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Studying Specific Performance

Yonathan A. Arbel, Contract Remedies in Action: Specific Performance, 118 W. Va. L. Rev. 100 (2015), available at SSRN.

Parties that have a right to the very thing promised in a contract may opt not to have it delivered by the breaching party through specific performance. Even when the promised item is unique, the plaintiff may choose not to enforce the remedy. Why? Is it too difficult to execute the remedy? Are motivations mixed? Do lawyers advise clients to pursue money damages over specific performance? Will the breaching party behave in good faith when complying with the order? Professor Yonathan Arbel, former managing editor of the New Private Law Blog, offers a fascinating qualitative study of this underexamined issue. He explores why a contractual party that has established a right to the remedy of specific performance might opt out of the preferred remedy. Despite having a proven right to this coveted remedy, he shows why plaintiffs may choose not to force the breaching party to perform as promised. This, he claims, is true notwithstanding the “notoriously” under-compensatory nature of expectancy damages in comparison to specific performance.

Remedies and substance are intertwined. Professor Ariel Porat, in a Remedies chapter in the forthcoming Handbook of Law and Economics, declares that “[a]nalyzing the substantive law without its remedial part is almost meaningless.” Understanding remedial options and goals is essential. Professor Arbel’s work thoughtfully analyzes contract law’s pinnacle remedy of specific performance and the goals it serves. He then critically examines contract’s law primary competing theories—economic and rights-based conceptions—in light of parties’ actual behavior regarding specific performance. His treatment describes what parties actually do when confronted with the option of specific performance in the real world. His qualitative approach explores their practices “‘from the inside,’ tracking the internal view of litigants and their lawyers.”

The heart of Professor Arbel’s article centers on his findings from interviews with lawyers and their clients who were engaged in specific performance litigation. For the qualitative analysis, he uses a comparable legal system, but one where specific performance is the default remedy: Israel. The interesting findings are inconsistent with the two main contract theories: A utilitarian may view specific performance as a bargaining chip to extract more money from the breaching party, while a rights-based advocate may view the remedy as the ultimate vindication of the value of promise-keeping. In part, Professor Arbel opines that the growing empirical data to prove these theories relies upon faulty assumptions. For example, the theorists omit plaintiff’s remedial choices, assume parities will negotiate execution of the order, and fail to appreciate real-world motivations and implementation challenges.

The interviews reveal the complexity that lies beneath. Though not all plaintiffs opt out of this powerful remedy, significant numbers do abstain at various stages: (i) prejudgment, (ii) post-judgment renegotiation, and (iii) ultimate execution. Pursuing a remedy via the court system takes time. Reaching the desired judicial remedy via litigation suspends the parties in an adversarial posture, which may linger post-trial when it is time to execute the special performance decree. Attaining the promised performance may entail further negotiations, and plaintiff’s preference may alter over time. Such orders require good faith in implementation, despite lack of standards or court supervisory means to ensure high quality compliance. In the face of bad faith or even simply delay, plaintiff must choose whether to spend energy and money to demand compliance. Most interviewees reported real challenges enforcing specific performance. Contempt may be ineffective if defendant lacks funds. Plaintiff may be left to leverage defendant’s reputation or rely on social norms—both valuable tools but not full proof in operation.

Professor Arbel also seeks to bridge the binary nature of the two theoretical dialogues. He suggests the economics-minded align assumptions with actual practice—for example, a decree does not equate to receipt of actual performance as promised. For the rights-based theorists, he recommends they consider the strategic and utilitarian motivations plaintiffs demonstrate in the process. Per Arbel’s findings, a plaintiff may choose specific performance prejudgment to signal the strength of the case, minimize costs and delays, and leverage renegotiation after judgment. Both would be well served to enhance their exploration with the possibilities that these real-world findings signify.

Importantly, Professor Arbel maintains that to best protect nonbreaching parties, both theoretical schools should give plaintiff the option between specific performance and expectation damages. Ethical rules must guide lawyers to avoid self-serving advice. But even assuming sage advice, Professor Arbel warns that judges shouldn’t trust plaintiffs to choose wisely, which may necessitate judges exercising broad discretion to craft the remedial award. This harkens back to equitable cleanup jurisdiction in the United States in which the judge would render complete justice, including damages in lieu, should specific performance become unavailable or impossible. What about other possible remedies beyond compensation if specific performance is unattainable: for certain breaches of contract, should plaintiffs also be able to disgorge defendant’s unjust gains? See here, here, and here. Both the United States and Israel permit a disgorgement gain-based remedy for breaches of contract when appropriate. That is a topic for another day, but more research along the lines Professor Arbel conducts would go far in servicing the very goals that the substantive law of contract aims to attain.

Overall, Professor Arbel seeks to contextualize contract theory, break the stalemate between instrumental and deontological stances, and stimulate the collection of more data with larger samples. His article successfully contextualizes the debate, but only time will tell on the other two aims. It is my hope that he and the scholarly community will succeed on all three goals. Fine-tuning data to context and linking theory to practice will sharpen the theoretical debate and aid plaintiffs in achieving optimal results in the face of breach.

May the third generation of specific performance discourse begin.

Cite as: Caprice Roberts, Studying Specific Performance, JOTWELL (May 25, 2017) (reviewing Yonathan A. Arbel, Contract Remedies in Action: Specific Performance, 118 W. Va. L. Rev. 100 (2015), available at SSRN), http://lex.jotwell.com/studying-specific-performance/.

Calculating Damages in an Uncertain World

Tun-Jen Chiang, The Information-Forcing Dilemma in Damages Law (Wash. U. in St. Louis Legal Stud. Research Paper No. 16-08-03, 2016), available at SSRN.

There is a rule in the world of remedies that has always struck me as unfair. The rule, generally speaking, is that damages are not available unless they can be proven with certainty. For example, suppose that I own a pub and hire a karaoke DJ for Friday night. Karaoke is popular in my town and I advertise the event widely. On Friday afternoon, however, the DJ breaches and I’m left without entertainment. During the night, patrons show up and ask about the DJ. Many of them express disappointment; some decide to remain and have a couple drinks but some leave right away. I bring suit for $1,000 in damages. Even though liability is clear in this case, I am not likely to recover a dime in damages because my estimate of damages is, in the eyes of the law, little more than conjecture. If this seems unfair to you, you’re in good company. In fact, some courts see it the same way and have tried to soften the “certainty” requirement by awarding damages that seem like a “good guess.” But the “good guess” approach has its own downside. Guesses are sometimes wrong—especially when the guesser stands to benefit from guessing too high. So what is a court to do?

Scholars and jurists have wrestled with this problem for some time but nobody, to my knowledge, has done so as successfully as Tun-Jen Chiang in his new article, The Information-Forcing Dilemma in Damages Law. Unlike prior scholars, Chiang does not attempt to find the sweet spot between the “certainty” and “good guess” approaches. Instead, he takes a step back and tries to understand the problem. The problem is not simply that we have yet to find the sweet spot; it’s that information deficits force courts to fall back on a general sense of fairness. This sense of fairness will, of course, skew different ways in different cases. Chiang helpfully illustrates how courts oscillate between “certainty” and “good guess” approaches as they attempt to implement vague notions of fairness. In one case (or perhaps one period of time), courts move from “certainty” to “good guess” to ameliorate the unfairness to plaintiffs, but then move from “good guess” back to “unfairness” to ameliorate unfairness to defendants. And then the process starts all over again.

The same information deficit foils other attempts to solve the problem. Instead of choosing between a “certainty” or “good guess” approach, legislatures and courts have also experimented with solutions such damages caps or shifting the burden of proof. But these solutions, Chiang shows, are simply further attempts to pinpoint the appropriate level of fairness in a world of inadequate information. But that approach, like others, is prone to oscillation because fairness concerns will always re-assert themselves.

