Before 1991, employees who successfully sued their employers for discrimination under federal law could collect only their out-of-pocket losses. For example, an employee who was fired because of his race could collect back pay and other costs he paid because of the discrimination, such as health insurance premiums. The employee could also be reimbursed for court costs and attorney fees. But no employee could collect damages for pain and suffering and emotional distress (sometimes called compensatory damages) or punitive damages, intended to punish egregious employer misconduct.
In other types of employment lawsuits, compensatory and punitive damage awards often make up the lion's share of the judgment. Employee rights advocates argue that these higher awards are necessary to fully compensate the employee for all of the wrong done by the employer, including emotional suffering, and to create a strong financial incentive for employers to avoid this behavior in the future.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991
In 1991, Congress acted to make these damages available in discrimination cases brought under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 was largely a response to a series of Supreme Court decisions that limited employee rights. The law makes a number of changes to these discrimination laws, including giving employees the right to a jury trial and changing the rules for disparate impact cases.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 also made compensatory and punitive damages available to employees who successfully prosecute a discrimination case. Now, in addition to back pay, attorney fees, court costs, and other out-of-pocket expenses, employees who win an ADA or Title VII discrimination case can ask the court to award damages for their pain and suffering and punitive damages. The amount of damages that can be awarded depends on the size of the employer; these limits are for the combined total of compensatory and punitive damages:
- The court can award up to $50,000 if the employer has 15 to 100 employees
- The court can award up to $100,000 if the employer has 101 to 200 employees
- The court can award up to $200,000 if the employer has 201 to 500 employees.
- For larger employers, the court can award up to $300,000.
If You Believe You Have a Discrimination Claim
If you think you have been discriminated against, you should schedule a consultation with an employment lawyer. Not every unfair employment action will support a legal claim of discrimination. An experienced lawyer can give you an objective assessment of your case, including how strong your claims are and what kind of damages a judge or jury might award. A lawyer can also help you try to negotiate a settlement with your employer or, if necessary, take the required steps to protect your rights, such as filing a charge of discrimination or even filing a lawsuit.