If you think you've been subjected to employment discrimination, it's important to know your rights. Depending on the complexity of your case, hiring an experienced employment lawyer to guide you through the legal process can be crucial to a successful outcome.
This article explores the factors to consider in deciding whether to hire an attorney for your employment discrimination case. For information about state antidiscrimination laws generally, see Employment Discrimination in Your State.
Suppose your employer fired you, and you think it was discrimination. You're justifiably angry and even hurt by your employer's conduct and you want to take action. But where do you even start? An employment lawyer can help you figure out if you have a potential claim and the best way to take action.
Not all unfair treatment is illegal discrimination. For illegal discrimination to occur, you must fall into a category protected by one of the federal or state antidiscrimination laws. Sometimes, this is easy to establish, for example, you are a pregnant woman and your employer knew it at the time of your termination. Not all categories are quite as obvious though. In fact, disability discrimination laws set forth a long list of very specific definitions of protected "disabilities." An employment lawyer can help you determine whether or not you are in a protected class.
Being part of a protected group is not, by itself, enough to win a discrimination lawsuit. You must also prove that your employer took an adverse employment action against you because of your protected status. But what is an adverse employment action? Of course, firing someone is an adverse action. What about a negative performance review that leads to a denial of promotion? What about shift assignments that cut into your commission? An employment lawyer can help you figure out whether your employer's conduct was an adverse employment action constituting discrimination.
The fact that you're in a protected category combined with the fact that your employer took some adverse action against you does not mean you have a slam-dunk discrimination case. You also have to prove that your employer intended to take the adverse action because of your protected status. This means showing your employer's discriminatory intent.
Proving your employer's intent can be very difficult, especially because few employers are foolish enough to outright state that they are biased or discriminatory. Instead, you'll need to gather enough evidence to convince a judge or jury that your employer took action for a discriminatory reason. For example, if your employer says that you were fired for poor performance, but your last three performance reviews were excellent, this is key evidence of a discriminatory motive.
Gathering evidence for a lawsuit is one of the most crucial and valuable skills that an employment lawyer can provide. Subpoenaing key documents and taking witness depositions are just two of the important, complex steps in the "discovery phase" of a lawsuit, when evidence is collected. Obtaining the right document, testimony, or other piece of evidence can mean the difference between winning and losing your case. A good lawyer can handle this and all phases of your lawsuit.
One of the biggest benefits of hiring an employment lawyer is that your lawyer can draw on years of experience to run you through a cost-benefit analysis. Your lawyer will walk you through the strengths and weaknesses of your case, the expense of discovery and trial, and the type and amount of damages you can recover if you win. Your lawyer will also assess the likelihood of winning and let you know if this assessment changes as the case progresses, so you can make informed decisions along the way.
From the first meeting, your lawyer can lay out the options you have to respond to your employment situation. These may range from filing a charge of discrimination with a state or federal agency, to sending your employer a letter that explores settlement, to pursuing a full-blown lawsuit in court. Your attorney will point out the pros and cons of each option and revisit this discussion throughout the case. That way, you'll be armed with the information you need to make decisions at various points in the lawsuit.
Before hiring a lawyer, be sure to ask for an explanation of how attorneys' fees and costs will be charged in your case. Attorneys' fees differ based on what course of action you decide to take. Some cases or services take longer or are more difficult than others, which will result in higher fees. Drafting a letter, for example, will likely cost far less than representing you at trial.
Attorneys charge for legal services using various fee structure options, such as a one-time retainer, an hourly rate, or a "contingency fee," which means the attorney gets paid a percentage of your financial recovery, if any.
Your attorney should also explain any costs you might expect to incur in your case. Lawsuits are expensive, and costs related to resolving your dispute are a big part of the reason. Costs are charged on top of attorneys' fees and include a wide range of items, such as court filing fees, photocopy charges, deposition fees, mediation fees, and expert witness fees.
Another valuable asset an employment attorney can offer is closure. Your attorney can help you move on from the ugly experience you had with your employer. This may come through vindication at trial, but will most likely happen through an informal resolution or settlement that allows you to emotionally and financially transition to a new job or career path. Your attorney's task is, in part, to get you to that next stage.
It's normal to feel powerless after being fired or mistreated. But, your lawyer can help you regain some of that power by giving you the information you need to take action in response to your employer's misdeeds, or weigh your options, and make an informed decision that's in your best interests.
To find an experienced employment law attorney in your area, visit Nolo's Lawyer Directory.