my two cents

‘I Was Harassed at Work. Can I Afford to Sue?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

I just got a new job, thank goodness, and part of me thinks that I should focus on that and move on. But my former boss was so awful that I feel a sense of responsibility to do something about it. I worked for her for two years, and it was terrible. She was verbally abusive, made derogatory and racist comments, and at one point told me that she would “make sure” I never found another job in our field if I repeated something inappropriate that she said in a meeting (I am still too scared to repeat what it was). For a while, I figured I could put up with it, but now I’m realizing I basically had Stockholm syndrome, and no one should have to work like that. 

I recently started seeing a therapist, and she has told me that I could sue for emotional distress. I have evidence to back up my claims (I saved some emails, at my therapist’s urging), but the problem is that I have no resources for an attorney or any sort of legal fees.

My ideal outcome would probably involve some sort of financial coverage for my therapy bills, which are ongoing and not cheap. I have heard that I could potentially be compensated for things like lack of sleep, anxiety, and depression, all of which I’ve definitely experienced. I work in the nonprofit sector, so I don’t have much money to spend on my mental and physical health, which has suffered a lot. But beyond monetary damages, I would hope that my case might stop my former employer (and other employers) from enabling toxic bosses like the one I had. 

I don’t know what it would cost or if there are lawyers who take on these types of cases pro bono. I also worry that acting on this could impact my career prospects (and, by extension, my income) long term. I work in the nonprofit sphere in New York, and it’s a pretty small world. What are my options, and what will they cost?

Let’s start with the most important thing: Congratulations on getting out of there. I know what it’s like to have a toxic boss who infiltrates every corner of your life; in my case, that former boss still makes cameos in my bad dreams. It can take a while to recover from an environment like that and not feel like your stomach is trying to escape your body every time you open your work email. I’m glad you’re getting help from a therapist as you settle into your new job.

I can also understand your instinct to be done with this person and her outsize role in a painful chapter of your life. This would not be the wrong choice. But it sounds like you might get better closure if you seek legal action, and I suspect that’s why your therapist suggested it. The rewards for doing so, both financially and psychologically, could be substantial. And the monetary risk to you will be minimal if you engage an employment lawyer who works on a contingency (as most do), which means that they get a percentage of whatever damages they help you win but otherwise are free.

Obviously, I can’t give you actual legal advice. But I spoke to two employment lawyers about your options, and both were very encouraging. The good news is that there’s a combination of human-rights laws at the federal, state, and city level (in New York) that exist to protect employees from conditions like the ones you described. If employers do not follow those laws, then the aggrieved party (i.e., you) is eligible for compensation for the harm caused.

The not-so-good news is that even if your case is bulletproof, there’s no guarantee that your former boss will be fired or even disciplined as a result. “A lot of clients say to me, ‘I don’t really care about money. I just want this to never happen again.’ But it doesn’t work that way,” says Davida Perry, a partner at Schwartz Perry & Heller, an employment-law firm. “Maybe the fact that a company will have to pay damages will effectuate change. But I’d be lying to a potential client if I said, ‘They’re going to get rid of all the bad people.’”

Still, it’s important (and cathartic) to take a stand for yourself. And as you mentioned, money is meaningful; it can help pay for the steps you’re taking to heal from this experience. So! If you’re ready to move forward, your first step should be to find a lawyer who can review the evidence you’ve collected (again, on a contingency basis).

Your case will depend on whether you qualify as one of the protected classes under human-rights law. “If you can prove with some level of evidence that you were harassed based on one of these protected categories — for example, because you are a woman, because you’re pregnant, or because you have a disability — then you will have a viable claim,” says Perry. Unfortunately, if your boss was just an equal-opportunity asshole to everyone, then you won’t have leverage, at least legally. In other words, you need to be able to prove some form of discrimination.

If that seems like a tall order, know that your proof doesn’t have to be super-explicit. “There doesn’t need to be a smoking gun, a memo that says, ‘We don’t want women working here anymore,’” says Perry. You can also rely on a statistical evidence of a pattern, she adds, “like if you can see that all the women are being slowly phased out and replaced by men.”

Assuming you have some proof for your claims, your lawyer will most likely begin by writing a letter to your former employer. “Before we start to file in court, we usually reach out to the company to try to open up a dialogue and resolve things,” says Perry. If that’s successful and yields a settlement that you’re happy with, great — you’re done. But if it doesn’t, you can move on to an actual lawsuit. That’s a more time-consuming and laborious ordeal, but it can also result in a heftier payout. (Note that while nearly all of these cases are settled before they reach trial, the lead-up can take years.)

If you do file in court, one thing to be aware of is that it will become public record, says Edward Cerasia, an employment lawyer and a founding partner of Cerasia Law. “If someone does a Google search on your name, they will be able to see it,” he explains. “And sometimes people are concerned that a future employer may view them as ‘troublemakers’ and that it would have a negative impact on their careers.” To be clear, there should not be a stigma against workers who stand up for their rights! But be prepared that your experience will no longer be a private matter, for better or worse.

How will the law quantify the damages you might be eligible for? “Emotional damages associated with discrimination claims can include pain, suffering, and humiliation, which are difficult to measure,” says Cerasia. But some things are more objectively costly, he adds, especially if you have a therapist, a doctor, or even a loved one to back you up. “If you have family members who say you’ve been withdrawn and not enjoying life as much, or you develop sleeplessness, headaches, or stomach-related issues as a result of stress, those are things to consider,” he explains. “It’s not uncommon that people who’ve suffered from harassment now have increased medical, psychiatric, and therapy bills, or are experiencing lack of productivity in a new job.”

The result of your case will also depend on precedent — how similar cases have been resolved in the past. To give some ballpark numbers: “When somebody doesn’t have substantiation from a medical or mental-health professional,” settlements usually fall between $5,000 and $75,000, according to Cerasia. “For a complaint that’s more significant, it might be from $75,000 to $250,000. And if it’s really debilitating, then it’s over $250,000.”

If this all seems overwhelming, you’ve got a little time to wrap your head around it — the statute of limitations on human-rights violations under New York state and city law is three years. But in the meantime, it won’t hurt (or cost anything) to talk to a lawyer or two. “My clients often tell me that it isn’t as much about the money as it is about validation,” says Cerasia. “The vast majority are glad they did it.”

‘I Was Harassed at Work. Can I Afford to Sue?’