A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently held in Alvarado v. Cajun Operating Company, that compensatory and punitive damages are unavailable to a plaintiff who brings an ADA retaliation claim. Consistent with a prior Seventh Circuit ruling in Kramer v. Banc. of Am. Sec., 355 F.3d 961 (2004), the Alvarado Court found that the ADA specifically excludes a retaliation claim under Section 12203 from awards of compensatory and punitive damages. The court reasoned that Section 1981(a)(2) of the ADA does not list claims brought under section 12203 as one of the enumerated categories of claims meriting compensatory and punitive damages. Since the statute specifically enumerated other claims under the ADA where punitive and compensatory damages are proper remedies, the court found that Congress intended for those claims, and not those under Section 12203, to get punitive and compensatory damages as a remedy. In addition, the court held that since ADA retaliation claims are only subject to equitable relief, no jury trial is available.
This Ninth Circuit ruling on remedies for an ADA retaliation claim is significant for several reasons. The Ninth Circuit is generally one of the most pro-employee jurisdictions. It is, therefore, noteworthy that the Alvarado Court declined an opportunity to expand the kinds of relief awarded for an ADA retaliation claim. The court had a relatively easy opportunity to read into the ADA statute the remedy of punitive and compensatory damages for a retaliation claim, but instead used the tools of statutory construction and avoided reading language into the statute that is not already there. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit overruled several district court decisions that previously found punitive and compensatory damages for ADA retaliation claims when it could easily have opted to uphold those pro-employee decisions. This holding suggests that at least one panel of the court is receptive to arguments for strict statutory interpretation. Here, the court properly followed the tenets of statutory construction — where a statute is unambiguous, the court must interpret it as written. The decision is an encouraging sign that strict construction arguments remain a robust defense to expansive damages claims, even in traditionally plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions.