Public Chapter 995 - Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”)

2/5/2015

Effective July 1, 2014, Public Chapter 995 amends several of Tennessee’s existing employment statutes to bring them in line with their related federal counterpart. Specifically, the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”) has been amended to remove liability for individual supervisors or agents for claims against the employer. Additionally, the THRA, the Tennessee Disability Act and the Tennessee Public Protection Act have been amended to provide caps on “non-pecuniary damages.” Non-pecuniary damages are damages for claims related to pain, suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, mental anguish and the loss of enjoyment of life. Thus, the amendments do not cap damages on back pay, front pay or interest on those wages.

The specific damage caps are based on the number of employees the employer has. For instance, for employers with more than 8 but fewer than 15 employees, the cap is $25,000; for those with 15-100 employees, the cap is $50,000; for those with 101-200 employees, the cap is $100,000; for those with 201-500, the cap is $200,000 employees; and for employers with more than 500 employees, the cap is $300,000. In addition to the damages caps, the amendment also provides that an employee may not maintain an action under the THRA, Tennessee Disability Act or the Tennessee Public Protection Act in state court while at the same time maintaining an action under the same “common nucleus of operative facts” in federal court.

The Tennessee Disability Act (“TDA”), which protects employees from discrimination based on any physical, mental or visual disability of the employee, was amended by Public Chapter 995 to specifically apply to only employers employing at least 8 or more persons within the state. This makes both the TDA and THRA subject to the 8 employee threshold. However, not subject to the eight-employee threshold is the Tennessee Public Protection Act (“TPPA”), which protects employees who have been subject to a retaliatory discharge. This presents a unique situation. Now, under the revised statutes, an employee can sue an employer who has less than 8 employees for a violation of the TPPA and none of the damages caps will apply. As mentioned above, the lowest cap is for employers who employ more than 8 but fewer than 15 employees. Thus, an employer with 7 employees could be subject to an un-capped claim for emotional distress related to an employee’s TPPA claim while an employer with 9 employees would only be subject to $25,000 in emotional distress damages for the same TPPA claim.

The legislature made another important revision to the TPPA. Previously, employees sued employers under the TPPA and the common law for retaliatory discharge. Public Chapter 995 amended the Tennessee Code to provide that any claim for retaliation against an employer must be brought under the TPPA. As a result, the amendment specifically eliminates the common law cause of action for retaliatory discharge. This is important because, under the TPPA, employees bringing retaliation claims are required to prove that the employee’s protected activity was the “sole reason” for termination. This is a higher burden than the traditional common law test which only required that the protected activity was a “substantial factor” in the termination decision.

If you have questions or for more information on Employment Law, please call Ben Cunningham at (865)-546-7311 or email bcunningham@kmfpc.com.

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