Once Chiang illustrates the real problem—inadequate information—he proposes a solution. Specifically, he argues that

Courts should require a party to produce damages information . . . if and only if two conditions are met. First, the social benefit of having additional information on some issue must outweigh the social cost of collecting the information and presenting it in court . . . . Second, courts should impose the burden of proof on the party that can more cheaply produce the information required. (P. 46.)

At first glance, the first of these two prongs seems unsatisfying. How in the world will a court determine the “social benefit” of presenting evidence of the business my pub lost when the DJ breached, the “social cost” of adducing this evidence? (Note that these costs and benefits are social, not private; if my private benefit exceeds my private cost, I would collect and produce the information without further incentive.) Chiang recognizes the problem, however. He acknowledges that courts will not be able to precisely calculate these costs and benefits. Yet he defends the criterion, persuasively in my view, as a tool for forcing courts to recognize the trade-offs that are inherent in the choice. When these trade-offs are submerged within the doctrine (as they are now), the doctrine oscillates over time because a given result, when stated in stark, black-and-white terms, appears to ignore costs. When a choice is explicitly acknowledged to be balance of costs and benefits, oscillation should be less common because costs are better (and more openly) accounted for.

The second prong of Chiang’s proposed solution does more than simply remind courts what should matter. It specifically instructs courts to consider who can more cheaply produce evidence of loss and penalize that party for failing to do so. But without knowing the nature of the evidence, how can a court know who can more cheaply produce it? Chiang’s solution is to impose a burden of producing evidence of both parties and then allow the court to penalize the party who could have produced more but didn’t. This would set off, as Chiang puts it, a

virtuous cycle where the threat of a penalty on one side (say the plaintiff) indices the plaintiff to produce more and better evidence, which in turn induces the defendant to produce more and better evidence, and so on—the cycle stops only at the point where both parties have produced all cost-effective evidence and therefore do not expect to be found negligent [in the production of evidence] at all. (P. 54.)

Chiang’s solution strikes me as worth a try. If there a cost-effective way for me to find out how many customers I lost at my pub, I should do so. If I don’t do, but instead throw a big damages number at the court, I should not get the benefit of a “good guess” rule. In contrast, if the DJ can cost-effectively determine how much business I lost but did not do so, he should not get the benefit of the certainty rule. What happens if both of us do our best? This is one place where Chiang comes up a bit short, at least on my reading. He does not appear to address that possibility. To his credit, the problem of damages should be less acute in this context because both parties have adduced as much evidence as feasible, thus making the court’s job easier. But there will still be situations when the amount of damages is uncertain even after both parties have done their best. If the court applies a pro-defendant certainty rule at that point, that would seem to diminish the plaintiff’s incentive to produce evidence up front. That is, the plaintiff can only obtain a pro-plaintiff “good guess” rule if (1) the plaintiff is non-negligent and (2) the defendant is negligent. Perhaps the plaintiff’s incentive to adduce as much cost-effective evidence as possible will still be strong enough given that she cannot capitalize on a defendant’s negligence unless she herself is non-negligent. If that is so, Chiang’s solution is a good one, though it would help to more fully explain that point (which is possible because the article still appears to be in draft form).

In sum, scholars, jurists or practitioners who have found themselves perplexed by the prospect of proving damages should read Chiang’s fine article. He helpfully explains why doctrine in this field has oscillated over time and offers an innovative and efficient way to solve the problem. I enjoyed reading it, lots.

Cite as: Jack Preis, Calculating Damages in an Uncertain World, JOTWELL (April 7, 2017) (reviewing Tun-Jen Chiang, The Information-Forcing Dilemma in Damages Law (Wash. U. in St. Louis Legal Stud. Research Paper No. 16-08-03, 2016), available at SSRN), http://lex.jotwell.com/calculating-damages-in-an-uncertain-world/.

Justifying the Law-Equity Divide

Samuel Bray, The System of Equitable Remedies, 63 UCLA L. Rev. 530 (2016).

