Suing a former employer


Long story made short: I worked at a firm for several months as an intern where I was given a flat monthly "stipend", but ended up working an obscene amount of overtime (35+ hours a week at some times) with no extra compensation. I have since learned that the state in which this occurred has pretty strict laws regarding overtime pay that go above and beyond the federal laws. All in all, it comes out to several thousand dollars that I was illegally shorted, and I'm still suffering the financial consequences much later. I've already been in touch with an attorney who agrees that I have a solid case, and has agreed to represent me.

However, this is a notoriously small profession, and everybody knows everybody. The employer in question is a "name" firm that is generally well-regarded within the profession. Will I be making myself unemployable with other firms if I pursue this? I no longer work for this firm (I'm in a different state now), so I'm not worried about them firing me or anything, but I am worried about long-term career damage.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Jul 14, 13 9:29 am

If you proceed on your current trajectory...when sending a resume out in the future you'll always have to wonder, does that person know "X firm" and would they speak with them about my experience there? 

You could always leave that firm off of your resume since it was only an internship experience. 

Something to consider...

Jul 14, 13 9:49 am

Jaffe's Second Law: If you need a lawyer, it is already too late.

It will cost you far more than you can possibly recover. The lawyer will gladly charge you $15k in an attempt to recover $2k. If you absolutely have to do this, personally make formal written complaints to the appropriate state authorities. If you don't have documented evidence you're wasting your time. 

As far as your other concern, you will lose the potential job reference and nothing else. Architecture is a particularly insular and competitive profession.

Jul 14, 13 9:52 am

 It's kind of sad that employers know that people will be reluctant to sue them for just this reason, and that is why they continue to abuse workers. It would be nice for people to be brave and stick their necks out, and maybe over time this situation would not happen anymore. But, in reality, as you are correct at guessing, this could cause significant problems to your career if you intend to stay in architecture.

Jul 14, 13 12:13 pm

Jaffe's second law does not hold water, if the attorney takes the case based on contingency. (which means that they will take 40% of the damages + cost incurred)

It depends on how much money you think you are owed. You will probably need to portray other damages, like emotional distress etc for the case to be worth it. Litigation is not easy and take a long time.

Jul 14, 13 3:16 pm

I wouldn't worry about gaining a reputation - folks turned off by someone who sued as a victim of illegal wage practices probably aren't those you want to work for, and gossip at cocktail parties about ones employees tends to be limited to local wine bars and probably won't leave the state.  Neither would I worry about the cost of litigation as the costs for your former employer will be much higher. Their incentive to settle quickly and avoid publicity and possible claims from others is significant.  'Course you know that mutual non-disclosure is a common requirement of such agreements...

Jul 14, 13 7:34 pm

i wouldn't worry about YOUR reputation.  the "bad" economy has been used as an excuse to exploit new graduates (i assume you are) who are in need of experience.  i wish someone would give our entire profession a week long lecture on human resources issues and united states labor laws.  

a lot of people don't realize that the law is heavily on your side here, and most firms will not want to suffer the damage in reputation or legal fees and just give you what they owe.

as much as i think jaffe talks out of his ass (like 99% of the time), he has a point-- although i don't think it will hurt you in the future.

also, if you don't get hired by a firm because of it, you can always sue them too, and that would be legitimate because as a whistleblower i think you have protection, though i'm not 100% sure how that works..  talk to your lawyer about that one since you've got him.  if it comes up at an interview and you didn't bring it up, they're not allowed to do that.  fun fact:  most employers ask illegal interview questions.

in the case of employment law, the EMPLOYEE is almost always heavily favored.

btw, if you're a woman and/or a minority you'll probably win.

Jul 14, 13 9:29 pm

nobody wins a lawsuit....just my two cents

Jul 14, 13 9:46 pm

^ Thus Jaffe's Second Law.

Jul 14, 13 10:55 pm
boy in a well

the boy scouts just say Be Prepared.

I agree in spirit.

Jul 14, 13 11:04 pm
Couple thousand isn't worth going to court for. Possible you might even lose. Was your stipend agreement possibly a salary? If it was, you might not have a case. Were your extra hours documented? Etc.
Jul 15, 13 2:04 am

Motherfucker, I hate ipads!  I just wrote a long response, left the age for 3 seconds to fetch a link, and my typing is all gone. Dumb.

The gist is this: you can't afford a lawyer, and even if you could, it would eat up any settlement. As a lawyer friend recently told me, "you can never be made whole again."

What you can and should do is gather your evidence and report them to the local labour board. There are laws for a reason. More importantly, once you've tried that and nothing actually happens, go to the media. Here's a story that got plenty of traction up here just a few weeks ago. Sound familiar?

