Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Sizing Up Punishment for Job Bias High Court Hears Arguments Today on Merits of Awarding Punitive Damagesin Workplace Discrimination Cases

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Sizing Up Punishment for Job Bias High Court Hears Arguments Today on Merits of Awarding Punitive Damagesin Workplace Discrimination Cases

Article excerpt

Carole Kolstad worked for four years in the American Dental Association's office here. When her boss announced his plans to retire, she expressed interest in taking over his job. But the boss had a different idea. He promoted a man with less than two years' experience to the top spot.

Ms. Kolstad sued and a federal jury agreed that the ADA had engaged in gender discrimination. The jury awarded back pay, but the trial judge wasn't convinced of the case's merits. He refused to allow the jury to consider awarding punitive damages.

Today, the US Supreme Court will examine whether the judge was right. The case is expected to set a nationwide standard for when punitive damages are appropriate in federal discrimination cases. As such, the case could leave a huge imprint on the enforcement of civil rights laws across the country. "It is an issue that confronts judges and juries every day and one that warrants clarification," says Joseph Yablonski, Kolstad's lawyer. Specifically, the issue the justices must resolve is whether punitive damages should be considered in almost every case in which bias is proved, or whether punitive damages should only apply in the most egregious cases of discrimination. If a majority of justices agree that punitive damages should apply in most cases, the decision will put employers on heightened notice that they face significant liability should they lose a discrimination case. And it will encourage reluctant employees to file discrimination suits. If, on the other hand, the court decides that punitive damages should be reserved for only the most outrageous cases, it would reduce the deterrent effect of civil rights laws and discourage some discrimination victims from filing suit against their employers. Part of the effectiveness of US civil rights laws is that they empower ordinary Americans to defend their rights by filing suit in court. If they win, they are entitled to monetary compensation for any loss suffered. In addition, under certain circumstances a jury may award punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish wrongdoing and to create a strong incentive for others to comply with antidiscrimination laws. …

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