Amended Opinion Hedges Constitutionality of Punitive Damages Award
The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit amended its August 2020 opinion in Epic Systems v. Tata Consultancy to clarify that its analysis of punitive damages applies only to this particular case. Epic Systems Corp. v. Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Case Nos. 19-1528, -1613 (7th Cir. Nov. 19, 2020) (Kanne, J.)
In the district court action, the jury found that Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. (TCS) used fraudulent means to access and steal Epic System’s trade secrets and other confidential information, and awarded $240 million in compensatory damages and $700 million in punitive damages. The district court reduced the compensatory damage award to $140 million and reduced the punitive damages award to $280 million based on a Wisconsin statutory cap on punitive damages. Both sides appealed.
On appeal, TCS contested the award of $280 million in punitive damages for various reasons, including that the award was not in line with the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. In its amended opinion, the Seventh Circuit clarified that “the Constitution is not the most relevant limit to a federal court when assessing punitive damages, as it comes into play only after the assessment has been tested against statutory and common law principles. . . . Indeed, a federal court can and should reduce a punitive damages award sometime before it reaches the outermost limits of due process.”
The Seventh Circuit analyzed the three “guideposts” for determining whether there is a due process violation with respect to punitive damages awards:
The reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct
The disparity between the actual harm suffered and the punitive award
The difference between the award authorized by the jury and the penalties imposed in comparable cases.
The Court’s analysis of the first guidepost remained relatively unchanged from its original opinion, in which the Court found that a punitive damages award was justified.
The Seventh Circuit deviated from its original opinion in its analysis of the second and third guideposts. The Court found that determining the harm in the second guidepost was somewhat more difficult, because the $140 million compensatory award was based on benefit to TCS, not harm to Epic. However, the Court noted that in such instances, “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive damages and compensatory damages will satisfy due process.” In its original opinion, the Court concluded that “a 2:1 ratio exceeds the outermost limit of the due process guarantee.” As amended, however, the Court softened this language and clarified that the 2:1 ratio exceeds only the outermost limit “in this case.” The Court explained that although TCS’s conduct was reprehensible, it was not egregious. The Court similarly concluded that the third guidepost warranted a 1:1 ratio of punitive to compensatory damages. Here again, while the Court’s original opinion applied to the “federal constitution,” the amended opinion reduced the scope of the holding to “this case” only.
Practice Note: While the Seventh Circuit originally seemed to indicate that any punitive damages award that exceeds a compensatory award by a ratio of 2:1 violates due process, the Court’s amendments seem to leave open the possibility that such a punitive award may still be issued in cases of “egregious” misconduct on the part of the defendant.