California Considering Ban on Employer Forced Arbitration

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Last year, a bipartisan coalition in the United States Senate sponsored legislation to ban the use of mandatory arbitration agreements with regard to claims of sexual harassment and sex discrimination. The federal bill is still pending. 

Now, a similar bill has been filed in the California legislature. If it passes, the California bill would prohibit employers from requiring mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment. And unlike the federal bill mentioned above, the California bill would prohibit arbitration clauses as a condition of employment as to all types of employment claims—not just sexual harassment and sex discrimination claims.

If passed, the California law would be an important start to a movement to get rid of employer-based, forced arbitration. Statistics show that arbitration is unfair to employees and is used by some employers to effectively opt out of the judicial system into a rigged, pseudo-court where wrongdoing can be effectively covered up by companies. 

And claims that arbitrating claims is more cost-effective than traditional adjudication in court are are not supported by the available statistical data. Many employment corporate defense lawyers point out that research shows arbitration is neither faster nor less expensive than litigation

There has long been data showing that a solid majority of Americans oppose forced arbitration in the employment context.  If this bill passes and becomes law in California, perhaps it will be the beginning of a nation-wide movement to allow employees back into the courtroom. 

 

Read More: National Law Review

Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:  

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.

Does Judge Gorsuch Really Love the Jury Trial?

National Employment Lawyers Association Opposes Nomination of Neil Gorsuch to Supreme Court

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In our current environment of a new scandal every five minutes, it is easy for really important issues to get lost in all the noise.  One such big issue currently pending is the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Some oppose Gorsuch's nomination not for anything he has said or done himself, but because of the hotly contested and partisan manner in which his potential seat on the Court was arguably stolen from an equally qualified candidate by certain members of Congress last year. I personally think it was a big mistake for the republicans to inject even more partisan politics into the manner in which Supreme Court justices are selected. In our system of jurisprudence, the Supreme Court's power comes solely from its credibility with the American people. The more partisan the Court looks, the weaker it becomes.  Regardless of one's position on the issues the Court decides, it is in all of our interests for the Court to be respected and considered to be above politics to the greatest degree possible. 

Putting that issue aside for the moment, organizations that typically vet Supreme Court candidates are starting to come in with their assessments of him on issues that are important to said organizations' memberships.  This week the National Employment Lawyers Association announced their opposition to Mr. Gorsuch. NELA is the largest organization of U.S. attorneys who primarily represent employees. 

NELA's letter in opposition to Mr. Gorsuch, the text of which I include in full below, gives several reasons for the organization's opposition to his appointment. However, the most important reason listed, to my mind, is Mr. Gorsuch's reported antipathy for the jury trial...at least in employment cases. 

There have been several news reports over the course of the preceding few weeks touting Mr. Gorsuch's love of the jury trial and his plan to bring it back. Others have discussed Gorsuch's antipathy for the McDonnell-Douglass burden shifting framework in employment cases (an optional but usually-used framework for analyzing employment-related claims frequently used by judges to dismiss discrimination and harassment cases without a trial). On the surface both of these positions seem to align with the interests of employees. I hope that Gorsuch's statements regarding these issues are genuine and would support his efforts in this regard. 

But what NELA points out is that Judge Gorsuch, like many federal judges, has gotten into the bad habit of doing the jury's work for them in far to many cases. Rather than denying motions for summary judgment whenever there is a fact question at issue to be decided by a jury, he all to often weighs the evidence, draws inferences against the employee, and decides the credibility of the witnesses in the case -- all issues that are supposed to be left to the wisdom of the jury. 

Judge Gorsuch is, sadly, not unique in these reported failings. Federal judges overstepping their Constitutional role in employment cases to make improper fact determinations is a well-known problem throughout the country. (Read: "When it comes to employment cases, judges are killing the Civil Rights Act of 1964" by Judge Richard Kopf as well as "Anti-Discrimination Laws Have Been "Gutted"" on this blog.) It is a serious problem that threatens one of the most sacred elements of the American system -- the Constitutional right to a trial by jury. 