The division between law and equity has a long and important history in Anglo-American jurisprudence, and one whose effects continue to resonate in American courts to this day. Indeed, whenever I teach remedies, I tell my students that this is an area of law where history still matters—that if they want to understand the difference between legal and equitable remedies, and to know the types of remedies that their clients might be entitled to in a given case, they need to be at least somewhat familiar with the history of the contest between the English courts of law and the Court of Chancery, which was responsible for developing and administering the rules of equity. Why? Because it was the battle over jurisdictional turf that took place between these courts hundreds of years ago that gave rise to a rule (i.e., the irreparable injury rule) that still operates whenever judges are called upon to decide whether an aggrieved party is entitled to an equitable remedy. Specifically, the irreparable injury rule requires that an aggrieved party seeking an equitable remedy (e.g., specific performance of a contract) must show that there is no adequate legal remedy (e.g., money damages) to put it in the position it would have occupied had the wrongdoer not committed its wrong (e.g., breach of contract).

Apart from this history, however, one wonders whether the irreparable injury rule (specifically), or the division between legal and equitable remedies (more generally), can be justified along more functional lines. Many commentators believe that it cannot. Professor Douglas Laycock, for instance, in strong and colorful language, has argued that “[a] rule designed to preserve the jurisdictional boundaries between two courts that have long been merged should die unless it serves some modern purpose.”1 In fact, Laycock has even claimed that the rule is largely dead, being more honored in the breach than in the observance.2 But if this is true, one may ask (as my students sometimes do), why do professors still teach the irreparable injury rule, and why do courts still invoke it whenever a plaintiff seeks an equitable remedy? And, perhaps more importantly, since courts of law and equity have long been merged in most jurisdictions, what justification (outside of tradition) can there be for continuing to distinguish between legal and equitable remedies in such a manner? It is in providing an answer to these tough and persistent questions that Samuel Bray’s article, The System of Equitable Remedies, makes an important contribution to the field.

Professor Bray argues that conventional wisdom—which maintains that “the distinction between legal and equitable remedies is outmoded and serves no purpose”—is wrong (P. 530), and that there are good reasons (though rarely articulated by courts) for continuing to distinguish between legal and equitable remedies (P. 533). Specifically, Bray argues that equitable remedies, far from operating as an antiquated counterpart to legal remedies, should be understood as an integrated system made up of three distinct but “logically connected” (P. 534) components: (1) the equitable remedies themselves (e.g., injunctions, constructive trusts), (2) the equitable managerial devices for administering these remedies (e.g., allowing courts to enforce injunctions via the contempt power or to modify and/or dissolve them to reflect changing circumstances), and (3) the equitable constraints to prevent such remedies from being abused (e.g., by allowing the purported wrongdoer to assert such equitable defenses as estoppel or laches).

Although it might seem difficult to justify the jurisdictional boundary between legal and equitable remedies when we are considering only the first-order problem of deciding what remedy to award an aggrieved party—after all, why should an injured party be required to satisfy the irreparable injury rule to get specific performance if that remedy would best protect the party’s expectation?—Bray makes a strong case for doing so when we also take into account “the second-order policy problems that arise from solving the first-order ones: i.e., the additional need to manage compliance and constrain abuse.” (P. 534.) This is largely because courts cannot always afford complete relief to an aggrieved party by simply forcing the wrongdoer to perform a simple and clear-cut act (such as awarding a legal remedy like requiring a wrongdoer to pay money damages or return stolen property). Instead, courts sometimes must require the wrongdoer to perform (or refrain from performing) a more complex action that must be monitored and enforced over time if it is to be effective. Where this is so, courts must not only be given the power to select the most appropriate remedy for a given situation (component #1), but, for this remedy to be effective, courts must also be given the ability to select the most appropriate tools for monitoring the wrongdoer’s compliance with the remedy (component #2) while preventing the aggrieved party from abusing these remedies (component #3). (P. 562.)

