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Media Alerts - Chauca v. Abraham - Second Circuit
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November 2, 2016
  Chauca v. Abraham - Second Circuit
Headline: Second Circuit Certifies Question of Punitive Damages Standard for Discrimination Suits Under New York City Human Rights Law to Court of Appeals

Area of Law: Employment Discrimination

Issue(s) Presented: What is the standard for a punitive damages award for unlawful discriminatory acts in violation of the NYCHRL.

Brief Summary: Plaintiff-Appellant Chauca took maternity leave from her job as a physical therapy aid in 2009. Upon her scheduled return, her employer informed her that her services were no longer needed. Chauca filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and ultimately brought suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York alleging sex and pregnancy discrimination under federal and state law as well as under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). She prevailed at trial with a jury award of $10,500 in lost compensation and $50,000 for pain and suffering. Chauca now appeals the denial of a jury instruction on punitive damages, arguing that the district court failed to construe the NYCHRL's standard for punitive damages "liberally." This court analyzes her question, and certifies this question to the New York Court of Appeals for more guidance.

To read the full opinion, please visit:
http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/de...9c9bb380976/1/hilite/

Extended Summary: Plaintiff-Appellant Veronika Chauca began working for Defendant-Appellee Park Management Systems in 2006 as a physical therapy aid. In July 2009, she informed her supervisors that she was pregnant and would be taking maternity leave with a scheduled return in late November, which they approved. During her time away, another aide handled Chauca's duties. Shortly before her scheduled return, she contacted the office to remind them and got the runaround. She was ultimately told by the Office Supervisor, Ann Marie Garriques, that "we no longer need your services." Later, Chauca's supervisors, Dr. Jamil Abraham and Garriques, claimed that Chauca was not brought back because of a business slowdown despite evidence that most other employees maintained a steady work schedule.

In December 2009, Chauca filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging pregnancy discrimination and, after receiving an EEOC notice of right to sue, brought an action against her employer, and her supervisors individually, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York alleging sex and pregnancy discrimination in violation of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as under New York State and New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Chauca sought compensatory and punitive damages, the latter of which is the focus of this current dispute.

At trial, the district court declined to provide a punitive damages instruction to the jury over plaintiff's objection. While recognizing that the NYCHRL calls for a liberal construction of its provisions, the district court found that Chauca did not put forward any evidence that her employer had intentionally discriminated with "malice" or with "reckless indifference" to her protected rights. The jury returned a verdict in Chauca's favor, awarding $10,500 in lost compensation and $50,000 for pain and suffering. Chauca now appeals the denial of a jury instruction on punitive damages, arguing that the district court improperly construed the NYCHRL standard for punitive damages by requiring a showing of malice or reckless indifference as required by federal law.

Under Title VII, "[p]unitive damages are limited . . . to cases in which the employer has engaged in intentional discrimination and has done so 'with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.'" In a 2001 decision, the Second Circuit applied the federal standard to claims for punitive damages arising under the NYCHRL. However, in 2005, the New York City Council amended the City's Administrative Code by passing the Restoration Act which sought to clarify the "uniquely broad and remedial purposes of the NYCHRL, and expressly provides that the NYCHRL "be construed liberally, . . . regardless of whether federal or New York State civil and human rights laws, including those with provisions comparably-worded to the provisions of [the NYCHRL] have been so construed." Since then, New York courts have repeatedly determined that NYCHRL claims must be analyzed separately and independently from any federal and state law claims, but no decision has specifically addressed the proper standard for awarding punitive damages under the NYCHRL and the Restoration Act does not make any specific reference to punitive damages.

The Second Circuit concluded that the question should be certified to the New York Court of Appeals, finding that existing New York case law does not "provide definitive guidance" on the appropriate standard for a punitive damages award for unlawful discriminatory acts in violation of the NYCHRL, that this is an issue of importance to the state, and that certification was proper because the answer to the question would resolve the litigation.

To read the full opinion, please visit:
http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/de...9c9bb380976/1/hilite/

Panel:
Chief Judge Katzmann, Circuit Judges Sack and Hall.

Argument Date: 09/09/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 11/1/2016

Docket Number: No. 15-1777

Decided: Certified Appeal

Case Alert Author: Robyn Downing

Counsel: Stephen Bergstein, Bergstein & Ullrich, LLP, for Plaintiff-Appellant
Arthur H. Forman, for the Defendants-Appellees

Author of Opinion: Chief Judge Katzmann

Circuit: 2nd Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Professor Elyse Diamond

    Posted By: Elyse Diamond @ 11/02/2016 08:51 AM     2nd Circuit  

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