Second Circuit Holds that Punitive Damages Standard Under NYC Human Rights Law Differs from Title VII

The Second Circuit issued a decision on March 16, 2018, that will make recovery of punitive damages by people suing for discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) easier than under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Law.  The decision, Chauca v. Abraham, involved an appeal from a decision of the Eastern District of New York (Vitaliano, J.) denying plaintiff’s request for a jury instruction concerning punitive damages for pregnancy discrimination claims arising under the NYCHRL because there was “no showing of malice, reckless indifference [or] that there was an intent to violate the law,” as required under federal law.  Because New York case law did not provide a standard under the recently amended NYCHRL, the Second Circuit certified the question, and the New York Court of Appeals held that “the standard for determining damages under the NYCHRL is whether the wrongdoer has engaged in discrimination with willful or wanton negligence, or recklessness, or a ‘conscious disregard of the rights of others or conduct so reckless as to amount to such disregard.’”  In doing so, it expressly rejected the application of the federal standard for punitive damages, explaining that the NYCHRL “requires neither a showing of malice nor awareness of the violation of a protected right” because “implementing a lower degree of culpability and eschewing the knowledge requirement…adheres to the [New York] City Council’s liberal construction mandate” that “‘[t]he provisions of [the NYCHRL] shall be construed liberally…regardless of whether federal or New York state civil and human rights laws…have been so construed.’”

Based on this ruling, persons suing for discrimination under NYC law will have an easier time obtaining punitive damages than under federal law, as they need show only willful or wanton negligence or reckless, and need not show actual malice.

Lawrence BrocchiniThis article is intended only as a general discussion of these issues. It is not considered to be legal advice or relied upon.  If you need assistance with a particular employment or employment discrimination issue, Larry Brocchini would be pleased to consider providing additional details or advice about specific situations.