The Black Lives Matter movement has brought much-needed attention to the disparity in the way our criminal justice system treats African Americans.
But there’s another side of American justice that matters too: our civil courts.
In the United States today, the civil justice system is the last line of defense for workers who have faced discrimination on the job. And not just for individuals, either. Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits have been the most effective way to force recalcitrant employers to take action against discrimination.
Still, our courthouses are not open to all. As a black lawyer who focuses on employment discrimination, I’ve seen first-hand how access to the courts, the racial makeup of law firms and the way cases are handled can throw up barriers to justice.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to how black workers’ cases get derailed.
Step 1: Black workers are more likely to represent themselves.
Few people can afford to pay an employment attorney up front. Instead, most lawyers in the field work on contingency—meaning they will only get paid if the worker receives a cash award. That makes these cases financially risky for lawyers, who might get nothing for hours of work if the case is dismissed. As a result, it can be hard for many workers to find an employment lawyer.
But for black workers, the problem is even worse. A study commissioned by the American Bar Association found that black plaintiffs are 2.5 times more likely than white plaintiffs to file employment discrimination claims pro se, or without a lawyer. Other racial minorities, including Hispanics and Asians, are 1.9 times more likely to file pro se than their white counterparts.
Winning an employment case is already difficult, even under the best circumstances. Pro se litigants, assuming that they can even get their cases inside a courtroom, are almost guaranteed to lose—no matter how strong the details of their case may be.
For example, litigants may be required to file their case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within a certain number of days, and that time limit varies by state. Workers representing themselves may miss that deadline, and lose their cases before they even start.
Step 2: Attorneys are less likely to take cases involving black workers.
Even when black workers have found an attorney who might be interested in their case, they are less likely to get help. The ABA study found that the way employment attorneys screen their cases can contribute to the racial disparity.
In some cases, employment attorneys charge expensive consultation fees before considering a potential client. Black workers who can’t afford those fees never get in the front door. In other cases, the ABA study found that attorneys favored clients based on criteria that weren’t related to the merits of their case, such as perceived demeanor, mannerisms or a personal referral.
The disparity in pay between black and white workers adds to the problem. Because lost wages are a major part of the case, workers who make less money will receive smaller payouts. For employment attorneys who have to work for free upfront, that means less money at the back end.
Step 3: Juries aren’t always sympathetic to black workers.
Even when employment cases make it to trial, the worker still has only a 15 percent chance of winning, compared to a 50 percent win rate for other types of plaintiffs.
That means employment cases are particularly sensitive to jurors’ beliefs and prejudices. If a jury does not find the plaintiff’s story credible, or doesn’t believe that discrimination occurred, or doubts whether discrimination is all that common anyway—the worker loses.
In addition, damages for emotional distress are allowed in many employment discrimination cases. But jurors may not be as willing to provide them to black workers even when they have found in favor of them overall due to prejudices about their mythical inner strength or whether discrimination is serious.
The end result is that the same discrimination that black workers face in the workplace can also negatively affect them in the eyes of a jury.
Step 4: Even if they win, they are often awarded less money.
Workers who win their cases can receive money for emotional distress, punitive damages intended to send a message to the employer and lost wages. Under federal law, those first two amounts are limited between $50,000 and $300,000, levels set in 1991 that have not been adjusted since. (If they had been pegged to the Consumer Price Index, the cap would be closer to $525,000.)
Generally, the largest award in employment cases is for lost wages. Employees who win their cases can only get the difference between what they made since being illegally fired and what they would have made had they not been fired.
Black employees, on average, make less than white employees. As a result, black employees bringing discrimination cases are disproportionately affected by caps for damages for lost wages. This means that these employees have less leverage to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with employers prior to trial because of the low risk to the employer of having to pay a significant judgment—if the employee prevails at trial. As a result, employers may have less incentive to adequately address discrimination against black employees.
The deep-seated flaws in our civil justice system cannot be ignored. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed by employers, legal professionals, and lawmakers. There needs to be a serious examination as to why black employees who have often been unlawfully excluded from the workplace are then again denied recourse through the legal system.
Phillis h. Rambsy is a partner with the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee. Her legal practice focuses on workplace law where she represents employees in matters of wrongful termination and employment discrimination including racial discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and other family-care issues such as caring for a sick child or an elderly parent. To learn more, visit www.spigglelaw.com.