Argued: September 9, 2016
Amended: November 8, 2016
from a decision of the district court denying plaintiff's
request for a jury instruction concerning punitive damages
for pregnancy discrimination claims arising under the New
York City Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code §
8-107(1)(a). Because the City's Human Rights Law does not
expressly provide a standard for awarding punitive damages,
the United States District Court for the Eastern District of
New York (Vitaliano, J.) drew on the corresponding
federal Title VII standard. On this basis, the court declined
to provide a punitive damages instruction to the jury.
Plaintiff contends the court erred in applying the federal
standard because the City's Human Rights Law must be
construed liberally and independently of federal law. There
is no controlling state law precedent establishing the
appropriate standard, however, and because establishing that
standard is an important issue of state law and would resolve
this case, we believe the New York Court of Appeals should
have the opportunity to address this question in the first
instance. Accordingly, we CERTIFY the question to the New
York Court of Appeals.
Stephen Bergstein, Bergstein & Ullrich, LLP, Chester, NY
(Anne Donnelly Bush, Law Offices of Anne Donnelly Bush,
Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, on the brief), for
H. Forman, Forest Hills, NY, for Defendants-Appellees.
Friedman, Friedman & Houlding, LLP, Mamaroneck, NY,
for Amicus Curiae National Employment Lawyers
Before: Katzmann, Chief Judge, Sack and Hall, Circuit Judges.
Katzmann, Chief Judge.
the meaning of the phrase "shall be construed
liberally"? Just as the recipe instruction to
"apply liberally" has bedeviled many an amateur
chef, the New York City Council's directive that courts
shall construe the City's Human Rights Law
("NYCHRL") liberally presents its own interpretive
challenge. We confront a seemingly straightforward but
surprisingly vexing question: what is the standard for a
punitive damages award for unlawful discriminatory acts in
violation of the NYCHRL? Is it the same as the standard for
awarding punitive damages under Title VII? If not, what
standard should courts apply? As we explain, we think this
question would be more appropriately answered by the New York
Court of Appeals.
the City Council, concerned that the NYCHRL had been
interpreted too narrowly by courts in the past-often by
drawing on corresponding federal standards-amended the New
York City Administrative Code to ensure that "[t]he
provisions of [the NYCHRL] shall be construed liberally . . .
regardless of whether [related] federal or New York State
civil and human rights laws . . . have been so
construed." Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005,
N.Y.C. Local Law No. 85 of 2005 (Oct. 3, 2005) § 7,
N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-130 ("Restoration
Act"). We have since recognized that "courts must
analyze NYCHRL claims separately and independently from any
federal and state law claims." Mihalik v. Credit
Agricole Cheuvreux N. Am., Inc., 715 F.3d 102, 109 (2d
Cir. 2013). This task is not always uncomplicated, however.
The Restoration Act identifies a handful of code provisions
that had been interpreted too narrowly by courts, but it
otherwise provides no specific guidance concerning
how the NYCHRL should be "construed
liberally" and independently of state and federal law in
its particular applications.
brings us to the case at hand, which involves a dispute over
the standard for establishing liability for punitive damages
under the NYCHRL. Plaintiff-Appellant Veronika Chauca
prevailed in a jury trial against Defendants- Appellees Dr.
Jamil Abraham, Ann Marie Garriques, and Park Management
Systems, LLC (a.k.a. Park Health Center) on her claim of
pregnancy discrimination in violation of federal, state, and
city law. Before the case was submitted to the jury, however,
the district court denied Chauca's request to provide a
jury instruction on punitive damages under the NYCHRL. The
court declined to do so because it found that Chauca had put
forward no evidence that her employer intentionally
discriminated against her with malice or reckless
indifference for her protected rights - the standard for an
award of punitive damages under the corresponding pregnancy
discrimination provisions of federal law contained in Title
VII. Chauca appeals that decision, arguing that the district
court failed to construe the NYCHRL's standard for
punitive damages liability "liberally" and to
analyze it "independently" of federal law. The
question before this Court, then, is whether the standard for
punitive damages is the same under both Title VII and the
NYCHRL, or if a "liberally" construed NYCHRL might
set forth a broader standard for liability. Because we
conclude that the Restoration Act, the relevant sections of
the NYCHRL, and New York case law do not resolve this
question, as we noted above, we CERTIFY the question to the
New York Court of Appeals. See N.Y. Comp. Codes R.