The following is the full text of NELA's letter in opposition to Judge Gorsuch's nomination: 

March 13, 2017
Submitted Via Email:
Ted_lehman@judiciary-rep.senate.gov
Paige_herwig@judiciary-dem.senate.gov
The Honorable Chuck Grassley, Chairman
United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary
224 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable Dianne Feinstein, Ranking Member
United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary
152 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Chairman Grassley and Ranking Member Feinstein:
On behalf of the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), and its 4,000 circuit, state, and local affiliate members across the country, I write to express our strong opposition to the nomination of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court.
NELA is the largest professional membership organization in the country comprising lawyers who represent workers in labor, employment and civil rights disputes. Founded in 1985, NELA advances employee rights and serves lawyers who advocate for equality and justice in the American workplace. Our members litigate daily in every circuit, affording NELA a unique perspective on how employment cases actually play out on the ground. NELA strives to protect the rights of its members’ clients, and envisions a workplace in which employees will be paid at least a living wage in an environment free of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and capricious employment decisions; employees’ safety and livelihood will not be compromised for the sake of corporate profit and interests; and individuals will have effective legal representation to enforce their rights to a fair and just workplace, adequate remedies, and a right to trial by jury.
As a member of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Gorsuch has demonstrated a troubling propensity to both draw inferences against plaintiff-employees and make improper determinations regarding the credibility of the respective parties when deciding whether an employee should be permitted to present her claims to a jury (the procedural posture in most employment cases on appeal). This practice runs afoul of the applicable provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and rulings from the Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch has shown an affinity for deploying legal reasoning unsupported by the text and purposes of the particular employment laws at issue, and adopting inappropriately narrow readings of both the facts and law in ways that operate to the detriment of employees seeking to vindicate their statutory rights. This pattern gives rise to the question of whether Judge Gorsuch places the interests of employers over the rights of employees, which should be fully explored during his confirmation hearing.
Judge Gorsuch’s tendencies as described above are made more troubling by his much-discussed skepticism regarding the doctrine of Chevron1 deference. Administrative regulations, as well as other interpretations and enforcement guidance from administrative agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) provide invaluable guidance to employers and employees regarding the nature of their rights and responsibilities, and are an essential tool for judges and advocates in resolving employment disputes. One can imagine many ways in which a Supreme Court Justice with Judge Gorsuch’s apparent tendencies regarding employment cases, further unencumbered by any responsibility to defer to authoritative interpretations developed by the agencies charged with interpreting and enforcing our workplace laws, could undermine profoundly the effective enforcement of the employment laws passed by Congress.
The case descriptions that follow constitute representative examples of the ways in which Judge Gorsuch’s jurisprudence in employment cases has manifested itself in cases arising under a number of different employment statutes.
A. Hwang v. Kansas State Univ.2 (Disability Discrimination)
After she was diagnosed with cancer, Professor Grace Hwang requested and received a six-month leave of absence covering the fall semester to recover from a bone marrow transplant. As she was preparing to return to teaching the following January, a flu outbreak erupted on campus. Because her doctor advised her not to subject her compromised immune system to such an environment, she sought further leave, during which she could have worked from home. This request contravened the employer’s rule capping all leave requests to a maximum of six months.
