Setting Range for Emotional Damage Awards Is Not Its Job, Says Connecticut High Court

July 3, 2023

It is up to the Connecticut legislature, not courts, to set any minimum or maximum controls on damages for emotional stress claims, the Connecticut Supreme Court held in a ruling in which it refused to second-guess a $15,000 award in a racial discrimination case.

The high court upheld lower courts that also declined to adjust the penalty upwards to $30,000 as requested on appeal by the state’s human rights commission. The commission had argued that a previous case (Patino v. Birken Mfg. Co.) by the high court set $30,000 as the minimum award for emotional distress damages. But the state’s courts have rejected that interpretation along with the idea that the courts should regulate award amounts.

The high court wrote that “the determination of whether to establish some minimum or maximum permissible award for any particular cause of action, in light of evolving public sentiments and the conflicting societal interests involved, is a quintessentially legislative, rather than judicial, function, especially when that determination involves an administrative agency.”

The court added that “confining emotional distress damages to some permissible range would run afoul of decades of Connecticut jurisprudence, insofar as this court has rejected the idea that any specific yardstick can be applied to cabin the discretion of the trier of fact when calculating a fair and appropriate award of noneconomic damages.”

In the case before it, a woman filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) alleging housing discrimination on the basis of race by her neighbor in a condominium complex. She alleged the neighbor tormented her by “repeatedly making obscene gestures; directing vile, racial epithets toward her, and threatening her.”

The neighbor never showed for the CHRO’s administrative proceeding, and, following a hearing on damages, the human rights referee found that the plaintiff had suffered emotional distress and awarded her $15,000 in damages.

The commission viewed the award as insufficient and appealed to the Superior Court, claiming that under the Patino decision an award for “garden-variety emotional distress damages” presumptively must be at least $30,000. The commission also claimed that the referee made various errors of law.

The trial court, which was bound by a highly deferential standard of review that governs administrative decisions in the state, concluded that there was no legal basis for it to question the award, and it dismissed the appeal.

The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment, concluding that Patino did not adopt any presumptive floor for emotional distress damages and that the referee’s heavily fact- specific assessment of the emotional distress damages was not an abuse of discretion. The commission then appealed to the high court.

The Supreme Court dismissed as without merit the commission’s claim that the referee’s award of $15,000 in damages violated Patino, an employment discrimination case in which it upheld a jury award of more than $90,000 in noneconomic damages for garden-variety emotional distress. In Patino, the court cited a series of cases in which awards of $100,000 or more had been made in civil rights cases and quoted a federal district court case in support of the proposition that garden-variety emotional distress claims “generally merit $30,000 to $125,000 awards.” But the court stressed that this language did not mean, as the commission claimed, that Patino therefore established that range for garden-variety emotional distress claims.

“This court clarified that its intent in Patino was to note that an award of damages that was squarely within the range of those awards that often are made in nearby jurisdictions will not shock the judicial conscience, and the court in Patino did not intend to use the range of damages referenced therein to establish the inverse rule, namely, that an award lower than the generally prevailing range of damages in federal jury trials is presumptively an abuse of discretion in Connecticut,” the high court explained.

The court also did not find that the human rights referee committed any errors.

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