In a decision that will be officially released next week, the Connecticut Supreme Court has, at last, ruled that punitive damages are not an available remedy for state law employment discrimination claims.
You may recall that I discussed the Appellate Court’s decision that had originally found the same thing back in 2015. The case, Tomick v. United Parcel Services, has been one I’ve also discussed in other places too.
The decision itself is one for the lawyers to get. The court was more interested in dealing with issues of “statutory construction over which [the court] exercise[s] plenary review.”
So, the court started with the statute itself. It states that a court “may grant a complainant… such legal and equitable relief which it deems appropriate including, but not limited to, temporary or permanent injunctive relief, attorney’s fees and court costs… ”
Notably, the court says that this language could be considered ambiguous, so the court had to dig a little deeper. Ultimately, the court says that “To construe this language as encompassing punitive damages without expressly stating as much, as the plaintiff advocates, would be inconsistent with our approach to the statutory construction in [a prior case], in which we required, at least as a default rule, express statutory authorization for statutory punitive damages as a form of relief.”
From there, it’s a fairly easy path forward for the court. It notes that the legislature used the term “punitive damages” in other human rights statutes, so it knew how to craft such language and remedies. For example, public accommodation discrimination has punitive damages as a possible remedy.
Ultimately, the court says it is not for it to read punitive damages into the statute.
But it suggests one final avenue: The General Assembly. “Had the legislature intended for § 46a-104 to provide for statutory punitive damages, it could have amended the state statute to reflect the changes to its federal counterpart, and remains free to do so.”
However, given the split in the state senate and other pressing state business, it seems unlikely we’ll see this change for a while.
What does this mean for employers? Well, it means that state law discrimination claims became worth a little less than they used to — though the Appellate Court’s decision had been factored in for a while now. It doesn’t mean that such claims are dead — but it does mean that employees bringing claims will have one more reason to try to pursue the claim in federal court, than state court.