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Tomick v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

Supreme Court of Connecticut

December 30, 2016

MICHAEL TOMICK
v.
UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, INC., ET AL.

          Argued October 13, 2016

          Cassie N. Jameson, with whom, on the brief, was Michael D. Colonese, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Michael C. Harrington, with whom were Jennifer A. Corvo and, on the brief, Proloy K. Das and Sarah M. Gruber, for the appellee (named defendant).

          Marc P. Mercier filed a brief for the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

          Charles Krich, principal attorney, and Michael E. Roberts, human rights attorney, filed a brief for the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities as amicus curiae.

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, Eveleigh, McDonald and Robinson, Js.

          OPINION

          ROBINSON, J.

         In this certified appeal, we consider whether General Statutes § 46a-104[1] provides for an award of statutory punitive damages as a remedy for discriminatory practices under the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (act), General Statutes § 46a-51 et seq. The plaintiff, Michael Tomick, appeals, upon our grant of his petition for certification, [2] from the judgment of the Appellate Court affirming the trial court's decision to set aside a jury award of $500, 000 in statutory punitive damages against the defendant United Parcel Service, Inc.[3] Tomick v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 157 Conn.App. 312, 115 A.3d 1143 (2015) (Tomick II). On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the Appellate Court improperly ignored the plain language of § 46a-104 in concluding that the statute does not authorize punitive damages. We disagree with the plaintiff, and conclude that § 46a-104 does not provide for an award of punitive damages. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

         The record and the Appellate Court opinion reveal the following facts and procedural history. The plaintiff had been employed by the defendant as a driver. After the defendant terminated the plaintiff's employment, [4]the plaintiff filed a seven count complaint against the defendant alleging, inter alia, disability discrimination in violation of General Statutes § 46a-60 (a) (1).[5] Id., 320. Following a jury trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding him, inter alia, $500, 000 in statutory punitive damages. Id., 321. On July 19, 2010, the defendant moved to set aside the verdict and the award of punitive damages. Id. The trial court denied the motion to set aside the verdict, but granted the motion to set aside the award of punitive damages. Id.

         Both parties appealed from the judgment of the trial court. See generally Tomick v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 135 Conn.App. 589, 43 A.3d 722 (Tomick I), cert. denied, 305 Conn. 920, 47 A.3d 389 (2012). After a remand to the trial court; see id., 613;[6] the Appellate Court considered the plaintiff's claim that the trial court improperly determined that § 46a-104 does not authorize an award of punitive damages.[7] Tomick II, supra, 157 Conn.App. 333. In its decision, the Appellate Court began by reviewing Ames v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, 267 Conn. 524, 526, 839 A.2d 1250 (2004), in which this court considered whether express statutory language is required to authorize an award of multiple damages. Tomick II, supra, 336-41. Although the plaintiff claimed that the discussion in Ames regarding punitive damages was ‘‘mere dictum, '' the Appellate Court disagreed and determined that Ames was binding authority. Id., 338-41. The Appellate Court read Ames as stating a common-law rule that statutory punitive damages require express statutory authority, and applied that reasoning to the question of whether § 46a-104 authorized punitive damages.[8]

         The Appellate Court turned next to statutes related to § 46a-104 and discussed instances in which the legislature specifically provided for punitive damages, in contrast to the plain language of § 46a-104. Id., 341. On the basis of these statutes, the Appellate Court observed that the legislature knows how to provide for statutory punitive damages, when it wishes to do so. Id. Ultimately, the Appellate Court concluded that, ‘‘[b]ecause the language of § 46a-104 does not explicitly provide for punitive damages, the plaintiff is not entitled to such relief under the statute.'' Id. Thus, the Appellate Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in setting aside the $500, 000 statutory punitive damages award. Id. This certified appeal followed. See footnote 2 of this opinion.

