Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday signed into law legislation expanding potential damages in discrimination cases involving smaller employers.

Workers at companies with fewer than 15 employees already can sue for back pay, interest, hiring, front pay, reinstatement and other qualified relief in discrimination cases. Now, under HB1136, employees will be able to ask for punitive and compensatory damages as well; larger employers are subject to such damages.

Opponents had warned that the measure would subject small-business owners to more frivolous lawsuits, costly insurance coverage and expensive settlements for cases that never see trial. Tony Gagliardi, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, assailed the governor's action.

'In signing this needless, punitive assault on Main Street enterprises, the promise he made in his State of the State address to create a favorable environment for small businesses to thrive in now rings hollow and insincere, ' Gagliardi said in a news release.

Hickenlooper, in a statement, said he was sympathetic to the concerns of small-business owners and noted he is a former small-business owner himself. But he said the measure 'strikes the appropriate balance between protecting small business employers from costly and frivolous litigation and providing the victims of intentional and unacceptable discrimination with appropriate remedies. '

The law does not take effect until January 2015, 'which allows time for a thoughtful outreach and public education campaign involving small employers, ' the governor's statement said.