Virginia Supreme Court Strikes Punitive Damage Award

Eric Paltell
Eric Paltell

On September 8, 2016, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that an employee who sues his employer for retaliatory discharge under Code §40.1-51.2:1 after making a health or safety complaint is not entitled to an award of punitive damages.  Property Damage Specialists Inc. v. Rechichar.    The Court reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court for Shenandoah County, where a jury had awarded both compensatory and punitive damages to a discharged employee.

Code §40.1-51.2:1 provides that “no person shall discharge or in any way discriminate against an employee because the employee has filed a safety or health complaint or has testified or otherwise acted to exercise rights under the safety and health provisions of this title for themselves or others.”  An aggrieved employee can either bring a complaint with the Commissioner of Labor and Industry or file a private lawsuit if the Commissioner refuses to pursue the claim.  The Code provides that an employee who files a private lawsuit is entitled to “appropriate relief.” The phrase “appropriate relief” is not defined in the Code, so it is not clear if the General Assembly intended for a party to be able to recover punitive damages.

The Supreme Court held that it interprets the statute to exclude punitive damages from the types of relief available.  The Court relied upon the fact that an employee must file a charge with the Commissioner as a prerequisite to filing suit, and that the Commissioner’s role is to “have the violation abated without economic lass to the employee.”  The Commissioner’s remedial powers are defined by the Code to include reinstatement, backpay, and interest not to exceed eight percent per annum.   Because there is no reference to punitive damages in the part of the Code delineating the remedies available to the Commissioner, the Court found that an individual pursuing a private right of action has no right to an award of punitive damages.

The Rechichar decision highlights the importance of careful statutory interpretation.  When presented with employment cases, the Virginia Supreme Court has generally been reluctant to grant expansive remedies to employees.    Employers and their counsel faced with actual or threatened claims from employees should proceed with caution and be hesitant to place too much stock in creative theories raised by plaintiff’s attonreys.

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