Federal, state, and local laws prohibit discrimination based on a person's race, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, pregnancy, age, disability, and religion, among other protected characteristics. If you have experienced workplace discrimination in New York, how is the worth of your claim calculated? A multitude of factors contribute to the worth of a discrimination claim, including the severity of the discrimination, the employer's size, and the losses and harm the employee suffered.

Employer liability for employment discrimination

There are a number of federal laws that prevent workplace discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Other federal anti-discrimination laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). In New York City, there are two primary anti-discrimination laws: the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). These laws prohibit discrimination based on a wider class of statuses, including military status, domestic violence victim status, caregiver status, consumer credit history, and in some cases, arrest and conviction records.

Under most anti-discrimination laws, the employee must prove that it is more likely than not that the employer took an adverse action because of the employee's status in a protected class. In some cases, the employee can also show that the employer allowed discriminatory conduct such as harassment to occur without taking any action to stop it.

Generally, if an employee can demonstrate the employer's role in the discriminatory conduct, then the employer will be liable for discrimination. A number of factors contribute to the ability to show employer liability, including the availability of evidence, the credibility of witnesses, the work performance of the employee, the employer's policies and practices, and the legal requirements where the conduct occurred.

What are the remedies available in an employment discrimination case?

The purpose of employment discrimination remedies is generally to try to put victims of discrimination in the position they would be in had the discrimination not occurred. Courts and juries have the ability to award a variety of different relief to achieve this goal. Monetary damages are common, and can compensate victims for the pay they have lost, the pay they may lose in the future, and for a variety of other losses that come from emotional distress, medical expenses, or job training. Monetary awards may also include punitive damages, which are meant to punish the employer for particularly egregious, willful conduct.

Other relief besides monetary damages is also available, which are often called equitable remedies. Depending on the case, courts may find these are not possible to award, but when they are, they can be the most direct way of returning the victim to their rightful position. These remedies may include reinstatement, restorations of seniority, and orders for an employer to take certain actions to prevent future illegal and harmful discrimination. It is important to consider what these equitable remedies are worth on an individual basis, as they may have more than just monetary value.

Some remedies may not directly impact the employee, but are meant to deter future discrimination. Under both the NYSHRL and NYCHRL, civil penalties may be imposed on employers who discriminate. The cap on these penalties increases under both laws if the discrimination is willful or malicious. New York courts may also require employers to report their ongoing compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

What is the worth of a discrimination claim?

The worth of an employment discrimination claim must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Damages can be difficult to calculate accurately, and even well-examined cases can have unpredictable results. A number of factors are likely to contribute to the ultimate awards in such cases:

  • Severity and duration of the discrimination. Cases that go to trial are likely to be heard by a jury made of members of the community. In cases where the discrimination is particularly severe, juries are likely to find the victim is entitled to more compensation for the harm suffered.
  • Economic impact on the employee. Monetary awards are likely to be higher where the victim has experienced greater financial difficulty as a result of the discrimination, as juries are directed to correct for those types of harm in their verdicts. Also, victims are required to try to mitigate their own financial harm as much as possible. For example, an employee who is fired must still try to find a new job to reduce their own loss of income, and if they don't try to do so, the court can take this into account and reduce the damages that compensate for that lack of income.
  • Jurisdiction and applicable laws. Some laws have caps on the damages juries are allowed to award to victims of discrimination, and these vary from state to state, and federal laws have different caps on damages as well. New York, however, does not have a cap on damages. Some jurisdictions may also have rules that favor higher or lower awards, which will affect the individual cases too.
  • Size of the employer. Under some federal laws, caps on damages correspond to the number of employees working under the employer. For example, under Title VII, the cap on compensatory and punitive damages for companies with 5-15 employees is $50,000, while the cap is $300,000 where there are 501 or more employees. Importantly, these caps on damages do not apply to economic losses suffered or the amount of legal fees and costs that a successful plaintiff may recover after proving a violation under the discrimination laws.

Any consideration of possible awards should also take attorneys' fees into account. Litigation is expensive and time-consuming. If the chances of a large award are low, pursuing litigation may be a risky endeavor. Most laws allow successful plaintiffs to be awarded reasonable attorneys' fees to cover the costs of litigation, but the amount of the awards may be impacted by the outcome of the case.

Employment discrimination cases often settle outside of court to keep litigation costs low for all parties. Settlement may be an attractive option, especially where the outcome of litigation is especially unpredictable, or where the parties want to maintain their privacy.

Conclusion

The worth of an employment discrimination case is hard to predict, especially in the early stages of a dispute. Taking immediate action to preserve evidence and mitigate losses is vital to reaching a just outcome. If you believe you may have experienced workplace discrimination, or if you are an employer concerned about possible claims, it is important to consult an experienced employment attorney who can assess the specific facts of your situation. Contact us to discuss next steps.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.