Employment Discrimination Lawyer’s Top Answers: Do I get attorney’s fees if I win my employment discrimination case? What should I settle my employment lawsuit for? Why do I need a lawyer that I can trust?
Let me start by saying that every case is different. Different facts. Different damages. Different people involved with different risk tolerances. Sometimes the settlement value of the case changes and new facts are discovered or the picture of what happened becomes clearer.
So imagine this: a former employee hires an employment attorney to pursue age, gender, and protected activity discrimination claims. Let’s say that the employee makes its best settlement demand of $200,000 and the employer’s best offer is $30,000. With no settlement possible, the parties engage in discovery, depositions, motions and various court appearances. The case goes to trial and the employee asks the jury to award $700,000 in damages. But, the jury returns a verdict of only $27,280. Can you picture the employer and its attorneys pumping their fists in the air and slapping high fives? Hell of a win, right? Not so fast.
In Muniz v. United Parcel Service, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals faced the question of the trial court properly awarded plaintiff Kim Muniz’s attorneys their fees of $697,971. That’s right. Despite a verdict of $670,000 less than what Muniz’s attorneys requested from the jury, the employer was still ordered to pay almost $725,000 out of pocket with the verdict and attorneys totaled together. How does that $200,000 demand look now?
Muniz was a UPS Division Manager who was demoted to Supervisor. Let’s look more closely what happened at the trial court level. The trial court reported:
A jury trial was held on Plaintiff’s … gender discrimination claim. This claim rested on three alleged adverse actions: (1) the denial of a stock bonus; (2) her placement on the MPIP; and (3) her demotion from division manager to supervisor. The jury found that UPS’s decision to deny Plaintiff a stock bonus was not motivated by her gender. It concluded that UPS’s decision to place her on an MPIP, although motivated by her gender and a substantial factor in causing her harm, was made for both discriminatory and nondiscriminatory reasons and that UPS would have made the same decision for a nondiscriminatory reason. However, the jury found that Plaintiff’s gender motivated UPS to demote her, it was a substantial factor in causing her harm and UPS would not have demoted her for a non-discriminatory reason. The jury awarded Plaintiff $27,280.00, which was the sum of $9,990 for her lost earnings, $7,300 for her past medical expenses and $9,990 for her past non-economic loss.
As the “prevailing party,” Muniz moved for $1.9 million in attorney’s fees. The fee request consisted of a “lodestar” (the number of hours expended times hourly rates) of almost $1.3 million, enhanced by a 1.5 multiplier. The trial court reduced the fee request by 20 percent because of evidentiary questions related to the number of hours actually worked and denied the multiplier enhancement. The trial court also reduced the fees by 10 percent because of the limited victory on the merits of the case.
On appeal, the Ninth District Court of Appeals upheld the attorneys’ fee award.
So what are the lessons to be learned? First, employers should not be so quick to pay a little more to settle the case. Remember, not only does UPS have to pay the nearly $700,000 in attorneys’ fees to the opposing counsel, they also had to spend money on their own attorneys’ fees. Second, an employee should understand the risks of trial. Here, Muniz surely could have gotten more than $30,000 if she negotiated a little closer to reasonable value for the claim. Instead, she got less than she was presumably offered. Lastly, the only one that benefitted by pushing the claim to trial was the plaintiffs’ attorneys. By law, the attorneys cannot share the nearly $700,000 in fees with Muniz. So, be weary of plaintiff employment attorneys that try and oversell the value of the case just to get you to sign a contract or to push you to trial. Find a qualified and trustworthy employment attorney. Make sure that your employment lawyer explains to you what your case is worth and why. Unfortunately, in this case, it was the attorneys that either misevaluated the case or failed at trial are the only ones walking away a winner.
If you have been fired, discriminated against based on your race, national origin, gender, age or disability; or denied wages; or even think that you might need an employment lawyer, then it would be best to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation at 866-797-6040. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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