Judge Zobel Affirms Statutory Damages Award Against Joel Tenenbaum

by Lee Gesmer on August 29, 2012

Not surprisingly,  Massachusetts District Court Judge Rya Zobel has allowed the $675,000 statutory damages award against Joel Tenenbaum to stand in full. The background of this case is well known to many people, but the nutshell version is as follows.

Joel Tenenbaum was sued by Sony in 2007.  Sony alleged copyright infringement with respect to Tenenbaum’s download of 30 digital music files.  Harvard Professor Charles Nesson undertook the pro bono defense of Tenenbaum, and the case went to a jury trial, at which the jury awarded $675,000, 15% of the potential statutory maximum. The trial judge, Nancy Gertner (now retired from the bench), reduced this award to $67,500, concluding that it was excessive under the constitutional standard for evaluating punitive damages.  The First Circuit reinstated the verdict, and remanded the case to the district court, with instructions to consider the verdict under the principles of common law remittitur before considering a constitutional challenge. Tenenbaum appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, which declined review. On remand the case was assigned to Judge Zobel, who issued her decision on August 23, 2012.

Judge Zobel found that the evidence supported the jury verdict, and therefore declined Tenenbaum’s request that she remit the verdict. Judge Zobel’s decision summarizes the somewhat damning evidence against Tenenbaum, including his disregard of multiple warnings, and that he may have lied during the legal proceedings. Apparently, Tenenbaum blamed the downloads on a foster child living in his family’s home, his sisters, a family house guest, and burglars, before finally admitting responsibility at trial. (Downloading burglars?)

Judge Zobel also rejected Tenenbaum’s challenge to the verdict on grounds of constitutional due process, using the standard set forth in St. Louis, I.M. & S. Ry. Co. v. Williams, as had been suggested by the First Circuit.  Under this standard, as described by Judge Zobel –

a statutory damages award comports with due process as long as it “cannot be said to be so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportioned to the offense or obviously unreasonable.” The constitutionality of the award must be assessed “with due regard for the interests of the public, the numberless opportunities for committing the offense, and the need for securing uniform adherence to” law.

Judge Zobel held that the jury’s statutory damages verdict was “neither ‘wholly disproportioned to the offense’ nor ‘obviously unreasonable.’ It does not offend due process.”

Where will this case go from here?  Most likely Tenenbaum will re-appeal to the First Circuit, seeking review of Judge Zobel’s due process ruling.  From there, it’s on to a second try with the Supreme Court.

Sony v. Tenenbaum (D. Mass. August 23, 2012)

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