What is Equitable Relief and Why should Employers care?

The concept of equitable relief comes from English common law and is an award of a nonmonetary judgment when monetary damages are not suitable to resolve the harm.[1] Thus, a party in a lawsuit can ask the judge for an award of equitable relief if the party believes monetary damages would not compensate it for any harm suffered.

There are two (2) common types of equitable relief: specific performance and injunction. While the court applies separate tests for each type, the court generally focuses on whether the party suffered an irreparable harm—harm that monetary relief would not compensate for. Additionally, there are two (2) types of injunctions: preliminary injunction and permanent injunction. While both are used to stop a party from performing an act, preliminary injunctive relief temporarily prohibits the party from engaging in an act until there can be a final ruling on the matter. On the other hand, “a permanent injunction is that final ruling, and permanently prohibits the party from doing something.”[2]

The Effects of Equitable Relief on an Employer in Employment Law Cases

When a party desires equitable relief damages in an employment law case, the plaintiff wants the court to place him or her into the financial/economic position he or she would have been in had the discrimination not occurred. These types of remedies would make the plaintiff “whole”. Remedies the court will grant to make the plaintiff whole include: “hiring, transfer, promotion, reinstatement, retroactive seniority, tenure, restoration of benefits, salary adjustment, expunging adverse material from personnel files, letters of commendation, and reasonable accommodation.”[3] The employer has the burden of limiting the remedy the court can apply.[4]

The court may also grant a plaintiff’s injunctive and affirmative relief as equitable relief under Title VII, the ADEA, the ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act. Courts can stop the use of discriminatory employment practices such as: height and weight requirements and age requirements, as well as demand affirmative measures to resolve unlawful practices. Thus, although a plaintiff might not be able to win monetary relief from an employer, equitable relief can still cost an employer money. For example, in Willingham v. City of Valparaiso Florida, the court granted the plaintiff’s equitable relief request of front pay.[5] As a result, the plaintiff’s former employer had to pay the plaintiff $70, 548 in addition to the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.[6] Thus, it is extremely important for employers to be aware of all employment laws. Employers must obey these laws in order to avoid being found guilty of discrimination and being on the hook for a judgment of equitable relief granted against the employer.

~Author: Antoinette Trott, 2018 Gate City Bar Summer Associate, Emory University School of Law, 2nd year Law Student

[1] Legal Information Institute, Equitable Relief, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/equitable_relief (last visited June 14, 2018).

[2] Contract Standards, Equitable Relief, https://www.contractstandards.com/public/clauses/equitable-relief (last visited June 14, 2018).

[3] Barbara L. Johnson, Types of Damages Available in Employment Cases, American Bar Association, 14 (Aug. 2011), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/labor_law/meetings/2011/annualmeeting/004.authcheckdam.pdf.

[4] Smallwood v. United Airlines, Inc., 728 F.2d 614, 615 n.5 (4th Cir. 1984).

[5] 638 Fed. Appx. 903, 905 (11th Cir. 2016).

[6] Id.