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Your Employment Law Questions Answered
One of the many side effects of the pandemic that we have noticed here is an increase in employment-related legal matters. That’s why we invited employment attorney and LRIS panel member Katherine Young to answer your employment law questions in this month’s blog. Katherine has over 25 years of legal experience and has had an array of fascinating jobs, including serving as an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee and working as a Civil Rights Investigator for the State of New Mexico. She now has a robust employment law practice, where she handles cases involving discrimination, retaliation, whistleblowing, wages and overtime, unemployment, and much more.
Let’s get to the questions!
I was recently fired from my job. What legal remedies do I have?
Your legal remedies will depend on the reason for your termination, the number of employees at your employer, and whether you worked for an employer who is covered by certain state or federal laws. You may be entitled to unemployment insurance benefits, to file a charge of discrimination if applicable, and possibly have a claim that supports filing a lawsuit. An employment lawyer will ask you numerous questions to see where you, and your former employer, stand in relation to various laws.
What documents or evidence should I try to collect if I think I am the target of an unfair employment action?
Important documents to preserve are 1) termination paperwork, 2) any past disciplinary actions, 3) the employee handbook, and 4) any documentation of your pay, hours worked, and benefits you received at your job. There may be other important documents specific to your situation, such as emails documenting your requests for medical leave or accommodation, or notification to your employer of problems in the workplace.
Everyone keeps telling me that Tennessee is a “right-to-work state” with “at-will employment.” What do those terms really mean?
A “right to work” means that you have a right to work at a job whether you choose to join a union or pay union dues at a unionized workplace. An employer cannot condition your hire on joining a union or paying union dues. There are few unionized workplaces in our immediate area, so it is not a significant factor in employment for most East Tennessee workers. “At-will employment” means that employers may terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all, as long as their reason is not prohibited by law, such as due to discrimination or in retaliation for an employee whistleblowing. Similarly, “at-will employment” means that an employee is free to quit their job for any reason or no reason at all. In some cases, there may be an employment contract in place that determines when, why, and how an employee can be fired or leave their position.
What’s the difference between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Tennessee Human Rights Commission (THRC)?
The EEOC is a federal agency, and its responsibilities include employers with 15 or more employees or discrimination under specific federal laws. The THRC handles similar matters for employees who work at smaller workplaces, having at least eight employees (not including the owner(s)). Before you file a charge of discrimination, you should gather all information such as your dates of employment, names of the supervisors and employees who would know the facts, any documents supporting your claims of discrimination, and be prepared to explain what, specifically, you believe was discriminatory. Both the THRC and the EEOC accept charges of discrimination online.
Why did I get a “right to sue” letter from the EEOC? Why do attorneys keep turning my case down?
“A Right to Sue” letter from the EEOC means that the agency has completed any work it intends to do on your case. It has either investigated or has determined an investigation cannot be justified. You have 90 days from the date of receipt to file a lawsuit in federal court. Tennessee law does not require a “Right to Sue” letter to file suit, and if your claim involves only Tennessee law, you can file suit at any time, if you are within the appropriate statutes of limitation. Attorneys may be turning down your case for litigation because there is not enough evidence to support a lawsuit, or because you do not have sufficient financial damages to support litigation. Many people would like to sue based upon principle, but attorneys do not generally recommend litigation based upon principle alone. Litigation can be an expensive, emotionally draining, and lengthy process for you.
What outcomes can I expect from a successful wrongful termination suit?
A successful wrongful termination case will involve the payment of back pay (minus any money you have earned in the meantime), possibly future pay to cover lost wages if you have a lower-paying current job, attorneys’ fees, the costs of litigation, possibly money for your inconvenience, humiliation, and emotional pain, and very rarely, punitive damages. East Tennessee juries are cautious and fiscally conservative. Our area is known for low verdicts, even in cases of very bad behavior on the part of employers. What may appear to you to be malicious actions on the part of your employer justifying a large payment for emotional distress may not appear that way to others, who did not experience your situation firsthand. Most people have worked for unpleasant people and have experienced a difficult workplace situation. Jurors are no different and they bring their life experiences to the table when they determine damages.
I am being harassed at work. What do I do next?
If you are being harassed at work, you need to inform a supervisor or manager of your concerns. I recommend employees use email or send text messages to create a written record of your complaints. If the harassment continues, escalate your concerns to a higher level of management, if possible. You should keep detailed records at home of what is happening on a day-to-day basis, the names of witnesses, and all complaints you have made. Include dates, times, locations, and full names in your records. It is very hard to locate "Bob, in the shipping office," two years later when Bob has changed employers. The law requires that you give the employer a full and fair opportunity to correct workplace harassment and discrimination before you take legal action.
I am having issues with my unemployment insurance. How can an attorney help me? When should I get an attorney involved?
If you have been awarded unemployment compensation and your employer has appealed, or, you have been denied unemployment compensation and appeal, a hearing will be held. This is the time to seek out an attorney. The first hearing sets the record for any further appeals. People often say they will handle the first hearing themselves, and then get an attorney if the matter goes further. It is usually too late then, as the first hearing determines the evidence in the record. The reason to get an attorney involved is that the hearings are under oath, recorded, and evidence is collected. If you do not follow the rules on evidence, it doesn't matter what has previously been sent to the unemployment department. You will be required to pay back the State of Tennessee for any monies you received if you lose your appeal.
What can an employment attorney do for me generally that I can’t do on my own?
An employment attorney can advise you about whether you are protected by law, what evidence is needed to pursue a claim, and whether the ultimate result may justify your pursuit of a claim. When you have a viable legal claim, an employment attorney can help you pursue your case. Oftentimes we advise people that there is no protection for their situation and then a personal decision must be made about quitting or staying in the job.
How much is an employment attorney going to cost me?
Some types of legal representation are a flat fee (for example, an unemployment hearing or a review of a non-compete agreement), some are on a contingency basis (if you don't get a settlement or a verdict, the attorney is not paid), and some are an hourly fee (defending a claim of violation of a non-compete or an administrative hearing). Each attorney sets rates based on his or her own view of a particular matter. Standard contingency rates run from 33%-45% of a verdict or appeal, depending on the complexity and length of the representation. Hourly rates in this area run from $250 to $400 per hour, depending on the attorney.
Just for fun, what is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is when a client tells me that it was worth going through the process for the result. I am always happiest when my client wins or settles for enough money to move on with their life. However, I have had several clients tell me that it was worth it for them just to stand up for themselves, even if the result was not all that they had hoped.
And finally, why are you a part of the Knoxville Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral & Information Service?
I have been a part of the KBA's LRIS for many years because I like to help callers, even if I can't represent them. Often people just need someone to listen to the situation, explain the possible options, and sympathize if nothing can be done. On the other hand, I have been referred numerous LRIS clients who have successfully pursued a claim and are happy that they did not just walk away from an injustice. LRIS serves a critical need in our area and is a valuable resource for East Tennessee.
Thank you, Katherine, for these helpful insights on a variety of employment-related issues!
If you’re looking for a lawyer and just don’t know where to start, the Knoxville Bar Association’s LRIS is a great place to begin. We match you with a lawyer that suits your needs. Our trusted attorneys provide you with a free consultation so that you can decide if it’s the right fit. Want to learn more? Call us at (865) 522-7501 or visit knoxbar.org/lawyerfinder.
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