2d Circuit: Lower Court Mistakenly Applied Higher Standard for Punitive Damages Under the NYC Human Rights Law

In Chauca v. Abraham, 2018 WL 1352351 (2d Cir. March 16, 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the district court erred in declining to submit the question of punitive damages to the jury under the New York City Human Rights Law.

In a prior opinion,[1]Chauca v. Abraham, 841 F.3d 86 (2d Cir. 2016). the Court had certified to the New York Court of Appeals the question of what the standard is for finding a defendant liable for punitive damages under the NYCHRL. The New York Court of Appeals answered that question by holding 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.”[2]Chauca v. Abraham, 89 N.E.3d 475, 481 (N.Y. 2017).

The Second Circuit further explained:

In doing so, [the New York Court of Appeals] 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.

In this case, the Court held that the district court erred by declining to provide a jury instruction concerning the availability of punitive damages, on the ground that there was “no showing of malice, reckless indifference [or] that there was an intent to violate the law” – i.e., the more restrictive punitive damages standard under federal law Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

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1. Chauca v. Abraham, 841 F.3d 86 (2d Cir. 2016).
2. Chauca v. Abraham, 89 N.E.3d 475, 481 (N.Y. 2017).