Uncertain Justice: Litigating Claims of Employment Discrimination in the Contemporary United States

49 Pages Posted: 16 Apr 2008

See all articles by Laura Beth Nielsen

Laura Beth Nielsen

American Bar Foundation; Northwestern University - Department of Sociology

Robert L. Nelson

Northwestern University

Ryon Lancaster

University of Chicago

Abstract

This article examines the broad mass of employment discrimination claims brought in federal court between 1988 and 2003. Unlike much scholarship, which studies a small proportion of cases that generate published opinions, we analyze a large random sample of cases. Examining a representative sample of cases allow us to better assess law's role in processing claims of discrimination and its relationship to theories of rights mobilization, organizations, and disputing.

Our qualitative and quantitative data capture the dynamics of the stages of litigation. We examine the social and legal determinants of outcomes at each stage. Analyzing discrimination litigation as a sequence of alternative outcomes reveals aspects of antidiscrimination law in action that have gone unexamined in previous research. This new approach suggests that the system of employment discrimination litigation reflects the operation of social advantage and typically provides either no or modest remedies for plaintiffs. While employment discrimination litigation grew dramatically in the 1990's, it did so primarily as a system of individualized claims. Thus employment civil rights reflect many of the contradictions of the American civil justice system. A small number of cases produce large awards and have far reaching consequences for employment practices. The typical plaintiff receives neither their day in court nor a meaningful remedy. The uncertain character of outcomes drives parties to reach a settlement.

Keywords: sociology, law, discrimination, litigation

Suggested Citation

Nielsen, Laura Beth and Nelson, Robert L. and Lancaster, Ryon, Uncertain Justice: Litigating Claims of Employment Discrimination in the Contemporary United States. 3rd Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Papers; American Bar Foundation Research Paper No. 08-04. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1093313 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1093313

Laura Beth Nielsen (Contact Author)

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-988-6574 (Phone)
312-988-6579 (Fax)

Northwestern University - Department of Sociology ( email )

1810 Chicago Ave
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Robert L. Nelson

Northwestern University ( email )

1810 Chicago Ave
Evanston, IL 60208
United States
847-491-5415 (Phone)
847-491-9907 (Fax)

Ryon Lancaster

University of Chicago ( email )

1101 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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