         On appeal, the plaintiff claims that § 46a-104 is plain and unambiguous, because the phrase ‘‘legal and equitable relief, '' as modified by the phrase ‘‘including, but not limited to, '' authorizes all forms of legal and equitable relief, including punitive damages. The plaintiff further contends that the legislature included language that specifically precludes punitive damage awards in other statutes, which undercuts the Appellate Court's conclusion that the legislature intended not to allow awards of punitive damages pursuant to § 46a-104, which is silent on that point. With respect to Ames v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, supra, 267 Conn. 524, the plaintiff claims that its holding is limited to General Statutes (Rev. to 2003) § 14-52, [9] and that it cannot be read to establish a bright line rule requiring the legislature to expressly authorize punitive damages every time it intends to make statutory punitive damages available. Finally, the plaintiff contends that his interpretation of § 46a-104 allowing for awards of punitive damages is consistent with the remedial purpose of the act to afford relief to complainants and prevent future discrimination.

         In response, the defendant relies on Ames v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, supra, 267 Conn. 536, for the proposition that, under Connecticut common law, statutory punitive damages must be authorized expressly by the legislature, and because § 46a-104 does not provide such express authorization, it therefore does not permit awards of statutory punitive damages as a form of relief. The defendant compares § 46a-104 to other related human rights statutes in which the legislature specifically provided for punitive damages, to argue that the plaintiff's interpretation of § 46a-104 would render superfluous language in these other statutes, contravening the well established canon of statutory construction that assumes all statutory language is meaningful. The defendant also highlights the legislative history of § 46a-104, observing that its stated purpose was to address the backlog of cases within the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (commission), and that the topic of punitive damages under the act was never debated. Finally, the defendant contends that punitive damage awards are not necessary to accomplish the remedial purpose of the act, in light of other significant relief that may be awarded under the statute. We agree with the defendant, and conclude that punitive damages are not an available remedy under § 46a-104.[10]

         The issue of whether § 46a-104 allows an award of punitive damages as a remedy presents a question of statutory construction over which we exercise plenary review.[11] Gonzalez v. O & G Industries, Inc., 322 Conn. 291, 302, 140 A.3d 950 (2016). ‘‘When construing a statute, [o]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature. . . . In other words, we seek to determine, in a reasoned manner, the meaning of the statutory language as applied to the facts of [the] case, including the question of whether the language actually does apply. . . . In seeking to determine that meaning, General Statutes § 1-2z directs us first to consider the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered. . . . When a statute is not plain and unambiguous, we also look for interpretive guidance to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter . . . . The test to determine ambiguity is whether the statute, when read in context, is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 302-303. Significantly, ‘‘our case law is clear that ambiguity exists only if the statutory language at issue is susceptible to more than one plausible interpretation.'' State v. Orr, 291 Conn. 642, 654, 969 A.2d 750 (2009).

         In accordance with § 1-2z, we begin our analysis with the text of the statute. Section 46a-104 provides the following: ‘‘The court may grant a complainant in an action brought in accordance with section 46a-100 such legal and equitable relief which it deems appropriate including, but not limited to, temporary or permanent injunctive relief, attorney's fees and court costs. The amount of attorney's fees allowed shall not be contingent upon the amount of damages requested by or awarded to the complainant.'' (Emphasis added.) Although the defendant agrees that this language is expansive, it argues that the phrase ‘‘including, but not limited to'' does not implicitly include relief for which express authorization otherwise is required. The plaintiff, however, contends that the term ‘‘legal . . . relief'' includes punitive damages, and so textually, § 46a-104 provides for punitive damages. We conclude that both interpretations are plausible, rendering § 46a-104 ambiguous.

         Neither § 46a-104, the act, nor related human rights statutes define either term as used in § 46a-104. General Statutes § 1-1 (a) provides in relevant part: ‘‘In the construction of the statutes . . . technical words and phrases, and such as have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law, shall be construed and understood accordingly.'' As such, we look to the common law to define the terms. See Pacific Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Champion Steel, LLC, 323 Conn. 254, 265, 146 A.3d 975 (2016) (‘‘[i]t is axiomatic that the legislature is presumed to be aware of the common law when it enacts statutes'').

