The High Cost of Employment Litigation

John Hyman has an article this month at the Ohio Employer's Law Blog discussing the high cost to companies of defending employment-related cases. In his article (which I commend to your reading) he sites to an insurance company report, which found that

A representative study of 446 closed claims reported by small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with fewer than 500 employees showed that 19% of employment charges resulted in defense and settlement costs averaging a total of $125,000. On average, those matters took 275 days to resolve.

Well, that does sound bad. But keep a couple of things in mind. First, the report discusses the 19% of employment charges that resulted in defense and settlement. I take that to mean that 81% of charges are resolved at the administrative level (EEOC) without the company incurring defense or settlement costs.

Secondly, this is an insurance company report. The purpose of the report is to convince employers that they need to purchase insurance against the scourge that is employment litigation. I'm not saying they are evil or anything but I would keep their motivation in mind when evaluating their report.

Still, there is no denying that employment litigation appears to cost more than other types of litigation involving the same general amounts in controversy. Why is that?? 

Sticker Shock

Sources I trust say that defending a case through discovery and a ruling on a motion for summary judgment can cost an employer between $75,000 and $125,000. If an employer loses summary judgment (which much more often than not is the case), the employer can expect to spend a total of $175,000 to $250,000 in legal fees just to take a case to a trial. (Source) Obviously this will vary somewhat based on geography but, even adjusting for that issue, this is a crazy amount of money to spend defending your average employment discrimination case.  The average employment case settles out of court for about $40,000. (Source)

Simply put, defending employment lawsuits costs too much. Why on earth are companies paying $75,000 to $250,000 to defend cases that, on average, can be settled for $40,000?

The answer is...you guessed it...complicated. From my viewpoint as an attorney who has practiced on both sides of the docket for both individuals and large corporations, the cause of this strange phenomena involves the interplay of several factors, including modern American law firm business structure, client emotional issues, and the way the courts have developed their procedures for handling employment cases. 

 1) Defense Firm Structure and Billing Pressure

Any law firm that wants to advertise itself as "full service" to its business-side clients needs to have lawyers who can defend employment-related cases. So they do. The problem is that there simply aren't enough employment-related cases to keep this many lawyers legitimately busy. In my city there are probably 3-5 times as many employment defense lawyers as there are plaintiff's side employment lawyers. As a result, defense lawyers' dockets have far fewer cases than the average plaintiff lawyer's docket.

But even though they have fewer cases to manage and the average settlement value of their cases may be relatively low (as compared to the commercial litigation partner down the hall), they still face the relentless pressure to bill fees for the firm. This results in a natural motivation for defense lawyers to be extremely thorough in the defense of such cases. File discovery motion after discovery motion, subpoena the plaintiff's employment records from 10 years ago whether there is any realistic belief they will gather relevant information or not, file a motion for summary judgment in nearly every single case, etc. You get the idea.

Is there anything unethical about thoroughly developing a case file? No, of course not. Does it make sense to advise a client to spend three times more to fight a case than it could have been settled for the week it was filed?  Perhaps not.

 2) Emotions

Employment-related cases can be very emotional for both sides of the docket. When an employment lawsuit is filed against a company, the managers who are alleged to have acted wrongfully understandably take the allegations very personally. They feel personally and professionally threatened. They often lock into a "flight or fight" emotional state that makes it nearly impossible for them to use sound business judgment in dealing with the claim.

Strong emotions are something that employment lawyers on both sides of the docket have to deal with. Getting clients to get past their emotions and to make a "business decision" about their case based on the realities of the law, the court, and the potential outcome of a trial is something about which I often commiserate with opposing counsel.

But defendants have a potential advantage in this regard. Usually, the defendant is a corporate entity. This means that often the manager who is accused of wrongdoing can be removed and protected from the decision-making process when it comes to directing the course of the litigation and settlement negotiations. Surprisingly, however, many defendants leave the manager involved. Almost without exception this makes the process longer and more expensive for all involved.

3) The Law

The law in the area of employment-related disputes has developed quite differently than the law governing say, personal injury or commercial disputes. From its inception, employment law has taken a fairly straight forward question, "Was the plaintiff terminated because of ______?" and obscured it in layer after layer of complicated abstraction. A lengthy required pre-litigation administrative process, tricky jurisdictional issues, multi-step prima facie standards, shifting burdens of proof, and the improper treatment of many fact questions as something that can be decided by a judge as a matter of law have combined to make employment law one of the most complex areas in which to practice.

The overly-complicated nature of the law applicable to employment disputes greatly increases the time and money spent litigating issues that are, fundamentally, pretty straight forward and easy to understand. This has led to a practice of Defendants filing complex and lengthy motions for summary judgment in nearly every single case. If the motion is successful and the case is dismissed then the plaintiff will likely file an appeal - a process that adds another year's worth of work and expense to the case. If the motion for summary judgment fails then, typically, the case will settle. Note that the case may settle not necessarily because the defendant believes it would certainly lose at trial but because it simply can no longer justify spending more time and expense on a case that can settle for less than has already been spent. And often the case settles for at or near an amount that it could have been settled for before the motion for summary judgment was filed.

The law applicable to employment cases (and more specifically summary judgment practice in such cases) desperately needs to be reformed to curb the wasteful and abusive overuse of dispositive motions. Summary judgment was originally designed to only be available in cases in which there is truly no genuine question of fact to be determined by a jury. Instead they are abused an filed be defendants in nearly every single case. Until this practice is reformed, both sides of the docket will spend more time and money than they should resolving employment-related disputes.

Is There a Solution?

The current system really isn't working terribly well for either plaintiffs or defendants. It doesn't serve anyone's interest to drag out these disputes for years and spend tens of thousands of dollars on attorney's fees and expenses when a very high percentage of such disputes could be resolved relatively early for far less money than most defendants end up paying in combined attorney's fees, expenses and settlement funds. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers but I do have a few thoughts from my time spent both as a plaintiff's lawyer and as a defense lawyer at a large international firm. I will discuss these ideas in an upcoming post. (And in case you were wondering -- No, binding arbitration is not the answer. It is actually more expensive and time consuming than litigation.)