Court allows big damages in job-bias lawsuits

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The US Supreme Court has made it potentially more costly for employers to discriminate against their employees.

The high court ruled June 22 that compensatory and punitive damages should be available to someone who wins an employment-bias case - if intentional discrimination is proved.

But in a separate ruling in the case, the court ruled that employers cannot be forced to pay punitive damages if they had tried in good faith to run a bias-free workplace. A federal appeals court had ruled that punitive damages should be permitted only in "egregious" cases of bias.

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But seven of nine justices rejected that rationale, deciding instead that the remedy should be available to more victims of discrimination.

The decision puts employers nationwide on notice that discrimination for race, color, sex, religion, or national origin could cost them dearly if they engage in it or tolerate it.

In addition, it puts more teeth into Title VII, the nation's primary civil-rights law. That will likely encourage victims who may have been reluctant to sue to take their bosses to court.

The decision stems from the case of Carole Kolstad, who worked in the Washington office of the American Dental Association. Ms. Kolstad was passed over for a more senior job that was given to a less-experienced male co-worker.

She filed a sex-discrimination suit and won at trial. The jury awarded $52,718 in back pay, but the trial judge refused to allow the jury to consider an award of punitive damages. Kolstad appealed. A three-judge panel ruled the jury should have considered awarding punitive damages. But that ruling was overturned by the appeals court.

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