial over the weekend would increase the risk of jurors being exposed to news coverage of it.
Byron Freeland, an attorney for Harris and Milligan, told the judge Harris has a serious health condition and said he hoped Singer would try to prove Harris was faking, “because it’s going to backfire on him.”
Freeland also said Singer’s lawyers should not complain about media coverage. He showed the judge a photo that Matt Campbell, attorney for Singer, posted to Facebook on Thursday depicting the Fred Sanford character from the sitcom “Sanford and Son” clutching his chest.
“They put a picture of Fred Sanford on there saying, ‘I’m having the big one,’ and equate it to my client, and they’re complaining about the media?” he said.