Discrimination cases rising

Rebecca Berfanger
September 29, 2010
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As people lose their jobs in a rough economy, it’s obvious that unemployment claims go up – and stay up – as it is more difficult to find new work.

In this particular economic environment, employment law attorneys in Indiana who represent employers of all sizes both here and around the country have also observed an uptick in the number of claims brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and at similar agencies at the state and local levels, such as the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission in Fort Wayne, the Office of Equal Opportunity in Indianapolis, and the Human Relations Commission in Evansville.

These attorneys advise their clients about this possibility as early as when the clients start making plans for a reduction in force. Among that advice is to update all job descriptions, and to have a clear and concise explanation about how they determined who to let go. This will help if the issue arises at the administrative level or in court because the employer can better explain the process and the decision to anyone who asks, including the employee, an administrative agency, or a judge, they said.

Kathleen Anderson Anderson

“I think when people have been laid off, they look at what their options are, particularly when they have trouble finding new employment,” which has been the case in the last few years, said Kathleen Anderson, an attorney at the Fort Wayne office of Barnes & Thornburg who represents employers on a number of employment law matters.

“They consider filing unemployment and will possibly consider filing administrative charges at the local, state, or federal agency level. I’m seeing a greater number of charges, but a greater number are lacking any basis.”

Anderson said she thinks this is the case because even though there are more claims being filed at the agency level, there

doesn’t seem to be a larger number being approved. There also doesn’t appear to be a larger number proceeding to trial if the agency determines there isn’t enough reason to find the employer had discriminated against the former employee, or even the person who was an applicant for a job who wasn’t ultimately hired.

Another employment law attorney who represents businesses, Tami Earnhart at Ice Miller in Indianapolis, said she has also noticed the uptick in claims.

Earnhart Earnhart

“There are some cases that are questionable – as in the past – and there are some cases that have more merit than others, but that’s always been the case,” she said.

Earnhart said more people may be making claims because of an increased awareness of the option, such as media reports about high-profile discrimination cases and class-action lawsuits that tend to get more attention compared with cases filed by individuals.

In order to bring a federal discrimination claim, the person will first need to file a claim before the EEOC, the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, or a local fair employment practices agency.

If the EEOC finds there is enough information to support the claim based on the information presented, the EEOC will ask if the parties would agree to a mediation. If there is no mediation or if an agreement isn’t reached at mediation, the charge will be investigated. If the employer doesn’t cooperate, the employer may be subpoenaed. If the investigation yields enough information that the EEOC thinks the claimant has a valid claim, a member of the EEOC’s legal staff will decide whether or not to file a lawsuit. Some cases are referred to the Department of Justice.

Chuck Baldwin Baldwin

If the agency ultimately decides there isn’t enough information to support the claim, the claimant will receive a one-page notice of right to sue and dismissal. The amount of time a former employee has to file suit on her own following the EEOC’s decision of how to proceed on the claim depends on the type of claim.

Remedies also vary but can include notice from the EEOC to stop discriminatory practices; job placement, back pay, and/or benefits the claimant would have received if she had not been discriminated against; and attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and court costs.

But before a former employee gets to the point of filing a claim, Anderson said employers have been proactive when it comes to their reduction-of-force plans to help the employees understand why they are being let go in the first place.

“Typically, companies will try to keep the higher-level performers, people with skills the company needs, and people who are adaptable, so those folks are clear choices for retention, especially in the first few rounds of reducing a work force,” she said.

But when companies need to make deeper cuts, those are more difficult to make as they tend to affect higher-level employees and some of the better performers, “so it’s difficult for them to understand why they were affected by reduction. It’s also difficult for them to understand the decision is not personal.”

Chuck Baldwin, managing shareholder for the Indianapolis office of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, agreed this is all the more reason to make the process as fair and objective as possible.

Of the types of cases employment law attorneys are seeing, Baldwin and Anderson said they’re seeing an increase in the number of retaliation, wage an hour, and Americans with Disabilities Act cases.

economyBecause of recent changes to ADA, Baldwin said employees have more they can claim under the act. The new legislation includes not only people with physical or mental impairments, but also further considers how accessible employers are to their employees when it comes to reasonably accommodating their needs in the workplace.

Anderson gave an example of a newer type of ADA case in which an individual was hired and then had trouble doing a particular job.

“The case will come down to what the particular disability or medical condition is and – regardless of the reasonable accommodations that could have been made – if the job could have been done,” she said.

The agency or judge will then “focus on the alleged impairments, what the job was, and how the company could or could not work around it. Some impairments employers cannot work around.”

For instance, she said, if someone claimed to have a back issue and couldn’t lift more than 5 pounds as a result, but the job specifically required the person to lift 5 pounds or more, the person making the claim could have a more difficult case of proving an ADA violation. But if the job requires that particular skill only on a fairly infrequent basis, such as once a month, as opposed to multiple times in a week or in a day, there is a much greater chance the employee could make his case that the company could have assigned that particular task to someone else in order to accommodate the employee who can’t physically lift the required amount.

This is another reason, Baldwin said, that he’s been advising clients to make sure all of their job descriptions are up-to-date, so if someone does make a claim regarding the ADA, the employer will know more quickly if they could or couldn’t accommodate someone – and if they could, then they could do what’s right for the employee.

The attorneys also noted they’ve noticed an increase in the number of age-discrimination claims, particularly among baby boomers who have been losing their jobs.

Earnhart added she expects there will continue to be a number of claims based on gender, race, national origin, and religion.

While it is more difficult to find a new job in this economy, the attorneys also reported seeing some positive signs the economy is starting to turn around.

Anderson said she has had fewer discussions with clients regarding plans for reductions of force. While the companies aren’t necessarily hiring, she said, they are looking ahead to start adding people when they can, while also determining how to more effectively use their current workforces.•


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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues