Ignoring discrimination policy may lead to punitive damages

Train supervisors and managers to report religious and other discrimination, and be sure they know not to retaliate against anyone who does come forward. Ohio state law bars discrimination based on religion and other protected characteristics, and employees who can show they were discriminated against can collect punitive damages.

To avoid the appearance that religion may be part of your job-candidate criteria, don’t ask applicants about their religious affiliation. Also off-limits: inquiring whether an applicant’s religion would prevent him or her from working certain days or hours, unless the applicant asks for an accommodation. Otherwise, stay clear of any questions about religion.

Recent case: Ruby Gibbons and Janice Thomas both sued The Bair Foundation, a social services agency, for religious discrimination and retaliation. Gibbons had interviewed for a position with the agency, and Thomas already worked there. After the agency offered Gibbons a position, she gave notice to her employer.

Then the foundation rescinded the offer. But Thomas heard from a supervisor that Gibbons had not been hired because her church “was not a Christian church” and she was not “Christian enough.” Thomas reported the apparent religious discrimination to management. Soon she found herself without a job, too.

When the women sued, a jury awarded Gibbons $40,000 in lost wages plus $90,000 in punitive damages, and Thomas $4,000 in lost wages plus $40,000 in punitive damages.

The Bair Foundation asked the judge to toss out the punitive damages, but he refused. Because the agency violated its own policy against religious discrimination and retaliated against an employee who complained about that violation, it acted maliciously. And punitive damages are always available in all Ohio state discrimination lawsuits when the employer acts with malice. (Gibbons, et al., v. The Bair Foundation, No. 1:04-CV-2018, ND OH, 2007)