Punitive damages are damages designed to punish an organization or individual for particularly bad behavior and deter them from doing it in the future. Punitive damages are possible to receive in employment discrimination lawsuits. However, these damages require a very high level of proof, including the following requirements:
The first requirement is that the employer acted with oppression, fraud or malice. This must be shown with clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing evidence is a higher standard than the typical burden of proof in a civil case. Generally, to prove anything to the court requires a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the weight of the admissible evidence rests on your side; in other words it was more likely than not true. By contrast clear and convincing evidence requires that the admissible evidence shows a high probability that what you accuse occurred.
California Civil Code § 3294 defines more explicitly what oppression, fraud, and malice are. Oppression is “despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.” Fraud means an intentional lie, misrepresentation, or concealment of an important (“material”) fact that was made in order to deprive the person of their property of legal rights. Malice means acts where the employer intentionally caused injury to the plaintiff or acted despicably with a “willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.”
So unless the employer intentionally lied about an important fact to deceive the employee, committed some other fraud, or intentionally tried to injure the employee, the employee must show that the act of discrimination was despicable. Despicable means conduct that is so bad that it would be looked down upon and despised by ordinary decent people. Some examples of despicable conduct include conduct that is intended to humiliate an employee and force them to quit. It generally requires more than 1 act. For example in McGee v. Tucoemas Fed. Credit Union (2007) an employee with cancer was able to win punitive damages after the employer refused to give the employee extended leave after cancer treatment surgery, and then cancelled the employee’s medical insurance, and demoted the employee.
An employee must also prove with clear and convincing evidence that the employer either authorized the discrimination or learned of the discrimination and did nothing to prevent it; effectively ratifying the discrimination.
If you have been discriminated against due to your disability or perceived disability contact a California employment law attorney right away. Call the employment lawyers of the Law Offices of Michael S. Cunningham, LLP to schedule a free consultation at (951) 213-4786.