You’ve lost your job and you come to my office to see if anything can be done. What are the chances that I’ll be able to help you?
Suppose I have a meeting with a 62 year old potential client who has been fired from her job. “Mary” is scared. She knows it’s tough to find a job in today’s economy, particularly for older workers, and she is terrified about the prospect of living off the hard-earned savings she planned to have for retirement, while she tries to find a new job. What’s particularly upsetting to her is that she has worked for her former employer for many years, has had positive evaluations and has received pay raises every year. From her point of view, it appears to be a case of illegal discrimination, and she wants to sue her former employer.
More often than not Connecticut employees like Mary are “at will” employees. That means she could be legally fired for almost any reason, or for no reason at all, assuming there is no employment contract or collective bargaining agreement protecting her. In Connecticut, it’s illegal for an employer to fire an employee because of her race, color, religious creed, age, sex, marital status, national origin, ancestry, mental disability, mental retardation, learning disability, or physical disability. As an “at will” employee Mary would only have a claim if she could show she was fired based on her membership in one of these, or certain other categories.
Rarely is there a smoking gun that leads to this conclusion. Today’s employers are usually sophisticated enough to know not to tell Mary she is being fired because she is old, or gay, or Jewish or Irish. Digging into the background enough can produce some helpful evidence in some cases. As examples, if every employee fired by Mary’s employer over the last five years was over 60, that could be evidence of illegal age discrimination. Or, if Mary was the only Afro-American ever hired by her employer, and she experienced harsh on the job demands not made of her Caucasian co-workers, Mary might have a race discrimination claim.
If the facts seem to support Mary’s claim, it’s sometimes possible to enrich a severance package being offered by Mary’s former employer. Mary may also decide to file a claim with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (“CCHRO”) which will examine the evidence and may perform an investigation. The CCHRO process is lengthy and it can be expensive, but if Mary prevails she may receive lost wages and other relief. If Mary is dissatisfied with the CCHRO ruling, she may elect to file a claim in Court.
If Mary’s claim is strong, employers will often agree to a reasonable settlement. On the other hand, if Mary’s claim has no substance, her employer will be inclined to fight long and hard to dissuade other employees from filing unjustified claims just to make a quick buck. A long losing battle won’t make Mary or her lawyer happy. The lesson here is that it’s obviously important for Mary and her lawyer to realistically evaluate her situation early in the process, in order to determine if her firing was illegal and to decide on a sensible strategy.