Judge Gorsuch ruled that Professor Hwang’s request for an additional leave of absence was unreasonable and affirmed the dismissal of her case. Applicable law requires that requests for accommodations be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett 3, the Supreme Court suggested that a reasonable accommodation may require an employer to modify an otherwise neutral rule (such as this employer’s six-month cap on leave). Judge Gorsuch’s reasoning also contravened EEOC Enforcement Guidance, and conflicted with rulings from numerous other Circuit Courts of Appeals.
B. Roberts v. Int’l Bus. Machines Corp.4 (Age Discrimination)
In affirming summary judgment in favor of the defendant-employer in this case, Judge Gorsuch demonstrated a number of troubling propensities that employee rights advocates understand all too well: he both drew inferences against the non-moving party and improperly weighed the evidence in a manner that Supreme Court law requires be done by a jury.
In a text message conversation, two of the defendants’ human resources employees were quoted as referencing the plaintiff’s “shelf life” in deciding whether to eliminate his position (they subsequently did). In deciding that the phrase could not constitute direct evidence of discrimination, Judge Gorsuch concluded that “the instant message conversation unmistakably suggests that ‘shelf life’ was nothing worse than an inartful reference to Mr. Roberts’s queue of billable work.”
He then moved to the question of whether the phrase, in conjunction with conflicting evidence regarding the plaintiff’s performance record, could demonstrate that the defendant’s alleged reasons for firing the plaintiff were a pretext for age discrimination. Judge Gorsuch held that the plaintiff could not demonstrate that changes in his performance reviews were a pretext for discrimination unless he could “advance evidence that IBM’s changed evaluation of his performance, whether wise or mistaken, wasn’t honestly arrived at.”
The only way in which Judge Gorsuch could reach such conclusions about the meaning of statements such as “shelf life” and the credibility of the defendant’s asserted reasons for terminating the plaintiff was by drawing a series of inferences in the defendant’s favor, and by avoiding a more common interpretation of the phrase “shelf life” when applied in conversation to an older employee. Longstanding Supreme Court precedent holds that judges must avoid drawing such inferences when deciding whether a case should be dismissed or proceed to trial.5
C. TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Administrative Review Board 6 (Whistleblower Retaliation)
Alphonse Maddin worked as a truck driver for the defendant-employer. He was driving a tractor-trailer down an Illinois freeway on a subzero night in 2009 when he noticed that his truck was nearly out of gas. He pulled over because he could not find a fuel station, and ten minutes later, the trailer’s brakes locked up due to the frigid temperatures. Mr. Maddin was unable to resume driving the tractor-trailer and reported the truck’s unsafe condition to a dispatcher. The dispatcher told Mr. Maddin that a repairperson would be sent to fix the brakes.
Mr. Maddin dozed off briefly and awoke to find that his torso was numb and he could not feel his feet. He told the dispatcher about his physical condition and asked when the repairperson would arrive. “[H]ang in there,” the dispatcher responded.
Approximately one half hour later, Mr. Maddin called his supervisor, Larry Cluck, and told Mr. Cluck that his feet were going numb and that he was having difficulty breathing. Mr. Cluck told Mr. Maddin not to leave the trailer and gave him two options: drag the trailer with inoperable brakes, or stay put until the repairperson arrives. Mr. Maddin knew that dragging the trailer was illegal, but concluded that he might not live much longer if he were to wait for a repairperson. Consequently, Mr. Maddin unhitched the trailer and drove off.
Fifteen minutes after Mr. Maddin left—more than three hours after he first notified TransAm that he was stranded in subzero temperatures—the repairperson arrived. Mr. Maddin drove the truck back to meet the repairperson, who then fixed the trailer’s brakes. Less than a week later, TransAm terminated Mr. Maddin for abandoning the trailer. Mr. Maddin filed suit, as the applicable law prohibits an employer from firing an employee who “refuses to operate a vehicle because . . . the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition.”
An Administrative Law Judge, a panel of the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB), and a majority of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals panel that reviewed this case agreed that Mr. Maddin had engaged in protected activity and was retaliated against. Judge Gorsuch, however, dissented, and went out of his way to disregard the ARB’s statutory interpretation, adopt an unnecessarily narrow interpretation of the term “operate” to conclude that Mr. Maddin had not engaged in protected activity, and belittle the applicable statute’s health and safety goals as “vague and generic.”
