Today, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld a $547,000 judgment against Express Jet Airlines for its sexual orientation discrimination against a former gay employee, Edward Russell. $500,000 of this judgment was for the emotional distress that Mr. Russell suffered due to Express Jet’s discrimination and the rest was for back pay.
One argument that Express Jet made to the Supreme Judicial Court was that the Cumberland County Superior Court applied the wrong damage cap under the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA). The MHRA caps damages awards against employers based on the number of employees they have. Larger employers are subject to higher damage caps than smaller employers. So, a court can require an employer with over 500 employees to pay more in damages to an employee it discriminates against than it can require an employer with 100 employees to pay.
While Express Jet has more than 500 employees nationwide, it has less than 100 in Maine. Express Jet argued that the Superior Court should only have counted the number of employees it has in Maine, instead of in the whole company, when it decided which damage cap applied to it. Under Express Jet’s argument, the jury’s $1,000,000 award of emotional distress and punitive damages would’ve been reduced to $50,000 instead of $500,000. Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court rejected this argument reasoning that “the clear intent of the graduated caps is to protect smaller employers from large damage judgments that could potentially devastate them.” If the Supreme Judicial Court had accepted Express Jet’s argument, large nationwide employers could garner more protection from the MHRA damage caps than smaller Maine-based employers. This obviously would not make any sense and the court recognized that.