Employment Discrimination Damages: How Much Can You Collect If You Win?

Find out what type of money damages you can get in your employment discrimination case.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

If you've experienced discrimination in the workplace, you can file a lawsuit and potentially receive a variety of legal damages.

Although the range of damages you can win depends on whether you bring the lawsuit under state or federal law, there are certain types of damages available under both. This typically includes lost wages and benefits, emotional distress damages (defined below), "punitive" damages (intended to punish the employer), and attorneys' fees and costs.

How Much Is Your Employment Discrimination Claim Worth?

An experienced employment attorney can give you an idea what your claim might be worth. Some of the factors that affect the value of your claim include:

  • the strength of your evidence
  • the amount of your damages
  • the jurisdiction where you bring your case, and
  • the skill and experience of your attorneys.

What Damages Can I Recover in an Employment Discrimination Lawsuit?

An employment discrimination lawsuit is a civil action. In a civil action, the plaintiff seeks an award of money (called "damages") to compensate him or her for the injuries caused by the defendant. A person who suffers discrimination may experience a variety of financial losses or other injuries. The most common losses that you can get compensated for under federal and state antidiscrimination laws are outlined below.

Back Pay

The term "back pay" refers to lost earnings resulting from the discrimination from the date of the discriminatory act to the date of a judgment in the plaintiff's favor. So, for example, if a jury agrees that your ex-employer fired you because of your gender and you lost pay as a result, you will be awarded back pay from the date of your termination to the date of the jury's determination in your favor.

Front Pay

Like back pay, "front pay" also refers to lost earnings resulting from the discrimination. However, front pay compensates you for wages you're going to lose in the future as a result of the discriminatory act. The future end date for front pay depends on how long the plaintiff will continue to lose pay. For example, if you can convince a jury that you won't be able to find another job for a year, you will be awarded front pay for that time.

This can typically be proven by showing your unsuccessful efforts to find work and by having an economist or other expert testify at trial. Your lawyer will discuss the need for an expert with you and the expected cost of hiring an expert. Your lawyer can also recommend professionals that he or she has hired in the past to offer expert testimony.

Lost Benefits

Your damages from employment discrimination may also include the value of lost job benefits, such as health care coverage, dental insurance, pension or 401k plans, stock options, and profit sharing. It can be difficult to quantify the value of lost benefits in dollar terms and, again, your lawyer may need to hire an expert to testify at trial.

Emotional Distress Damages

In employment discrimination cases, plaintiffs often seek emotional distress damages (also called "pain and suffering") at trial. To win these damages, you'll need to prove to the jury that you suffered mental or emotional injuries as a result of the discrimination.

You may need to have these injuries verified by a mental health professional. Because the amount of such damages is entirely up to the jury, evaluating the amount of a possible award of this element of damages is highly speculative.

However, your lawyer should be able to give you an idea of the amounts won on behalf of other plaintiffs in similar cases.

Punitive Damages

"Punitive damages" are intended to punish or make an example of the defendant for particularly egregious conduct. Punitive damages are not available in every state and are not easy to win even where they are available. You will likely have to satisfy a greater burden of proof at trial in order to win punitive damages. And, like emotional distress damages, the amount of such damages is entirely up to the jury and nearly impossible to quantify in advance.

Attorneys' Fees

In addition to the damages you can recover for your injuries, you can also win an award of attorneys' fees in your employment discrimination case.

This means that the defendant will have to pay for your lawyer's fees. This is a huge benefit to plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases, because it means that attorneys' fees won't cut into your recovery (most plaintiffs' attorneys work on a contingent fee basis, meaning that they take a percentage of your award).

What Are the Odds of Winning an Employment Discrimination Lawsuit?

This is a difficult question to answer as no two cases are the same. In general, you'll have a good chance of winning your lawsuit or agreeing to a favorable settlement if you have solid, documented evidence of serious discrimination, significant damages, and an experienced attorney working for you.

Weighing Your Options

As you consider filing an employment discrimination lawsuit, you (or your attorney) must do a cost-benefit analysis. Even if you have a "slam dunk" discrimination case, you also need to have suffered some significant losses to make filing suit worthwhile. Talk to an employment lawyer to see whether he or she believes you have a case and what kind of damages you might be entitled to.

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