You just lost your job, and you think it’s because you recently reported illegal workplace harassment to your employer. You’re considering hiring a lawyer to sue your former employer for retaliation, but you want to know how much it’s going to cost you. This article will give you an idea of what you can expect to pay in lawyer’s fees for representation in a retaliation case.
For information about retaliation claims in general, see Workplace Retaliation: What Are Your Rights?
Under federal law, and the laws of most states, employees are protected from being discriminated against or harassed based on a protected characteristic, such as race or gender. Employees are also protected from retaliation by their employers. An employer cannot punish an employee for reporting, complaining of, or participating in an investigation into illegal discrimination or harassment. Such reports, complaints, and participation in investigations are considered “protected activity” under the law and, as such, cannot be the basis of terminations, demotions, or other adverse actions by employers.
An employee who wins a retaliation lawsuit can recover attorneys’ fees and costs after trial. For more information on other types of compensation you can receive, see our article on damages in a retaliation case.
Attorney Fee Arrangements
Lawyers who handle retaliation cases may take your case under one of a few different fee agreements. The type of fee agreement you and your lawyer enter into typically depends on what services you are hiring the lawyer to perform.
Some lawyers charge by the hour to perform certain services. Generally, a lawyer will charge an hourly fee to handle matters that are limited in time or scope. For example, if you want to hire a lawyer to walk you through the process of filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the agency that oversees federal antidiscrimination laws), a lawyer may be willing to handle that for an hourly fee. Before agreeing to an hourly arrangement, ask the lawyer for an estimate of the total number of hours that he or she will likely have to spend. The lawyer may even agree to a cap on the total hourly fees.
If the lawyer is being retained for broader purposes, such as filing and handling a lawsuit, the employee may not be able to afford an hourly fee. In that case, many lawyers will agree to other fee arrangements.
If you have been fired and have decided that filing a lawsuit is your best course of action, you should discuss a contingent fee arrangement with your lawyer. Litigation can take months or years, and very few individuals who have been recently fired can afford to pay a lawyer by the hour. In this situation, a contingent fee is a common arrangement. A contingent fee is an agreed percentage (usually ranging from one-third to 40%) of the total amount recovered in the action. This means that the employee does not pay the lawyer any fees unless the employee either wins damages at trial or through settlement. Some lawyers will ask for a retainer up front, in addition to the contingent percentage, to provide them with some fees in the event that you lose your case.
You may want to consider fee agreements that are a hybrid of the hourly and contingent fee arrangements discussed above. For example, if you retain a lawyer to write a demand letter to your employer seeking settlement of your potential claims, the lawyer may offer to do it for a reduced hourly rate combined. This would be in combination with a reduced contingent fee, in the event that you can’t settle and need to file a lawsuit. This may make it easier for you to find a lawyer (because the lawyer will get some fees regardless of the outcome of your matter), and it will also limit your total out-of-pocket fees.
Court Awarded Fees
If you win your retaliation case, the court can award you attorneys’ fees. If you have a contingent fee agreement with your lawyer, these fees will be added to your total damages award to determine the lawyer’s percentage (which may amount to more than the fees awarded by the court). In other words, an award of attorneys’ fees by the court will increase both your cut, and your lawyer’s cut, of the total recovery.
Fee Agreements Are Negotiable
Your fee agreement with your lawyer, whether it’s hourly, contingent, or some other arrangement (such as a lump sum retainer fee and a contingent fee), is a contract. A fee agreement, like any contract, is negotiable by the parties to it — in this case, you and the lawyer. It’s a good idea to ask the lawyer about all of the fee arrangements they would consider for the services that you’re contemplating. And, you may want to shop around with a few different lawyers to get an idea of what fee arrangements are available to you.
Always Put It In Writing
As with all agreements, put your contract in writing. The opportunity for later misunderstandings or conflicts about contract terms is greatly reduced when the parties commit to the agreement in writing and sign it. For assistance finding a lawyer in your area, use Nolo’s lawyer directory.