High Court Struggles with Job Discrimination Damages

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court struggled Monday over the question of when victims of job discrimination should be allowed to seek extra damages to punish their employers.

"This statute is simply confusing," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said, referring to a federal law that permits people who suffer intentional discrimination to collect punitive damages. "Nobody can pretend that it's a clear guideline as to where a court ought to go."

Carole Kolstad won a back-pay award from the American Dental Association on grounds it failed to promote her because of her sex. But a lower court would not let her seek punitive damages -- intended to punish and deter future misconduct -- without proving that her employer's conduct was "egregious." Her lawyer, Eric Schnapper, told the justices the federal job-bias law does not require such proof. "When Congress goes ahead and spells out the standards it had in mind, I don't think it's appropriate to add to them," Schnapper said in an argument supported by the Clinton administration. But the dental association's lawyer, Raymond C. Fay, told the justices that Kolstad's argument would allow virtually everyone who proves intentional job discrimination to seek punitive damages. U.S. law has a "tradition of a more difficult standard of proof" for such damages, Fay said, adding there was no evidence that Congress intended to deviate from that stricter standard. Kolstad sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion. The law allows victims of intentional job discrimination to collect punitive damages if they can show their employer acted with "malice or with reckless indifference" to their rights. Justice David H. Souter suggested the law sets a stricter standard for awarding punitive damages because it requires proof that employers who intentionally discriminated against someone also knew they were violating the law. …