         Reading the phrase ‘‘including, but not limited to, '' as expansive; see Lusa v. Grunberg, 101 Conn.App. 739, 757, 923 A.2d 795 (2007); and in conjunction with ‘‘legal . . . relief, '' which is defined as money damages; see Mertens v. Hewitt Associates, 508 U.S. 248, 255, 113 S.Ct. 2063, 124 L.Ed.2d 161 (1993); the plaintiff's reading of § 46a-104 that it provides for punitive damages is reasonable. Additionally, the legislature has been inconsistent throughout the General Statutes, in that some statutes expressly provide for awards of punitive damages; see, e.g., General Statutes (Supp. 2016) § 46a-83 (g) (2); and others appear to expressly prohibit punitive damages. See, e.g., General Statutes § 47-212 (a). Section 46a-104, however, is silent with respect to punitive damages. Accordingly, we therefore look to the common law, other related statutes, and the circumstances surrounding its enactment for further guidance.

         We next consider case law with respect to statutory interpretation concerning statutory punitive damage awards in Connecticut, beginning with our decision in Ames v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, supra, 267 Conn. 524. In Ames, we considered whether an award of attorney's fees and punitive damages fell outside the indemnification provisions of General Statutes (Rev. to 2003) § 14-52 (b).[12] Id., 526. In Ames, a plaintiff sought damages for the unlawful repossession of a vehicle under General Statutes § 52-264, as well as attorney's fees under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, General Statutes § 42-110a et seq. Id., 526-27. The defendant failed to appear, and the trial court rendered a default judgment, awarding treble damages and attorney's fees to the plaintiff. Id. The defendant, however, went out of business prior to satisfying the judgment. Id., 527.As a result, the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles invoked the surety bond posted by the defendant pursuant to § 14-52. Id. The plaintiff subsequently claimed that the surety bond should have been used to satisfy the judgment, including the punitive damages and attorney's fees. Id., 527-28.

         First, as to the award for attorney's fees, we held that attorney's fees were not compensable under § 14-52, because allowing such damages would be in derogation of the common-law American Rule that, absent a contractual or statutory exception, attorney's fees are not allowed to the successful party. Id., 532-33. We observed that § 14-52 was devoid of any express language authorizing an award of attorney's fees, and as such, we declined to imply attorney's fees under the statute. Id., 533. Next, we extended that attorney's fee reasoning to our analysis of whether the plaintiff was entitled to recover punitive damages under § 14-52. Id., 536. Citing both DeMilo v. West Haven, 189 Conn. 671, 675-76, 458 A.2d 362 (1983), and Alaimo v. Royer, 188 Conn. 36, 43, 448 A.2d 207 (1982), we concluded that ‘‘[a]n award of multiple damages . . . is an extraordinary remedy that is available only when the legislature expressly provides for such damages by statute. . . . Accordingly, as with attorney's fees, we require explicit statutory language to support an award of punitive damages. Put simply, just as the legislature knows how to authorize an award of attorney's fees when it wishes to do so . . . it also knows how to authorize an award of punitive damages.'' (Citations omitted.) Ames v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, supra, 267 Conn. 536. Thus, because § 14-52 did not include express statutory language to support an award of punitive damages, we declined to imply such damages. Id.

         In applying the statutory interpretation approach utilized in Ames, we note that on its face, § 46a-104 does not expressly authorize an award of punitive damages, but rather, authorizes ‘‘legal and equitable relief . . . .''[13] To construe this language as encompassing punitive damages without expressly stating as much, as the plaintiff advocates, would be inconsistent with our approach to the statutory construction within Ames, in which we required, at least as a default rule, express statutory authorization for statutory punitive damages as a form of relief.[14]

