NYC Pregnancy Bias Case Set for More Trial Court Labor

By Jon Steingart

A pregnancy discrimination case is headed back to a federal trial court in New York after a visit to federal and state appeals courts.

The New York Court of Appeals ruled in November that the standard for determining punitive damages under New York City discrimination law is easier for workers to satisfy than the standard under comparable federal discrimination law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had asked the state appeals court to weigh in on the correct standard under the New York City Human Rights Law.

Based on the state court decision, the Second Circuit vacated the federal trial court’s judgment. It found that the trial court applied the wrong standard when it rejected a worker’s request to instruct the jury about punitive damages under city law. The judge concluded the employee couldn’t get punitive damages under city law because she failed to satisfy the tougher standard for punitive damages under federal law.

A jury sided with physical therapy aide Veronika Chauca, who said her employer Park Health Center refused to reinstate her after she took maternity leave. On appeal to the Second Circuit, she said she may have been entitled to a larger recovery because the trial judge should have instructed the jury about different punitive damages it could award under city law and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Second Circuit in 2001 found the city law standard is the same as the standard used for Title VII. The city council amended the Human Rights law in 2005 so its provisions would be “construed liberally” by courts. The Local Civil Rights Restoration Act also said courts should interpret the HRL “regardless” of how similar federal and state discrimination laws are interpreted.

Workers suing under city law need to show their employer acted recklessly or with a conscious disregard for their rights if they want to recover additional damages beyond an award for financial and emotional harm caused by job bias, the state appeals court said in November. Employers are liable under the tougher federal standard if they act with malice or with reckless indifference.

Judges Robert A. Katzmann, Robert D. Sack, and Peter W. Hall served on the Second Circuit panel that issued the decision.

The case is Chauca v. Abraham, 2d Cir., No. 15-1777, judgment vacated 3/16/18.