On April 4, 2019, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued its decision in Houchin v. Denver Health and Hospital Authority, holding that under 2013 amendments to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), state employees may file claims for certain types of damages against their employer, but employees of Colorado’s numerous political subdivisions may not. This decision highlights the importance of legislative drafting and interpretation in the context of discrimination claims in the state.

Public employees’ pre-2013 discrimination remedies

Before the 2013 amendments to the CADA—which went into effect on January 1, 2015—relief for discrimination claims under CADA was limited to so-called “equitable relief,” which included reinstatement, backpay, front pay, or other similar equitable remedies. But per the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA)—which limits lawsuits against public entities—both the state and its political subdivisions were immune from liability for most tort (wrongful act) claims, and it remained unclear whether this immunity extended to CADA claims.

In 2000, the Colorado Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether the CGIA prevented public employees from suing the state or its political subdivisions for the “equitable relief” then available under CADA. In City of Colorado Springs v. Conners, the supreme court held that because the CGIA was intended to protect the state from tort-based claims, and because the remedies then available under CADA were instead “equitable,” employees of both the state and its political subdivisions could sue under CADA.

2013 CADA amendments expanded remedies

The 2013 CADA amendments dramatically expanded available relief for employees claiming discrimination. In addition to the equitable forms of relief already available, the amendments permitted aggrieved employees to also seek “compensatory” and “punitive” damages against employers for discrimination.

With respect to public employees, the amendments expressly prohibited punitive damages awards against either the state or its political subdivisions. With respect to compensatory damages, however, the amendments simply stated that a claim filed “against the state” would not be barred by the CGIA. This provision didn’t mention any of the state’s many political subdivisions. Thus, the 2013 amendments left open the question of whether all public employees of the state and its political subdivisions could recover compensatory damages for discrimination by their employers, or whether that right was limited to only employees of the state of Colorado.

Enter Houchin v. Denver Health and Hospital Authority

On April 4, 2019, the Colorado Court of Appeals squarely addressed this issue. In a 2-1 decision, the court held that under the unique wording of the 2013 amendments, it had no choice but to rule the right to seek compensatory damages for discrimination only extended to public employees employed directly by the state. Because the 2013 amendments only used the word “state,” not “subdivisions,” when saying the CGIA did not bar public employees from recovering compensatory damages, the court found this wording required it to hold only state employees could pursue such damages for discrimination. Employees of the state’s political subdivisions, by contrast, were limited to equitable relief for the same discriminatory practices by their employers.

The court conceded that its holding did not seem “logical or equitable” and the wording of the 2013 amendments was “unfortunate” for the suing employee who was an employee of the Denver Health and Hospital Authority—a political subdivision of the state. The result was so troubling to the court that, during the appeals process, it requested briefings from the parties about whether the language in the 2013 amendments regarding “state” employees violated either the federal or Colorado Constitutions’ equal protection clauses. The court concluded, however, that the record was too undeveloped to decide this constitutional question.

Takeaways

Although the Houchin decision may or may not stand upon review by the Colorado Supreme Court, it nonetheless highlights just how much a turn of phrase in employment legislation can affect both the rights of aggrieved employees and protections for defending employers. At least for now, Colorado political subdivision employers are not at risk of facing compensatory damage awards for intentional discrimination claims by their employees, but the Houchin decision clearly expressed the court’s own disappointment in that result and its criticism of the general assembly’s drafting efforts.