D. Strickland v. UPS, Inc.7 (Retaliation Under the Family and Medical Leave Act and Gender Discrimination)
In this case, the plaintiff was subjected to intense and unwarranted scrutiny of her performance after returning from a protected and approved two-week leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. She was required to attend additional meetings that took her away from her responsibilities, was required to commit to unrealistic performance goals, and was prevented from raising concerns regarding her treatment in line with applicable company policy. Multiple co-workers testified that the plaintiff was treated differently than her all of her co-workers after her return from leave. The treatment worsened to the point where the plaintiff left the company, though she never officially quit and it was unclear whether she intended to return to work.
A majority of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed the district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law on the plaintiff’s constructive discharge claims (as applied to her retaliation claim), as there was conflicting evidence as to whether the plaintiff intended to return to work. The panel also reversed the district court on the plaintiff’s gender discrimination claims, finding that there was evidence that she was treated worse than her male co-workers.
Judge Gorsuch dissented, and would have affirmed the district court’s ruling on the plaintiff’s gender discrimination claim. Despite the evidence presented that indicated that the plaintiff was treated less favorably than her male co-workers, Judge Gorsuch concluded that the supervisor in question treated both male and female employees poorly. In reaching this conclusion, Judge Gorsuch disregarded evidence from a male co-worker that he was not subjected to the same scrutiny as the plaintiff, despite trailing her in all relevant sales categories. He also relied in part on evidence that another female employee did not also face differential treatment, despite applicable law holding that the fact that the defendant does not discriminate against every employee of the plaintiff’s protected class is no defense to a discrimination claim.
E. Weeks v. Kansas8 (Retaliation)
Judge Gorsuch held that in-house counsel did not engage in protected opposition to alleged unlawful discrimination when she advised a fire marshal to take seriously an employee’s complaints of discrimination, and he affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.
This ruling is problematic for its adoption of an exception to existing anti-retaliation laws. This judge-created exception is not included in the text or supported by the purposes of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Pursuant to his approach, employees in positions that require them to monitor an employer’s compliance with the law (such as in-house counsel) must engage in special forms of opposition or participation activity to demonstrate that they have taken a position truly “adverse to their employer.” Absent proof of this higher level of opposition, employees who hold positions such as that of a general counsel, who in many cases will be the employee best equipped to learn about and oppose unlawful workplace discrimination, are not protected against subsequent retaliation.
In affirming summary judgment and dismissing the plaintiff’s case before trial, Judge Gorsuch also refused to resolve the question of whether the exception at issue conflicted with the Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson Cty.,9 which suggested that all one must do to “oppose” unlawful workplace behavior and be protected against retaliation is to “antagonize ...; contend against; ... confront; resist; [or] withstand” it. Judge Gorsuch did so because the plaintiff failed to cite Crawford in her briefs, even though that fact does not prevent a judge from resolving an apparent conflict with binding Supreme Court precedent.
Employees who have been treated unlawfully in the workplace deserve a full and fair opportunity to prove their claims in our federal courts. Reasoning of the type found in many of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions undermines workers’ ability to vindicate their rights and undercuts the promise of a fair and just American workplace that is embodied by the employment statutes enacted by Congress. Judge Gorsuch’s treatment of both the law and facts in the cases cited above, and in others that we reviewed, suggests an ideological perspective which is unsympathetic to workers and too solicitous of employers, and belies his reputation as a committed textualist. As such, we respectfully urge you to oppose Judge Neil M. Gorsuch’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court.
Sincerely,

