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Rogers v. Loether

decided: September 29, 1972.


Swygert, Chief Judge, Stevens, Circuit Judge, and Campbell, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Stevens

STEVENS, Circuit Judge.

The question presented is whether appellant was entitled to a jury trial in an action for compensatory and punitive damages brought under § 812 of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, 42 U.S.C. § 3612.*fn1

In her complaint, plaintiff alleged that the three defendants had refused to rent her an apartment because of her race.*fn2 She requested injunctive relief restraining defendants from renting the apartment to anyone else, money damages for her actual losses, punitive damages of $1,000, and attorney's fees.

The district court, after an extended hearing, entered a preliminary injunction. Subsequently, with plaintiff's consent, the injunction was dissolved; thereafter only plaintiff's claims for compensatory and punitive damages and attorney's fees remained. Defendants' request for a jury trial of those issues was denied, D.C., 312 F. Supp. 1008. After trial, the court found that plaintiff had suffered no actual damages but assessed punitive damages of $250; the prayer for attorney's fees was denied.

On appeal defendants contend that the finding of discrimination is clearly erroneous, that it was error to award punitive damages, and that they were entitled to a jury trial. We shall not describe the evidence of discrimination except to note that it was marginal; whichever way the trial judge had ruled, his determination of that issue would not have been clearly erroneous.*fn3 We are also satisfied that if his finding of discrimination is accepted, an award of punitive damages was authorized by the statute notwithstanding the absence of any actual loss to the plaintiff.*fn4 We shall confine our analysis to the jury trial issue.

The district court held that a jury trial was not required by the Seventh Amendment*fn5 or by a fair interpretation of the statute.*fn6

The court rejected the constitutional claim on the grounds (1) that the cause of action was created by statute and not recognized at common law; and (2) that the statutory claim invoked the equitable powers of the court and the amendment has no application to the recovery of money damages as an incident to complete equitable relief. Both propositions are supported by N.L.R.B. v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 48-49, 57 S. Ct. 615, 81 L. Ed. 893.*fn7

The district court also considered the award of damages in a housing discrimination case arising under the 1968 Act analogous to an award of back pay in an employment discrimination case under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and therefore relied on cases holding that there is no right to a jury trial in such litigation.*fn8 In its opinion the district court placed no reliance on the argument, sometimes advanced by proponents of civil rights legislation, that allowance of a jury trial might undermine effective enforcement of the statute.*fn9

Our study of the issue persuades us that (1) the constitutional right to trial by jury applies in at least some judicial proceedings to enforce rights created by statute; (2) this action for damages is "in the nature of a suit at common law";*fn10 (3) the nature of the claim is "legal" within the test identified in Ross v. Bernhard, 396 U.S. 531, 538, 90 S. Ct. 733, 24 L. Ed. 2d 729; (4) the right to a jury trial may not be denied on the ground that the damage claim is incidental to a claim for equitable relief; (5) cases involving an award of back pay pursuant to the 1964 Act are inapplicable; and finally (6) in view of our grave doubts as to the constitutionality of a denial of the right to a jury trial and the failure of Congress expressly to indicate that the traditional procedure for litigating damage claims should not be followed, the statute should be construed to authorize trial by jury. Accordingly, we have decided to reverse.


The Seventh Amendment preserves the substance of the right to a jury trial which existed under English common law when the amendment was adopted.*fn11 It has never been suggested that the application of the amendment is narrowly confined to such common law writs as might be enforceable in a federal court. On the contrary, since the bulk of the civil litigation in the federal judicial system involves the assertion of a federal right derived either from an act of Congress or the Constitution itself, necessarily the principal significance of the Seventh Amendment has been in such cases.*fn12 It is perfectly clear that the fact that a litigant is asserting a statutory right does not deprive him or his adversary of the protection of the amendment.

In Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 433, 7 L. Ed. 732, Mr. Justice Story, writing for the Court, rejected the contention expressed by Mr. Justice M'Lean in dissent that the amendment was inapplicable because the claim arose not under the common law but rather under the statutes of Louisiana.*fn13 Mr. Justice Story focused on the character of the claim as a "legal right" and eloquently described the purpose of the amendment:

