More layoffs mean more litigation

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By Claude Solnik

Dolan Media News Service

Workplace litigation is at an all-time high as unemployment has risen. And experts don’t expect layoffs or litigation to slow any time soon.

Attorneys said high unemployment traditionally fuels a large number of workplace complaints as former employees seek compensation for real or perceived discrimination.

“We’re not seeing it yet,” said Kim Koy, director of the southern regional office of the Mountain States Employers Council. “But we are predicting we will see it locally soon — there are already lots of complaints with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) — charges of discrimination, wrongful dismissal.”

The EEOC said it received 93,277 private-sector discrimination charges during fiscal year 2009, second only to the more than 95,000 claims filed in 2008.

“They’re hiring more investigators as well,” said Paul Hurkomb, an employment attorney with Sparks Willson Borges Brandt & Johnson P.C. in Colorado Springs. “They seem to be focusing more on wage and hour issues than they were before.”

The EEOC received 277 claims a day during fiscal 2009, or one claim nearly every five minutes.

Claims are going up in nearly every category, with those based on racial discrimination up 35.6 percent to 33,937 in 2008, those based on sex discrimination up 29.7 percent to 28,372 and those based on age up 25.8 percent to 24,582. Discrimination claims based on disability rose 20.4 percent to 19,453.

The commission, which found that about one in five claims had merit, obtained a record $294.1 million in settlements for plaintiffs. The EEOC doesn’t include awards from court cases, which often include nondisclosure agreements.

Companies can expect the threat of litigation to continue in the immediate future. EEOC Inspector General Aletha Brown expects the agency in fiscal 2010 to see the number of claims “increase significantly.”

“We’re seeing an increase in litigation — definitely,” she said. “Let’s just say, it’s keeping me busy.”

The EEOC is heading into fiscal 2010 with a bigger backlog than it’s ever had. The agency had 85,768 unprocessed claims during Sept. 30, up 15.9 percent from the 73,951 charges waiting processing at the end of fiscal year 2008.

CSBJ reporter Amy Gillentine contributed to this story.