Imagine pleading ignorance of the law to avoid paying punitive damages. That’s just what a federal appeals court just ruled in a Title VII case arising out of Arkansas in which plaintiff alleged racial discrimination and constructive discharge. 

Plaintiff was awarded compensatory damages against the defendants, as well as $8,000 in punitive damages.

In reviewing the punitive damage award, the Court stated that punitive damages are recoverable if defendants discriminated “with malice or with reckless indifference” to plaintiff’s rights; that is, if defendants had knowledge that they were breaking the law. The Court held that since “it is common knowledge” that racial discrimination is in violation of the law, “evidence of blatant race discrimination is sufficient to prove knowledge such discrimination violates federal law unless the defendant actor affirmatively proves ignorance.” 

Accordingly, “defendants must affirmatively prove ignorance” to avoid punitive damages. Since it is difficult to show, 50 years after Title VII was passed, that defendants did not know that racial discrimination is in violation of the law, the punitive damage award was upheld.

Although this decision appears reasonable and logical, it does nevertheless seem counter-intuitive to those of us who would otherwise think that knowingly and willfully violating the law would incur punitive damages, not ignorance of the law.