"The trial by jury is justly dear to the American people. It has always been an object of deep interest and solicitude, and every encroachment upon it has been watched with great jealousy. The right to such a trial is, it is believed, incorporated into, and secured in every state constitution in the union; and it is found in the constitution of Louisiana. One of the strongest objections originally taken against the constitution of the United States, was the want of an express provision securing the right of trial by jury in civil cases. As soon as the constitution was adopted, this right was secured by the seventh amendment of the constitution proposed by Congress; and which received an assent of the people so general, as to establish its importance as a fundamental guarantee of the rights and liberties of the people. This amendment declares, that 'In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved; and no fact once tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examinable in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.' At this time there were no states in the union, the basis of whose jurisprudence was not essentially that of the common law in its widest meaning; and probably no states were contemplated, in which it would not exist. The phrase 'common law,' found in this clause, is used in contradistinction to equity, and admiralty, and maritime jurisprudence. . . . By common law, they meant what the constitution denominated in the third article 'law;' not merely suits, which the common law recognized among its old and settled proceedings, but suits in which legal rights were to be ascertained and determined, in contradistinction to those, where equitable rights alone were recognized, and equitable remedies were administered; or where, as in the admiralty, a mixture of public law, and of maritime law and equity was often found in the same suit. Probably there were few, if any, states in the union, in which some new legal remedies differing from the old common law forms were not in use; but in which, however, the trial by jury intervened, and the general regulations in other respects were according to the course of the common law. Proceedings in cases of partition, and of foreign and domestic attachment, might be cited as examples variously adopted and modified. In a just sense, the amendment then may well be construed to embrace all suits, which are not of equity and admiralty jurisdiction, whatever may be the peculiar form which they may assume to settle legal rights." 28 U.S. at 445-446, 7 L. Ed. 732.

In an unbroken line of cases involving enforcement of statutory rights, the Supreme Court has treated the right to a jury trial as a matter too obvious to be doubted. Thus, in a civil action to recover a statutory penalty for a violation of the immigration laws, the first Mr. Justice Harlan, speaking for the Court, said that the "defendant was, of course, entitled to have a jury summoned in this case." Hepner v. United States, 213 U.S. 103, 115, 29 S. Ct. 474, 479, 53 L. Ed. 720. In an action for treble damages under § 7 of the Sherman Act, Mr. Justice Holmes, also speaking for a unanimous Court, considered it plain that "the statute should not be read as attempting to authorize liability to be enforced otherwise than through the verdict of a jury in a court of common law." Fleitmann v. Welsbach Street Lighting Co., 240 U.S. 27, 29, 36 S. Ct. 233, 234, 60 L. Ed. 505. In a case alleging violation of the Safety Appliance Act of 1910, which did not expressly authorize a private remedy, the Court found an implied right to recover damages in a jury trial "according to a doctrine of the common law." Texas & Pacific Ry. v. Rigsby, 241 U.S. 33, 39, 36 S. Ct. 482, 484, 60 L. Ed. 874. In a case involving an ambiguous claim for damages, either as an amount due under a contract or as a statutory claim for damages for trademark infringement, the Court held that the claim was "wholly legal in its nature however the complaint is construed" and that the "constitutional right to trial by jury" was applicable to the claim. Dairy Queen, Inc. v. Wood, 369 U.S. 469, 477, 82 S. Ct. 894, 899, 8 L. Ed. 2d 44. And in an action brought under § 4 of the Clayton Act, the Court has expressly characterized the right to a jury trial as "constitutional." Beacon Theatres, Inc. v. Westover, 359 U.S. 500, 510, 79 S. Ct. 948, 3 L. Ed. 2d 988.*fn14

N.L.R.B. v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 48-49, 57 S. Ct. 615, 81 L. Ed. 893, does not hold -- as is sometimes assumed -- that no jury trial is required in a cause of action created by statute since any such action would have been unknown to the common law and therefore beyond the reach of the Seventh Amendment. The Jones & Laughlin opinion expressly recognizes that the amendment is applicable not only to a suit at common law, but also to a judicial proceeding "in the nature of such a suit." The distinction drawn in the opinion is not between substantive rights derived from the common law as opposed to those created by statute; it is the difference between a proceeding "in the nature of a suit at common law" and a "statutory proceeding."*fn15

The Court's reference to a "statutory proceeding" rather than to a judicial proceeding brought to redress a right created by statute is important. Cases such as Parsons v. Bedford and Fleitmann v. Welsbach Street Lighting Co. were such judicial proceedings, and their teaching is not undermined in the slightest by the Jones & Laughlin holding. The procedure approved by Jones & Laughlin was, of course, fundamentally different from a common law trial. It was administrative rather than judicial and did not invoke the original jurisdiction of a court in determining factual issues or ...

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