Not every case can be a U.S. Supreme Court case filled with sweeping pronouncements on employment law.

Blowing the whistle on a notable court decision

Indeed, many times the law develops through under-reported cases that you’ll never hear about.  The pronouncements may not be sweeping on those cases, but those cases help clarify a point that had been left uncertain before then and may open the door to other arguments as well.

Take the case of Commissioner of Mental Health and Addiction Services v. Saeedi, a Connecticut Appellate decision (download here) that will be officially released on July 9th.

Its ostensibly a whistleblower case under Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 4-61dd, where — as part of the damages awarded to the whistleblower — the CHRO ordered agency personnel to undergo professional ethics training and to alter the personnel file of the employee.

But the court was asked to look at something greater: Under the state’s whistleblower statute, where the CHRO has the power to award “any other damages”, does that include equitable (or non-monetary) relief?

The Appellate Court, in reviewing the language of the statute and the legislative history, concluded “no”.  Thus, the ordering of training was improper under the statute. But notably, the court said that because the CHRO was empowered to order reinstatement, the altering of the personnel file was appropriate to achieve that result.

That conclusion is not entirely surprising.

But the Appellate Court goes on a bit further in language that employers may see again in the future and that opens the door a crack to arguments about whether the CHRO can award other relief (perhaps even emotional distress damages) in discrimination cases.  (For background, I’ve talked about the CHRO’s attempt to include emotional distress damages as part of the award of damages.)

In Saeedi, the court examined legislation that governs “other types of workplace discrimination” and contrasted the whistleblower statute with that anti-discrimination statute. In the discrimination statute, the CHRO can take “such affirmative action…as in the judgment of the tribunal will effectuate the purposes of this chapter” while the whistleblower statute is limited to “any other damages.”

The Court stated that this “affirmative action” language shows an “intent by the legislature to impart broad powers to the commission” not limited to those listed in the statute.

Does that mean emotional distress damages are back on the table? It shouldn’t, based on the Bridgeport Hospital case before the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1995.

But this language will no doubt be cited by the CHRO and others to support the CHRO’s attempts in recent years to revisit the issue and expand the relief that it is authorized to award, citing this authority that the CHRO can take “affirmative action” in such cases.

What does this mean for private employers? Not much yet.  The case’s main holding concerns whistleblowers.  But it does merit further watching as the battle over the types of damages available in discrimination cases continues.