There is, of course, no more persuasive evidence of the purpose of a statute than the words by which the legislature undertook to give expression to its wishes. Nevertheless, in rare cases the literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters, and those intentions must be controlling. The Supreme Court has reserved some scope for adopting a restricted rather than a literal or usual meaning of its words where acceptance of that meaning would thwart the obvious purpose of the statute.
Petitioner seaman brought an action against respondent former employer seeking penalty wages under 46 U.S.C.S. § 596 for respondent's failure to pay over the earned wages due upon petitioner's discharge. The district court found for petitioner but limited the penalty assessed to the period during which petitioner was unemployed. Petitioner appealed the award of damages as inadequate. The appellate court affirmed. The Court granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the circuits regarding the proper application of the wage penalty statute.
May district courts, in the exercise of discretion, limit the period during which this wage penalty is assessed, or whether imposition of the penalty is mandatory for each day that payment is withheld in violation of the statute?
The court held that District Courts have no discretion to limit the period during which the wage penalty is assessed under 46 USCS 596, since (1) the statute in straightforward terms provides for the payment of double wages, (2) the legislative history of the statute indicates that Congress intended the statute to mean exactly what its plain language says, and (3) the literal interpretation of 596 is not precluded on the asserted ground that it would produce an absurd and unjust result which Congress could not have intended as awards made under the statute were not intended to be merely compensatory and it is in the nature of punitive remedies to authorize awards that may be out of proportion to actual injury.
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 664 F.2d 36 (1981). That court concluded, inter alia, that the District Court had not erred in limiting assessment of the penalty provided by 46 U. S. C. § 596 to the period beginning April 1 and ending May 5. The court recognized that the statute required payment of a penalty for each day during which wages were withheld until the date they were actually paid, which in this case did not occur until September 17, 1980, when respondent satisfied the judgment of the District Court. Nevertheless, the court believed itself bound by prior decisions within the Circuit, which left calculation of the penalty period to the sound discretion of the district courts. 664 F.2d, at 40. It concluded that the District Court in this case had not abused its discretion by assessing a penalty only for the period during which petitioner was unemployed.