In Ela v. Kathleen Destefano, the Eleventh Circuit recently commented on the remedies provision of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (“DPPA”), holding that the liquidated damages provision does not apply to individual violations of the statute in instances where multiple violations are alleged.
As background, plaintiff Theresa Ann Ela sued Kathleen Destefano, an Orange County, Florida sheriff’s deputy, under the DPPA for improperly accessing and viewing her private information on the state’s driver’s license databases. Following a jury trial, the district court granted Ela’s motion for judgment as a matter of law and held that Destefano was liable under the DPPA. The jury then found that Destefano violated the DPPA 101 times but also found that her actions did not cause Ela to suffer any actual damages.
Ela requested $252,500 in liquidated damages – $2,500 for each of Destefano’s 101 violations of the DPPA – and also sought attorneys’ fees of $143,787 and costs of $4,227.44. The district court awarded Ela $2,500 in liquidated damages, $15,379 in attorneys’ fees, and $4,227.44 in costs. The Court explained that it only awarded Ela $2,500 because the case was not aligned with the purposes of the DPPA, Destefano did not use or disclose Ela’s private information, and Ela did not suffer any actual damages. Ela subsequently appealed.
On appeal, Ela argued that the plain language of the DPPA sets a floor of $2,500 per violation. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed. While the Court acknowledged that the DPPA remedies provision is a “permissive rule” which allows the district court to exercise its “discretion to fashion a damages award appropriate for this situation,” the Court held that “[r]eading ‘per violation’ into the statute’s liquidated damages clause to mandate cumulative damages would enable unharmed plaintiffs to abuse this provision.” The Court ultimately “conclude[d] that the district court did not abuse its discretion in shaping a damages award appropriate for the facts of this case” and affirmed the $2,500 award.
With respect to the award of attorneys’ fees and costs, the Eleventh Circuit found that the district court did not start its analysis with the lodestar method and erred in considering the relevant factors. The Court held that “the district court went too far by reducing the requested fees by 90%” and reversed and remanded the case for reconsideration.