The Second Circuit is once again seeking guidance from the New York Court of Appeals, this time on the question of the appropriate standard for awarding punitive damages for unlawful discriminatory acts under the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”). The NYCHRL provides that punitive damages may be available where employers are found directly liable for discriminatory practices, as well as in certain circumstances where liability may be imputed based on an employer’s failure to take steps to prevent or correct discriminatory conduct by its employees. However, the law does not articulate the standard for establishing employer liability for punitive damages in either instance.

The case, Chauca v. Park Management Systems, involves a former employee who brought suit against her employer and two of its employees under Title VII and the NYCHRL, alleging pregnancy discrimination following her termination while on maternity leave. The district court denied the former employee’s request to provide a jury instruction on punitive damages under the NYCHRL. The district court applied the Title VII standard for awarding punitive damages and found that the former employee had failed to show evidence that the employer intentionally discriminated against her with “malice” or “reckless indifference.”

The former employee appealed, 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, in accordance with the stated intent of the New York City Council when it amended the law in 2005, i.e., that the law should be “construed liberally . . . regardless of whether federal or New York State civil and human rights laws . . . have been so construed.”

Finding that neither the text of the NYCHRL nor New York case law resolves the question, the Second Circuit certified the following to the New York Court of Appeals:

  • “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?”

We will continue to monitor this case and report on further developments.