Second Circuit Looks to New York State Court of Appeals for Guidance Regarding NYCHRL

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is seeking clarification from the New York Court of Appeals in a case involving an employee who is suing her employer and two of her co-workers under Title VII and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). The claim alleges that the employer engaged in pregnancy discrimination following her termination while on maternity leave. In reviewing the case, Chauca v. Park Management Systems, the court is seeking guidance from the Court of Appeals regarding the appropriate standard for awarding punitive damages under the NYCHRL.

The Second Circuit’s review centers on the plaintiff’s request for a jury instruction concerning punitive damages arising under the New York City Human Rights Law. The district court failed to give a jury instruction regarding punitive damages because the NYCHRL does not expressly provide a standard for awarding this type of damages. In giving instructions to the jury, the court relied on the Title VII standard. The Plaintiff’s appeal claims that the court erred in applying the federal standard because the NYCHRL calls for the law to “be construed liberally and independently of federal law.”

The issue faced by the Second Circuit is that there is no state law precedent establishing the correct standard to be applied. In the past, the NYCHRL was considered along with the federal claim in its entirety. While the Second Circuit recognized that setting the correct standard would resolve the case, the court felt that setting the state standard should be accomplished in the first instance by the state court of appeals.

Seeking to get the New York Court of Appeals analysis, the Second Circuit certified the question to the Court of Appeals. In determining whether it will answer a certified question, the New York Court of Appeals will consider (1) the absence of authoritative state court decisions, (2) the importance of the issue to the state, and (3) the capacity of certification to resolve the litigation. Through research, the Second Circuit was unable to locate any authoritative state court decisions that considered punitive damages under the NYCHRL individually. The Second Circuit highlighted the importance of the issue, because punitive damages are not available under the state’s human rights law, and therefore the NYCHRL may be a litigant’s only option. Lastly, the court determined that the certification would resolve the litigation in this action.

The court ordered the delivery of their opinion to the New York Court of Appeals, certifying the question of “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?” The Second Circuit now awaits a response, as the New York State Court of Appeals will either provide guidance or decline to answer the question.

Understanding of Title VII, the NYCHRL and other employment regulations are important for business owners. If you currently own a business, or are planning to open a business, the New York business law attorneys at Blodnick, Fazio & Associates are available to help you with any issue that arises from the employer-employee relationship, such as employment discrimination concerns. Contact our Long Island business law firm at Blodnick, Fazio & Associates by calling (516) 280-7150.

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