ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – Trying to answer a question from the Second Circuit in a pregnancy-bias case, the Empire State’s highest court heard oral arguments Tuesday over whether a New York City anti-discrimination law allows for punitive damages.
The Second Circuit had asked the New York State Court of Appeals, “What is the standard for finding a defendant liable for punitive damages under the New York City Human Rights Law?”
“Given the lack of clarity concerning the appropriate standard for punitive damages and the importance of this issue to state and city law, we believe the prudent course of action is to certify this question to the New York Court of Appeals,” the Second Circuit wrote in a November 2016 decision in the case of Veronika Chauca.
Chauca was laid off from her from physical therapy aide job at Park Management Systems’ Park Health Center in Queens in the fall of 2009, while she was on company-approved maternity leave.
Following the abrupt termination, Chauca filed a pregnancy-discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December 2009.
A year later, Chauca sued Park Health Center and her supervisors in Eastern New York federal court, alleging pregnancy discrimination in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law, New York State Human Rights La, and the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which is part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At trial, U.S. District Judge Eric Vitaliano denied Chauca’s request to instruct the jury on punitive damages under the New York City Human Rights Law, abbreviated in court documents as the NYCHRL.
“There is nothing here that supports punitive damages under any stretch of anybody’s imagination…There’s no showing of malice, reckless indifference, that there was an intent to violate the law,” Judge Vitaliano said, invoking the standard for punitive damages under Title VII.
The jury awarded Chauca compensatory damages of $10,500 for lost pay and $50,000 for pain and suffering. A magistrate judge also awarded her $123,750 in attorney’s fees and $2,566 in costs.
Chauca appealed, arguing that she was entitled to have the jury consider punitive damages as well.
Chauca’s attorney, Stephen Bergstein from the New Paltz, N.Y.-based firm Bergstein & Ullrich, told the state appeals court Tuesday afternoon that “the purpose of punitive damages is to punish and for society to send a message and to tell the employer that ‘what you did was not acceptable.’”
He said the trial court erred in applying the federal standard because the NYCHRL must be construed liberally and independently of federal law.
Bergstein argued that the New York City Council has created a completely different statutory definition, “one that is pro-plaintiff, remedial and no-tolerance.”
“The presumption of common law doesn’t apply here” Bergstein said in a phone interview, calling the common law standard “not specifically defined” and saying it shouldn’t be used to fill in the blanks.
Park Health Center and Chauca’s former supervisors are represented by Arthur Forman from Forest Hills, N.Y. He has previously argued that an award of punitive damages “is a little excessive and shouldn’t be awarded in every case,” according to a Law360 report.
In its certified question to the New York State Court of Appeals, the Second Circuit referenced the 2001 case Farias v. Instructional Systems, in which it had ruled that the federal Title VII standard applies to punitive damages under the NYCHRL, limiting such liability to defendants who engaged in intentional discrimination “with malice or with reckless indifference” to the rights of others.
The Second Circuit noted that the Farias ruling had been called into question by subsequent actions of the New York City Council, which “has twice legislatively clarified the ‘uniquely broad and remedial purposes’ of the NYCHRL.”
“As part of the Restoration Act of 2005, the City Council instructed that ‘[t]he provisions of [the NYCHRL] shall be construed liberally … regardless of whether federal or New York State civil and human rights laws, including those laws with provisions comparably-worded to provisions of [the NYCHRL], have been so construed,’” the Second Circuit ruling stated.
On the other hand, the federal appeals court said, neither the Restoration Act nor amendments to the NYCHRL adopted in 2016 name Farias among the cases they were intended to override, and the Restoration Act does not mention punitive damages.
The New York State Court of Appeal is expected to take six weeks to two months to consider their interpretation the NYCHRL’s standard for punitive damages.
Its interpretation will be delivered back down to the Second Circuit for that court’s final ruling.