Following up on this blog’s earlier post on the Sixth Circuit’s recent treatment of large jury awards, we investigated the Sixth Circuit’s recent treatment of punitive damages awards. Over the last two years, approximately 65 cases mention punitive damages, but of those, only 5 address a challenge to the award of punitive damages.
As we recently discussed here, the most notable of those five cases is the Ventas decision involving a $101 million verdict. The district court ruled against Ventas as a matter of law on punitive damages, but the case went to trial and the jury found defendant liable for tortious interference with a prospective advantage awarding $101 million in compensatory damages. Finding the record “replete with evidence of intentional misrepresentations, deceit, and/or concealment of material facts” by defendant, the Sixth Circuit remanded to the district court for a trial solely to determine whether Ventas should also be awarded punitive damages.
Two of the recent decisions relate to a wrongful conviction for larceny and the subsequent civil suit against several police officers. The Sixth Circuit originally remanded the case to the district court to explain the basis for the district court’s denial of Defendants’ motion for remittitur, which denial the Sixth Circuit subsequently affirmed, finding that a 4:1 ratio of compensatory-to-punitive damages ($1 million / $250 K) was not excessive.
The remaining decisions involve awards of punitive damages in Title VII discrimination cases. In one, a jury awarded $800,000 in compensatory damages and $1,300,000 in punitive damages. The district court originally reduced the punitive damages award to $300,000 to reflect the statutory cap for Title VII cases, but then vacated the punitive damages award on a motion for remittitur as unsupported by evidence of pervasive disregard of anti-discrimination policies by the company. The Sixth Circuit, in an unpublished opinion, focused on the specific facts relating to good faith in discrimination cases in reversing the district court’s vacatur of punitive damages and remanded with instructions to reinstate the $300,000 award.
In another Title VII case, a jury awarded $880,000 in compensatory damages and $400,000 in punitive damages, which the district court reduced to $300,000 pursuant to the statutory cap. Focusing on the specific actions of the Defendant in handling the discrimination cases rather than the amount of the award, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of punitive damages.
Although the sampling size is very small, these cases tell us two things: First, punitive damage issues are not coming to the Sixth Circuit with any regularity, which means that there could be a less well-developed body of jurisprudence than perhaps in some other Circuits. And second, when confronted with the matter, the Sixth Circuit has show a willingness to permit punitive damage decisions to be decided by the jury. If the Ventas decision goes through a retrial and second appeal, the Sixth Circuit may have the opportunity to provide greater clarity in this area.