April 21, 2008

Harvey v. Sybase: California Court of Appeal Reinstates Punitive Damages Award

Last Friday, the California Court of Appeal (First District, Division Five) issued this partially published opinion reinstating a plaintiff's claim for punitive damages in an employment discrimination case.

The jury awarded $1.3 million in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The trial court granted JNOV in favor of the defendant on punitive damages, finding that no evidence supported a jury's award. The Court of Appeal, in the unpublished part of its opinion, reversed the JNOV. For the most part, the court's analysis is not particularly noteworthy. The court simply disagrees with the trial court's conclusion that the plaintiff presented no substantial evidence that the defendant acted with "malice, oppression, or fraud," the prerequisites for punitive damages under California law.

But one small aspect of the court's opinion caught my eye. The court acknowledges that plaintiffs must prove malice, oppression, or fraud by clear and convincing evidence, but the court then states, "Despite this more stringent burden of proof at the trial level, we nevertheless confine our review to determining whether the record contains evidence of circumstances warranting the imposition of punitive damages." Maybe I'm misreading this, but it sounds as if the court believes that the clear and convincing evidence standard applies only at the trial court level and not on appeal. But a published California case expressly states that the clear and convincing evidence standard applies on appeal as well as in the trial court. (See Shade Foods, Inc. v. Innovative Products Sales & Marketing, Inc. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 847 [“since the jury’s findings were subject to a heightened burden of proof, [this court] must review the record . . . in light of that burden. In other words, [this court] must inquire whether the record contains ‘substantial evidence to support a determination by clear and convincing evidence’”].) Of course, Division Five is free to disagree with this opinion by their colleagues in Division One, but if they were going to disagree with a published opinion, they probably should have published that part of their analysis.

As an interesting side note, the plaintiff in this case was represented by our fellow blogger Bruce Nye at Cal Biz Lit. Congratulations Bruce, for getting that punitive damages award reinstated.