 
Terisa E. Chaw
Executive Director

Read More: ScotusBlog Profile of Gorsuch - Natural Successor to Scalia

EEOC Begins a Rollout of New Online Charge-Handling System

ACT Digital Pilot Program Allows Online Interaction With Employers


Last week the EEOC announced that 11 of its 53 offices will begin a pilot program called ACT Digital to digitally transmit documents between the EEOC and employers regarding discrimination charges. This is the first step in the EEOC's move toward an online charge system that will streamline the submission of documents, notices and communications in the EEOC's charge system. This system applies to private and public employers, unions and employment agencies.

The EEOC receives about 90,000 charges per year, making its charge system the agency's most common interaction with the public. The EEOC's ACT Digital initiative aims to improve customer service, ease the administrative burden on staff, and reduce the use of paper submissions and files.

The first phase of ACT Digital allows employers against whom a charge has been filed to communicate with the EEOC through a secure portal to download the charge, review and respond to an invitation to mediate, submit a position statement, and provide and verify their contact information. The newly designed EEOC notice of a charge will provide a password-protected log in for the employer to access the system in the pilot offices. Employers will also have the option of opting out of the pilot program and receiving and submitting all documents and communications in paper form.

EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang commended ACT Digital as an innovative first step in streamlining the agency's charge system.

"The EEOC's pilot of a digital charge system is an important step forward that will benefit the public and our staff," Chair Yang noted. "This will improve our responsiveness to the public, efficiently utilize our resources, and protect the security of documents in our online system. We encourage employers to provide candid feedback and suggestions during the pilots so we can make adjustments to strengthen the system."

The pilot begins May 6, 2015 in the following EEOC offices: Charlotte, Greensboro, Greenville, Norfolk, Raleigh, Richmond and San Francisco. The EEOC offices in Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis and Phoenix will also begin their pilots by the end of May 2015.

Follow-Up Links


Employment Litigation is Too Expensive

Sticker Shock

Sources I trust say that defending a case through discovery and a ruling on a motion for summary judgment can cost an employer between $75,000 and $125,000. If an employer loses summary judgment (which much more often than not is the case), the employer can expect to spend a total of $175,000 to $250,000 in legal fees just to take a case to a trial. (Source) Obviously this will vary somewhat based on geography but, even adjusting for that issue, this is a crazy amount of money to spend defending your average employment discrimination case.  The average employment case settles out of court for about $40,000. (Source)

Simply put, defending employment lawsuits costs too much. Why on earth are companies paying $75,000 to $250,000 to defend cases that, on average, can be settled for $40,000?

The answer is...you guessed it...complicated. From my viewpoint as an attorney who has practiced on both sides of the docket for both individuals and large corporations, the cause of this strange phenomena involves the interplay of several factors, including modern American law firm business structure, client emotional issues, and the way the courts have developed their procedures for handling employment cases. 

 1) Defense Firm Structure and Billing Pressure

Any law firm that wants to advertise itself as "full service" to its business-side clients needs to have lawyers who can defend employment-related cases. So they do. The problem is that there simply aren't enough employment-related cases to keep this many lawyers legitimately busy. In my city there are probably 3-5 times as many employment defense lawyers as there are plaintiff's side employment lawyers. As a result, defense lawyers' dockets have far fewer cases than the average plaintiff lawyer's docket.

But even though they have fewer cases to manage and the average settlement value of their cases may be relatively low (as compared to the commercial litigation partner down the hall), they still face the relentless pressure to bill fees for the firm. This results in a natural motivation for defense lawyers to be extremely thorough in the defense of such cases. File discovery motion after discovery motion, subpoena the plaintiff's employment records from 10 years ago whether there is any realistic belief they will gather relevant information or not, file a motion for summary judgment in nearly every single case, etc. You get the idea.

Is there anything unethical about thoroughly developing a case file? No, of course not. Does it make sense to advise a client to spend three times more to fight a case than it could have been settled for the week it was filed?  Perhaps not.

 2) Emotions

Employment-related cases can be very emotional for both sides of the docket. When an employment lawsuit is filed against a company, the managers who are alleged to have acted wrongfully understandably take the allegations very personally. They feel personally and professionally threatened. They often lock into a "flight or fight" emotional state that makes it nearly impossible for them to use sound business judgment in dealing with the claim.

Strong emotions are something that employment lawyers on both sides of the docket have to deal with. Getting clients to get past their emotions and to make a "business decision" about their case based on the realities of the law, the court, and the potential outcome of a trial is something about which I often commiserate with opposing counsel.

