Cases "at Common Law"

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.


Application of the Amendment

Cases “at Common Law”.—The coverage of the Amendment is “limited to rights and remedies peculiarly legal in their nature, and such as it was proper to assert in courts of law and by the appropriate modes and proceedings of courts of law.”27 The term “common law” was used in contradistinction to suits in which equitable rights alone were recognized at the time of the framing of the Amendment and equitable remedies were administered.28 Illustrative of the Court’s course of decision on this subject are two unanimous decisions holding that civil juries were required, one in a suit by a landlord to recover possession of real property from a tenant allegedly behind on rent, the other in a suit for damages for alleged racial discrimination in the rental of housing in violation of federal law. In the former case, the Court reasoned that its Seventh Amendment precedents “require[d] trial by jury in actions unheard of at common law, provided that the action involves rights and remedies of the sort traditionally enforced in an action at law, rather than in an action at equity or admiralty.”29 The statutory cause of action, the Court found, had several counterparts in the common law, all of which involved a right to trial by jury. In the latter case, the plaintiff had argued that the Amendment was inapplicable to new causes of action created by congressional action, but the Court disagreed. “The Seventh Amendment does apply to actions enforcing statutory rights, and requires a jury trial upon demand, if the statute creates legal rights and remedies, enforceable in an action for damages in the ordinary courts of law.”30

Omission of provision for a jury has been upheld in a number of other cases on the ground that the suit in question was not a suit at common law within the meaning of the Amendment, or that the issues raised were not peculiarly legal in their nature.31 Where there is no direct historical antecedent dating to the adoption of the amendment, the court may also consider whether existing precedent and the sound administration of justice favor resolution by judges or juries.32

The amendment does not apply to cases in admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, in which the trial is by a court without a jury,33 nor does it reach statutory proceedings unknown to the common law, such as an application to a court of equity to enforce an order of an administrative body.34 Thus, when Congress committed to administrative determination the finding of a violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act with the discretion to fix a fine for a violation, the charged party being able to obtain judicial review of the administrative proceeding in a federal court of appeal and the fine being collectible in a suit in federal court, the argument that the absence of a jury trial in the process for a charged party violated the Seventh Amendment was unanimously rejected. “At least in cases in which ‘public rights’ are being litigated—e. g., cases in which the government sues in its sovereign capacity to enforce public rights created by statutes within the power of Congress to enact— the Seventh Amendment does not prohibit Congress from assigning the factfinding function and initial adjudication to an administrative forum with which the jury would be incompatible.”35

On the other hand, if Congress assigns such cases to Article III courts, a jury may be required. In Tull v. United States,36 the Court ruled that the Amendment requires trial by jury in civil actions to determine liability for civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, but not to assess the amount of penalty. The penal nature of the Clean Water Act’s civil penalty remedy distinguishes it from restitution-based remedies available in equity courts, and therefore makes it a remedy of the type that could be imposed only by courts of law.37 However, a jury need not invariably determine the remedy in a trial in which it must determine liability. Because the Court viewed assessment of the amount of penalty as involving neither the “substance” nor a “fundamental element” of a common-law right to trial by jury, it held permissible the Act’s assignment of that task to the trial judge.

Later, the Court relied on a broadened concept of “public rights” to define the limits of congressional power to assign causes of action to tribunals in which jury trials are unavailable. In Granfinanciera, S. A. v. Nordberg,38 the Court declared that Congress “lacks the power to strip parties contesting matters of private right of their constitutional right to a trial by jury.” The Seventh Amendment test, the Court indicated, is the same as the Article III test for whether Congress may assign adjudication of a claim to a non-Article III tribunal.39 As a general matter, “public rights” involve “ ‘the relationship between the government and persons subject to its authority,’” whereas “private rights” relate to “ ‘the liability of one individual to another.’”40 Although finding room for “some debate,” the Court determined that a bankruptcy trustee’s right to recover for a fraudulent conveyance “is more accurately characterized as a private rather than a public right,” at least when the defendant had not submitted a claim against the bankruptcy estate.41

27 Shields v. Thomas, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 253, 262 (1856).

28 Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 443, 447 (1930); Barton v. Barbour, 104 U.S. 126, 133 (1881). Formerly, it did not apply to cases where recovery of money damages was incidental to equitable relief even though damages might have been recovered in an action at law. Clark v. Wooster, 119 U.S. 322, 325 (1886); Pease v. Rathbun-Jones Eng. Co., 243 U.S. 273, 279 (1917). But see Dairy Queen v. Wood, 369 U.S. 469 (1962) (legal claims must be tried before equitable ones).

