District court holds that defendants are entitled to a jury trial on statutory damages claims under 47 U.S.C. § 605 (unauthorized publication or use of communications) and 47 U.S.C. § 553 (unauthorized reception of cable service).Plaintiff sued defendants, owners of a restaurant in Calexico, Calif., claiming an unlawful broadcast of a sporting event, in violation of 47 U.S.C. § 605 (unauthorized publication or use of communications) and 47 U.S.C. § 553 (unauthorized reception of cable service), both of which provide for statutory damages.
Plaintiff moved to strike defendants’ demand for a jury trial on the statutory damages claims. Generally, a litigant possesses a right to a jury trial only if such right is conferred by statute or preserved under the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court found that the Ninth Circuit has not addressed the issue of the availability of a jury trial for these claims. In Tull v. United States, 481 U.S. 412 (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court established a two-step analysis to determine if a party has a jury trial right. First, the court must look to the particular statute to determine if Congress intended to grant such a right. Second, if the statute itself is not determinative, the court must undertake a constitutional analysis to determine if the claim at issue is the same or analogous to actions that existed at common law and, thus, is subject to trial by jury.
Both §§ 553 and 605 state that a party may recover statutory damages “as the court considers just.” The district court found that this language was not indicative of any ascertainable congressional intent, and moved on to a constitutional analysis.
The court examined the nature of the right, to see if it is analogous to one that existed at common law, and then asked whether the remedy in question was legal and therefore covered by the Seventh Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial.
The court agreed with other courts finding that both §§ 553 and 605 were analogous to common law torts of conversion and piracy, but found these comparisons strained and unnecessary in light of the “more important” constitutional inquiry – the nature of the remedy, whether legal or equitable.
The court noted a split on the issue, with some courts finding §553 and 605 provide restitution, an equitable remedy not triggering a right to jury trial, with other courts finding statutory damages to be compensatory and punitive – and thus legal in nature. The court concluded that §§ 553 and 605 are intended to punish and deter, and noted that in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., 523 U.S. 340 (1998), the U.S. Supreme Court found an analogous provision of the copyright statute to afford a legal remedy and, therefore, a jury trial.
For these reasons, the court held that a statutory damages suit pursuant to §§ 553 and 605 triggers a right to jury trial under the Seventh Amendment.