Friday, May 17, 2019

Can plaintiffs recover punitive and liquidated damages under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act?

Can plaintiffs recover punitive and liquidated damages under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA)? That's actually two separate questions. Let's start with the easy one.

Punitive Damages

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has clearly said that punitive damages are not available under the PHRA. Hoy v. Angelone, 720 A.2d 745 (Pa. 1998).

Liquidated Damages

Liquidated damages are a little murkier. Some statutes expressly provide for liquidated damages. For example, an ADEA plaintiff can recover liquidated damages equal to their back pay (i.e. doubling their back pay award).

Under the case law, liquidated damages under the PHRA seem like a long shot. The gist of the PA Supreme Court's holding in Hoy is that the PHRA provides remedial damages and not punitive damages. Given that liquidated damages are punitive in nature (and not merely remedial), then courts could (and have) conclude that liquidated damages are not available:
[B]oth the Supreme Court and Third Circuit have held, albeit in the context of the ADEA, that liquidated damages are intended to be punitive in nature . . . . Given these conclusions, Plaintiffs are not entitled to the submission of a liquidated damages charge to the jury on their PHRA claims.
Potoski v. Wilkes Univ., No. 3:06-CV-2057, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99731, at *8-9 (M.D. Pa. Sep. 22, 2010).

Some courts, however, have adopted more of a we-don't-know so let's wait and see approach:
[A]nother court within the Third Circuit held that the defendant was not entitled to dismissal of the plaintiff's PHRA liquidated damages claim at the early stage of proceedings because no case law established that "liquidated damages are excluded from 'any other legal or equitable relief' expressly authorized in the PHRA." Craig v. Thomas Jefferson University, Civil Action No. 08-4165, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57819, 2009 WL 2038147, at *9 (E.D. Pa. July 7, 2009). Because the issue is not as straight forward as Defendants assert and because Defendants' sparse briefing does not sufficiently address matters this Court considers relevant to deciding the issue, we will follow Craig's path of not striking the demand for liquidated damages at the motion to dismiss stage. 
Bellas v. WVHCS Retention Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 128133, *19, 96 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P44,642, 2012 WL 3961227 (M.D. Pa. September 10, 2012). Even that is hardly a ringing endorsement.

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