Koons Buick Pontiac GMC v. Nigh – 543 U.S. 50 (2004). Proof that Judges aren’t just partisans.
The U.S. Supreme Court now has 5 “Republicans” and 4 “Democrats.” Since I get my knowledge of the world from the TV Channels or internet news sites that disagree with me the least, I know this to mean that if an abortion case goes before the Court, 5 justices will rule against abortion and 4 will vote for it. And that in a suit between a large, moneyed corporation and an individual seeking to exercise his federal rights, there will be 5 votes for the corporation and 4 votes for the human.
No, that isn’t how it works. A great example is the 2004 case of Koons Buick Pontiac GMC v. Nigh.
Bradley Nigh bought a car from Koons Buick. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the dealer inflated the sales price of the vehicle with a bogus charge for a “Silencer,” whatever that is. Nigh found a lawyer who had heard of the Truth in Lending Act, and sued the dealer in Virginia federal Court. The jury returned a verdict that the dealer had violated the Truth in Lending Act, and therefore the plaintiff was entitled to a statutory damage award of twice the finance charge, which ended up being about $25,000. It was a high interest loan.
First, a note on statutory damages. These are a lot like punitive damages, in that they’re authorized to penalize a violation of the law. But unlike punitive damages, they are typically limited to a small amount of money. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, for instance, has statutory penalty of $1,000. This means that if a debt collector or collection firm violates that statute, then even if the plaintiff can only show $10 of actual loss, they can get an award of $1010, because of the statutory penalty. This provides an incentive to follow the law, since we can’t put corporations in jail.
The Truth in Lending Act (or, TILA, as we call it), has a “sliding scale” statutory penalty, which is twice the finance charge, but with a cap depending on the nature of the transaction. Prior to the 1990s, TILA had a $1,000 cap on statutory damages in car loan cases. But in 1995, Congress amended TILA to add a higher $2,000 cap for real estate loans. However, the way they rewrote the statute that year deleted the reference to a $1,000 cap on auto loans, and only left that cap on the subsection referring to auto leases.
Go and read TILA right now. 15 U.S.C. 1640. It’s as plain as day. The statute contains no specific limit on statutory damages for car loans.
But Koons’ lawyers thought that despite the clear language, they should get off the hook because it was Congress’ mistake to delete the $1,000 limit. Yes, the statute no longer stated that the $1,000 limit applied, but since there was no evidence that Congress meant to change that part of the law, the Court should implement Congress’ intent, and not the language of the statute.
Naturally, Nigh’s lawyer disagreed. What Congress writes is the law. If they make an error, they can fix it by enacting an amendment to the legislation. Who are the courts to overturn clear and unambiguous statements whenever the Court thinks it “doesn’t look right?”
To me this case was a shockingly easy one. The statute says what the statute says. That should be the end of it. But 8 of the Supremes disagreed, saying that the car dealers get a freebie on this one because they thought Congress made an accidental error.
Who was the lone dissenter? Antonin Scalia. Not a guy known for his sympathy for the poor and the ripped off. But there he is, dissenting to uphold a $24,000 statutory damages verdict for the plaintiff, while the 4 “liberals” were playing at judicial corporate welfare.
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