29 Pernell v. Southall Realty Co., 416 U.S. 363 (1974).

30 Curtis v. Loether, 415 U.S. 189, 194 (1974). “A damage action under the statute sounds basically in tort—the statute merely defines a new legal duty and authorizes the court to compensate a plaintiff for the injury caused by the defendants’ wrongful breach. . . . [T]his cause of action is analogous to a number of tort actions recognized at common law.” Id. at 195. See also Chauffeurs, Teamsters and Helpers Local 391 v. Terry, 494 U.S. 558 (1990) (suit against union for back pay for breach of duty of fair representation is a suit for compensatory damages, hence plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial); Wooddell v. International Bhd. of Electrical Workers Local 71, 502 U.S. 93 (1991) (similar suit against union for money damages entitles union member to jury trial; a claim for injunctive relief was incidental to the damages claim); Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, 523 U.S. 340 (1998) (jury trial required for copyright action with close analogue at common law, even though the relief sought is not actual damages but statutory damages based on what is “just”).

31 Among such actions or issues were, e.g., (1) enforcement of claims against the United States, McElrath v. United States, 102 U.S. 426, 440 (1880); see also Galloway v. United States, 319 U.S. 372, 388 (1943); (2) suit under a territorial statute authorizing a special nonjury tribunal to hear claims against a municipality having no legal obligation but based on moral obligation only, Guthrie Nat’l Bank v. Guthrie, 173 U.S. 528, 534 (1899); see also United States v. Realty Co., 163 U.S. 427, 439 (1896); New Orleans v. Clark, 95 U.S. 644, 653 (1877); (3) cancellation of a naturalization certificate for fraud, Luria v. United States, 231 U.S. 9, 27 (1913); (4) reversal of an order to deport an alien, Gee Wah Lee v. United States, 25 F.2d 107 (5th Cir. 1928), cert. denied, 277 U.S. 608 (1928); (5) damages for patent infringement, Filer & Stowell Co. v. Diamond Iron Works, 270 F. 489 (2d Cir. 1921), cert. denied, 256 U.S. 691 (1921); (6) reversal of an award under the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 45 (1932); (7) reversal of a decision of customs appraisers on the value of imports, Auffmordt v. Hedden, 137 U.S. 310, 329 (1890); (8) a summary disposition by referee in bankruptcy of issues regarding voidable preferences as asserted and proved by the trustee, Katchen v. Landy, 382 U.S. 323 (1966); and (9) a determination by a judge in calculating just compensation in a federal eminent domain proceeding of the issue as to whether the condemned lands were originally within the scope of the government’s project or were adjacent lands later added to the plan, United States v. Reynolds, 397 U.S. 14 (1970).

32 Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 348 (1996) (interpretation and construction of terms underlying patent claims may be reserved entirely for the court).

33 Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 443 (1830); Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441, 460 (1847); Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354 (1959). But see Fitzgerald v. United States Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16 (1963).

34 NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 48 (1937). See also ICC v. Brimson, 154 U.S. 447, 488 (1894); Yakus v. United States, 321 U.S. 414, 447 (1944).

35 Atlas Roofing Co. v. OSHRC, 430 U.S. 442, 450 (1977).

36 481 U.S. 412 (1987).

37 The statute itself specified only a maximum amount for the penalty; the Court derived its “punitive” characterization from indications in the legislative history that Congress desired consideration of the need for retribution and deterrence as well as the need for restitution.

38 492 U.S. 33, 51–52 (1989).

39 “[I]f a statutory cause of action . . . is not a ‘public right’ for Article III purposes, then Congress may not assign its adjudication to a specialized non-Article III court lacking ‘the essential attributes of the judicial power.’ And if the action must be tried under the auspices of an Article III court, then the Seventh Amendment affords the parties the right to a jury trial whenever the cause of action is legal in nature. Conversely, if Congress may assign the adjudication of a statutory cause of action to a non-Article III tribunal, then the Seventh Amendment poses no independent bar to the adjudication of that action by a nonjury factfinder.” 492 U.S. at 53–54 (citation omitted).

40 492 U.S. at 51 n.8 (quoting Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 50, 51 (1932)). The Court qualified certain statements in Atlas Roofing and in the process refined its definition of “public rights.” There are some “public rights” cases, the Court explained, in which “the Federal Government is not a party in its sovereign capacity,” but which involve “statutory rights that are integral parts of a public regulatory scheme.” It is in cases of this nature that Congress may “dispense with juries as factfinders through its choice of an adjudicative forum.” This does not mean, however, that Congress may assign “at least the initial factfinding in all cases involving controversies entirely between private parties to administrative tribunals or other tribunals not involving juries, so long as they are established as adjuncts to Article III courts.” 492 U.S. at 55 n.10 (emphasis added).

41 492 U.S. at 55. On the other hand, a creditor who submits a claim against the bankruptcy estate subjects himself to the bankruptcy court’s equitable power, and is not entitled to a jury trial when subsequently sued by the bankruptcy trustee to recover preferential monetary transfers. Langenkamp v. Culp, 498 U.S. 42 (1990).

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