But defendants have a potential advantage in this regard. Usually, the defendant is a corporate entity. This means that often the manager who is accused of wrongdoing can be removed and protected from the decision-making process when it comes to directing the course of the litigation and settlement negotiations. Surprisingly, however, many defendants leave the manager involved. Almost without exception this makes the process longer and more expensive for all involved.

3) The Law

The law in the area of employment-related disputes has developed quite differently than the law governing say, personal injury or commercial disputes. From its inception, employment law has taken a fairly straight forward question, "Was the plaintiff terminated because of ______?" and obscured it in layer after layer of complicated abstraction. A lengthy required pre-litigation administrative process, tricky jurisdictional issues, multi-step prima facie standards, shifting burdens of proof, and the improper treatment of many fact questions as something that can be decided by a judge as a matter of law have combined to make employment law one of the most complex areas in which to practice.

The overly-complicated nature of the law applicable to employment disputes greatly increases the time and money spent litigating issues that are, fundamentally, pretty straight forward and easy to understand. This has led to a practice of Defendants filing complex and lengthy motions for summary judgment in nearly every single case. If the motion is successful and the case is dismissed then the plaintiff will likely file an appeal - a process that adds another year's worth of work and expense to the case. If the motion for summary judgment fails then, typically, the case will settle. Note that the case may settle not necessarily because the defendant believes it would certainly lose at trial but because it simply can no longer justify spending more time and expense on a case that can settle for less than has already been spent. And often the case settles for at or near an amount that it could have been settled for before the motion for summary judgment was filed.

The law applicable to employment cases (and more specifically summary judgment practice in such cases) desperately needs to be reformed to curb the wasteful and abusive overuse of dispositive motions. Summary judgment was originally designed to only be available in cases in which there is truly no genuine question of fact to be determined by a jury. Instead they are abused an filed be defendants in nearly ever single case. Until this practice is reformed, both sides of the docket will spend more time and money than they should resolving employment-related disputes.

Is There a Solution?

The current system really isn't working terribly well for either plaintiffs or defendants. It doesn't serve anyone's interest to drag out these disputes for years and spend tens of thousands of dollars on attorney's fees and expenses when a very high percentage of such disputes could be resolved relatively early for far less money than most defendants end up paying in combined attorney's fees, expenses and settlement funds. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers but I do have a few thoughts from my time spent both as a plaintiff's lawyer and as a defense lawyer at a large international firm. I will discuss these ideas in an upcoming post. (And in case you were wondering -- No, binding arbitration is not the answer. It is actually more expensive and time consuming than litigation.)

 

 

Wilson v. Cox – DC Circuit Denies Summary Judgment and Emphasizes Importance of Jury

Courts sometimes get confused about who in the court system is supposed to decide whether an adverse employment decision was taken because of the employee’s protected class (age, race, gender, etc). That decision belongs to a jury. Let’s say that again because it is something that has been increasingly forgotten by some judges: That decision belongs to a jury.

Wilson v. Cox, No. 12-5070 (D.C. Cir. June 3, 2014) shows that some courts of appeals are starting to push back on this trend.  In Wilson, the Court makes the point that even if the employer might have had a very good and non-discriminatory reason for eliminating a position, when the principal decision maker also makes a statement to the terminated employee that “you didn’t come here to work, you came here to retire,” that comment, standing alone, is enough to require a jury – not the judge – to determine whether the termination was due to age discrimination or not.  The Court explained:

“While Cox in that statement expressed a general concern about a perceived tendency of older guards to fall asleep, he testified that he had heard about only one such incident. Additionally, the chief of resident services testified that he had never heard any reports about any guard sleeping on the job. Even if Cox in fact knew of one instance in which a guard fell asleep on the job, a statement indicating a generalized concern about older guards as a group, based on one incident alone, is suggestive of impermissible, inaccurate stereotyping. A reasonable factfinder could conclude that Cox attributed sleepiness to all older guards as a class and terminated the resident employee program on that discriminatory basis.”

Does this mean the plaintiff employee will necessarily win at trial? Nope. That’s not the point. The point is that a jury needs to hear the case and decide the facts, not the judge.