My colleague, Chris Engler, joins us again with a post today about whether or not a jury trial is required for certain employment law claims.  I’ll have a full recap of my presentations on data privacy in an upcoming post soon.

While many of us spent last weekend celebrating Columbus Day, our neighbors to the north were (as my Quebec-born mother-in-law likes reminding me) busy celebrating their national Thanksgiving.

Perhaps in the spirit of the Canadian holiday, a state judge recently gave a public employer plenty to be thankful for.

The court’s decision in Beck v. UConn Health Center is short and sweet, less than a page and a half long.  (It’s so short that it offers very few facts, but we’ll get by without them.) 

Even so, the six paragraphs offer a variety of boons for the employer and revisits an issue that some may have forgotten about.  The court threw out the plaintiff’s claims of wrongful termination under several state and federal laws.  The court also held that an employer can’t be on the hook for punitive damages under the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”) or a federal analogue. 

But most importantly, the court determined that government employees suing under the state’s anti-discrimination laws are not entitled to jury trials.

“Hold up!”, some of you who remember your high school Civics class might be saying. 

Doesn’t the Constitution guarantee the right to a jury trial?  Not so, as it turns out – meaning that the public employer needn’t face the relative unpredictability of a jury.

The court apparently deemed its conclusions to be so obvious that the decision does not cite a single case.  However, for many readers, the reasoning behind denying a jury trial may not be so self-evident.  For those of you who are curious, the answer requires a brief journey through jurisprudential history.

Article first, Section 19, of the Connecticut Constitution states that “The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.”  What this means in practice is that jury trials are guaranteed for causes of action that existed prior to 1818, when the Constitution was made effective. 

To determine whether Article first, Section 19 applies, courts have to act as legal historians to determine if a plaintiff in the early nineteenth century could have sued for the same reason that the modern plaintiff is suing for. 

This is no easy task, because cases from that period were full of archaic terminology like replevin, trover, and detinue. (Editor’s Note: Must remember to ask Chris about “detinue”.)

Using this analysis, several Connecticut courts have concluded that employment discrimination claims simply didn’t exist in the 1800s.  (For reference, CFEPA didn’t become effective until the mid 1900s.)  Furthermore, even when early versions of such claims did exist, they were only applicable to private employers. Herein lies the salvation of government employers like UConn Health Center.

A Superior Court case from 1999 set the tone on this and said the following:

This court finds controlling Canning v. Lensink, 221 Conn. 346, 603 A.2d 1155 (1992), which was relied upon in a Superior Court case addressing the identical issue in the present case, Massey v. Connecticut Mental Health, Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven at New Haven, Docket No. 388542 (February 3, 1997) (Silbert, J.) (19 Conn. L. Rptr. 89).

In Massey v. Connecticut Mental Health, the Superior Court determined that no right to a jury trial existed pursuant to General Statutes § 46a-100 because the legislature did not expressly grant the right when it enacted § 46a-100. Determining that Canning v. Lensink controlled, the court stated that “[w]hen the state, by statute, waives its sovereign immunity to suit … the right to a jury trial cannot be implied, but rather, must be affirmatively expressed.” Massey v. Connecticut Mental Health, supra, 19 Conn. L. Rptr. 90. The Massey court determined that § “46a-100 contains no provision regarding trial by jury,” and therefore, “no right to a trial by jury exists in an action against the state under § 46a-100.” Id. The reasoning of Massey v. Connecticut Mental Health thoroughly and persuasively addresses the issues raised in the present case. The court concludes that no right to a jury trial exists pursuant to General Statutes § 46a-100. Accordingly, the defendant’s objection to the plaintiff’s claim for a jury is sustained, and the case is ordered stricken from the jury list.

Lawsuits always pose financial risks to public employers.  But decisions like Beck v. UConn Health Center make it a little easier. For private employers, though, you’ll have to look elsewhere for things to be thankful for.