Sunday, April 10, 2005

Punitive damages reduced in First Amendment retaliation case

The Norfolk paper reports here on a decision by the federal magistrate judge in a section 1983 case to reduce the award of punitive damages against two Virginia Beach school officials.

The issue had something to do with whether there was evidence of the defendants' net worth.

The case I typically cite on this issue, in trying to explain the law to people, is the Joe Morgan airport case, Morgan v. Woessner, 997 F.2d 124 (9th Cir. 1993). Joe Morgan, the baseball Hall-of-Famer and broadcaster, got arrested at an airport, and sued under section 1983 and California law, and won. In fact, he got $300,000 in punitive damages on the federal law claim, and $150,000 in punitive damages on the state law claim, and both were appealed. California law requires evidence of the defendant's net worth to support a punitive damages claim, and so the state law punitive award was reversed. Under the federal law, by contrast, the inability to pay is viewed as more of a defense to punitive damages, and so the plaintiff has no burden to prove the defendant's net worth to get punitive damage under section 1983.

In Kemezy v. Peters, 79 F.3d 33 (7th Cir. 1996), Judge Posner explains: "The usual practice with respect to fines is not to proportion the fine to the defendant's wealth, but to allow him to argue that the fine should be waived or lowered because he cannot possibly pay it. . . . Given the close relation between fines and punitive damages, this is the proper approach to punitive damages as well. The defendant who cannot pay a large award of punitive damages can point this out to the jury so that they will not waste their time and that of the bankruptcy courts by awarding an amount that exceeds his ability to pay." 79 F.3d at 36.

I'm not entirely sure how the foregoing analysis squares with the ruling of the magistrate judge in the Virginia Beach case.

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