         Further, there is no extratextual evidence that would cause us to consider departing from the approach to statutory interpretation embodied in Ames. With respect to the legislative intent, the plaintiff contends that, because the act is the state counterpart to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., § 46a-104 is remedial in nature, and as such, punitive damages are allowable to further the act's broader purpose of ending discrimination; however, a review of the legislative history behind § 46a-104 reveals no legislative intent to allow for punitive damages as a remedy for employment discrimination. Rather, the stated intent of the provision was to help alleviate the backlog of cases at the commission. See 34 H.R. Proc., Pt. 23, 1991 Sess., p. 8909, remarks of Representative Joseph Adamo (‘‘[T]he commission is very much backed up and has thousands of cases pending before it. What this basically does is if there's a case that needs- someone feels should have immediate action, it would give them the opportunity [to] seek a release from the [commission] and go directly to the court for the appropriate action.''). Thus, it appears that the legislature deemed the remedies expressly authorized in the act, including back pay, compensatory damages, attorney's fees, and costs, to be sufficient to carry out its remedial purpose.[15]

         Reading § 46a-104 in conjunction with related human rights statutes further supports declining to imply authority to award punitive damages in this case. Specifically, the legislature expressly authorized punitive damages in other human rights statutes, but did not do so within§ 46a-104, and, thus, reading § 46a-104to allow punitive damages despite the fact that it does not explicitly authorize such damages would render those express authorizations for punitive damages superfluous. ‘‘It is a basic tenet of statutory construction that the legislature [does] not intend to enact meaningless provisions. . . . Because [e]very word and phrase [of a statute] is presumed to have meaning . . . [a statute] must be construed, if possible, such that no clause, sentence or word is superfluous, void or insignificant.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Neighborhood Assn., Inc. v. Limberger, 321 Conn. 29, 38-39, 136 A.3d 581 (2016). A reading of the act and related statutes reveals a multitude of instances in which the legislature expressly provided for punitive damages as a form of relief.[16]General Statutes (Supp. 2016) § 46a-89 (b) (1), for example, not only provides a procedure that the commission may follow to seek punitive damages in a civil case, but also expressly authorizes punitive damages awards for violations of General Statutes § 46a-64 (discriminatory public accommodations), General Statutes § 46a-64c (discriminatory housing practices), General Statutes § 46a-81d (sexual orientation public accommodations discrimination), and General Statutes § 46a-81e (sexual orientation housing discrimination).[17] The legislature did not, however, include such language authorizing awards of punitive damages in § 46a-104. See McCoy v. Commissioner of Public Safety, 300 Conn. 144, 155, 12 A.3d 948 (2011) (‘‘[o]ur case law is clear . . . that when the legislature chooses to act, it is presumed to know how to draft legislation consistent with its intent and to know of all other existing statutes and the effect that its action or nonaction will have upon any one of them'' [internal quotation marks omitted]).

         We acknowledge the plaintiff's argument that the legislature did not expressly exclude punitive damages in the act or in related human rights statutes, including § 46a-104.[18] The other statutes upon which the plaintiff relies are inconsistent with those more closely related to § 46a-104. Thus, in the human rights context, the legislature expressly authorized punitive damages when it intended for that type of relief to be afforded. To read § 46a-104 to allow for awards of punitive damages when the statute does not expressly authorize those damages would be inconsistent with the rest of the act and related statutes.

         Finally, the plaintiff's reliance on Title VII and other federal laws is unavailing. We have recognized that our legislature intended, in general, to make the act complement the provisions of Title VII. See, e.g., Commission on Human Rights&Opportunities v. Echo Hose Ambulance, 322 Conn. 154, 160, 140 A.3d 190 (2016). Prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, parties claiming employment discrimination under Title VII were not entitled to compensatory or punitive damages. See Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 252, 114 S.Ct. 1483, 128 L.Ed.2d 229 (1994). Congress, however, specifically amended Title VII by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to provide for compensatory and punitive damages.[19] Id., 247. Despite Congress taking affirmative steps to provide expressly for punitive damages, the Connecticut legislature has not yet followed suit. Had the legislature intended for § 46a-104 to provide for statutory punitive damages, it could have amended the state statute to reflect the changes to its federal counterpart, and remains free to do so.

         Accordingly, in light of Ames v.Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, supra, 267 Conn. 524, and a close reading of the text of § 46a-104 in relation to other related human rights statutes, we conclude that § 46a-104 does not authorize an award of punitive damages in employment discrimination cases. Accordingly, the Appellate Court ...


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