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SPLF Employment Blog

Does your employer have liability for what happened at work, or was it just bad behavior?

Is It Illegal Conduct or Just Bad Behavior? Workplace Liability Part 1: The Setup

Perhaps the most important question that our online damages calculator leaves unanswered is what attorneys call liability. That is, the calculator doesn’t address the threshold question of whether your employer violated the law at all.

It is possible that you were subject to wrongdoing at work and that as a result you lost your job and experienced financial losses and real emotional distress. But it is also possible that the wrongdoing you suffered was not illegal wrongdoing. If that’s the case, then you cannot recover any damages at all, no matter what potential value the calculator generates.

A Hypothetical Scenario

Here’s an example. We’ll set it up here. In our next blog, we will walk you through some ways you might still be able to take this case to court and win.

For our example, imagine that you are a black woman and your boss is a white man.

Meet Your Boss, the Tyrant

Unfortunately, your boss is a sociopath. He likes to play games, calling you into work after hours and on the weekends when what he wants isn’t really important or time sensitive. He toys with you like a mouse, praising you one moment but then tearing you down—sometimes publicly—the next. After just over a year of this unpredictable treatment, you are a nervous wreck. You worry constantly, breaking into tears at work and at home over the smallest thing. But you keep a stiff upper lip and don’t complain because you like the subject matter of your work and, well, the rent’s not going to pay itself.

One day, you notice your boss interviewing a young white man with a nice suit and a hipster pocket square. A week later, the new guy joins your group.

A week after that, your boss suddenly tells you that the report he needed by the end of the month is now due first thing tomorrow morning. Panicked, you pull an all-nighter to get it done, only leaving your desk to use the bathroom. In the morning, bleary eyed, you put the finished report on his desk just 15 minutes before he arrives. It’s not your best work, but considering the circumstances, you think your report is pretty good.

The Crux of the Matter

When the boss gets in, you see him stop briefly by the desk of the new guy. You see them laugh together. Based on their hand gestures, it looks like they are talking about sports. Your boss then walks into his office.

You wait nervously. An hour passes.

Then you get his e-mail: “Come see me right now.” You do. Before you even walk in the room, you get a glimpse of your boss through the window beside his door. In that one glance at his face, you can tell that he’s seething. As you walk in, he says, “Leave the door open and don’t bother sitting down.” It goes downhill from there. For several minutes—though it seems like much longer—he berates you for giving him an “inferior” work product, saying your report is “something I’d be damn embarrassed to have my name on.”

The problem? In a 15-page, in-depth financial report, you had three minor typos.

Like I said, he’s a sociopath.

Eventually, he seems to wind down. Then, while you stand humiliated before him, he rubs his chin while sitting in his chair. Staring out the window, he says, “That new guy is already running circles around you. I’m glad I hired him. You’re done here. Go collect your personal belongings. You’ve got 20 minutes. HR will escort you out.”

Stunned and defeated, you turn to leave without a word. Just as you get to his door, your now-former boss says, “Oh, and I suggest that you NOT have anyone call me for a reference.”

Picking Up the Pieces

This is easily one of the worst experiences of your life. As promised, HR meets you at your desk with, no joke, a cardboard box. The HR rep stands there awkwardly as you collect your personal items. Your colleagues pretend like they aren’t watching, but you can tell that they are. One of your co-workers, clearly not sure of the best way to handle this but wanting to help, walks up, rubs your arm, and then walks away.

Despite your best efforts, you start to cry.

It takes you eight months to find another job, and the one you do find pays 25 percent less. In the meantime, you lose your apartment because you can no longer afford it. You lose your car because you get behind on the payments. You go to therapy for four weeks. You could have used more, but you couldn’t afford it.

When you finally get your feet under you again, you decide to try to do something about what happened, if for no other reason than to keep the same thing from happening to someone else.

What Can You Win?

You do an internet search for employment law and find our calculator. As you go through it, you are checking off almost every element of damages.

  • Lost wages? Yep, lots of those.
  • Consequential damages? You bet.
  • Future wages? Unfortunately, you’re still accumulating those, with the pay cut you were forced to take.
  • Emotional distress? Uh, yeah.
  • Punitive damages? You think any reasonable person would be shocked by your boss’s terrible behavior, so you check this off with one of the higher numbers.

You hit the calculate button, and the value pops up. It says your case is worth approximately $200,000. Now that’s real money! While it won’t make up for what you went through, $200,000 sure wouldn’t hurt.

Feeling better, you call my firm and make an appointment. Though you know you shouldn’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched, you catch yourself thinking about everything you could do with $200,000.

An hour later, you walk out of my office, having learned that you likely don’t have a case.

What went wrong?

Summing It Up (For Now)

Not all wrongdoing is against the law. Sometimes people do terrible things that our laws just don’t account for and don’t provide compensation for. Though our calculator can give you a lot of useful information, it can’t tell you whether you actually have a case. That’s why you probably want to talk to an attorney about what you experienced before you get too attached to a hypothetical value.

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