WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether workers must prove egregious gender or race discrimination to win punitive damages from a company in a federal job-bias lawsuit.
The case will give the high court a chance to resolve a difference of opinion among federal appeals courts around the country on the vulnerability of employers to awards designed to punish them for illegal discrimination. Most of those courts set a high bar for plaintiffs, saying they can't demand punitive damages without evidence of especially reprehensible conduct. Some judges, however, say a finding of intentional discrimination is enough to warrant punitive damages, even if the conduct isn't "egregious."
"That's a real important issue for employers," said Don Livingston, a Washington employment law attorney and former general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "It's probably an issue in every case." Workers file some 24,000 employment discrimination cases a year in federal courts. The nine justices will consider a lawsuit filed by Carole Kolstad, who sued after being passed over for a top government affairs position with the American Dental Association in Washington. Kolstad claimed the ADA "pre-selected" a male co-worker for the job and, because she was a woman, never fairly considered her qualifications. A federal jury sitting in Washington agreed, awarding Kolstad almost $53,000 in back pay. A judge, however, refused to let that jury decide whether Kolstad should receive punitive damages, saying the evidence against the ADA wasn't sufficient. …