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Truesdell v. Thomas

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

May 2, 2018

KELLEAN K. TRUESDELL, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated, Plaintiff - Appellee - Cross Appellant,
v.
CLAYTON THOMAS, individually, CHRIS BLAIR, individually and in his official capacity as the Marion County Sheriff, Defendants - Appellants - Cross Appellees.

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 5:13-cv-00552-WTH-PRL

          Before WILLIAM PRYOR, JILL PRYOR, and CLEVENGER, [*] Circuit Judges.

          WILLIAM PRYOR, Circuit Judge:

          This appeal presents several questions about the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2721-2725: whether the Act permits punitive damages against municipal agencies and multiple awards of liquidated damages for separate violations; whether the district court abused its discretion when it refused to certify a class and to grant a new trial; and whether the district court erred when it instructed the jury about punitive damages. While employed as a Sergeant at the Marion County Sheriff's Office, Clayton Thomas used the Florida driver and vehicle identification database to access the personal information of tens of thousands of people. Two of Thomas's searches involved Kellean Truesdell's personal information. Truesdell sued Thomas, in his individual capacity, and Chris Blair, the Sheriff of Marion County, in his official and individual capacities. She moved the district court to certify a class of Thomas's alleged victims, but the district court denied her motion. At trial, the jury assessed $100 in punitive damages against Thomas and $5, 000 in punitive damages against Blair's office, after the district court instructed the jury that punitive damages should bear a reasonable relationship to compensatory damages. The jury awarded no compensatory damages, but the district court assessed $2, 500 in liquidated damages for each time Thomas accessed Truesdell's information. The district court later denied Truesdell's motion for post-trial class certification and for a new trial on punitive damages. We affirm.

          I. BACKGROUND

         Clayton Thomas worked as a Sergeant at the Marion County Sheriff's Office. Between January 2010 and July 2013, he used the Florida driver and vehicle identification database to access the personal information of thousands of people. Thomas admitted that many of these searches were motivated by "curiosity, " but he also stated that some searches were in response to "calls about cars in the [jail] parking lot or suspicious vehicle[s]" at the jail. On June 8, 2011, and again on February 28, 2012, Thomas accessed Kellean Truesdell's information without justification.

         In 2012, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement notified the Sheriff's Office of potential misuse of the driver database. An internal investigation revealed that Thomas had misused the database. In 2013, the Sheriff's Office notified Truesdell that Thomas had accessed her information.

         Truesdell sued Thomas in his individual capacity and Chris Blair, the Sheriff of Marion County, in his individual and official capacities. Truesdell alleged that Thomas accessed the personal information of thousands of people in violation of the Act and that the Sheriff's Office "failed to prevent unauthorized access to the database, " and she demanded "injunctive relief and money damages." She then moved the district court to certify under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) a class of "approximately 42, 364 individuals whose personal information was accessed by . . . Thomas during the class period in violation of the [Act]." Truesdell also asserted that the Sheriff's Office had failed to notify many of the alleged victims as required by both Florida law and an agreement between the office and the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

         The district court refused to certify the class after adopting the magistrate judge's report and recommendation. The district court underscored "a lack of typicality and commonality" among the claims asserted by Truesdell and the potential class members. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a). For example, Thomas asserted that he had legitimate reasons for some of his searches, which led the district court to conclude that Truesdell "has not sufficiently overcome the fatal fact that . . . Thomas'[s] reasons for accessing each putative class member's personal information may vary for each class member, . . . resulting in numerous mini-trials and a lack of typicality and commonality." The district court also explained that Truesdell had asserted a "[section] 1983 claim as to which there is no statutory liquidated damages amount, and the [d]efendants and each class member would thus be tasked with litigating his or her actual damages." And the district court agreed with the magistrate judge that a class action was not "superior[]" to individual litigation, Fed. R. Civ. P 23(b)(3), because a class action threatened disproportionate liability and because the Act encourages individual litigation by offering liquidated damages and attorney's fees. The district court concluded "that any amendments to certify a more narrow class would suffer from the same deficiencies, and therefore, denial of the motion without leave to amend [was] appropriate."

         At trial, the district court answered two jury questions. First, in response to the question, "If we answer questions yes, does the dollar amount have to be more than zero[, ]" it instructed the jury that it need not award damages even if it found that the defendants had violated the law. Second, in response to the question, "If the jury determines that the Sheriff's Office should pay punitive damages, are we to only consider the [two] violations of the [p]laintiff's privacy in determining the amount[, ]" the district court informed the jury that "[i]n determining the amount of a punitive damage award the [j]ury should consider all of the evidence concerning the gravity and extent of the [d]efendants' misconduct, but the amount awarded should bear a reasonable relationship to the amount of the compensatory damages awarded to the [p]laintiff." Truesdell objected to the second instruction on the ground that "the analysis of the reasonable relationship of the amount of actual[] [damages] to punitive[] [damages] would be an appropriate analysis for the [c]ourt post-judgment and not something that the jury enters into their calculus in determining the amount on their verdict." The jury denied Truesdell compensatory damages, but it awarded $100 in punitive damages against Thomas and $5, 000 in punitive damages against Blair, in his official capacity as Sheriff. The district court also assessed $5, 000 in joint and several statutory damages against Thomas and Blair, in his official capacity, "representing an award of $2, 500[] for each of two violations of 18 U.S.C. [section] 2722(a)."

         After trial, Truesdell moved the district court to "enter a class-wide judgment for liquidated damages" and to grant "a new trial as to the amount of punitive damages." Thomas and Blair argued that the court should award only a total of $2, 500 in liquidated damages instead of $2, 500 for each violation, and they contended that "[f]ederal law is clear that punitive damages are not available against the Sheriff's Office on a civil rights claim." The district court rejected all of these arguments.

         II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         "The interpretation of a statute is a question of law subject to de novo review." Kehoe v. Fid. Fed. Bank & Trust, 421 F.3d 1209, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). The Act "set[s] a floor of $2, 500 in liquidated damages, and any award the district court grants above that amount is reviewed for abuse of discretion." Ela v. Destefano, 869 F.3d 1198, 1201 (11th Cir. 2017). Similarly, "[a] district court's decision whether or not to certify a class under Rule 23 of the [Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] is reviewed for abuse of discretion, " Hines v. Widnall, 334 F.3d 1253, 1255 (11th Cir. 2003), as is "a trial court's disposition of a motion to grant a new trial." Williams v. City of Valdosta, 689 F.2d 964, 974 (11th Cir. 1982). And "[w]e review jury instructions de novo to determine whether they misstate the law or mislead the jury to the prejudice of the party who objects to them." Badger v. S. Farm Bureau Life Ins. Co., 612 F.3d 1334, 1339 (11th Cir. 2010). But "[w]e will not disturb a jury's verdict unless the charge, taken as a whole, is erroneous and prejudicial." Id. (quoting S.E.C. v. Yun, 327 F.3d 1263, 1281 (11th Cir. 2003)).

         III. ...


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