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Press Release: Legal Lines with Locke Meredith

Guest Jill Craft, Show # 106

Attorney Locke Meredith interviews Jill Craft, a local attorney who specializes in discrimination litigation.  Craft is going to discuss the purpose of these laws, which is essentially to protect the people that legislation deems worthy of protection, and she will discuss what to do if you want to file a discrimination claim.

Craft is originally from Indiana, went to Indiana University, and then went to LSU Law School.  She started practicing employment law in 1991, opening up her own practice in 1992.  This is the same year the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.  Her first two clients were a man fired because he had cancer and a victim of sexual harassment.  At this point, Craft knew that this was a job that she was passionate about, saying she knew she had “fallen into a niche that I absolutely love.” Craft talks about how much she loves her job and her clients but also that it is a very difficult area of law to practice because it is so complicated.  Craft has taken cases all the way to the United States Supreme Court.  Her role in the Americans with Disabilities Act case made national impact, something she is very proud of.

Meredith asks Craft to give us an overall picture of how discrimination litigation works.  She explains that there are basically two types of laws, state and federal.  State statutes, she says, largely mirror federal, and protect against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin, disability status, pregnancy status, age, and religion.  Federal statutes, Craft explains do largely the same thing but in about seven different ways.  There are requirements, for example, an employer cannot be held liable for sexual harassment if they don’t have more than fifteen employees.   This has left a lot of sexual harassment victims of small companies without recourse.

Craft explains that discrimination laws began in the late 1800’s with the fourteenth amendment, then were continued in the 1920’s with women granted the right to vote, and then were more specifically put into practice in 1964 with the civil rights movement, and further laws protect against police brutality and anti-conspiracy.  Title Seven was the specific part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which protected people from discrimination in terms of sex, gender, race, religion, national origin, and pregnancy status, as mentioned above.  Craft explains that someone of Mexican American heritage is considered to have both a race and a national origin claim.

Craft then explains the Age Discrimination Employment Act, a more recent act than the others.  This act prevents employees from legally laying off their old employees, who may be more expensive to insure, for example.  This was a major issue in the 1980s, Craft explains.  The pregnancy aspect of Title Seven, Craft explains, has given birth to a new Act known as the Family and Medical Leave Act, which protects both employees themselves or a close family member, with a serious health condition.

A particularly difficult hurdle Craft says she deals with a lot is discrimination victims of small businesses.  With less than fifteen employees, due to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, it is very difficult to have a legal claim against discrimination in the workplace.  This number used to be eight employees in Louisiana, but now has been raised.

Meredith then asks Craft to walk us through the process of filing a discrimination claim.  First, Craft says, you must try and work things out with your employer, sending them a notice, thirty days before filing suit.  Informing your employer is something that needs to be recorded in written form, Craft says, therefore just going in and saying, “So and so touched me,” is not often enough.  Then you are required to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within three hundred days of the last act of discrimination.  It is important to have a written statement to your employer before and separate from the charge filed with the EEOC The EEOC then is supposed to notify your employer within ten days, if you file a charge.  The EEOC office for Louisiana is in New Orleans.  They handle thousands of cases a year, and Craft says their intake volume has increased dramatically over the past twenty years.  Because of their volume, the EEOC does not usually investigate your discrimination charge within their six month “preemptive period.” If they have not done anything, after six months of filing, you have the right to request what is called a “notice of right to sue.”  This piece of paper gives you the right to file suit either in federal or state court.  Craft explains that employer discrimination cases are always very emotional for all sides involved.

As far as the cases are concerned, Craft explains that depositions for her clients take a very long time, often seven hours or more.  Most employment cases, she says are decided by motions up or down to have them dismissed.  If they overcome a “motion for some re-judgment,” then the trial setting will eventually happen.  In trial, the burden of proof is the testimony of the employees stating what happened to them.  The employer then has a chance to defend the legitimacy of their actions.   Craft prefers these to be jury trials, believing that everybody understands what it means to be treated fairly in the workplace.

Damages for these cases come in multiple forms.  Compensatory damages for the discriminated employee include damages for emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, and lost pay benefits.  However, the most significant damages victims can recover are punitive damages designed to punish the employer and to detour that kind of conduct in the future.  This is usually an issue handled within the state legal system.

If you find yourself in a situation where you believe you are being discriminated in the workplace, Craft recommends documenting it with a journal, reporting it to your employer, and informing your co-workers to make witnesses.