No Punitive Damages Awards by Human Rights Commission, Illinois Supreme Court Rules

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Late last week, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Rita Garman, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the Cook County Commission on Human Rights lacks any authority to award punitive damages. Our detailed summary of the facts and administrative and lower court rulings in Crittenden v. Cook County Commission on Human Rights is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

Crittenden arises from a sexual harassment claim filed with the Cook County Commission on Human Rights by a bartender working at a Cook County bar. After a contentious hearing, a hearing officer recommended that the employee receive an award of lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages. The Commission adopted the hearing officer’s proposed order. The Circuit Court denied certiorari, affirming the administrative decision on liability and compensatory and punitive damages. The Appellate Court (First District, Sixth Division) affirmed the Commission on liability and compensatory damages, but reversed on punitive damages. According to the Appellate Court, it made no difference whether the challenged conduct merited an award of punitive damages, since the Commission lacked the authority to award them in the first place. In so holding, the Appellate Court refused to follow Page v. City of Chicago, in which Division One of the First District had held that the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance does permit awards of punitive damages by the Commission.

The Supreme Court affirmed the First District. Although the Commission argued that it had the power to award punitive damages pursuant to Cook County’s broad home rule authority, the Supreme Court disagreed. As an administrative agency, the Commission had no inherent power: its powers were limited to those granted to it by the legislature, and any actions it takes must be authorized by statute. According to the Human Rights Ordinance, the Commission may grant a wide range of forms of relief, including cease and desist orders, awards of damages and costs and fees, and orders to rehire. The Commission pointed out that the list of permissible forms of relief wasn’t exclusive, but the Court held that that made no difference. As an administrative agency, the Commission was without common law authority, and therefore couldn’t award punitive damages without express language saying so. The Court pointed out that a number of different state statutes expressly authorized administrative agencies to award punitive damages, and finding such authority merely by implication was inconsistent with the view that punitive damages are not favored in the law. Rejecting Page, the Court declined to find that policy considerations required implying the power to award punitive damages, specifically pointing again to the disfavored status of punitive damages in the law, as well as to the risks involved in assessing punitive damages when the defendant is merely vicariously liable for the actions of an employee. Finding no basis for deviating from the established rule that administrative agencies have only the power they are expressly given, the Court held that the Cook County Commission on Human Rights lacks any power to award punitive damages.