Are Federal Judges Hostile To Employment Plaintiffs? Report Says Yes

Are Federal Judges Hostile To Employment Plaintiffs? Report Says Yes

The National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), which is the employee-side lawyers' organization, just released a study called Judicial Hostility to Workers' Rights: The Case for Professional Diversity on the Federal Bench. The statistics confirm what every employment law practitioner knows already: federal courts are mostly a terrible place for employees:

  • From 1979-2006, the plaintiff win rate for employment cases (15 percent) was lower than non-employment cases (51 percent).
  • For cases going to trial, employment discrimination plaintiffs (28.47 percent) won less often than other plaintiffs (44.94 percent).
  • Employees succeeded on appeal only 9 percent of the time, while employers won 41 percent of appeals.

Judicial Hostility, p. 4.

The report points to the lack of federal judges who, as lawyers, actually represented, you know, people. I don't mean corporations, which are now considered by the same federal bench to be people. I mean living, breathing human beings.

Employees face all kinds of judge-created obstacles. The report cites a few (my colleagues and I could probably name a dozen more):

  • "Stray Remarks" - Allows judges to disregard discriminatory statements made by supervisors or other employees as merely "stray remarks," and therefore not evidence of discrimination
  • "Business Judgment" - Permits judges to defer to an employer's "business judgment" instead of carefully examining whether an asserted justification for an adverse employment action was pretext for unlawful discrimination. Some courts have gone so far as to accept the defendant's asserted reasons for the adverse employment action being challenged, even when the employer's explanation is harsh or unreasonable.
  • "Self-Serving Witness" - Enables judges to presume the credibility of testimony from defense witnesses with a vested interest in helping employers avoid liability, while categorizing assertions by or on behalf of plaintiff-employees as purely "self-serving."

Judicial Hostility, p. 5.

The report cites to one other factor peculiar to federal courts: summary judgment. The fact is that summary judgment standards in federal court result in very few employment cases actually making it to trial.

  • Between 1979 and 2006, employees in discrimination cases won only 4 percent of pretrial adjudications - the bulk of which can safely be assumed to have been on defendants' motions for summary judgment.

Judicial Hostility, p. 8.

The report recommends that the President appoint judges from diverse professional backgrounds. The lack of judges who have worked for non-profit organizations that assist the poor and judges who have represented plaintiffs in employment and civil rights cases certainly skews the bench to the employer side.

I have another suggestion. Congress needs to step in. When the bench creates obstacles, Congress can lift them. They've done it with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the ADA Amendments Act, and the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. They can fix some more of these problems by making the standards for proving and winning discrimination cases clear; by laying out the burden of proof for both plaintiffs and defendants so it's not open to hostile interpretation; and by eliminating the judge-created doctrines that make employment law cases ridiculously hard to win.

Do you want change? Contact your member of Congress. Send them this report. Tell them that it's their job to make sure hard-working Americans don't get short-changed in federal court.

See more employment law posts on Donna Ballman's blog, Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home

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