For instance, imagine a wrongdoer (“W”) has inadvertently built a retaining wall trespassing on victim’s (“V”) property. Turning to the first component identified by Bray, it seems clear that there would be a number of instances in which it would be more appropriate to enforce V’s rights with an equitable remedy like an injunction (forcing W to remove the retaining wall) instead of a legal remedy like money damages (forcing W to pay for the value of the land taken), in part because it seems inappropriate to force V to involuntarily sell part of his land to W, and in part because we don’t know how much V would have charged W for the land in a voluntary transaction. This much is obvious.

Where Bray’s article really shines is in showing us that, for the court’s injunction to be effective, the court must be able to draw upon the equitable managerial devices (component #2) to effectively police W’s behavior, due to the fact that a lot can go wrong between the time the order is issued and complied with. For instance, W might misunderstand the court’s injunction as requiring him to remove only the retaining wall (but not the footings), or perhaps W might inadvertently destroy an original wall on V’s property while removing the retaining wall. In either case, the equitable remedy can be effective only if the court retains the ability to manage W’s compliance (e.g., through the power of contempt, or by making adjustments to the language of the injunction). Finally, turning to Bray’s third component, it is important for the court to ensure that these remedies—which are extremely powerful, in no small part because they are enforced by the power of contempt—are not abused and “exploited by a wily litigant” (P. 572) seeking to use them in an inequitable fashion.

For instance, suppose V sat by and observed as W inadvertently built the retaining wall on V’s property, and that the wall, once built, turned out to be very costly to remove. Despite W’s wrong, wouldn’t we want courts to take into account V’s knowledge of W’s action (component #3) before deciding upon the most appropriate remedy (component #1), especially since W may be found in contempt for failing to comply with a court order requiring W to remove the retaining wall (component #2)? In short, Bray convincingly shows that each component in the equitable system operates together, and must be considered together, if the equitable remedy awarded by the court is to be effective and just. As pithily summed up by Professor Bray, “the equitable remedies need the managerial devices; the equitable remedies and managerial devices need the constraints.” (P. 534.)

In suggesting that we think about equitable remedies as part of a single system made up of these three logically related components, Professor Bray has not only provided a rational justification for the current system, but has helped explain why, even long after the merger between courts of law and courts of equity, the distinction between legal and equitable remedies remains alive and well. I, for one, have never thought about equitable remedies in quite this way before, and look forward to exploring this insight with my remedies students over the next semester.

Editor’s note: for another review of The System of Equitable Remedies please see Caprice Roberts, Staying Power of Equity, also published today.

  1. Douglas Laycock, Modern American Remedies 381 (4th ed. 2010). []
  2. See id. at 391 (“My claim that the rule is dead can be stated less dramatically as a claim that whenever the choice of remedy matters to plaintiff, the rule is satisfied.”). []
Cite as: Marco Jimenez, Justifying the Law-Equity Divide, JOTWELL (June 16, 2016) (reviewing Samuel Bray, The System of Equitable Remedies, 63 UCLA L. Rev. 530 (2016)), http://lex.jotwell.com/justifying-the-law-equity-divide/.

Staying Power of Equity

Samuel L. Bray, The System of Equitable Remedies, 63 UCLA L. Rev. 530 (2016).

Let equity lure you with its sirens. Equity, first developed by the Court of Chancery, is vital to the law of remedies. It affects a range of rights, remedies, and defenses from public to private disputes. It cannot be forgotten, ignored, or fully merged. The trend, however, is to streamline equity. For example, Douglas Laycock has argued we should move beyond the law-equity divide, and Doug Rendleman has advocated fusion and functionalism for reasons that I separately have acknowledged: equity generates friction and confusion, especially regarding restitution and unjust enrichment. Sam Bray’s The System of Equitable Remedies refutes this movement. Bray instead argues that equity remains distinct from law and comprises its own system that is pervasive, rational, and useful.

