Phelps v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co.

Decision Date08 September 1995
Docket NumberNo. C9-94-24,C9-94-24
Citation537 N.W.2d 271
Parties7 NDLR P 81 Geraldine PHELPS, Respondent, v. COMMONWEALTH LAND TITLE INSURANCE COMPANY, petitioner, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. Minnesota Statutes § 363.071, subd. 2 (1992) contains no guidelines as to when or under what circumstances a trial court may multiply damages. Subdivision 2 unambiguously vests trial courts with the discretion to multiply damages.

2. After an initial finding of damages, a trial court need not make an additional finding that uncompensated damages exist prior to multiplying damages pursuant to Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2.

3. No findings are necessary to support a trial court's decision to multiply damages under Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2.

4. A trial court's award of punitive damages and double actual damages does not constitute an unfair double recovery of punitive damages under Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2.

5. It was not error for the trial court to include back pay in the amount of actual damages that was multiplied pursuant to Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2.

Michael Robert Docherty, Elizabeth H. Martin, St. Paul, for appellant.

William A. Moeller, New Ulm, for respondent.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

OPINION

TOMLJANOVICH, Justice.

Following a finding that appellant Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company (Commonwealth) violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn.Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1 (1992), the trial court awarded respondent Geraldine Phelps compensatory damages in an amount twice that of the actual damages established at trial pursuant to Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2 (1992). On appeal to this court, Commonwealth contends the court of appeals erred by finding that the trial court acted within its discretion in doubling the amount of actual damages pursuant to Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2. We reject Commonwealth's contentions and affirm.

On October 25, 1993, following a trial without a jury, the trial court concluded that Commonwealth discriminated against Phelps on the basis of age and disability. The trial court determined Phelps presented evidence of actual damages totaling $80,382.33. Relying on Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2, the trial court then multiplied this figure by two and awarded Phelps $160,764.66 as compensatory damages. The trial court did not provide any findings supporting its decision to double the actual damages. Additionally, the trial court awarded Phelps $75,000 for mental anguish and suffering and $42,491.99 for attorney fees and costs. Finally, the trial court awarded the statutory maximum of $8,500 for punitive damages.

On appeal, the court of appeals rejected Commonwealth's argument that the trial court abused its discretion by doubling the actual damages, holding:

[T]he district court acted within its discretion in doubling Phelps' compensatory damages, even though the court did not specifically find that Phelps would not be adequately compensated by an award of actual damages.

Phelps v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., 520 N.W.2d 748, 752 (Minn.App.1994). In dicta the court of appeals also stated:

Were we to require that multiple damages be tied to uncompensated damages, we would still affirm the district court's multiplication of damages in the present case. Phelps persuasively argues that the following losses would have remained uncompensated by an unaugmented award of compensatory damages: loss of her pension, loss of potential raises, loss of dental insurance, and loss of some medical insurance. Phelps also asserts that her inability to maintain payments on her residence after she was discharged from Commonwealth required her to move and deprived her of the continuity of home and community.

Id.

On appeal to this court, Commonwealth contends the court of appeals' conclusion in dicta was erroneous because Phelps did not present any evidence of the losses the court of appeals outlined in dicta. We conclude that the court of appeals did err, however, this was an error in dicta. As such, the existence of this error is irrelevant to the resolution of this case. Commonwealth also renews its argument that the trial court abused its discretion by doubling the actual damages under Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2.

Minnesota Statutes § 363.071, subd. 2 provides in relevant part:

In all cases where the administrative law judge 1 finds that the respondent has engaged in an unfair discriminatory practice, the administrative law judge shall order the respondent to pay an aggrieved party, who has suffered discrimination, compensatory damages in an amount up to three times the actual damages sustained. In all cases, the administrative law judge may also order the respondent to pay an aggrieved party, who has suffered discrimination, damages for mental anguish or suffering and reasonable attorney's fees, in addition to punitive damages in an amount not more than $8,500.

(emphasis added). Whether a trial court properly doubled the actual damages under Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2 is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. Melsha v. Wickes Cos., 459 N.W.2d 707, 709 (Minn.App.1990), pet. for rev. denied, (Minn. Oct. 25, 1990). Commonwealth claims the trial court abused its discretion and makes five arguments in favor of reversal. In addition, Commonwealth argues that inclusion of back pay in the amount the trial court doubled constitutes error.

