How Expert Testimony Can Support an Emotional Distress Claim

Is It Worth It?, Litigation
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How can you convince a jury or judge of how much your employer forced you to suffer?If you’ve filed a claim for employment discrimination, you want to maximize the value of that claim. In addition to your lost wages and measurable financial damages, it’s worth the effort to try to put a value on your pain and suffering too. But to get that award, you have to convince a judge or jury that you really did suffer as a result of the discrimination. Testimony from a doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist is another way to show the fact-finder how serious your emotional distress was.

Why Medical Testimony Makes a Difference

In our last post, you met Jerry, who lost his job after 35 years with the same delivery company and is seeking damages for emotional distress.

It is possible for Jerry to get emotional distress damages without providing testimony from a doctor. He may win—at least in the Eastern District of Virginia—an emotional distress verdict in the $30,000 range. Courts call this “garden-variety” emotional distress, consistent with the typical psychological response that one might expect after being fired. Courts think that garden-variety distress has value (remember, we’re trying to do the distasteful math of putting a price on pain), but generally, it’s not six-figure value.

To maximize this category of damages, an employee needs to present testimony from a medical professional, like a doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker. And remember, we’re not trying to “cheat” the system here. In employment law, the odds are stacked in favor of the employer in many ways. What we’re trying to do is bring the truth to light and level the odds. The truth of what happened to you can get lost if you don’t present the right evidence. If you did not actually feel significant emotional distress, you can skip this step.

How Jerry’s Doctor Strengthened His Emotional Distress Claim

Let’s return to the example involving Jerry. After Jerry testifies, his general practitioner takes the stand. He testifies that he has been treating Jerry for 20 years. Jerry could stand to lose a few pounds and drink less coffee. Otherwise, he was in good health while he was employed.

When asked how Jerry’s health has been since the day he was fired, though, the doctor testifies as follows:

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone who doesn’t have cancer or a similar disease decline so rapidly. Jerry didn’t want to come see me because he’s stubborn. However, his wife called me, and I convinced him to come in. I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seen a lot, but I was shocked when I saw Jerry. He tried to put on a good face, but he was a shell of man. He had lost significant weight, more than he ever should’ve. His clothes were hanging off of him. His blood pressure was through the roof. The man even broke down in tears in my office. I’m not one to prescribe anti-anxiety medicine willy-nilly, but I know severe depression when I see it. I saw it in Jerry.

Medical testimony like this (even if it’s not quite so dramatic!) can effectively inform a jury about the serious nature of true emotional distress. As a practical matter, testimony from a medical professional is almost required to win a significant emotional distress award.

Important Tip

Don’t wait to go see a medical professional if you are experiencing emotional distress. A psychiatrist or psychologist would be ideal. However, an experienced social worker or your family doctor will also work in a pinch. While it’s best to start early, all is not lost if it is already late in the proceedings when you see a doctor. Even after the fact, a psychiatrist can conduct what is called a “forensic” analysis of your mental state.

Under many retainer agreements, the client is responsible for paying the cost of this analysis. While it is not cheap, testimony from a good psychologist or psychiatrist can be well worth the investment for the value it adds to your potential award.

Summing It Up

If you’ve experienced significant emotional distress as a result of suffering discrimination at work, there are important steps you can take to protect your rights and maximize the value of your claim. Talk to a doctor about the changes in your health. Need more help figuring out what comes next? Contact us to see what else you should be doing.