The Connecticut Supreme Court rang in the new year with a ruling long awaited by employers, settling the lingering question as to whether punitive damages are recoverable for claims under the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA), the state’s employment discrimination statute. In Tomick v. United Parcel Service, Inc., et al. (December 30, 2016), the Connecticut Supreme Court found that the CFEPA does not authorize an award of punitive damages. The decision is important in that it clarifies the scope of damages that may be recovered by an employee who is successful in bringing employment discrimination claims.
The plaintiff in Tomick was discharged from his job as a driver because of his violation of a workplace violence policy, according to the company. The plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that his employment had actually been terminated on account of his disability, in violation of the CFEPA. The case went to trial, with a jury ultimately finding for the plaintiff on his employment discrimination claims and awarding him $500,000 in punitive damages. The trial court, however, set aside the jury’s punitive damages award on the ground that the CFEPA does not authorize punitive damages, and the Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed that decision on appeal. The employee then appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
The Connecticut Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court affirmed the set-aside of the punitive damages award, basing its decision upon the language of the CFEPA, which provides that a court may award “relief which it deems appropriate including, but not limited to, temporary or permanent injunctive relief, attorney’s fees and court costs.” As the CFEPA language does not expressly provide for punitive damages as a form of relief, the Supreme Court held that they are not allowable because punitive damages are an “extraordinary remedy” that are recoverable only where the legislature has expressly authorized such damages. The Court concluded that while the legislature had expressly provided for punitive damages in other statutes, it had not done so in the CFEPA, and it was not the court’s role to read such damages into the statute.
The decision may have immediate impact for employers facing employment discrimination claims under Connecticut state law, including those before the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO), the administrative forum in which claims under the CFEPA are first brought by employees. Punitive damages were often factored in by the CHRO and attorneys for employees during the mandatory mediation portion of the CHRO process. Indeed, both the CHRO and the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association (a professional organization of lawyers who represent employees in disputes) filed amicus briefs in the case arguing that punitive damages were allowed under the statute. The next forum for a challenge appears to be the Connecticut General Assembly, as the court offered a tacit invitation to change the statute’s language if the legislature believed punitive damages to be available, so employers will want to keep up to date on developments.