January 1995

Workplace Labor Update - Professor Awarded $150,000 in Damages – January 1995

2 min

The federal court in the District of Columbia awarded Professor Soon Y. Park $150,000 in compensatory damages under the Civil Rights Act of 1991 on her discrimination suit filed against Howard University. What makes this ruling of particular interest to employers is that prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 plaintiffs were only entitled to receive equitable relief, e.g. reinstatement with back pay. Under the 1991 Act (which took effect November 21, 1991), however, plaintiffs alleging that they were victims of discrimination may be entitled to recover compensatory and punitive damages as well. After the passage of this Act, there were many questions regarding whether its provisions would be applied retroactively to cover discrimination cases arising before November 1991. The United States Supreme Court addressed the retroactivity issue in Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 114 S.Ct. 1883 (1994), and held that the provisions of the Act would not be applied retroactively. Howard University argued that Park was only entitled to receive a de minimis award for compensatory damages under Landgraf, because the majority of the discriminatory acts she complained of occurred before the passage of the 1991 Act. Therefore, the only conduct which would subject the defendant to liability for compensatory damages is the conduct which occurred after November 21, 1991. Park offered a different interpretation of the retroactivity issue and the Supreme Court’s holding in Landgraf. She argued successfully that Landgraf did not foreclose an award of compensatory damages in this case because the University’s conduct represented a pattern of discrimination which continued after the Act was passed in November 1991. Park emphasized the fact that the discriminatory conduct was not discontinued by the 1991 amendments and, thus, there was no reason not to apply the provisions of the Act retroactively. The court agreed with Park and ruled that the continuing nature of the discriminatory behavior and the failure of the University to remedy the discrimination distinguished this case from the Landgraf decision. In Landgraf all of the complained of conduct happened before the 1991 Act and, the employer took prompt remedial action. Unlike in the Landgraf case, Howard took no remedial action and in fact, the discrimination Park complained about continued unabated. This case marks an important distinction between pre-Act, post-Act and continuing violations. Employers should be wary of the additional remedies available to charging parties claiming ongoing violations of Title VII.