One of the most common questions that plaintiffs in California employment lawsuits want answered is how much their case may be worth. But this does not make the question any easier to answer.
When a plaintiff in these cases succeeds after trial, an award of monetary compensation is usually made. However, determining exactly how much may be awarded by the court is often difficult, and impossible in most cases. This is because there are several factors that may affect the amount of damages recovered. Many of these factors cannot be controlled and will often only become evident after a thorough investigation into your case.
Despite this, it may be possible to estimate what an employment law case may be worth, based on the general heads of compensation the court may award. These typically include:
- Lost wages and benefits, also called special damages
- Compensation for emotional distress, also referred to as non-economic damages
- Attorney fees
- Punitive damages
Our California wrongful termination attorney explains what the court will consider in awarding these damages, and how they may affect the overall value of your case.
Special damages in a California employment lawsuit
Special damages are the basic form of compensation awarded to a successful plaintiff in an employment law case. These damages usually include compensation for lost wages and benefits that the plaintiff would have earned during the period they were out of a job. It is calculated as the total of:
- The amount the plaintiff would have earned in wages and benefits, including likely pay increases, from the date they were terminated till the date the court gives its verdict;
- The amount the plaintiff would have earned in future wages and benefits, from the date the court gives its verdict till the date the employment would have reasonably terminated; and
- Any other contract damages that were caused due to the termination. California Jury Instructions CACI 2406.
Determining when the employment would have terminated will often be tricky since no one can say for sure how long it would have lasted. But there are other factors that may be used to determine this, including:
- The age of the plaintiff, their work performance and how long they intended to continue at the job;
- The defendant’s prospects of continuing operations and keeping the plaintiff on; and
- Any other factors that may help determine how long the plaintiff would have continued at the job. Drzewiecki v. H & R Block, Inc. (1972) 24 Cal.App.3d 695, 705 [101 Cal.Rptr. 169].
Your attorney will typically help you understand how all these factors combine to determine the special damages in your case. They may also rely on the opinion of experts who can provide guidance on these matters and also help convince the court of your deserved recovery.
Apart from these, certain factors may exist that diminish the value of special damages awarded after an employment law case. These include the requirement to mitigate damages and subtraction of interim earnings.
Mitigation of damages
It is a general rule in employment law cases that a plaintiff should make reasonable efforts to mitigate damages. This means you should take steps to find and retain alternative employment that can help make up some of the financial loss from being wrongfully discharged. Stanchfield v Hamer Toyota, Inc. (1995) 37 CA 4th 1495.
Where the court finds that you failed to actively seek employment, this may negatively affect any special damages awarded at trial. In addition, if your employer made you an offer of re-employment, which you rejected without reasonable cause, it may affect your award.
In these circumstances, your award may be reduced by the amount you could have earned if you had taken steps to mitigate damages. But your employer will have to prove you failed to mitigate damages. They can only do this by showing:
- You had the opportunity to take up employment substantially similar to your former job;
- You failed to make reasonable efforts to seek and retain the employment; and
- The amount you would have earned from the employment.
Likewise, any income you earned during the period after termination will usually be deducted from your overall award. This may include income from self-employment activities or even income from disability benefits.
The reason for this is damages are usually awarded to ensure you do not suffer financially after you were wrongfully terminated. So, your employer is only required to make up the shortfall for any period when you were unable to make an income. Smith v Brown-Forman Distillers Corp. (1987) 196 CA3d 503.
What amounts to non-economic damages in a labor law claim?
Non-economic damages are usually awarded for loss or harm that cannot be calculated in money terms. They include damages for emotional distress, mental suffering and even harm done to your professional reputation.
If the mental suffering caused due to your wrongful termination led to physical symptoms or required treatment, you may also be compensated for this.
However, non-economic damages are not recoverable in all employment law cases. Foley v Interactive Data Corp. (1988) 47 C3d 654. For instance, it is not available in wrongful termination cases that are based on contract, such as an implied oral contract. But you may be awarded non-economic damages in other cases, including:
- Retaliation cases under the Fair Employment and Housing Act
- Cases on wrongful termination in violation of public policy
- Whistleblower retaliation cases
- Terminations in breach of the California WARN Act.
Even where non-economic damages are awarded, it can be difficult to calculate, since emotional harm cannot easily be quantified in money terms. In order to set a value on your non-economic loss, your attorney and the court may consider several factors, including:
- What kind of emotional distress you suffered
- The quality of evidence supporting this emotional harm
- The therapy or treatment you received, including its timing, intensity and duration
- Whether you had any pre-existing symptoms similar to those you suffered due to the wrongful termination
- Whether other factors contributed to your emotional distress, and several other factors.
When will attorney’s fees be awarded in an employment lawsuit?
You may also be awarded attorney’s fees and litigation costs after succeeding in your employment law case. Where you are eligible, the court may order the defendant to reimburse you for these costs.
Your employer will be liable to pay your attorney fees and litigation costs as part of the damages awarded by the court. But keep in mind that the court will only award “reasonable” costs. You may be required to provide a schedule of your attorney and litigation costs, usually through your attorney.
This compensation is not awarded in all cases though. There are specific statutes that entitle a plaintiff to recover attorney fees. These include:
- Wrongful termination suits under FEHA
- Actions under the California False Claims Act
- Whistleblower actions under the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act
- Actions under the Labor Code 98.6 and 6310 LC, which apply to actions relating to wage/hour and occupational health and safety violations
After a successful trial, as the “prevailing party” your attorney may then file a motion for attorney fees which must be supported by details of time he or she spent on your case. Often in employment law cases attorneys fees can exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Exactly how these fees will be distributed depends on the agreement between you and your attorney.
Your California employment law attorney will be able to help you understand if your case falls within any of these laws.
Punitive damages in wrongful discharge claims
Finally, punitive damages may be awarded in your employment law case, but only in specific instances. As the name implies, these damages are awarded to punish an employer, especially where their conduct involve malice, fraud or oppression. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell (2003) 538 U.S. 408, 419 [123 S.Ct. 1513, 155 L.Ed.2d 585].
Punitive damages have little to do with how much harm or damage you suffered, or how long you were out of a job. As a result, they cannot be calculated or estimated based on these facts (or any facts at all). They are purely discretionary, which means the jury may decide to award them or not.
These damages cannot be recovered in wrongful termination lawsuits based on contract though. Myers Building Industries, Ltd. v. Interface Technology, Inc. (1993) 13 Cal.App.4th 949, 960 [17 Cal.Rptr.2d 242]. This includes lawsuits for breach of implied contract or the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
Before punitive damages may be awarded, the court must be satisfied that one or more of the following is true:
- The conduct amounting to malice, fraud or oppression was committed by officers who acted on behalf of your employer or were duly authorized;
- One or more officers at your workplace knew about the conduct and adopted or approved it after it occurred; or
- Your employer engaged in such conduct, and this is backed by convincing proof
The plaintiff will have the burden of proving that punitive damages are necessary. If you succeed in doing this, the court may then turn to determining the amount of punitive damages that is justified in your case. It may consider factors such as the net worth and income of the defendant, the reprehensibility of their conduct or the amount of damages necessary to punish them.
Fact: Most Cases Settle
Most cases never make it to trial and usually any money received by a plaintiff is done by way of a settlement between the parties. A settlement can be reached between your lawyer and the company, your lawyer and the company’s lawyer, through private mediation, or through mediation through the courts.
A confidential settlement can be obtained at any point, including before filing an actual lawsuit.
Contact an employment law attorney
If you have questions about damages in a California employment law case, or if you would like to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California employment attorneys, contact us today. Call us at 714-409-8991 to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.