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When Can Punitive Damages Be Recovered in Discrimination Cases?

Companies and employees dealing with a possible discrimination claim should be aware of a recent decision by the New York Court of Appeals regarding liability for punitive damages. Often plaintiffs seek punitive damages in an employment discrimination case. However, with respect to claims under the New York City Human Rights Law, it wasn’t clear what standard applied in determining whether the employer should have to pay such damages.

The case of Chauca v. Abraham involved a claim of pregnancy discrimination. The plaintiff won and was awarded compensatory damages. However, the Judge refused to allow the jury to consider making an award of punitive damages to Plaintiff. She appealed the decision arguing that punitive damages should be considered by the jury in all cases where a finding of liability is made under the Human Rights Law, one purpose of which is to prohibit discrimination in employment, on the basis of, inter alia, race, color, creed, gender, disability, marital status or sexual orientation. The case went to the New York Court of Appeals to specify the standard that should be applied in determining liability for punitive damages.

The Court stated that the purpose of punitive damages is to punish litigants for wrongful conduct that goes beyond mere negligence and that they are warranted only where an additional level of wrongful conduct is demonstrated. Accordingly, only conduct having a high degree of moral culpability which manifests a conscious disregard of the rights of others or conduct so reckless as to amount to such disregard warrants the imposition of punitive damages.

The case isn’t over yet. It will probably go back to the trial court judge who will consider whether the jury should be permitted to decide whether a punitive damages award is appropriate.

What does this mean for plaintiffs and defendants? Even where a Human Rights Law violation by a defendant has been proven, a plaintiff must provide adequate testimony that meets the standard set forth by the Court of Appeals in order to get its claim for punitive damages before the jury.

If you are an employee who may have a discrimination claim or you are an employer with concerns regarding a potential claim under the Human Rights Law by one of your employees, contact us for a consultation.

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