Common-law Excessiveness

Louisiana generally does not permit punitive damages. But if an accident happens on navigable waters, and the plaintiff brings a claim under federal maritime law, a Louisiana jury can award punitive damages, and Louisiana courts then must decide the full panoply of issues that arise in punitive damages cases.  That’s what happened in Warren v. Shelter Mutual Insurance Co.

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Inevitably, when conscientious judges delve into the multi-dimensional issue of excessive punitive damages, they get some things right and other things wrong. Such is the case with the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in Daugherty v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC. Unfortunately, as a doctrinal matter at least, the erroneous aspects of the decision predominate.  
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A bankruptcy judge in the Eastern District of California recently issued a decision that is sure to raise appellate eyebrows.

Concluding in In re Sundquist that the defendant bank had violated the automatic stay by foreclosing on the home of a bankrupt mortgagor and enraged by what it perceived to be heavy-handed behavior both before and after the stay violation, the court awarded the plaintiffs $1,074,581.50 in compensatory damages and ordered the defendant to pay a whopping $45 million in punitive damages—i.e., nearly 42 times the quite substantial compensatory award.

But concerned that such a massive amount of punitive damages would be a windfall to the plaintiffs, the judge ordered the plaintiffs to pay $40 million, minus applicable taxes, to two non-profit organizations whose stated mission is to advance the interests of consumers in litigation and bankruptcy proceedings—the National Consumer Law Center and the National Consumer Bankruptcy Rights Center—and the five California state law schools. Specifically, the judge decided to bestow $10 million each (before taxes) on the two consumer law centers and $4 million each (before taxes) on the five law schools.
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In late December, the Second Circuit released a significant and interesting decision on excessiveness of punitive damages—and we say that not just because we represented the defendants in the case.

Traffic Cop Blowing WhistleTurley v. ISG Lackawanna, Inc. involved racial harassment of a steel worker by his fellow employees.  The plaintiff alleged that his employer and its parent did not respond adequately to the harassment.  A jury agreed and awarded the plaintiff a total of $1.25 million in compensatory damages—all for emotional distress—and $24 million in punitive damages against the corporate defendants.  The district court determined that the punitive damages were excessive and ordered a remittitur to approximately $5 million.

Although rejecting the defendants’ other arguments, the Second Circuit agreed with defendants that the punitive damages as remitted remained excessive.


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Concept_Check-Too Much_11462441LargeIn a prior post, I explained why the proper approach in Arizona v. ASARCO is to compare ASARCO’s conduct to conduct in other Title VII cases and then select a punishment—from zero to $299,999—commensurate with where ASARCO’s conduct stands on the spectrum of punishable conduct.

In this post, I will undertake to show why the Ninth Circuit panel and district court were mistaken in concluding that ASARCO’s conduct was reprehensible enough to warrant either (i) the highest punitive award ever imposed when compensatory damages were $1—$125,000—as the panel majority held, or (ii) the maximum permissible under Title VII—$299,999—as the dissenting member of the panel and the district court held.


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Ninth Circuit SealIt’s not often that federal courts of appeals agree to decide punitive damages cases en banc, so Arizona v. ASARCO, which the Ninth Circuit will rehear en banc on June 18, strikes us as worthy of attention.  In fact, because the case potentially implicates a number of very important issues in the law of punitive damages, my colleagues and I plan to do a series of posts on the case.

So as not to bury the lead, let me say at the outset that I think that the parties and the original Ninth Circuit panel are looking at the issues in this case through the wrong lens.  I’ll explain what I mean later in the post.


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