In prior posts, we have occasionally adverted to the issue of multiple punishments in the constitutional context.  Just before the new year, a California appellate court issued an unpublished decision in Paletz v. Adaya bearing on a different aspect of the multiple punishment problem.  In Paletz, the Court of Appeal reversed an award of punitive damages as duplicative of an award of statutory penalties, concluding that the plaintiffs were not entitled to collect both forms of punishment for the same course of conduct.

The case was brought by organizers and guests of a pool party at the defendants’ hotel in Santa Monica, California, to raise money to send children of fallen Israeli soldiers to camp in the United States.  When the hotel’s owners learned that the event participants were Jewish, they ordered the event shut down and evicted the participants.  The event organizers and a number of individual participants sued claiming, inter alia, intentional infliction of emotional distress and discrimination under the Unruh Act, a California civil rights statute.  Like many similar remedial statutes, the Unruh Act provided for super-compensatory damages, ranging from a minimum of $4,000 to a maximum of three times actual damages.  The jury awarded the plaintiffs penalties on their statutory claim and in addition punitive damages on their intentional-infliction claims.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal concluded that the awards of punitive damages were duplicative of the statutory penalties and set the former aside.  Its analysis reflects relatively typical judicial inquiry into whether and when a defendant may be subjected to both statutory penalties and punitive damages for the same conduct.  The court began with a background principle of law with which the majority of courts in other jurisdictions appear to agree:  A defendant generally may not be subjected to duplicative punishment for the same conduct; when both punitive damages and statutory penalties are awarded, the plaintiff is limited to one or the other.  In order to decide whether that principle applied, the Court of Appeal considered a number of subsidiary questions commonly addressed by other courts in this context.

The court first considered whether the damages provided by California’s civil rights statute constituted punishment—seemingly assuming that, to the extent the statutory damages are intended to be compensatory, they could co-exist with punitive damages.  Relying upon prior California cases interpreting the Unruh Act, the court concluded that the statutory damages were punitive in nature.  Without the benefit of that precedent, though, this may not have been a foregone conclusion.  Courts diverge in how they characterize statutory multiple damages, deeming them punitive sometimes, remedial sometimes, and a combination of the two sometimes.  In PacifiCare v. Book, the U.S. Supreme Court itself recognized that it has “placed different statutory treble-damages provisions on different points along the spectrum between purely compensatory and strictly punitive awards.”

That said, most state courts appear to err on the side of finding multiple damages provisions to include a punitive element and therefore have not permitted their imposition alongside punitive damages.  And the outliers seem generally to rely not upon a loose characterization of the multiple damages as remedial but instead upon express statutory language or clear legislative history indicating that the legislature intended the statutory penalties to coexist with other remedies, including punitive damages.

The California appellate court looked for such statutory cues but did not find any that were clear enough to override the rule against double recovery.  It considered in particular a provision in California’s civil rights statute providing that “[a]ctions brought pursuant to this section are independent of any other actions, remedies, or procedures that may be available to an aggrieved party.”  Because the provision addressed “actions” and not “remedies,” though, the court concluded that it did “not permit duplicative recovery of punitive damages for the same conduct.”  Its conclusion contrasts with the Arizona Court of Appeals’ decision in Rhue v. Dawson, which interpreted a provision stating that “civil remedies provided under [this statute] [as opposed to just actions generally] are supplemental and not mutually exclusive” to allow recovery of both statutory damages and punitive damages.

The final step in the California court’s analysis returned to a baseline presumption from which it started:  that the two forms of punishments were in fact duplicative if imposed for violation of the same “primary right”—here, the right to be free from invidious discrimination.  If the jury imposed statutory penalties and punitive damages for distinct acts of misconduct or distinct injuries, there would be no duplicative punishment.  Here, however, the court easily concluded that the same course of conduct—the hotel owner’s religious discrimination—formed the basis for both the statutory and the intentional-infliction claims and imposed a single injury on the plaintiffs.

This opinion is a thoughtful and comprehensive treatment of the issue of the permissibility of multiple punishments by combining statutory penalties and common-law punitive damages that deserves to be published.  Our thanks to our friends at the California Punitive Damages blog for bringing it to our attention.