I agree: equity is alive and well in America. It is not simply federal and state constitutional rights to jury trials keeping the divide relevant. Federal and state courts keep equity in play in statutory and common-law cases—from ERISA to contracts, environmental law to trade secrets, and beyond. Equity soldiers on, despite law schools’ dropping the Equity course and despite the merger of law and equity in almost all courts and the Rules of Civil Procedure. Complete merger remains elusive. Where law fails or falls short, the pull of equity is greatest. Equitable remedies are key where money substitutes provide inadequate protection. Bray bluntly states the need: “There must be some way for courts to compel action or non-action.” Overall, Bray’s work requires readers to stop and think before dismantling the distinct system of equity.

Equity raises fear in the minds of many. At worst, equity connotes unbridled, whimsical, illogical discretion that lingers too long with vast consequences to parties and nonparties. At its best, equity fosters fairness; the risk, however, is palm-tree justice. Equity also requires judicial oversight, which may be costly and challenging. Further, complete merger might streamline complex, arcane, and unnecessary barriers to equitable devices. But equitable discretion is vital to rights and remedies. Principled discretion is indispensable to the continued survival and success of equity. As to the fear of unbridled discretion, Rendleman articulates a path for judicial restraint in applying equity: “[a] judge’s discretionary decisionmaking ought to yield to her attention to rules, precedents, and standards keeping her pragmatic eye on consequences.”

Despite equity’s pitfalls, Bray persuasively shows that equity is an interlocking system and, more importantly, a rational, useful one. He maintains that the “very act” of classifying remedies as legal or equitable “helps maintain the system of equitable remedies.” Weaknesses, however, range from functional to substantive: equity maintains a divide that increasingly eludes modern understanding and potentially blocks relevant equitable doctrines and remedies from actions at law and vice versa. Henry Smith argues for equity to play a limited role guarding the formal rule of law against opportunism. Bray maintains that law-equity divide has “presumptive rationality” though rebuttable, as the utility of equitable concepts crossing the divide “is always open to argument.” He rejects Laycock’s characterization of the divide as “a dysfunctional proxy for a series of functional choices”; instead he sees a “good proxy.” Bray emphasizes equity’s essential function: “how judicial institutions help put a wronged plaintiff back in his rightful position.”

It is this fundamental thrust that (i) answers why full merger of equitable remedies is unsolvable given constitutional jury trial rights; (ii) provides a presumptive justification for a controversial line of Supreme Court cases that reinforce the distinction solely by appeal to tradition—what Bray provocatively explores elsewhere; and (iii) offers a fresh angle on the inadequacy-of-law prerequisite for equitable remedies, which despite Laycock’s declaration of its death, Bray sees as “well established in judicial practice,” reinforcing a “habit of classification” that aids the preservation of the system of equitable remedies.

Equity lives on in multiple dimensions: in the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction and certiorari docket, from fiduciary duties to intellectual property, and throughout state and lower federal courts. Bray’s work focuses on courts’ continued use and categorization of equitable remedies, including injunctions, specific performance, quiet title, constructive trusts, accounting for profits, and more. As Bray reminds readers, the interconnectedness of equitable doctrines causes equitable remedies to work more effectively. The system provides limits through “equitable managerial devices,” such as contempt tools and devices to handle unexpected complexities, as well as “equitable constraints” that “guide the responsible exercise of judicial power.” Still, as Bray foresees, skeptics wonder: if these equitable tools and restraints work so well, why not extend them to legal remedies? Isn’t this especially apt now, because in a merged system, the judge will have knowledge of equitable doctrines that might aid a jury’s application of legal remedies? Bray’s defense of the imprecise line as “good proxy” is fair enough. But requiring a better rule is less compelling because the divide may fall through natural degradation, continued fusion, and increasing confusion. True, though the common law is not designed to effectuate dramatic change, we would be wise to bolster student, lawyer, and judicial understanding of equity’s power and constraints.

Bray also forecasts a confusion critique for using the label “equity” but opts again to stick with what we’ve got. In the same vein, the Restatement (Third) of Restitution and Unjust Enrichment maintains use of the misunderstood word “restitution.” It remains unclear if continued efforts to educate and clarify such concepts as equity and restitution can carry the water we hope. Still, in my opinion, both equity and restitution (its equitable and legal components) have staying power.

