Readers of this blog know just how complex the world of employment law can be. Today, we review a case out of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that shows why it is so critically important that you seek out an experienced employment law attorney for your claims. Specifically, this case demonstrates how bad lawyers and those attorneys who do not fully understand employment law can screw up your case.
The case on review is Knox v. Contra Costa County. The Knox matter involved five deputy district attorneys in the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office who brought suit against their employer alleging claims of gender and age discrimination as well as retaliation. (Best Law Read: Can I Sue For Menopause Discrimination At Work?; What Are Examples Of Unlawful Retaliation At Work?; Why Retaliation Is The Easiest Employment Claim).
The case is a mess of thoughtless lawyering throughout. The Northern District of California opens its opinion following the parties’ Motions for Summary Judgment, Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony, and Motion for Sanctions by simply stating, “…the parties ‘briefing on these motions was disappointing.” Not something you want to see published by your presiding court. This is the closest that a Court will typically come to telling the attorneys that they are idiots.
The court further explains that the attorneys for Contra Costa County made numerous arguments that are clearly contrary to established law or the facts in the case and that the employees made almost no attempt in their briefing to define for the Court the parameters of their case – including the specific adverse employment actions on which they based their claims. (Best Law Read: What Constitutes An Adverse Employment Action Under Title VII?; What Is An Adverse Employment Action?).The court was forced to use the valuable time of counsel in this case while counsel in the other cases on the calendar who were waiting for their matters to be called, so that the court could list out and confirm the specific adverse employment actions at stake in this case at a hearing. After that hearing, neither party briefed whether each individual adverse employment action would be subject to summary judgment. The court, in a moment of significant restraint, informed the parties that, in the future, the failure to raise an issue in sufficient detail could result in the court holding that the argument has been waived.
As this blog has grappled with in previous entries, an adverse employment action can be different depending on the facts of the case. It is extremely important to have a qualified employment law attorney review your case and define the specific adverse employment action(s) you have suffered. Otherwise, you might risk losing an argument or claim in court.
Unfortunately for one of the Knox plaintiffs, that is exactly what happened. One of the deputy district attorneys age discrimination claims was dismissed entirely because she did not allege age discrimination in her administrative charge. (Best Law Read: It’s Bad To File With The EEOC Without A Lawyer; Read This Before Filing An EEOC Charge). Therefore, she could not bring an age discrimination claim in federal court under the law. This is a major misstep that a qualified employment law attorney would not make. Then, defendants asserted generally that the plaintiffs’ remaining age discrimination claims were time-barred, but bizarrely failed to brief this argument anywhere in their motion. Counsel for defendants failed to support their own argument. Again, not a good look in the eyes of the court.
The court was forced to review the facts of the case for the defendant where they found that several of plaintiffs’ age claims were related to incidents that occurred after plaintiffs filed administrative charges. Because plaintiffs had not amended their charges, the new incidents were not allowed to be included. Another attorney screw up because they did not understand the employment law process. But, in their review, the court also found that defendants had failed to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for their adverse employment actions. This is yet another major misstep as providing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for the adverse actions is one of an employer’s primary defenses to discrimination claims. (Best Law Read: Employment Discrimination Question: What Is Pretext? ).
As a result of the many blunders on both sides of the aisle, the Knox court was left to guess as to the legal theory and specific conduct underlying plaintiffs’ discrimination and retaliation claims and the defendants’ defenses. The court further held that “[t]he failure of counsel on both sides to identify the relevant legal authority in support of their positions has imposed a significant and unnecessary burden on the Court in connection with deciding the pending motions.”
As qualified employment attorneys, our job is to make our arguments and legal theories as easy to understand as possible for the court. Wasting the already limited time of the court system and creating unnecessary burdens on the court only serves to frustrate and weaken the parties’ positions in the eyes of the court. When that happens, parties open themselves up to potential sanctions, contempt charges, unfavorable inferences, and additional penalties enforced by the court.
Can it get any worse?
Best Employment Lawyer Answer: You bet it can. The cherry on top of this dysfunctional sundae was the employees’ motion for sanctions. The employees filed a motion for sanctions against the county for violating a protective order by making blanket and indiscriminate confidentiality designations in connection with the depositions of the employees’ witnesses.
The employer did not dispute that their practice of designating all depositions at the outset of the deposition constituted “blanket” designations of confidentiality – a practice that is improper under the case law and violated Section 5.1 of the protective order, which expressly prohibited such conduct.
The court found that the employees’ attorney made multiple attempts to meet and confer but that the employer’s counsel was largely unresponsive, delaying in responding to communications attempts by the employees’ lawyer and refusing to provide times when the parties could meet and confer. The employer then told the employees to identify the portions of the transcripts that should be de-designated, shifting the obligations established under the protective order for designations and in flagrant disregard of the presumption of public access to the deposition transcripts. The employer did not offer any justification for this approach, which appears to have been an improper delay tactic. The court ultimately found that the employer acted in bad faith and that sanctions were warranted. Defense counsel’s shoddy lawyering cost their client potentially tens of thousands of dollars in sanction penalties.
Ultimately, the court granted summary judgment against one plaintiff’s age discrimination claims and all of the plaintiffs’ claims based on conduct that occurred after the administrative charges were filed, but denied summary judgment against the remaining claims. The court specifically ordered additional briefing regarding many of the unanswered questions they sprinkled throughout their opinion. This will result in additional delay to the trial docket and increased fees and costs for both sides. So, what is the takeaway from this case? The takeaway is that the difference between prevailing on a case and getting stuck in a time-consuming and expensive legal quagmire can sometimes be as simple as hiring the right attorney.
How do I hire the right attorney?
Best Employment Lawyer Answer: Every employment law case is different. You need an attorney that is well versed in employment disputes and has a history of fighting employers in court. Employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and wrongful termination cases are very complex. There is no reason to attempt to figure out your case on your own. If you are searching “I need a lawyer race, national origin, gender, age, religion or disability discrimination issues on your own, you should call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?). Call Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm’s dedicated employees’ rights lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina to get help now.
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