Discretion of trial court to decline to award treble damages under the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) where common law punitive damages and statutory attorneys fees were already awarded

Dwyer v. Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc., 2022 WL 2560023 (Pa. Super. 2022) (unreported), allocatur granted Jan. 9, 2023, appeal docket 2 WAP 2023

In this case, the purchaser of a whole life insurance policy who was falsely assured by the selling agent that premiums would remain the same for the life of the policy  sued Ameriprise the issuer for negligent misrepresentation, fraudulent misrepresentation, violation of the UTPCPL, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligent supervision. A jury returned a verdict for the purchaser on the negligent and fraudulent misrepresentation claims, and also awarded punitive damages. The trial court thereafter, based on the same record, ruled in purchaser’s favor on the UTPCPL claim, but declined to award treble damages as authorized by the UTPCPL

On appeal by the purchaser, Superior Court affirmed the denial of treble damages, noting that the UTPCPL expressly makes such an award a matter within the trial court’s discretion, and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to award treble damages under the facts of this case:

The UTPCPL affords the trial court discretion to “award up to three times the actual damages sustained.” 73 P.S. § 201-9.2(a) (emphasis added). Thus, there is no obligation for a trial court to award treble damages and, quite to the contrary of [plaintiff]’s position, our Supreme Court has recognized [in Schwartz v. Rockey, 932 A.2d 885, 898 (Pa. 2007)]  that [a] trial court[’]s discretion to award treble damages must be tempered by the facts demonstrated. …

… [W]e conclude that the trial court’s order denying Plaintiffs’ request for treble damages was grounded in rationality and does not “do violence to the intent and purpose of the [ ]UTPCPL[ ].” Appellants’ Brief, at 6; see also Schwartzsupra at 898 (“Appellate courts should review such decisions ‘for rationality, akin to appellate review of the discretionary aspect of equitable awards.’ ”). As the trial judge noted, Plaintiffs were adequately compensated for their losses and the total award sufficiently punishes and deters Defendants from engaging in similar conduct in the future. Accordingly, we find no abuse of discretion.

Slip op. at 11 (emphasis in original).

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur to address the treble damages issue. The issues, as stated by petitioner, are:

 (1) UTPCPL treble damages are remedial. Where intentional misconduct is found, the statutory goal of eradicating unfair business practices is supported by courts trebling damages. Here, intentional misconduct was found, yet the trial court refused to treble damages based upon improper consideration of the award of common law punitive damages and statutory attorneys’ fees. Did the Superior Court err by affirming the use of these improper considerations to replace the award of statutory remedial treble damages?

(2) Whether the law has been misapplied involves a purely legal question. It is reviewed de novo and the scope of review is plenary. Whether an award of common law punitive damages and statutory attorneys’ fees can replace an award of remedial treble damages under the UTPCPL is a question of law. Did the Superior Court err by applying an abuse of discretion standard to the question of law instead of a de novo standard?

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