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Mixing U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence with Federal Housing Authority (FHA) standards, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 7 halved the amount of punitive damages awarded to an African-American man who was a victim of housing discrimination. The ruling by the three-judge panel modifies a $110,000 punitive award given to plaintiff Don C. Weaver by a New Orleans federal jury. He had also won $500 in compensatory damages. Lincoln v. Case, No. 02-30333. Weaver and his Asian girlfriend, Lisa Lincoln, sued landlord Walter R. Case, alleging that Case rejected them as prospective tenants after learning of the couple’s racial makeup. Immediately after being told that the apartment they had come to see was unavailable, Lincoln and Weaver contacted the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. The organization had two white testers and two black testers call Case and his wife about the apartment. Evidence indicated that the white testers were told that the apartment was available, while the black testers were told it was not. The couple filed suit under the Fair Housing Act and, after a trial, a jury found that the landlord’s decision to turn them away was racially motivated. After the trial court denied Case’s post-trial motions for remittitur or a judgment not withstanding the verdict, he appealed, arguing that the jury’s punitive award was constitutionally excessive because it was 200 times bigger than the compensatory award. Although it acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court had held that few awards over a “single-digit ratio” would satisfy due process, the 5th Circuit applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s punitive damages “guideposts” erected in BMW of North America v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996) and the Federal Housing Act regulations to set the punitive damages at $55,000, a 110-to-1 ratio. Explaining its reasoning for cutting the punitive award, the 5th Circuit cited the third Gore guidepost, “sanctions for comparable misconduct,” and applied a comparable FHA sanction of $55,000 for a first-time offense. The court rejected Case’s argument that any ratio of more that 10-to-1 required remittitur. Citing earlier precedent, the panel said, “there is no particular disparity between punitive and actual damages that will automatically result in our declaring a punitive damages award unconstitutional.”

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