When assessing the risks associated with defending employment lawsuits, don’t forget to factor in the possibility of an award of substantial attorneys’ fees if you lose the case. A December decision in a Walmart case illustrates the point.
An African-American employee in Walmart’s Waterford office complained of discrimination when he was laid off in a 2010 downsizing, and was thereafter rejected for more than a dozen similar openings, which he claimed constituted retaliation for his complaint of discrimination. Earlier in 2017, a jury rejected his discrimination claim but found in his favor on his retaliation claim. They awarded him $5.5 million in damages, an amount that was cut to $300,000, which is the maximum allowable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
In the December decision, a federal judge awarded approximately $1 million in attorneys’ fees and costs, rejecting Walmart’s claims that the employee’s lawyer had run up excessive charges related to issues on which she did not prevail. The court held that given the lawyer’s “skill, experience and relative success” in the jury trial, her hourly rate of $500 was not unreasonable.
Attorneys’ fees are not available in all employment cases, but when they are, they can add up to multiples of the employee’s economic damages, such as lost wages and benefits. In the Walmart case, they were over three times the maximum damages payable to the employee.