California Supreme Court: No jury trial for UCL and FAL claims seeking civil penalties in addition to injunctive or other equitable relief
On April 30, the California Supreme Court issued an opinion holding that under the state’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and the False Advertising Law (FAL), government enforcement actions seeking civil penalties in addition to injunctive or other equitable relief should be decided by a judge instead of by a jury. The decision overturns a Court of Appeal decision holding that a jury must weigh in when civil penalties are involved. The decision stems from a suit filed in 2015 by the California Department of Business Oversight and several district attorneys (collectively, “People”) against a national debt payment service operation for alleged violations of the UCL and FAL. While the debt payment service operation demanded a jury trial, the People filed a motion to strike, which the trial court granted. The Court of Appeal overturned the trial court decision, holding that under certain provisions of the California Constitution the debt payment service operation had a right to a jury trial.
The California Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal concluding that, among other things, (i) the causes of action established by the UCL and FAL at issue in this case are equitable rather than legal actions, which should be tried by a court rather than by a jury; and (ii) the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tull v. United States, relied upon by the Court of Appeal, does not govern this case for various reasons, including that the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the civil jury trial provision of the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution applies only to federal court proceedings—not state court proceedings—and that the “constitution right to a jury trial in state court civil proceedings is governed only by the civil jury trial provisions of each individual state’s own state constitution.” (Emphasis in the original.)