Supreme Court eases path to punitive damages in bias

Victim still must prove employer meant harm

June 23, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Workers who are victims of intentional sex and race bias on the job can collect extra, or "punitive," money damages without having to prove that the bias was "outrageous," the Supreme Court ruled yesterday by a 7-2 vote.

It is enough, the court said, for the worker to show that the discrimination demonstrated a serious disregard of the worker's right to be treated equally.

The ruling cleared up a conflict among lower courts on when punitive damages can be awarded. The justices overturned a federal appeals court decision that said such extra damages should be awarded only in "the worst cases," with clear proof of "outrageous" or "egregious" bias.

That standard, the justices said yesterday, set too high a barrier to such damages. If the bias resulted from "conscious wrongdoing," the court ruled, the worker is entitled to seek a punitive award, in addition to damages to compensate him or her for actual harms.

Damages of any kind were unavailable in job discrimination cases before Congress added them in 1991 as a remedy for violations of Title VII, the principal law against employment discrimination.

The court's new ruling made punitive damages more likely, at least in some Title VII cases.

But in a separate 5-4 ruling in the same case, the court made it unlikely that employers would actually have to pay the damages, if management had tried to head off workplace bias by adopting anti-discrimination policies.

When sex or race discrimination occurs on the job, it is usually carried out by a fellow employee or by a supervisor, not as a matter of company policy. Still, the employer is legally to blame if it allowed the bias to occur or did nothing to correct it.

If the discrimination was done by a manager, the employer can be held liable, the court said. If the discrimination was authorized, that, too, can result in punitive damages, the justices added.

But if management engaged in "good faith efforts" to obey federal law against workplace discrimination, the court stressed, that should be considered proof that it did not act with disregard for its workers' right to be treated equally on the job -- and thus would not be liable for extra damages.

The court's ruling came in the case of a woman, Carole Kolstad, who lost out to a man in the bidding for one of the key lobbying jobs in the Washington office of the American Dental Association.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the ruling. The part setting the new standard for "punitive" damages was supported by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens. Dissenting on that point were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.

On the 5-4 decision limiting management liability, O'Connor had the support of the chief justice, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas. Dissenting were Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter and Stevens.

Pub Date: 6/23/99

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