When an employee is wrongfully terminated, the effects can be devastating. Victims of discrimination may find themselves depressed, humiliated, and even physically sick. And, of course, the economic effects can be even more pronounced. Individuals may be forced to live off savings, cash in retirement accounts, run up credit cards, and even lose their homes. Commonly, a victim of discrimination will want to know what redress he or she is entitled to as a result of a lawsuit for disability discrimination. Below is an overview of what recovery is available.
The bulk of an employee’s damages will be compensatory damages. There are two types of compensatory damages: economic and non-economic. Economic damages are damages which are naturally thought of in dollars and cents. Common examples include property damage, medical bills, and—in discrimination cases—lost wages.
In discrimination cases, lost wages will almost always be the sole source of economic damages. A common question arises concerning any medical bills that an employee may have which relate to the disability in the case. These damages are simply outside of what discrimination statutes are meant to address. This is true even if the disability arises from a work-related injury. More likely than not, that work-related injury can be addressed by a work comp claim, but not with a disability discrimination case. Medical bills that are incurred to treatment stress-related injuries, such as diagnosed depression or insomnia, are recoverable. These types of damages are proven by producing medical bills and having a care provider connect the illness and the discrimination.
Wrongfully terminated employees may also feel that debts incurred because of the termination should be covered. However, these debts, such as credit card run-ups or interest from getting behind on bills, are not recoverable in the dollar-for-dollar way that lost wages are. Instead, these are factors for non-economic damages.
The other half of compensatory damages are non-economic damages. Non-economic damages cover things that we don’t commonly think of in terms of money. For a discrimination claim, this can include lost employment opportunities. This concept is that getting fired actually makes it more difficult for an individual to get another job. Basically, a victim of discrimination is placed in a very, very difficult situation concerning the termination: lying about why the employment ended, which carries obvious consequences; admitting the employment ended in a termination, which makes the victim a less-desirable applicant; or admitting the termination occurred but explaining it was unlawful and the employee is suing that employer. Obviously, none of these options are good and the employee can argue that this harm is worth something.
The largest part of non-economic damages is emotional distress. This refers to the variety of unsavory aspects of being wrongfully terminated and discriminated against: the humiliation, the anguish, the feelings of worthlessness—all of it. So long as the employee is not seeking reimbursement of medical bills, there is no need to identify any specific ailments, such as depression. Instead, the employee can simply describe the experience and its effects to the jury, and the jury will have to determine what amount redresses those experiences. Appropriate considerations will include having to cash in retirement accounts and incurring unexpected debt. These won’t be a dollar-for-dollar award (in fact, it is likely the judge won’t allow the specific numbers to be presented), but they paint a picture for jurors.
Aside from both types of compensatory damages, punitive damages may be available. Punitive damages do not aim to compensate the victim of discrimination, but instead punish the discriminator. Because of this purpose, not every case will allow a jury to assess punitive damages. Instead, the jury must find the employer acted with “legal malice,” meaning the employer disregarded the rights of the plaintiff or acted deliberately. Discrimination cases are ripe for such findings. However, the punishing nature of punitive damages means they are subject to far more constraints than compensatory damages. Both the United States Constitution and various laws keep punitive damages from reaching extreme amounts. In addition, punitive damages awarded under the Missouri Human Rights Act must be split 50/50 between the employee and the state.
Under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (federal law) and the Missouri Human Rights Act (state law), a prevailing employee can recover attorneys’ fees. This means that the discriminating employer must pay for the employee’s attorneys. This is known as “fee-shifting,” and it exists because the state and federal governments benefit from having private parties prosecute discrimination cases. This fee-shifting also provides an incentive for attorneys to take on discrimination cases that may not have large amounts of compensatory or punitive damages.
There is also the possibility of equitable relief in discrimination cases. Equitable relief basically means a fair solution. This may include reinstating the employee back into the position he or she was fired from, if the two sides aren’t so disgruntled as to make that impossible. It can also include “front pay.” Front pay is an award of money to compensate an employee that has a lower-paying job following his or her termination. The idea is to continue to put the employee in as close to the position that she would have been in without the discrimination. These remedies are generally decided by the judge, based upon a verdict rendered by the jury.
Both federal and state discrimination laws have capped damages. These caps prevent a plaintiff for being awarded the full amount a jury decides that individual is owed. They are a type of “tort reform,” which businesses encourage lawmakers to pass. Under both federal and state law, the amount at which damages are capped is determined by the size of the employer. The more employees an employer has, the higher damages may be assessed before the cap kicks in.
Damages are the redress available to an employee that has been wrongfully discharged. Understanding what damages are available is important to know when deciding if a lawsuit should be filed. Determining what damages are available takes legal knowledge and depends upon the facts of each case. This is why Doyle & Associates LLC always offers free consultations. Call us to find out more.
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