Bray helpfully details how equitable remedies remain distinct from legal remedies such as damages, mandamus, habeas, replevin, and some restitutionary relief. According to Bray, nonmonetary legal remedies that mimic equitable orders are not equitable because they are narrow, not open-ended or indeterminate. As Bray shows, courts cling to the distinction and numerous consequences flow. Equitable remedies remain the most powerful weapons for halting violative behavior, ordering corrective behavior, and deterring opportunism. To do so, judges need flexibility to “achieve the plaintiff’s rightful position,” as Bray aptly notes. With flexibility comes equity’s potential for imperfect correlation between right and remedy. Though it will not satisfy tight doctrinal tracking, Bray sees bounding in the “habit and range of motion that is conducive to managing the parties.” Either way, Bray helpfully defends why equitable range exists and remains necessary. Scholars should keep a close eye on principled reasoning to justify flexible expansions so the equitable remedy is sufficiently tethered to the right even if not precisely correlative.

Equity warrants deeper study. All combined, “the remedies and the remedy-related rules” constitute a system of equity in American law. Whether Bray convinces readers to reinforce the law-equity divide, he reminds us that such a distinct system of equity remains and convincingly demonstrates that if we forget the doctrines, lessons, and tools of equity, something meaningful will be lost.

Editor’s note: for another review of The System of Equitable Remedies please see Marco Jimenez, Justifying the Law-Equity Divide, also published today.

Cite as: Caprice Roberts, Staying Power of Equity, JOTWELL (June 16, 2016) (reviewing Samuel L. Bray, The System of Equitable Remedies, 63 UCLA L. Rev. 530 (2016)), http://lex.jotwell.com/staying-power-of-equity/.

Why Insurance Contracts Might be the Trick to Police Reform

Joanna C. Schwartz, How Governments Pay: Lawsuits, Budgets and Police Reform, UCLA L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN.

How do lawsuits deter misconduct? That is an issue that Professor Joanna Schwartz has written about before, and her latest article on the topic, How Governments Pay: Lawsuits, Budgets and Police Reform, could not be more timely. Over the past year, our county has witnessed dramatic instances of police abuse and the public is understandably demanding reform. Schwartz’s terrific article explains why civil rights actions may fail to instigate reform, and suggests how insurance contracts, of all things, can play a role in fixing this problem.

To understand how lawsuits deter, consider a reckless driver. You know, the type that takes corners too fast, sends texts while on the interstate, and whips past school buses with flashing lights. What will it take for the driver to finally reform herself? Well, first of all, she’ll probably get a bunch of tickets. If she gets tired of paying the tickets and fears losing her license, she’ll probably start driving more carefully. Aside from the tickets, however, the driver may end up getting sued when her reckless behavior finally causes an accident. Even though her insurance company will likely pick up the tab for any judgment, the company is likely to jack up her premiums after it pays the damages. In the end, the driver’s recklessness is going to cost her a lot of money. And this will probably convince her to become a safer driver.

Compare the reckless driver to a reckless cop—the type that stretches the facts to get a warrant, is quick deploy her Taser, and sees probable cause underneath every hoodie. What will it take for the cop to reform herself? Do reckless cops get “tickets” like reckless drivers do? The answer is almost uniformly no. Misbehaving cops are rarely subject to criminal prosecution. What about a lawsuit, then? Just like drivers, cops don’t pay their own judgments; instead, it is the employer, acting as an insurer, that pays the judgment. If the civil rights actions work like tort actions, the employer/insurer will eventually decide to “drop” the insured by firing the reckless cop. And the cop (as well as her peers who witness this process) will decide to act more appropriately.

But that assumes an enormous question: do civil rights actions work like tort actions? To figure that out, we would need to know whether the party who has the power to fire the misbehaving officer is also the party who pays the judgment. If the police chief sees his budget depleted by a reckless cop, he is likely to take corrective action. But if the judgment is paid by a third party, and the chief never suffers any ill effects, it is far less likely that he will address the problem.

