Second Circuit Addresses the Standard for Punitive Damages Under the NYC Human Rights Law

In Chauca v. Abraham, No. 15-1720, 2016 WL 6436834 (2d Cir. Nov. 1, 2016), a pregnancy discrimination case, the Second Circuit certified to the New York Court of Appeals the following question:

What is the standard for finding a defendant liable for punitive damages under the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8–502?

The court framed the issue, and summarized its reason for certifying, as follows:

What is the meaning of the phrase “shall be construed liberally”? Just as the recipe instruction to “apply liberally” has bedeviled many an amateur chef, the New York City Council’s directive that courts shall construe the City’s Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) liberally presents its own interpretive challenge. We confront a seemingly straightforward but surprisingly vexing question: what is the standard for a punitive damages award for unlawful discriminatory acts in violation of the NYCHRL? Is it the same as the standard for awarding punitive damages under Title VII? If not, what standard should courts apply? As we explain, we think this question would be more appropriately answered by the New York Court of Appeals.
In 2005 the City Council, concerned that the NYCHRL had been interpreted too narrowly by courts in the past—often by drawing on corresponding federal standards—amended the New York City Administrative Code to ensure that “[t]he provisions of [the NYCHRL] shall be construed liberally … regardless of whether [related] federal or New York State civil and human rights laws … have been so construed.” Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005, N.Y.C. Local Law No. 85 of 2005 (Oct. 3, 2005) § 7, N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8–130 (“Restoration Act”). We have since recognized that “courts must analyze NYCHRL claims separately and independently from any federal and state law claims.” Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux N. Am., Inc., 715 F.3d 102, 109 (2d Cir. 2013). This task is not always uncomplicated, however. The Restoration Act identifies a handful of code provisions that had been interpreted too narrowly by courts, but it otherwise provides no specific guidance concerning how the NYCHRL should be “construed liberally” and independently of state and federal law in its particular applications.
This brings us to the case at hand, which involves a dispute over the standard for establishing liability for punitive damages under the NYCHRL. Plaintiff-Appellant Veronika Chauca prevailed in a jury trial against Defendants-Appellees Dr. Jamil Abraham, Ann Marie Garriques, and Park Management Systems, LLC (a.k.a. Park Health Center) on her claim of pregnancy discrimination in violation of federal, state, and city law. Before the case was submitted to the jury, however, the district court denied Chauca’s request to provide a jury instruction on punitive damages under the NYCHRL. The court declined to do so because it found that Chauca had put forward no evidence that her employer intentionally discriminated against her with malice or reckless indifference for her protected rights—the standard for an award of punitive damages under the corresponding pregnancy discrimination provisions of federal law contained in Title VII. Chauca appeals that decision, arguing that the district court failed to construe the NYCHRL’s standard for punitive damages liability “liberally” and to analyze it “independently” of federal law. The question before this Court, then, is whether the standard for punitive damages is the same under both Title VII and the NYCHRL, or if a “liberally” construed NYCHRL might set forth a broader standard for liability.

The court concluded that “the Restoration Act, the relevant sections of the NYCHRL, and New York case law do not resolve this question” and therefore certified it to the New York Court of Appeals.

The National Employment lawyers Association, New York Affiliate (NELA/NY) filed an Amicus Brief, asserting (inter alia) that “the question of whether the employer proved the factors necessary for mitigation of punitive damages is a question for the jury” and that “[t]he jury should be charged based on the criteria set forth in [N.Y.C. Administrative Code section] 8-107(13)(d).”