The Appellate Court of Connecticut, in a long awaited decision, recently held in Tomick v. UPS, 157 Conn. App. 312 (Conn. App. Ct. 2015), that a plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages under Connecticut’s statute prohibiting discrimination in employment, the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”).  The Court accordingly set aside the jury’s $500,000 award of punitive damages to the plaintiff, who claimed he was discriminated against because of his disability, among other claims.

Following the canons of statutory construction, the Court reasoned that punitive damages, an “extraordinary remedy”, may only be awarded if the statute expressly provides for them.  The relevant provision of CFEPA allows the court to award attorney’s fees and court costs, but not punitive damages in addition.  Other statutes, on the other hand, do expressly allow an award of punitive damages, for example, in cases of discriminatory credit practices with a cap and discriminatory housing practices.  In sum, if the Legislature had wanted to make punitive damages available to a plaintiff in the case of employment discrimination, it knew how to say so but did not.  Attorney’s fees and court costs remain available to prevailing plaintiffs.

The Tomick decision comes as a boon to employers, who have had to factor into their settlement strategies and litigation budgets the uncertainty of an enormous jury award of punitive damages.   In this very case, for instance, the jury’s $500,000 award in punitive damages was 5 times the damages otherwise awarded for the disability discrimination.  If the matter is appealed and the Supreme Court overturns the decision, an unsettled issue is whether the punitive damages should be set by the judge or the jury, the latter of which generally presents greater anxiety for defendant employers.

The Tomick case serves as a reminder to employers to review their own anti-discrimination policies.  Our firm provides guidance to employers in crafting such policies and conducts employee training on discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.