Some of the 9th Circuit judges hold an innate ability to Constitutionalize claims that are nothing more than ordinary torts. Hazle was imprisoned for drug violations and released on parole contingent upon his participation in an addiction control program. His parole officer assigned him to a program but Hazle refused because his belief as an atheist foreclosed participation in any program referencing God or a “higher power.” In his transfers to various addiction control organizations, none had secular programs and he repeatedly objected to their religious element in treatment. The parole staff lacked any secular treatment program and returned Hazle to prison where he served 100 days before his release.
Hazle filed his section 1983 claim alleging violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause and sought compensatory damages. The trial judge agreed that parole officers could not compel Hazle to participate in a religious program and entered judgment in his favor on the issue of liability against the State. The jury heard the evidence on damages, the trial court having informed jurors that liability has already been established, and their only role was confined to compensatory damages. The jury found zero damages. The district court judge denied a motion for a new trial. Hazle appealed.
This case is nothing more than a simple tort of false imprisonment, if anything. But the 9th Circuit panel, citing a Supreme Court case, held that if liability is established on a section 1983 claim then compensatory damages are mandatory. Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983).
The panel quoted the language in Smith that if a section 1983 claim established liability, compensatory damages are “required.” That is not what Smith held. In Smith, the Supreme Court was discussing the legal difference between punitive damages, a remedy discretionary with the jury, and compensatory damages awarded contingent on the extent of the injury. The Supreme Court did not say compensatory damages were “required” just because liability had been established. “[O]nce liability is found, the jury may award damages “in an appropriate amount to compensate the plaintiff for his loss; Smith. That is what the jury did.
This decision is remarkable. The panel does not like the verdict so the trial court must retry this routine absurd case. If a jury concludes no compensatory damages are awarded, even if liability had been established, that verdict should stand. In this case Hazle alleged emotional distress. No wonder the jury found no damages.