So who pays judgments and settlements in civil rights actions against police officers? This is what Professor Schwartz serves up in her new article. Using FOIA requests and an immense amount of less formal gumshoeing, Schwartz catalogued the ways in which 100 of our nation’s law enforcement agencies satisfy lawsuits against their officers.

Schwartz’s study is impressive in scope. She obtained data from 62 of the 70 largest law enforcement agencies in the country and from 38 small and mid-sized agencies. The agencies included large jurisdictions like Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York City as well as tiny hamlets like Waterloo, Nebraska (with only a single sworn officer). Some agencies operated at the state level (like the Maryland State Police), some operated at the county level (like the Polk County Sherriff’s Office in Florida) and some operated at the municipal level (like the Newark Police Department). All told, Schwartz’s study accounts for 26% of the nations 765,000 law enforcement officers.

It is difficult to do justice in this small space to Schwartz’s many findings, but here are three important takeaways:

  • Half of the agencies in her study were required to “financially contribute in some manner to the satisfaction of lawsuits brought against them.” (P. 3) Of course, this means that half were not required and it is fair to assume that those agencies faced little financial pressure to minimize lawsuits. (Schwartz is careful to note that, even if agencies do not face financial pressure, they may still face political pressure to reform themselves (P. 19).)
  • To the extent an agency is forced to bear some financial responsibility for a lawsuit, the responsibility will normally come in three forms: (1) the agency pays the judgments or settlements directly, (2) the agency makes regular contributions to a jurisdiction-wide fund, which in turns pays the judgments or settlements, or (3) the agency pays premiums to a private insurer, which then pays the judgments or settlements.
  • Most interestingly, even if an agency is required to bear financial responsibility for a lawsuit, the agency may not actually suffer any actual financial loss. Agencies often receive funding from their jurisdiction for litigation expenses. Thus, even if money is going out the agency’s front door to pay for legal costs, that same money is often coming in the back door as part of the agency’s annual budgetary allotment.

Schwartz’s most interesting insight, in my mind, is that “outside insurers may be better situated than self-insured jurisdictions to place financial pressures on law enforcement agencies.” (P. 37) Private insurers can, and presumably will, “condition low deductibles and continued coverage on personnel and policy changes.” But the leaders of a jurisdiction (such as a mayor or city council) will often find this option unappealing for two reasons.

First, imposing financial costs on a police department will almost certainly carry political costs for elected officials. Not every mayor will wish to face off with her police chief, even if the city budget can be trimmed a bit. Second, in large jurisdictions, any threat to withdraw funding for lawsuits would be empty. When a small agency loses insurance coverage and has to be dissolved (a phenomenon that Schwartz documents (P. 28-29)) the jurisdiction can often obtain law enforcement services from a neighboring jurisdiction. Large agencies, however, cannot cover gaps in enforcement in this way. The New York City Police Department, as Schwartz nicely puts it, is likely “too big to fail.” (P. 37)

If Schwartz is correct on this point—and it seems to me she is—then an interesting irony arises: outsourcing is often thought to decrease government accountability, but outsourcing here would seem to increase government accountability. This may suggest a larger truth here about outsourcing: where politicians are prone to ignore or minimize constitutional mandates, a private company, being guided by dollars and cents rather than politics, can force government to adhere to its constitutional obligations. The trick is to make sure company profits and constitutional adherence are positively correlated.

In sum, Professor Schwartz’s article is a large step forward in a field that has been operating on fuzzy assumptions for far too long. By bringing an immense amount of data to the table, the article will enable scholars and policymakers to move closer to the elusive goal of institutional reform.

Cite as: Jack Preis, Why Insurance Contracts Might be the Trick to Police Reform, JOTWELL (January 21, 2016) (reviewing Joanna C. Schwartz, How Governments Pay: Lawsuits, Budgets and Police Reform, UCLA L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN), http://lex.jotwell.com/why-insurance-contracts-might-be-the-trick-to-police-reform/.