A federal judge has reduced a $10 million punitive damages award leveled against the California Correctional Peace Officers Association last year, although the plaintiffs in the case can appeal the reduction or seek a new trial that focuses on what the award should be.
Sacramento Federal Court Judge Lawrence Karlton rendered the decision last week, cutting what was a total $12.5 million decision against CCPOA -- compensatory and punitive damages awards combined -- to about $5 million.
The decision is the latest turn in Dawe v. Corrections USA, CCPOA, et al. Last October a jury unanimously found that CCPOA had spread falsehoods about Brian Dawe, a founder and former executive director/treasurer of Auburn-based Corrections USA.
CUSA is a national law enforcement coalition, and CCPOA is a member. The union eventually took over the organization's board then ousted Dawe five years ago after he raised questions about the coalition's finances.
Dawe successfully argued that the unjust firing and remarks by CCPOA officials and publications issued to explain his departure hampered his ability to earn a living and damaged his company, Flat Iron Mountain Associates. The jury awarded Dawe and his $2 millionin compensation. Another former Corrections USA employee involved in the matter, Gary Harkins, won a $315,000 defamation compensation claim against the union.
But Karlton took issue with the jury's punitive awards: $9 million to Dawe and his firm and another $1 million to Harkins. The judge lowered those amounts to match the compensatory awards. The punitive damages were "unconstitutionally excessive," Karlton said, noting that CCPOA's net worth was a factor in his decision.
That's not the end of the matter, however. Karlton gave the plaintiffs three weeks to ask for a new trial to argue for a higher punitive damages award. They also have the option to appeal Karlton's decision to a higher court.
Plaintiffs' attorney Dan Baxter couldn't be reached by phone, but he sent the following e-mail in response to a message we left with his office:
Despite the fact that the judge granted a "new trial," all that means is that my clients can either accept the "remittitur" (fancy language for "a reduced award") issued by the judge, or ask for a new trial on the punitive damages phase. In other words, there will not be any new trial unless my clients (not CCPOA et al.) affirmatively select that option (see p. 11, lines 18 through 22 of the ruling). My clients can also, should they so desire, appeal the judge's reduction to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. In short, my clients come out of this with an award of over $5,000,000 (my rough calculation), with the option to initiate proceedings designed to obtain the larger amounts awarded by the jury.
Regarding my clients' intentions, we are considering the options presented by Judge Karlton, and will make our election consistent with the 21-day timeline specified in the order.
Here's what CCPOA spokesman JeVaughn Baker e-mailed a few minutes ago in response to our comment request:
Good afternoon Jon,
We agree with Judge Karlton's view that the initial award was excessive and that it wasn't constitutionally supportable. We were also pleased that the punitive damages would be lowered to be more in line with the compensatory damages. However, we continue to believe that the verdict was wrong and we remain committed to an appeal. Of course we fully intend to comply with the court orders.
Thanks and I'll talk with you soon.