Recently, a federal district court sitting in New York held that an employee’s prior release of a claim for compensatory damages for unlawful employment discrimination did not preclude his claim under Title VII for punitive damages arising out of the same conduct. Barker v. Aramark Unif. & Career Apparel, LLC, No. 19-CV-2710, 2021 WL 4859741 (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 18, 2021). The employee in the case filed a charge of race discrimination against his former employer with the State Division of Human Rights. The parties entered into a Settlement Agreement by which the employee “waive[d] and release[d] any and all claims and allegations asserted in” the Division proceeding “arising from or relating to any and all acts, events and omissions alleged or that could have been alleged[.]” Subsequently, the employee brought a Title VII suit in federal court, seeking punitive damages—a remedy not available in the state agency proceeding. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing inter alia that because the law does not recognize an independent cause of action for punitive damages, no such right could have been reserved by the Settlement Agreement.
In denying the employer’s motion, the court noted that since the enactment of the Civil Rights Amendments in 1991, Title VII plaintiffs have been able to recover punitive damages by demonstrating that the defendant engaged in a discriminatory practice “with malice or with reckless indifference” to federally protected rights. Subsequent federal court decisions established that an award of compensatory damages is not a prerequisite for recovery of punitive damages in Title VII cases. Although the Second Circuit has not yet ruled on the effect of a release of a compensatory claim on the viability of a request for punitive damages arising out of the same conduct, district courts within the Second Circuit have held that such a release does not preclude a subsequent punitive damages claim. The court agreed with this view.