It’s not uncommon for state and federal regulatory schemes to provide for an award of statutory civil penalties to deter and punish certain conduct that it is difficult to monetize in a suit for damages. Frequently penalties may be assessed on a per-violation or per-day basis, permitting an astronomical award that bears little relation to the actual harm sustained by the persons for whose benefit the statute has been enacted. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act with its $500 per violation penalty for sending unsolicited fax advertisements is perhaps the best well known of these statutes but numerous others appear in the United States Code and among the state statutes.
Since these penalties are not intended primarily to compensate the victim of the unlawful practice and exist largely for the public purposes of punishing conduct deemed socially unacceptable the question arises of whether laws governing punitive damages awards constrain the courts in determining the total amount of punitive damages that may be awarded.
In Forte v. Wal-Mart Stores [pdf] four optometrists alleged that Wal-Mart had violated the Texas Optometry Act by writing into lease agreements with the optometrists a provision providing a minimum number of hours that the optometrists’ in-store offices would be opened. The optometrists conceded that they had sustained no damages but the jury awarded them nearly 4 million, amounting to a civil penalty of $1000 per day for each day the offending leases were in effect. The district court entered a remittitur reducing the civil penalty to approximately $1.4 million.
The Fifth Circuit reversed the civil penalty award under Chapter 41 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which governs the award of punitive damages. The court applied the Code’s definition of punitive damages which encompass any damages awarded as a penalty but not for compensatory purposes. The Optometry Act’s penalty provisions were specifically penal and nature and were not intended as compensation. The Fifth Circuit distinguished the case from a prior holding that had held Chapter 41 did not extend to civil penalties for the filing of false liens because in the prior case statutory damages provision expressly mentioned punitive damages indicating that the statutory penalty itself was no considered punitive damages by the legislature and because the statutory damages provision in the false liens case was not characterized as a penalty.
The Fifth Circuit then determined that the punitive damages cap under Chapter 41 was zero because the Chapter provided that punitive damage could only be recovered when the plaintiff received some non-nominal award of actual damages.
The result of the holding is dramatic. In effect, Chapter 41’s general provision that punitive damages may not be recovered in the absence of actual damages is permitted to trump a specific statutory provision allowing for the recovery of a civil penalty in the absence of actual damages. It will be necessary to carefully examine every Texas statute providing for a civil penalty to determine whether it is subject to Chapter 41’s zero cap.
Because Wal-Mart prevailed on its statutory argument the Fifth Circuit was not required to rule upon the interesting constitutional question of whether Due Process constrains a state’s ability to impose a civil penalty disproportionate to the actual harm caused by the unlawful activity. If Due Process limits a jury’s ability to award punitive damages to some reasonable ratio of the actual damages, it would seem that the legislature’s ability to meet out punishment through civil penalties is similarly limited.