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The US Supreme Court today hears a case which could have a big impact on the size of damages paid by US employers in employ­ment discrimination lawsuits. The court agreed to hear the case, Carole Kolstad vs the American Dental Association (ADA), to clarify what kind of employer conduct will give rise to punitive damages - damages awarded to punish and deter an offender - in lawsuits involving sex discrimination. However, law employment experts said that the suit was also likely to have a knock-on effect on race, age and other employment discrimination suits brought under Title VII of the 1991 Civil Rights Act.

The case involves a female lawyer employed as a lobbyist for the ADA, a professional trade association. A jury found that Ms Kolstad was denied promotion because of intentional sex discrimination. The issue before the court is not whether this is so, but whether such discrimination must be “egregious” before punitive damages are awarded.

Title VII permits such damages where there was 'malice or ... reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an individual'. But in Ms Kolstad's case an Appeals Court found that the ADA'S conduct was neither 'egregious' nor 'truly outrageous' enough to merit punitive damages. At the moment there is confu­sion over the standard of conduct necessary to attract punitive damages, with the various circuit courts applying differing stan­dards to define 'reckless indifference'. If the Supreme Court upholds the Appeals Court's decision in Kolstad - that the conduct did not meet this standard of “egregious” (very bad indeed, disgraceful -widely used in legal terminology in American English) - this would set a new standard nationwide that could limit the size of both jury awards and pre-trial settlements.

“Our concern is that punitive damages would become the norm”

Conversely, if Ms Kolstad wins, jury awards and settlements could shoot up. Her lawyers argue in their brief that 'egregious' is too high a standard and that employees need only show that their employers knew or should have known their conduct was probably unlawful in order to have claims for punitive damages put before a jury. 'If adopted, this standard would subject employers to punitive damages virtually every time an employee engages in intentional discrimination against another,' the US Chamber of Commerce argues in a brief filed to support the ADA. 'Our concern is that punitive damages would become the norm, not the exception, whereas the law clearly intends them to be the exception,' says Stephen Bokat of the National Chamber Litigation Center, which has also backed the ADA.

According to Jury Verdict Research, which tracks jury awards, 40% of verdicts in gender discrimination cases in the last six years have included punitive damages. The law caps damages at $50,000-$300,000 per plaintiff, depending on the size of the employer.

A lower court jury awarded Ms Kolstad back pay after a male employee in the same office was, according to her lawyer's brief, 'preselected' for a promotion for which he was less qualified than she was.

Legal brief

Discrimination is unfair treatment or denial of normal privileges to people because of their race, age, sex, nationality or religion. In this case, the US appeal judges were asked to decide if the unfair treatment had been so bad as to warrant an extremely stiff penalty (punitive damages), which should deter others from similar behaviour. Note that each US state administers its own justice system but the system of appeal is from trial court to Appeals Court and then the Supreme Court, which is the highest appeal court in the US.

(Based on:Patti Waldmeir. Financial Times)


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IV. Translate the following text from Russian into English and be ready for its discussion on the basis of active vocabulary, key terms quiz, review and discussion questions.

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