Employees who suffer workplace discrimination in violation of the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act are entitled to recover four types of damages: front pay (the amount by which someone’s future earnings are reduced by discrimination), back pay (the plaintiff’s lost income from the time of the discrimination up to a jury verdict), emotional distress damages, and attorney’s fees. These damages are compensatory damages, designed to compensate the victim of discrimination for the actual harm s/he suffered and no more.
Punitive damages are another category of damages provided by the Fair Employment Practices Act for the victims of unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or handicap. However, not all victims of unlawful workplace discrimination are entitled to punitive damages. Recently, in the case of Haddad v. Walmart Stores, Inc. , the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court clarified the standard for the award of punitive damages.
In Haddad, a jury awarded punitive damages to the plaintiff for the gender discrimination that she had suffered. The trial judge, however, took away the punitive damages. The parties then filed cross-appeals, raising numerous questions of law.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial judge’s decision to take away the punitive damages was error. Simplifying a bit here, the plaintiff went on to argue that Massachusetts law permits punitive damages for intentional acts and, since discrimination is the result of intentional acts, any finding of discrimination is sufficient to support an award of punitive damages.
The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) agreed with the plaintiff that the trial court’s decision to take away the jury’s award of punitive damages was a mistake. The SJC found that the the trial court judge may have based his decision on a belief that, in order to recover punitive damages, an employee must show that his/her employer acted with the knowledge that its actions violated applicable civil rights laws. The SJC said that, to the extent the judge’s order relied upon that reasoning, it was in error.
The Supreme Judicial Court went on to clarify the circumstances under which a victim of unlawful discrimination may recover punitive damages. The SJC held that punitive damages in a discrimination case may be awarded only where the defendant’s conduct is outrageous or egregious. In determining whether the defendant’s conduct is outrageous or egregious, a judge or jury should consider several factors, including but not limited to:
(1) whether there was a conscious or purposeful effort to demean or diminish a class of which the plaintiff is a member (or the plaintiff because he or she is a member of a class);
(2) whether the defendant was aware that the discriminatory conduct would likely cause serious harm or recklessly disregarded the likelihood that serious harm would arise;
(3) the actual harm to the plaintiff;
(4) the defendant’s conduct after learning that the initial conduct would likely cause harm; and
(5) the duration of the wrongful conduct and any concealment of that conduct by the defendant.
The Supreme Judicial Court suggested these five factors do not exhaust the list of considerations that may be relevant to an award of punitive damages in a discrimination case, but they do help clarify what an employee who is the victim of workplace discrimination should show if she hopes to recover punitive damages against her employer.
You can watch a video of the oral arguments in the Haddad case on Suffolk Law’s website.