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Southern California Job Market : Challenges Of The Working Life : On The Job : From Spat To Suit

September 18, 1988|STUART SILVERSTEIN

The workplace is the best place for settling most spats with the boss. But sometimes employees have grounds for taking their complaints to the courtroom.

Wrongful discharge suits are by far the most active area in employment law. By definition, however, they are only for workers who already have quit or been fired.

For those who still are on the job, federal and state civil rights laws are the most frequently used legal tools for resolving employment problems. The laws are written to combat discrimination against people on the basis of their race, color, religion, gender, national origin, marital status or handicap, among other things.

Consequently, if you are denied a promotion or a pay raise because you are, say, handicapped or pregnant, you have good grounds for legal action. The key is that you are singled out because of an employer's bias. If a boss "is mean to everyone, there's nothing you can do," said Paul Grossman, a management lawyer in Los Angeles and the co-author of a textbook on employment discrimination law.

To take action, employees first have to go to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The courts will not hear a case that has not gone to an agency. Complaints should be filed within 240 days of the discriminatory act to ensure the right to sue later on.

Regardless of which agency reviews a complaint, an employee can sue in either state or federal court. Many lawyers advise their clients to go to state court because state law allows unlimited awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages.

Except in limited circumstances, under federal law you can win only reinstatement, back wages and attorneys fees.

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