Job loss is a traumatic and confusing experience, no matter why it happens. However, the worst hurt comes when employees are fired not because of their job performance, but because they have been the victims of wrongful termination by their employers.
The Missouri Human Rights Act prohibits employers from engaging in discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability or age. The prohibition extends not only to hiring and firing, but to all aspects of the employment relationship including recruitment, promotion, pay, retirement plans and use of company facilities.
Employers are also prohibited from engaging in retaliation against an individual for filing a discrimination claim, participating in a discrimination investigation or opposing discriminatory practices.
What are Punitive Damages?
Because discrimination and harassment are such insidious practices, Missouri law gives victims the ability to recover punitive damages from discriminatory employers. Punitive damages are not intended to compensate plaintiffs for their actual losses. Instead, they are intended to punish employers for their illegal behavior and deter them from repeating their bad acts.
Punitive damage awards generally increase with the severity of the discrimination, but they are not unlimited. Under Missouri law, a punitive damage award may not exceed "five times the net amount of the judgment awarded to the plaintiff" or $500,000, whichever is greater.
Punitive Damage Cap Includes Attorneys' Fees Awards
Because so many different factors play into an employee's damage award, it can be difficult to determine what "five times the net amount of the judgment" really means. To that end, the Missouri Court of Appeals recently addressed the issue of whether an award of attorney's fees counts toward the "net amount" of a plaintiff's judgment for the purposes of calculating punitive damages.
The court held that attorneys' fees should be included in the calculation because they are an integral part of an employment discrimination award. Attorneys' fees are specifically included in the Missouri Human Rights Act because discrimination victims should not have to suffer a financial penalty in order to defend their rights. Thus, the cost of bringing a discrimination claim to trial is an element of damages and should not be excluded from the calculation of punitive damages.
Punitive damage awards can vary significantly from case to case. An experienced employment discrimination attorney will not only know the law, but will also have the courtroom experience necessary to present the claim in the best possible light.
* Free consultation does not apply to review of severance and/or employment agreements.