HR Management & Compliance

Compensatory, Punitive Damages for Wisconsion Discrimination Claims

Governor Doyle recently signed Senate Bill 20, which drastically changes discrimination claims under Wisconsin law. Previously, discrimination claims based under Wisconsin law were processed by the Equal Rights Division of the Department of Workforce Development (ERD). The only remedies available were back pay, attorneys’ fees, and reinstatement (or front pay in some instances).

Under the new law, employees can sue employers in state court for compensatory and punitive damages up to $300,000 if the employer has more than 500 employees. The compensatory and punitive damage claims don’t apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees. For employers with 15 to 100 employees, the compensatory/punitive damage cap is $50,000. For employers with 100 to 200 employees, the cap is $100,000. For employers with 200 to 500 employees, the cap is $200,000.

If an employee prevails in front of the ERD, he has 60 days to file an action in state court for compensatory and punitive damages.

This law will allow employees to sue for compensatory and punitive damages in claims based on arrest and conviction discrimination as well as claims based on sexual orientation discrimination. Moreover, Wisconsin’s disability law is broader than federal law, and employees suing under Wisconsin law for disability discrimination will now be able to receive compensatory and punitive damages.

The new law will likely result in more discrimination complaints. It also will result in state court lawsuits for compensatory and punitive damages, which previously didn’t exist. This law will make defending discrimination actions more expensive.

In light of these serious changes to Wisconsin law, Wisconsin employers are cautioned to make sure every adverse employment decision is justified and properly documented and that similarly situated people are treated in a similar manner (unless there is a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason to differentiate between similarly situated employees). You should confer with legal counsel before taking adverse actions to minimize the risk that such an action will lead to compensatory or punitive damages.

Look for more information on this important new law in the next issue of Wisconsin Employment Law Letter and in the 2010 edition of 50 Employment Laws in 50 States which will be available in early 2010.

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