Lawsuits are generally filed with two potential goals in mind: compensation and/or action/inaction. Employees who take steps to legally address their grievances against their employers feel that they have been wronged, and thus have suffered a loss. They consult an attorney so that, ultimately, they can get compensated for that loss, and/or they can force the employer to cease their illegal conduct. This begs the question: what remedies are available to employees who bring claims against their employers? In most employment cases, the four most important types of remedies that employees seek include include compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and equitable relief.
Compensatory damages provide monetary compensation to the injured party (here, the employee) for his or her loss or injury. In employment litigation, this can include;
- backpay (payment for work done in the past that was withheld at the time, or for work that could have been done had the worker not been prevented from doing so),
- emotional distress damages (compensation for emotional distress, mental anguish, and other “psychic” injury an employee suffers as a result of employer wrongdoing), and,
- other pecuniary damages (i.e., moving expenses, lost future earnings, job search expenses, medical expenses, physical therapy expenses, and other out-of-pocket expenses).
The type and extent of compensatory damages depends on the type of claim, and other factors such as, for example, the relationship between the employee and the employer, and/or the amount of time the employee has worked for the employer.
Employees may also recover punitive damages as a result of the litigation. Punitive damages are monetary in form as well. But, they are not meant to compensate the employee, and are instead designed to punish the employer and to deter others from similar conduct. Importantly, punitive damages may be recoverable in addition to compensatory damages, making the ultimate award that much bigger. Punitive damages are usually awarded when employees bring statutory claims under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), various California Labor Code provisions, Title VII, Americans with Disabilities Act, and/or the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Another significant source of an employee’s award comes from attorney’s fees. Generally, under the American rule, each side is responsible for their own attorney’s fees. In California employment cases, this rule is largely ignored and the risk may completely fall on the employer. California has a number of statutes that can shift attorney’s fees to the employer, and increase the employee’s award. For example, under FEHA, the court, in its discretion, can award to the prevailing party reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. Again, the extent of attorney’s fees depends on factors such as the attorney’s experience and thus his or her hourly rate, and the complexity of the case. Attorney’s fees can potentially be one of the biggest sources of an employee’s award.
Lastly, an employee can seek equitable relief against his or her employer. In employment cases, this may consist of either prohibitory injunctions (i.e., ordering the employer to stop the unlawful practice), or mandatory injunctions (i.e., ordering an employer to reinstate the employee). Injunctions are available for violations of state or federal antidiscrimination laws such as FEHA and Title VII.
This is not an exhaustive list of each and every type of remedy an employee is potentially entitled to. There are others, depending on the type of claim, such as contract damages. If you have a grievance with your employer, and are interested in how you can be compensated for addressing the grievance, you should consult an experienced employment attorney who can talk to you about your options.