The day was progressing like any other – putting out fires, monitoring production, cultivating new business – until the receptionist announced the presence of an unexpected visitor. The hand you held out for an introductory shake was met with a bundle of paperwork. The confusion created by the unanticipated delivery was momentarily clarified when the visitor mumbled a few parting words: “You’ve been served.”
A brief scan of the documents revealed that a former employee filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging unlawful discrimination. The expected stream of emotions soon followed: bewilderment, denial, fear, anger, and finally pragmatism. Something needs to be done, and since an answer to the complaint must be filed within 20 days, contacting an attorney must be near the top of the list.
Unfortunately, defense attorneys do not typically handle cases on a contingency-fee basis. Rather, they bill their time hourly, and while many attorneys provide a complimentary phone call, the meter typically starts running shortly thereafter. Clients are ordinarily expected to cut a substantial retainer check before any steps are taken to mount a defense.
Needless to say, defending against an employment practices lawsuit, such as one alleging discrimination or harassment, is a costly proposition. Even if the employer wins the lawsuit, the outcome of the experience will likely be viewed as a loss. The bill for attorneys’ fees alone will invariably cause financial harm to an organization. For those already struggling through difficult economic times, the harm may be irreversible.
The employer in this hypothetical situation has no choice but to deal with the imminent present since nothing can be done to change the past. However, for those cringing at the thought of personally experiencing this situation in the future, there is one thing that can be done to alter the experience – obtain employment practices liability insurance (EPLI).
EPLI protects employers in the event of such workplace claims as discrimination, wrongful termination, and sexual harassment, as well as other civil wrongdoings, such as wrongful demotion, failure to promote and discrimination by third parties (i.e., clients). Generally, a policy covers eligible losses stemming from such causes of action, as well as associated litigation costs, including attorneys’ fees. And the insurance company will provide the services of attorneys who specialize in defending against such claims, thereby significantly increasing the likelihood that employers will prevail in the event litigation does occur.
Yet, despite these obvious and valuable benefits, many organizations choose to forego purchasing EPLI. Those responsible for protecting their organization from the risk of loss have plenty of reasons for deciding not to purchase EPLI. However, upon closer examination, it is clear that the security afforded by these reasons is illusory. Let’s take a look at a few.
None of my employees would ever sue me. Let’s assume that this is true (although we know it isn’t). Did you know that several equal employment opportunity laws, such as Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act, also protect applicants? While some organizations may take comfort in the belief that their employees would never sue, such a perception does not address, much less protect against, the possibility of an employment practices lawsuit being filed by an applicant. Needless to say, those relying on the charity of strangers for security have a significant hole in their risk management umbrella.
Our organization complies with all employment laws. There is little doubt that most organizations have every intention of complying with applicable employment laws, and that they, in fact, make a good faith effort to do so. Unfortunately, this reasoning incorrectly assumes that lawsuits are only filed by those who were actually victims of an unlawful employment practice. In reality, many employers are ultimately found to have not violated the law, yet they were still required to defend their actions in court. Undertaking a defense is expensive, and from a purely economic standpoint, vindication through the judicial system is rarely worth the price of admission.
It can’t happen to me. Clearly, this age-old rationalization is as wrong in this context as it is in everyday life. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the number of employment related claims is on the rise. Hence, it is not only happening, but it is happening in greater numbers. While this increase in claims may be attributed to several factors, including a struggling economy or corporate cutbacks in HR training and monitoring, there is good reason to believe that the increase will continue well into the future.
Consider that the ADA Amendments Act broadened the scope and applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since more people qualify as disabled under the amended law, more people will be entitled to the ADA’s protection. In practice, this signals the existence of a new and significant risk exposure – an ADA lawsuit – that may not have previously existed. Therefore, the likelihood of falling victim to an employment practices lawsuit is greater now than it was then.
We are a small operation so we don’t have to worry about employee lawsuits. While employee lawsuits brought against large companies make the headlines, smaller operations should be equally concerned about being sued for an unlawful employment practice. Compared to large corporations, many smaller organizations operate casually and informally. While a collegial atmosphere can make for a more relaxed workplace, it may increase the likelihood that behaviors are not properly monitored or that policies are non-existent or loosely applied. Moreover, smaller organizations often do not have the budget or infrastructure to ensure the proper handling of human resources. Since these factors almost invariably lead to lawsuits, smaller organizations are prime candidates for EPLI.
We have an excellent HR department that ensures compliance with all equal employment opportunity laws. While placing an emphasis on human resources can go a long way toward reducing the risk of being sued for an unlawful employment practice, it is by no means a guarantee. Two things merit discussion on this point. First, unlawful employment practices occur despite top-notch HR departments. Consider that a well-known, publicly traded clothing retailer paid approximately $50 million to settle a class-action discrimination lawsuit despite what was surely a well-qualified HR department. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that efforts of the HR department do not always filter down to the entire workforce.
Second, in some situations, the risk of violating an equal employment opportunity law cannot be reduced by the HR department. The recent amendments to the Family & Medical Leave Act’s regulations provide a good example. Until the precise scope and applicability of the regulations are determined by the courts, employers are operating with their best guess as to what the regulations actually require. Unfortunately, this means that some employers, regardless of the quality of their HR department, must defend their actions in court, often at great expense. This reality underscores the importance of EPLI.
There is no room in the budget for EPLI. Certainly, budgetary constraints are always a valid consideration. While many view the premium for EPLI as the budgetary figure worthy of consideration, the real figure is the amount that will have to be paid out in the event a lawsuit is filed. How do the attorney’s fees and the plaintiff’s judgment fit into the budget? A realistic approach to the budget should consider the potential cost of not obtaining EPLI rather than the cost of the premium. When such a calculation is undertaken, purchasing EPLI is almost always considered a smart investment.
Although there are many reasons for not purchasing EPLI, once a lawsuit is filed, all of those reasons lose whatever merit they may have once had. There is a world of difference between personally dealing with (and paying for) the defense of an employment practices lawsuit versus forwarding the papers to the insurance company. One option is not only cheaper, but it provides a peace-of-mind that allows the organization’s focus to remain on the continued successful operation of the business. Needless to say, the alternative is much, much worse.
If you would like more information about EPLI, please contact us.