Connecticut Supreme Court Bars Emotional Distress Awards in CHRO Proceedings

September 1, 1996 Advisory

The Connecticut Supreme Court in CHRO v. Truelove & Maclean, Inc. recently clarified that damages for emotional distress are unavailable in proceedings before the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities ("CHRO").

By way of background, last year in Bridgeport Hospital v. CHRO, the Supreme Court held that the CHRO had no authority to award emotional distress damages under Connecticut General Statute 46a-60, which prohibits employment discrimination. Since then, the CHRO has been attempting to sidestep the damages limitations of the Bridgeport Hospital ruling by invoking another statute in most of its employment discrimination cases. That statute-Connecticut General Statute 46a-58-provides for a general cause of action for damages for discrimination, without specifically referring to employment, and permits the complaining party to receive an award for emotional distress.

The question recently before the Supreme Court in Truelove was whether the CHRO or a complainant could successfully characterize acts of alleged employment discrimination as violations of the generic Section 46a-58 in order to obtain awards of emotional distress damages. The Supreme Court's rejection of the Section 46a-58 argument, when read with the Court's earlier ruling in Bridgeport Hospital, now makes it clear that the CHRO has no authority to award emotional distress damages in employment discrimination cases.

The Supreme Court reasoned that Section 46a-58 does not apply to employment situations because Section 46a-60, entitled "Discriminatory employment practices," specifically addresses employment discrimination. The Supreme Court concluded that the legislature would not have included Section 46a-60's specific prohibition against employment discrimination, if it had intended to include such conduct in the more general antidiscrimination prohibitions of Section 46a-58. Using basic principles of statutory interpretation, the Supreme Court held that the specific section (46a-60), and not the general section, must govern.

Although the Truelove decision represents another significant limitation on the authority of the CHRO, it does not mean that emotional distress damages never can be recovered for acts of employment discrimination. For example, a plaintiff claiming violations of the Connecticut employment discrimination statute in an action in state court can recover damages for emotional distress because the Superior Court is empowered to award such damages under Section 46a- 60, even though the CHRO, enforcing precisely the same statute, cannot do the same.

All that a complainant must do to elect the judicial remedy rather than more limited administrative remedy is to file a claim with the CHRO and wait 210 days. At that time, the complainant has the right to ask the CHRO to release its jurisdiction over the claim so the complainant can proceed in Superior Court. It seems likely, then, that the Truelove decision may result in more complainants exercising their right to obtain a release of CHRO's jurisdiction to sue in state court-resulting in even more litigation and greater costs for employers.

The Truelove decision also holds that CHRO hearing officers are not necessarily required to award back pay and reinstatement upon a finding of discrimination. Although the complainant alleged that she was discriminatorily denied reinstatement after a maternity leave, the hearing officer found that she never sought to return to work at the company and, therefore, the requested remedy of reinstatement was denied. The hearing officer also found that the complainant's job search after her maternity leave was limited to part-time employment. Because her former is employer did not have a part-time employment option for anyone, the complainant could not have returned to work there even absent any discriminatory conduct. The hearing officer denied the demand for backpay under the circumstances. The Supreme Court found nothing in the record or in the hearing officer's reasoning to disturb the findings or decision.