August 1, 2020

In the first opinion after the Supreme Court's decision in Conservatorship of O.B., Court of Appeal rejects substantial evidence argument and partially reinstates $15.6 million punitive damages award (King v. U.S. Bank)

In this published opinion, the Third Appellate District restores millions of dollars in both compensatory and punitive damages that the trial court had stricken from a jury's verdict in an employment dispute.

Plaintiff King was a senior vice president at a bank. He gave bad performance reviews to two of his subordinates, who then turn accused him of gender discrimination, harassment, and falsification of records. The bank's human resources director investigated and recommended that King be fired. When the bank fired him, he sued it for defamation, based on statements made by bank employees during the HR investigation. He also sued for wrongful termination, alleging that the bank's human resources director conducted an inadequate investigation.
A jury awarded King $8.5 million in compensatory damages and $15.6 million in punitive damages. The trial court partially granted the bank's post-trial motions, refusing to vacate the award but chopping the compensatory damages down to $2.7 million and then limiting the punitive damages to the same amount. Both sides appealed.
The bank argued that King failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that any officer, director, or managing agent of the bank acted with malice. The Court of Appeal acknowledged that, under the Supreme Court's decision earlier this week in Conservatorship of O.B., appellate courts must take the "clear and convincing" evidence standard into account when reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a punitive damages award. Although the Court of Appeal acknowledged that standard, it also stated that it did not matter that the conduct at issue could just as easily have been mere negligence, rather than malice. That statement seems incongruous with O.B. and with prior caselaw holding that evidence of malice cannot be clear and convincing if the evidence merely supports an inference of malice, but is also consistent with the possibility of mere negligence.
Although the court affirmed the jury's malice finding, the court also agreed with the trial court that the jury's punitive damages award was excessive, and that a one-to-one ratio is the constitutional maximum under the circumstances of this case. However, because the court reversed the trial court's rulings with respect to the compensatory damages and reinstated the jury's $8.5 million compensatory damages award, application of the one-to-one ratio on appeal resulted in an $8.5 million punitive damages award, much higher than the $2.7 million maximum that the trial court had imposed.
This opinion, if viewed as a test for how appellate courts will apply the new O.B. standard, suggests that O.B. may not move needle much in some courts. This opinion was clearly written well before O.B. was decided. When the Supreme Court issued its opinion in O.B. on Monday, the Court of Appeal proceeded to publish this opinion the very next day, adding a few citations to O.B. but otherwise not apparently seeing a need to take any additional time to revisit its analysis. Of course this is just one data point. It will take several more decisions before we can really measure the impact of O.B.