I.

First, Commonwealth claims the court of appeals' determination that the trial court's multiplication of damages was valid is inconsistent with legislative intent. If a statute is ambiguous, a court may refer to the legislative history surrounding the statute's enactment to ascertain its legislative intent. Minn.Stat. § 645.16(7) (1994). Where the intention of the legislature is clearly manifested by plain unambiguous language, however, no construction is necessary or permitted. Lenz v. Coon Creek Watershed Dist., 278 Minn. 1, 9, 153 N.W.2d 209, 216 (1967). Thus, prior to consideration of legislative history, a determination that subdivision 2 is ambiguous is necessary.

A statute is ambiguous if it is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. Glen Paul Court Neighborhood Ass'n v. Paster, 437 N.W.2d 52, 56 (Minn.1989); Tuma v. Commissioner of Economic Sec., 386 N.W.2d 702, 706 (Minn.1986) (citing Beck v. City of St. Paul, 304 Minn. 438, 445, 231 N.W.2d 919, 923 (1975)); Arcadia Dev. Corp. v. County of Hennepin, 528 N.W.2d 857, 860 (Minn.1995), reh'g denied (Minn. Apr. 12, 1995). Commonwealth does not contend that subdivision 2 is susceptible to more than one interpretation. Instead, Commonwealth contends subdivision 2 "is ambiguous because it provides absolutely no guidance to trial courts in determining when compensatory damages must be multiplied." This court, in a slightly different context, has said that failure of expression does not give rise to ambiguity. See State v. Moseng, 254 Minn. 263, 269, 95 N.W.2d 6, 11-12 (1959) (holding "[w]here failure of expression rather than ambiguity of expression concerning the elements of the statutory standard is the vice of the enactment, courts are not free to substitute amendment for construction and thereby supply the omissions of the legislature."); see also State v. Wetsch, 511 N.W.2d 490, 492 (Minn.App.1994) (stating "[a]lthough [appellant] disagrees with the legislative decision to make failure to provide proof of insurance a strict liability offense while including a scienter requirement for failure to provide insurance, his disagreement does not make [the statute] ambiguous"), pet. for rev. denied (Minn. Apr. 19, 1994).

Subdivision 2 contains no guidelines as to when or under what circumstances a trial court may multiply damages. The absence of guidelines or restraints on a trial court's discretion to multiply damages does not make subdivision 2 ambiguous. In the absence of such guidelines, this court should not manufacture them, that is the province of the legislature. Accordingly, we decline to read into subdivision 2 restrictions or guidelines that the legislature has not included. Instead, we conclude subdivision 2 unambiguously vests trial courts with the discretion to multiply damages.

II.

Commonwealth next argues that the trial court's award is inconsistent with standards articulated by other courts. Having found that subdivision 2 vests the trial court with the discretion to multiply actual damages in an amount up to three times the amount of damages proven at trial, we believe this argument is rendered moot. To the extent that other decisions impose restraints on a trial court's discretion to multiply damages under subdivision 2, these decisions are erroneous. We comment here on at least two decisions that are impacted by our holding today.

In Melsha v. Wickes Cos., the court of appeals interpreted subdivision 2 and concluded:

It is within the discretion of the trial court to determine whether, in the interests of justice, the actual damages must be multiplied in order for a victim to be fully compensated.

459 N.W.2d at 709. In addition, the Minnesota federal district court, quoting Melsha, has held:

Multiplied damages are permitted so as to provide victims of discrimination with 'full and adequate compensation' in cases when the amount of actual damages proved do not alone achieve that result.

Baufield v. Safelite Glass Corp., 831 F.Supp. 713, 720 (D.Minn.1993) (quoting Melsha, 459 N.W.2d at 709).

Commonwealth contends that based on Melsha, a trial court must tie the multiplication of damages to a finding that the victim was not fully compensated. Based on our conclusion that subdivision 2 unambiguously vests a trial court with discretion to multiply damages, we further conclude that after an initial finding of damages, a trial court need not make an additional finding that uncompensated damages exist prior to multiplying damages pursuant to Minn.Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2. Thus,...

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