According to a study of employment discrimination settlements that occurred in 1,170 cases settled by federal magistrate judges in Chicago over a six-year period ending in 2005, “The mean settlement amount is $54,651 … and the median is $30,000.” These numbers applied for single-employee litigants, as opposed to class-action figures, which are higher.
Perhaps the numbers above differ from your assumptions. What should these values mean to you, if you are an employee who is considering, or has taken, legal action against an employer? One thing they do not mean is that the numbers provide a value for your matter. Before assuming the value of your case, you should consider many factors. Such as:
- The values above occurred in serious (Federal) lawsuits that (1) likely had attorney representation and (2) likely had progressed for many months, and sometimes years, of litigation.
Filing an EEOC-agency or State- agency discrimination complaint is much easier to do than filing a Federal court complaint, and many workers file agency complaints without an attorney. But bringing a case in Federal court is difficult to do unless one has an attorney. Winning in Federal Court, or reaching a large settlement there, is nearly impossible without an attorney. The settlements giving rise to the figures above very likely involved employees with attorneys in the vast majority of the cases, as they occurred in Federal Court and involved a significant investment of legal work before reaching their results.
- Cases that are settled in agency proceedings (e.g. at EEOC mediation) have far lower average settlements.
Again, the results above occurred in Federal Court proceedings, after much investment of legal work occurred. If a case is at an earlier stage, i.e. at pre-complaint stage or agency-complaint stage, an employer will usually not agree to settle at the values above.
- The values are related to the merits and strengths of the cases.
It is unlikely that settlements in the amounts above would be paid for bad cases. If a competent attorney or judge regarded your case as a bad case, your likely outcome is zero dollars, rather than the amounts above.
- The values do not take investments into account.
For example, if a given worker reached a $30,000 settlement but had to pay $5,000 in legal fees or costs to reach the point of that result, then the true value of the settlement is $25,000 (before taxes) in that example.
- There are exceptions to everything above: a competent employment attorney could best assess your situation and its potential value.
As an attorney, I have had cases with six- and seven-figure settlements far exceeding the average values above. In some instances, my employee-clients have achieved six-figure settlements before even filing a legal complaint or having to invest a cent of their own money (due to contingency arrangements). But large settlement payments without large investments of work and time are unusual. There are patterns and factors in play that an experienced attorney can assess, based on his or her experience and knowledge of how cases typically proceed.
The study above and its numbers are helpful and informative but only in a general, statistical sense.
If you have a potential or actual legal case, have you talked to an employment attorney about the value of your matter? If your matter is important to you, you should consider doing so. If you are making assumptions about the value of your case, you could wind up squandering some or all of its true financial potential.