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Ela v. Destefano

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 30, 2017

THERESA ANN ELA, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
KATHLEEN DESTEFANO, individually a.k.a. Kathleen Ela, JERRY L. DEMINGS, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Orange County, JOHN DOES 1-30, acting in their individual capacity, JANE DOES 1-30, acting in their individual capacity, ORANGE COUNTY, SHERIFF DEPARTMENT, Defendants-Appellees. D.C. Docket No. 6:13-cv-491-JA-KRS

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida

          Before TJOFLAT and WILSON, Circuit Judges, and ROBRENO, [*] District Judge.

          WILSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         Theresa Ela sued Kathleen Destefano, an Orange County Sheriff's Deputy, for improperly accessing and viewing her private information on Florida driver's license databases. Following a jury trial, the district court granted Ela's motion for judgment as a matter of law and held Destefano liable under the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Based on special interrogatories answered by the jury, the Court awarded Ela liquidated damages and attorneys' fees. On appeal, Ela challenges the amount of liquidated damages awarded, which requires us to interpret the remedies provision in the DPPA. Ela also argues that the district court abused its discretion in reducing the requested attorneys' fees.

         I.

         Theresa Ela was married to Dennis Ela until 2010. In 2011, Dennis Ela married Kathleen Destefano, who had a romantic relationship with Dennis Ela while he was still married to Theresa Ela. From January 2010 through November 2011, while sitting alone in her patrol car, Destefano used her access to law enforcement databases (which store photographs, addresses, vehicle information, etc.) to search Ela's name. In 2010, shortly after her divorce, Ela requested access to public records and learned that Destefano had been searching her name on driver's license databases. Ela complained to the Professional Standards Division of the Orange County Sheriff's Office. During the ensuing internal investigation, Destefano stated that she did not have a legitimate business or law enforcement reason for accessing Ela's information.[1] Destefano was suspended for 60 hours without pay and placed on disciplinary probation for six months. The internal investigation revealed no evidence that Destefano used or disclosed Ela's personal information. Despite this, Ela asserted emotional distress[2] and proceeded to trial against Destefano, her ex-husband's new wife, seeking over $1, 000, 000 in compensatory damages.

         After the jury trial, the district court granted Ela's motion for judgment as a matter of law as to Destefano's liability, and Ela agreed to seek damages only under the DPPA and not § 1983. The district court then provided the jury with a verdict form containing three interrogatories to determine damages. In response to the first interrogatory, the jury found that Destefano violated the DPPA 101 times. In response to the second interrogatory, the jury found that Destefano's actions did not cause Ela to suffer any actual damages. The jury did not reach the third interrogatory, which asked what amount of compensable damages were attributable to Destefano's conduct.

         After the trial, Ela, by motion, requested $252, 500 in liquidated damages: $2, 500 for each of Destefano's 101 violations of the DPPA. Ela also sought attorneys' fees of $153, 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 awarded only $2, 500 for the DPPA violations because this case does not implicate the purposes of the DPPA, Destefano did not use or disclose Ela's private information, and Ela did not suffer any actual damages. The court then explained its decision on attorneys' fees by noting that this "lawsuit resulted in an award of 0% of [Ela's] request[ed] $1 million in compensatory damages, 1% of her request[ed] $252, 000, and at most a minimal spill-over benefit for the public, [so] a reasonable attorney[s'] fee incurred by [Ela] in litigating this case is 10% of $153, 787, or $15, 379."

         II.

         We review a district court's interpretation of a statute de novo. See Kehoe v. Fidelity Fed. Bank & Trust, 421 F.3d 1209, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). The parties agree that if we conclude that the district court has discretion to award the statute's enumerated amount and not multiply it per violation, we review the court's damages award for abuse of discretion. See DIRECTV, Inc. v. Brown, 371 F.3d 814, 816 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam).

         III.

         The analysis of this case involves a simple matter of statutory interpretation. We hold that the text of the DPPA, our prior precedent, and the statutory context set a floor of $2, 500 in liquidated damages, and any award the district court grants above that amount is reviewed for abuse of discretion.

         We begin by analyzing the language of the statute. See Merritt v. Dillard Paper Co., 120 F.3d 1181, 1185 (11th Cir. 1997). This case stems from violations of the DPPA, specifically 18 U.S.C. § 2724:

(a) Cause of action.--A person who knowingly obtains, discloses or uses personal information, from a motor vehicle record, for a purpose not permitted under this chapter shall be liable to the individual to whom the information pertains, who ...

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