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Chauca v. Abraham

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

November 1, 2016

Veronika Chauca, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Jamil Abraham, individually, Park Management Systems, LLC, a.k.a. Park Health Center, Ann Marie Garriques, individually Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: September 9, 2016

          Amended: November 8, 2016

         Appeal 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 Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Arthur H. Forman, Forest Hills, NY, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Joshua Friedman, Friedman & Houlding, LLP, Mamaroneck, NY, for Amicus Curiae National Employment Lawyers Association/New York.

          Before: Katzmann, Chief Judge, Sack and Hall, Circuit Judges.

          Katzmann, Chief Judge.

         What is 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.

         In 2005 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.

         This 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).


         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Plaintiff-Appellant 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.

         In 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 present dispute.

         At 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.[1] 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.


         I. Standard of Review

         "We 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 ...

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