Plaintiff Experiences

This section is essentially a brief summary my experiences as a plaintiff in two federal lawsuits on job discrimination and retaliation. Those experiences are described in detail in the book Plaintiff Blues.

It's hard to become a plaintiff. I couldn't find an attorney to represent me. Contrary to popular belief, I did not find a plethora of attorneys jumping at the chance to file any lawsuit they could get their hands on. After I was told, "If you were a man, you'd have had the job!" in July 1986, it took months of contacting one attorney after the other, of following every lead, before I found a law firm to represent me.

You can't become a plaintiff without permission from the government. This is not true in all cases, but it was true in my case because the discriminator was a public school district. You can't sue a government agency without permission from the government. I first had to file a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights or the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then I could wait until the agency accepted and investigated the complaint or I could request the right to sue. The right to sue came from the U. S. Department of Justice.

It's risky to become a plaintiff. Shortly after I found a law firm to take my case, they informed me that once I filed this lawsuit, my career in public school administration would be over. When I was skeptical of that analysis, they assured me that the old boys networks would take me out. I thought they were exaggerating the risk. They weren't.

It's expensive to become a plaintiff. Although it's difficult to tabulate all the costs over the fifteen years (1986-2001) in the two lawsuits, I know the total was over $100,000. The costs involved attorney fees, investigator fees, expert witness fees, deposition costs, copying and duplicating mountains of documents, travel expenses, etc. We maxed out credit cards, took loans against insurance policies and paid a ton of interest over those years.

It was too expensive to appeal. When I lost the second, retaliation lawsuit in Summary Judgment in 2001, I explored an appeal. Our resources were totally depleted by then and the appeal would have cost over $300 an hour for the attorneys. They estimated the minimum cost of the appeal at well over $200,000. In addition, at that time, the chances of prevailing were not good because the federal courts had been throwing out most retaliation cases unless the adverse action by the employer included dismissal. I had been intimidated, harassed, and involuntarily transferred, but I still had a job.

Plaintiff status lasts a long, long time. My first lawsuit on job discrimination took from July 1986 to August 1992 start to finish. Although I received a unanimous jury verdict in November 1990, it was 2 more years before it was all settled. The second lawsuit took from 1997 to 2001, when I lost in Summary Judgment.

It's frustrating to be a plaintiff. For a lot of that long, long time, you're in the dark. Even though you are the plaintiff and the suit is about you, it's the lawyers that play the game, not you. Your spot is on the bench most of the time.

Truth is not a primary objective in the process. I filed both lawsuits to find out who did what, when, and why. I know what I suspected, but I wanted the truth. The legal game is about adversarial strategy, not truth. Witness after witness lied about statements and events I knew about first-hand. Even though perjury is a crime, there were never any consequences for the lies, even after we proved their explanations were a pretext for discrimination or retaliation.

It's isolating being a plaintiff. This varied for me depending on whether I was suing from outside the defendant organization or from within. Suing your current employer is by far the most isolating, particularly if retaliation is one of the issues. Colleagues may support you and what you're doing, but that support will only come in whispers when no one is looking.

It's public being a plaintiff. Don't be shy, because the publicity is coming. In fact, it comes big-time in a small town. Once you file a discrimination lawsuit, particularly against a government employer, you'll be in the news. The terms infamous and notorious come to mind, because that's how it feels. And everyone will have an opinion, even if few want to be seen sharing it with you.

Retaliation is a real threat. When I sued from outside the organization in 1986, the retaliation I experienced was very subtle, affected my ability to get hired, and probably was the networks taking me out. Who wants to hire the kind of person that sues? This was about not getting called for interviews, not getting jobs I was more qualified for. When I won that suit and got a principal's job in that defendant district as a result, then retaliation began for real. Challenging from within was much more difficult.

Being a plaintiff changes you. After it gets quiet when you walk into a room full of people a few times, you stop walking into rooms full of people! At least that's how I felt.
In truth, I'm not sure it happened all that many times, but it's how I felt about myself. I had heard all the jokes and innuendos about people who sue and I identified with all of the negative connotations. I was always a fairly out-going person, but as a plaintiff I hated socializing and stayed holed up at home as often as possible.

The clock and the calendar work against the plaintiff. There are absolute timelines restricting the plaintiff in filing the complaint, filing the lawsuit, responding to defendant demands, and court schedules. It's seems there are no absolute deadlines for anyone else. In addition, the more time passes, the more the attorney's billable hours mount and costs skyrocket. Worse yet, time affects memory and allows witnesses the "I can't recall," defense.

Don't become a plaintiff casually! Do it by all means, do it if you know you're right! But do it with your eyes wide open! Check your stamina levels! Too many people who are treated unfairly on the job because of who they are fail to complain. Even worse, most who do complain, drop the issue and fail to follow through.

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