What’s My Virginia Employment Law Case Worth?

A reader asks:

I was hired for a seasonal position with a company but dismissed after orientation and before my job began. I was told that I was being dismissed because the company had over-hired for the season. I was also supposed to receive a $550 bonus, but the company refused to pay it. They did pay me for orientation.

Do I have a case?

Before I answer this question, I'd like to comment a little bit about how common it is. While I have never seen this particular case before, I see lots of cases that are similar to this one in an important way: they are good legal cases but they are practically not worth pursuing. Let me explain.

Lawsuits are Composed of Liability and Damages.

Let's talk about the difference between liability and damages. Image © Nenov Brothers -- stock.adobe.com

As I've mentioned in this blog before, Virginia employment law cases are often made up of two distinct parts. First, there's the question of liability, or whether the employer violated some law. Second, there's the question of damages, or whether that violation caused the employee to suffer in any way that the law compensates. And here's the important thing: in most cases, a Virginia employment law case is not worth pursuing if you can't answer "yes" to both of these questions.

A Look at Damages: Bad Conduct Does Not Guarantee Damages.

When I explain this to clients, I like to use an example. Imagine, if you will, that a drunk driver is on the road, driving at an excessive speed, and that he flies through a red light and smashes into a minivan containing a family with an infant child. Now in our example, a magical thing happens. There is zero damage to the family's vehicle or to the people inside. Despite the high rate of speed, there is no scratch on the vehicle, no dent, and the people inside do not suffer so much as a disturbed hair. In this totally hypothetical and magical scenario, there is no damage to the family or the vehicle whatsoever.

I know, I know, this isn't an employment law case, but it can help demonstrate the difference between liability and damages. In this case, the driver certainly violated the law in a most atrocious fashion. But, because there are zero damages, we can say for certain that there are no compensatory damages here. That means that, if the family sues the drunk driver for compensatory damages, (1) they will win but (2) the jury will only assesses $1 of compensatory damages against the drunk driver.

There's an important reason for this, too. That reason goes to the very heart and purpose of the civil law. Civil law (the law that gives citizens access to the courts for money damages) generally exists to make you whole for injuries that you suffer. It does not go beyond that. So with that primer in mind, lets return to the question at hand.

Without Damages, Your Case May Not Be Worth Pursuing.

Does the reader have a case? There isn't enough information here to know whether the employer should've paid the bonus. But that doesn't really matter. Let's assume that the employer should have paid the bonus, thereby assuming the reader can prove liability. Then, with this assumption in mind, we turn to the second question, are there any damages?

Yes, of course there are. There's the $550 bonus that was not paid as agreed. And now we get into the heart of the problem with this case. The damages are only $550. Now, to many people $550 is a lot of money. But, is it enough money to appeal to the courts? Is it enough money to justify hiring an attorney? In order to answer this question, let's do a little math.

In Virginia, you'll likely have to pay an attorney a few hundred dollars to speak with them about your employment law case. If they want to offer to represent you, they will normally do so in one of two ways: (1) on a contingent fee basis or (2) on an hourly basis. Let's look at both.

  1. On a contingent fee basis, you will pay the attorney somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of any monetary recovery you eventually receive. In this case, that would be $275. I'll wager that you won't find an attorney who will take a case pursuing one third or even one half of $550. So a contingent fee is out in this case.
  2. On an hourly fee basis, you pay that attorney hundreds of dollars for every hour they perform work on your case. You are also likely to pay them for any costs that they incur to third parties, like court reporters who record depositions. And, in general, you cannot recover those attorneys fees in most cases that are brought in American courts (though you can recover reasonable attorneys' fees if you prevail in many employment law cases).

So assuming that you pay an attorney $300 to meet with them, and they offer to represent you at, say, $350 per hour, and they get you your $550 back after four hours worth of work, you have spent $1700 chasing after $550, for a net loss of $1,150.

Sometimes, the Smart Move is Walking Away.

Deciding to walk away when your employer has acted unfairly is never easy. But sometimes, it's the right choice. Image © alphaspirit -- stock.adobe.com

So let's return to the question at hand, is this a good case? We're assuming that there is a illegal activity here, and it really doesn't matter how bad that activity was. Regardless of the employer's conduct, the damages do not support any sort of financial investment.

Does this mean the visitor has no recourse? Well no. They could file a claim in small claims court, or with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry or the United States Department of Labor. I tend to think that in cases like this it's just not worth even these efforts.

Sadly, employers don't always act the way we want them to, and every day Virginia employees get the short end of the stick. In many cases, the best thing an employee can do for their own well-being is to walk away and find a way to be at peace with the unfortunate situation.

Then Again, Some Cases are Worth Fighting.

So when is a case with pursuing? When employers act illegally and cause their employees to (1) lose substantial wages and/or (2) suffer substantial emotional harm, cases become valuable and worth pursuing. But that doesn't appear to be what's going on in this case. Also, small cases can be worthwhile for attorneys and plaintiffs if the employer treats many employees the same way. Finally, some conduct by employers is egregious enough that it can support punitive damages, which are not tied to the employee's actual losses or emotional distress.

If you think that your Virginia employer has treated you unfairly and want to know what your case is worth, J. Madison PLC can help. Tell us about your case today, and we'll help answer your questions, like whether you're entitled to a recovery and, if so, how much.

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