The United States Supreme Court recently made employment litigation
potentially much more expensive for employers. In a unanimous decision, the
Court held that "front pay" is not covered by the damages cap in Title
VII and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) cases.
The damages cap was a part of the 1991 Civil Rights Act, which, for the first
time, gave parties the right to a jury trial in Title VII and ADA cases. The
maximum amount of compensatory and punitive damages that may be imposed ranges
from $50,000 for the smallest employers to $300,000 for employers with more than
500 employees. If front pay were included in the cap, as the employer argued,
the potential financial liability in Title VII and ADA cases would be limited to
back pay and benefits lost, an amount of damages within the cap, and attorney
fees. Now, front pay must be added as well.
Front pay is an amount to compensate for pay lost between the date of the
judgment and reinstatement, or an amount in lieu of reinstatement which can run
for months or years into the future. If the court, for example, orders an
employee reinstated and there is no suitable position open, front pay can cover
the period from the judgment until there is an opening. Most common is the
situation where there are hard feelings or other reasons why reinstatement would
not work; front pay is awarded as a substitute.
The Supreme Court did not consider when front pay is an appropriate remedy,
leaving that question for another day. However, there are considerations
available for employers, especially when the employee is no longer working for
the defendant employer. It is settled law that a former employee who turns down
an unconditional offer of reinstatement cannot be awarded any pay after the date
of the rejected offer. In appropriate situations, such an unconditional offer of
reinstatement can cut off both front pay and a portion of back pay liability.
If the employee fulfills his or her obligation to mitigate damages and
obtains another job, the liability for back pay and potential front pay also
decreases to the difference between what the employer was paying and what the
former employee now earns elsewhere. In many instances, the new job pays more
than the former job, thus curtailing liability for both back and front pay.
Another factor that can cut off back pay and, therefore, front pay, is the
discovery of an action by the employee that would have resulted in termination...