& Regs. tit. 22, § 500.27 (2013).
Factual and Procedural History
Veronika Chauca began working for Park Management Systems
(the "Center") in 2006 as a physical therapy aid.
In July 2009, she informed her supervisors,
Defendants-Appellees Dr. Jamil Abraham and Office Supervisor
Ann Marie Garriques, that she was pregnant and would be
taking maternity leave with a scheduled return in late
November, which they approved. During her time away, another
aide, Debra Mahearwanlal, handled Chauca's duties.
Shortly before Chauca was scheduled to return to work, she
contacted the office to remind them of her return. She claims
she got the runaround: Sheila Ramasre, the Center's
payroll manager, told her she needed to discuss the details
of her return with Abraham; Abraham stated that she actually
needed to speak to Garriques; and Garriques was on vacation.
When Chauca ultimately did reach Garriques, Garriques told
her that "we no longer need your services" and then
hung up the phone. See Joint App. at 82. Chauca
attempted to contact the Center to learn why she would not be
allowed to return, but whenever she called, the Center either
would not answer or would place her on hold indefinitely.
Later, both Abraham and Garriques claimed that Chauca was not
brought back because of a slowdown of business and changes
following healthcare reform. At trial, Garriques testified
that she had told Chauca at the time that "[they] have
started reducing the hours of the staff and possibl[y] will
be laying off some of the staff" and that "if
there's any changes, [they] will give her a call."
Joint App. at 286. Plaintiff suspected this explanation was
pretextual, because no other employees had been laid off, and
Mahearwanlal only briefly worked on a reduced schedule,
returning to a 40-hour workweek within a month. Chauca also
alleged that at least three other pregnant women had been
unlawfully terminated after becoming pregnant or after going
on maternity leave.
response, in December 2009 Chauca filed a charge with the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC")
alleging pregnancy discrimination. Even as business picked
back up and Chauca continued to contact the Center about
returning to work in January and February of 2010, Abraham
explained that Chauca was not invited back to work because by
that point "she decide[d] to sue me, " referring to
her EEOC charge of unlawful discrimination. See
Joint App. at 221. After receiving a notice of right to sue
from the EEOC, Chauca subsequently filed suit in November
2010 in the Eastern District of New York against the Center
and against Abraham and Garriques individually, alleging,
inter alia, sex and pregnancy discrimination in
violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C.
§§ 2000e(k), 2000e-2(a), which is part of Title VII
of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as in violation of
her rights as guaranteed by both the New York State Human
Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law §
296(1)(a), and the NYCHRL, N.Y.C. Admin. Code §
8-107(1)(a). Among the relief Chauca sought was compensatory
and punitive damages, the latter of which is the focus of the
summary judgment, the district court concluded that Chauca
had established a prima facie case of pregnancy
discrimination and denied defendants' motion for summary
judgment on all claims with respect to the Center and on
Chauca's state and city law claims with respect to
Abraham and Garriques. The case then went to trial and, during
the charging conference, the district court declined to
provide a punitive damages instruction to the jury over
plaintiff's objection. While recognizing that the NYCHRL
calls for a liberal construction of its provisions, the
district court found that Chauca had put forward no evidence
that the employer had intentionally discriminated with
"malice" or with "reckless indifference"
to her protected rights, impliedly applying the standard
under Title VII. The jury returned a verdict in Chauca's
favor, awarding $10, 500 in lost compensation and $50, 000
for pain and suffering. Chauca now appeals the denial of a
jury instruction on punitive damages.
Standard of Review
review challenges to a district court's jury instructions
de novo. 'A jury instruction is erroneous if it
misleads the jury as to the correct legal standard or does
not adequately inform the jury on the law.'"
Cameron v. City of New York, 598 F.3d 50, 68 (2d
Cir. 2010) (citation omitted) (quoting LNC ...