Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

First Circuit Reinstates Jury Award Against Tenenbaum

The First Circuit has reinstated the jury award of damages against Joel Tenenbaum, the Boston University grad student found liable for illegally downloading copyrighted songs. A lower court judge had reduced the amount of damages Mr. Tenenbaum was forced to pay from $675,000 to $67,500, but the 1st Circuit ruled that the judge did not have the authority to do so. 

After handling the trial with great skill, the district court committed reversible error when, after the jury awarded statutory damages, it bypassed the issue of common law remittitur, and instead resolved a disputed question of whether the jury's award of $22,500 per infringement violated due process, and decided itself to reduce the award. The court declined to adhere to the doctrine of constitutional avoidance on the ground that it felt resolution of a constitutional due process question was inevitable in the case before it. A decision on a constitutional due process question was not necessary, was not inevitable, had considerable impermissible consequences, and contravened the rule of constitutional avoidance. That rule had more than its usual import in this case because there were a number of difficult constitutional issues which should have been avoided but were engaged.

Facing the constitutional question of whether the award violated due process was not inevitable. The district court should first have considered the non-constitutional issue of remittitur, which may have obviated any constitutional due process issue and attendant issues. Had the court ordered remittitur of a particular amount, Sony would have then had a choice. It could have accepted the reduced award. Or, it could have rejected the remittitur, in which case a new trial would have ensued. See 11 Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure ยง 2815, at 160 (2d ed. 1995).

In reaching and deciding that due process constitutional question, the district court also unnecessarily decided several related constitutional issues. The court determined that the statutory damage award was effectively a punitive damage award for due process purposes and applied the factors set forth in BMW v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, ...(1996), to assess its constitutionality. The court declined to apply the Williams standard the Supreme Court had previously applied to statutory damage awards. ... The district court's tack also led to unnecessary resolution of Seventh Amendment issues. The decision to reduce the jury's award without offering Sony a new trial implicitly presupposed that, in reducing a statutory damage award issued by a jury, a court need not offer plaintiffs the option of a new jury trial in order to comport with the Seventh Amendment.

The United States, concerned with defending the constitutionality of the Copyright Act and its statutory damage provision, argues that the district court erred by unnecessarily reaching Tenenbaum's constitutional challenge to the award and bypassing the question of common law remittitur.The United States alternatively argues that, if the due process issue were reached, the district court was required to apply the Williams due process standard. The United States points out an inferior federal court may not displace the Supreme Court's on point holding. The United States also raises Seventh Amendment concerns.

We agree with the position of the United States that the district court erred when it prematurely reached a constitutional question of whether the jury's award was excessive so as to violate due process. We reverse the reduction of the award, reinstate the original jury verdict and award, and remand for consideration of the common law remittitur question.


If, on remand, the court allows any reduction through remittitur, then plaintiffs must be given the choice of a new trial or acceptance of remittitur.


 Read the entire ruling here.

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