December 11, 2009

Alvarado v. Cajun Operating Co.: Punitive Damages Are Unavailable for a Retaliation Claim Under the ADA

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a new opinion today holding that compensatory damages and punitive damages are not available for a retaliation claim brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to the plaintiff in this case, the defendant retaliated against him for complaining that his manager had discriminated against him on the basis of his disability. Subsequently, the plaintiff sued his former employer for, among things, retaliation under the ADA. Prior to trial, the federal district court barred the plaintiff from seeking compensatory damages and punitive damages for his ADA retaliation claim on the grounds that only equitable relief was available for such claims.

The Ninth Circuit agreed to hear an interlocutory appeal on this issue and affirmed the trial court’s determination. The appellate court noted that other federal courts had previously reached differing conclusions on the issue. On reviewing the case law and 42 U.S.C. section 1981a (the statute governing the availability of compensatory and punitive damages for certain types of ADA claims), the Ninth Circuit determined that the plain language of “section 1981a limits its remedial reach to ADA discrimination claims, and does not incorporate ADA retaliation claims . . . .” While the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that “a convoluted analytical path exists to concluding that punitive and compensatory damages are available for ADA retaliation claims,” the court rejected this convoluted approach because it was contrary to “the basic tenets of statutory construction” calling for a court to look to a statute’s plain language. Since the “plain and unambiguous provisions of 42 U.S.C [section] 1981a limit the availability of compensatory and punitive damages to” specific claims that did not include ADA retaliation claims, the Ninth Circuit held that “ADA retaliation claims are redressable only by equitable relief . . . .”