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Front pay is money awarded for lost compensation during the period between judgment and reinstatement, or if reinstatement is not feasible, instead of reinstatement. Like back pay, front pay essentially is the equivalent of lost earnings. Courts traditionally permitted Title VII plaintiffs to recover front pay when appropriate, even though Title VII does not specifically provide for front pay.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that front pay is not to be considered a part of compensatory damages under the 1991 Civil Rights Act (“CRA”). This means that front pay is not subject to the 1991 CRA’s cap on compensatory damages. The Court’s decision means that an employer found liable for intentional discrimination under Title VII may be liable for front pay and back pay, in addition to compensatory and punitive damages.
Federal appeals courts are split over the issue of whether federal law allows an award of punitive damages without an award of actual damages. The traditional common law rule is that punitive damages are not appropriate where the plaintiff fails to demonstrate actual harm.
However, at least one federal court has found the traditional rule is no bar to a punitive award because the front pay award serves the purpose of compensating plaintiff for economic losses resulting from the unlawful discharge. The court found the common law policy prohibiting punitive damages where a plaintiff has not shown any harm is not involved where a plaintiff has shown wage loss.