New Study: Class-Action Employment-Discrimination Lawsuits Are Rare

A new study finds that an overwhelming majority of workplace-discrimination suits don't get anywhere near trial. And when they do, plaintiffs mostly lose.

This page was edited to reflect that the study is by the American Bar Foundation, not the American Bar Association.

Class-action lawsuits alleging workplace discrimination, like the large sexual-harassment lawsuit filed against retail giant Walmart, may get a lot of press attention. But these cases are also extremely rare, according to a new study released by the American Bar Foundation.

The study, featured in the June issue of the "Journal of Empirical Legal Studies" notes that most people who file employment-discrimination lawsuits do so as solo plaintiffs and are likely to receive modest settlements or nothing at all.

Study authors Laura Beth Nielsen, Robert L. Nelson and Ryon Lancaster examined  employment-discrimination cases filed in federal courts between 1987 and 2003 and found that cases involving multiple plaintiffs, class actions and representation by the EEOC or a public-interest law firm are extraordinarily rare.

"Many commentators claim that class-action lawsuits are quite common," says Neilson, a research professor at the American Bar Foundation and associate professor of sociology and director of the Legal Studies Program at Northwestern University. "In reality, they make up less than 1 percent of the federal caseload."

According to their findings:

  • More than 40 percent of plaintiffs either have their cases dismissed or lose at summary judgment
  • About 50 percent settle very early in the process
  • Only 6 percent of those filing employment-discrimination lawsuits in federal court go to trial
  • Of the 6 percent of filings that go to trial, plaintiffs win 33 percent of the time, or in 2 percent of filings overall

In addition, the median award for all cases was $30,000, of which a portion goes for legal fees, the study says. About forty percent of plaintiffs win nothing.

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