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Job Discrimination Lawsuits on Upswing

Labor: More workers are seen as willing to defend their rights. Employers say employees are motivated by greed.

May 12, 1997|KIRSTIN DOWNEY GRIMSLEY | WASHINGTON POST

Employment discrimination cases are surging into the federal courts in record numbers, more than doubling in the last four years because of new laws and new attitudes in the workplace.

Employment experts cite new federal laws expanding civil-rights protections to sexual-harassment victims and the disabled; workers' and employers' turning increasingly combative; and a backlash against corporate downsizing, which left many workers feeling unfairly treated.

In 1996, American workers brought more than 23,000 lawsuits alleging race, sex, disability or age discrimination to federal courts, more than double the 10,771 that were brought in 1992, according to the U.S. Courts' administrative office. In the last two years, job discrimination lawsuits have been rising about 20% a year.

Whether the increase is good or bad depends on the viewer's perspective.

Workers are just stepping up to defend their civil rights, said Denver attorney Barry Roseman, vice president of the National Employment Lawyers Assn., which represents workers.

"People feel their employers, especially big employers, are less interested in them, and are not looking out for their best interests," Roseman said. "It is making them more likely to pursue litigation."

But Ann Reesman, general counsel of the Washington, D.C.-based Equal Employment Advisory Council, which represents 300 large companies, said employers are being buffeted by these waves of lawsuits, brought by workers who see dollar signs dancing before their eyes.

"The increased level of litigation could--and should--have every employer concerned," Reesman said.

Meanwhile, some judges are getting fed up. "The federal courts are becoming flooded with employment cases," said U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin in March, dismissing a case brought by a 60-year-old man who alleged he had been unfairly passed over for a promotion in favor of a younger woman.

"We are becoming the personnel czars of virtually every one of this nation's public and private institutions," Sporkin wrote, urging that courts need a better screening mechanism to root out weak cases. Or, he recommended, a parallel court system needs to be established to handle the rising caseload.

The 1991 Civil Rights Act, which increased the money damages workers could receive if they prove discrimination occurred, deserves much of either the credit or the blame for the increase in lawsuits.

Before it passed, most workers who demonstrated they experienced discrimination could be reimbursed only for their lost back pay with interest. But since 1991, they can receive money for compensatory and punitive damages if they prove malicious, illegal behavior that results in stress and humiliation.

"There are a lot of acts of discrimination for which there was no remedy before," said Richard Seymour, director of the employment discrimination project at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

Seymour cited as an example the case of Patricia Swanson, who successfully brought a case in 1988 alleging that she had been sexually harassed by the owner of an Illinois auto dealership where she was assistant finance manager.

Although she proved her case that she had been sexually harassed, she could not prove that that was why he had fired her, and there were no other money remedies available to her under law at that time. Swanson was required to pay her harasser's court costs--$2,600.

"I had believed in the law, and the law had turned on me," Swanson said in a recent interview.

Since then, money damages have become more available for alleged victims of discrimination. Early last month, for example, the EEOC announced it had reached a record $1.3-million settlement in a case involving 17 women who claimed they were sexually harassed by the Minneapolis office manager of a Cleveland-based executive head-hunting firm, Management Recruiters International Inc.

In that case, the company denied the allegations, but its president sent letters of apology to the women who brought the claim, offering his regrets for distress they had suffered.

"In the end, it's wonderful we won, but it was emotionally exhausting," said one of the 17 plaintiffs, who asked not to be named because of privacy concerns. She and the other women will share in the $1.3-million settlement, with the money to be apportioned according to the seriousness of the allegations involving each individual plaintiff, the time period over which the harassment occurred and the psychological effects each suffered.

But Reesman, of the employer group, said news of big settlements can inspire workers suffering perceived grievances to come back again and again with monetary demands.

She said these demands are making some companies more combative and more willing to fight cases all the way through the courts.

"If they settle one case, then they get another, and another," Reesman said. "If you settle one, it seems to send a message that this is an easy way to make some money. Eventually they will need to turn off the faucet."

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