Knoxville, TN Employment and Discrimination Lawyers

Employment Discrimination – An Introduction

We all know what workplace discrimination is. Or do we? The truth is, not all discrimination is illegal. One of the most difficult parts of our practice is telling people that while their employer did treat them unfairly, the employer did not act illegally. The difference here is crucial to deciding whether you have an employment discrimination claim.
Generally speaking, an employment discrimination lawsuit must proceed down a road with three stops. The first stop is what courts call a “prima facie case.” Each type of discrimination claim—whether it be race, gender, disability, etc.—has a specific definition. The definition is made up of multiple factors called the “elements” of the claim. In order to make it past this first stop on the road, your situation must meet each of the elements. Think of a car: it only works if it has all the necessary parts.
The next stop on the road is where the employer explains why it did not discriminate against you. The employer may, for example, point to a disciplinary record, bad performance evaluation, absenteeism, reduction in force, or other non-discriminatory reason for its action. To leave this stop, the employer does not have to prove these non-discriminatory reasons—it must simply offer evidence that such a reason may have led to the action you say was discriminatory. Unfortunately, almost any explanation an employer offers is enough.
The third stop is called the “pretext” stage. At this stop you must persuade the Court—by pointing to strong evidence—that the employer’s reason is either wrong or did not truly motivate the employer’s decision. As you might imagine, this can be hard to do. Unfortunately, courts are notorious for dismissing cases at this stop in the road.

What if I make it to the end of the road? Should I file a lawsuit?

Maybe. The next question we must help you answer is, what do you hope to achieve by pursuing an employment discrimination case? In the legal world there are specific remedies that might be available to you if you win the case. But oftentimes these remedies are not enough to make up for the time, expense, and frustration lawsuits require. Even worse, they’re almost never enough to make you feel better about having been a discrimination victim. A good employment lawyer will help you decide if an employment discrimination lawsuit is in your best interest.

How much money can I get if I win my case?

It depends on how much the discrimination cost you. This question is not as easy as it sounds because a single fact can change everything. The law says discrimination victims can usually get money for lost wages, lost employment benefits, emotional distress, and attorney fees. But as you have probably guessed, there are many exceptions. First, the law says you must try to stop your losses from increasing. This is called mitigation. For example, if your employer fired you because of your gender, you cannot simply sit on the couch and sue for lost wages; rather, the law says you must immediately try to find another job similar to the one you lost or were rejected from. And what happens if you find one making the same wage? Your lost wages stop accruing.
Consider this example: Jane earns $500 per week. Jane’s boss tells her that women have no place in the work environment so he fires her. This is a clear case of illegal sex discrimination. So for every week Jane is out of work, she would be entitled to $500 if she won her lawsuit. But, what if Jane is fortunate enough to get another job, again earning $500 per week, the day after being fired? Jane probably gets zero even though the employer clearly broke the law. This same analysis applies to the other types of remedies, called “damages,” a plaintiff can receive. The point to remember is this: The value of your case depends more on how much you suffer rather than how bad the employer broke the law.
Another misconception we often see is clients who think they will receive a lot of money for emotional suffering. Rarely is this true. Juries often award nothing for emotional suffering even if they return a verdict in the employee’s favor.

How long does a lawsuit take?

Depending on the specific claims, employment discrimination cases can take as long as three years to get to trial.

Will I have to go to court, or will my case settle before trial?

Very few cases actually go to trial; we have seen numbers as low as 5%. Many cases do settle out of court. But if they do not, defendants almost always file what is known as a “motion for summary judgment.” This means that the defendant asks the judge to dismiss the case without a trial. Employment discrimination cases are dismissed at a ridiculously high rate—more than any other type of case. The dismissal rate for most federal judges in Tennessee is between 65% – 80%. The best employment discrimination lawyers can help you evaluate these risk factors and decide what path is best in your specific situation.

I want to know more – what should I do?

You should call an experienced employment discrimination lawyer immediately. Even if you still work for the employer, you have a limited amount of time to file claims. Also, you may be required to take other steps before filing a lawsuit or other legal claim. You should call someone experienced in workplace discrimination as soon as the issue arises.

Do all attorneys handle employment discrimination cases?

No. Even if you do not contact our firm, you should call someone who has experience handling employment law cases. Employment law can be a confusing and difficult practice area, and it has a lot of minefields. Your case stands the best chance of success if you have an experienced employment lawyer fighting for you.