Jul 15, 13 4:41 am

i don't see why the employee would get a bad rep for the architecture firm not knowing how to run a business. 

what would the cocktail circuit be saying then?  'boy, that ArchitectX sure is a trouble maker and whistle blower for working for a company that is too dumb to understand labor laws with managers that are such complete failures they can't even estimate or finish a project in a reasonable amount of time." 

or would it be more like, "gee, my firm is expected to have a minimum amount of competence and follow basic ethical and legal guidelines.  shouldn't ArchitectX's former firm be following the same basic ethical and legal guidelines?"

i guess i might have a bias coming through there.

Jul 15, 13 7:27 am
boy in a well

more like (truth not being a criterion here): that chap was a pain in the ass. Lord knows I would never hire someone like that again. Oh, are your hiring?, well don't look at this chap twice.. etc   etc.... he wasn't game to take on any risk, which we all know a recent grad must do to get ahead. not to mention that he/she had questions about our 20% withholding policy on contractors. well of course we'll pay the IRS . . .when someone demands that we pay the IRS. penalties are just an operating cost.  Not our problem unless our lawyers say so or we actually get fined. 

Either way . . .I'll just blame the book keeper. i'm so busy . . .

Jul 15, 13 7:41 am
won and done williams

File the complaint with the Department of Labor.

Or find a similar department at the State level, if those laws are applicable.

Jul 15, 13 9:20 am

Of course, I sympathise for your plight, and recognize that that firm was led by a bunch of dick heads.  But personally, I would walk away entirely and start fresh at a new firm.  Leave them off your resume, and never look back.

I'd be curious to know what this "stupend" was.  We see this thing here on archinect all the tume and I'm betting that the stipend covered your lunch and your subway/metro commute.  If that is the case, you made a mistake by accepting it which you should have never done.  If not, and they just severely underpaid you, you made the decision to work with those clowns.

There is nothing at all ludicrous about working 35 hours a week - when you are a regularly 40-hour employee, expect to work FAR longer than 40 hours per week.

Jul 15, 13 1:26 pm

I guess I don't understand why you need to hire a lawyer, isn't it the job of your states labor dept. to enforce the laws?

If you were mugged, you wouldn't call a lawyer, you'd call the police.  I think this would be a similar situation.  Please correct me if I'm wrong

Jul 15, 13 2:15 pm

won and done is right. You don't need a lawyer for a private lawsuit so much as you need to file a complaint with your state's department of labor. They take a very dim view of this kind of behavior by employers, and are likely to open a full investigation leading to big fines and other nastyness.

Jul 15, 13 2:34 pm
wurdan freo

Why did you do the work when they didn't pay you? One paycheck with no overtime and I would've stopped working? Have you asked them for the money? What was the agreement with the firm? What were the details? Your fault you didn't get paid more than anyone else in my opinion. You kept going to work. You kept working the extra hours. All the while probably afraid to talk about the money. Now you're mad at yourself for not saying something and being taken advantage off. Call them on the phone. Stop in the office and talk to them.  If it's really worth it too you use the dept of labor as a negotiating tactic... or just chalk it up to experience.

It's one thing to hold people accountable. It's another thing to call the government on them. If I knew you called the government on a previous employer, no matter how upstanding my firm was, I would never hire you. Fuck the lawyers. Fuck the dept of labor.

Jul 15, 13 3:36 pm

Have you tried bring this issue up with the employer yourself? I would imagine that they might be willing to discretely negotiate your owed compensation in-order to keep it from blowing up and becoming an issue. If that doesn't work your next best bet is posturing public exposure of the issue and legal recourse. your last bet is getting a lawyer, as some above pointed out, they will take a significant chunk, and there are a lot of slimeball planitfs attonry out there who will take just about anything and throw someone with less experience then you on it on the off chance it returns something. a lawyer excepting your case has very little bearing on its validity. 

Do you have a March or Barch degree? Then you are a professional and the first rule of being a professional is to negotiate your compensation before you preform the job. If you felt you were owed overtime pay you should have asked for it while the overtime was going on, better when someone asked you to preform said overtime. Did the employer ever know they were wronging you in some way? or did you just happily go about doing what you were told and never give them a chance to remedy the situation? 

Unpaid, underpaid internships are despicable and I do believe said firm is probably due for a public shaming. However you cannot create an entrapment situation where you accept an offer then later file a claim because what you excepted was not legal. My understanding of the law is that having a professional degree means you are technically a professional worker and therefor not entitled to overtime compensation.

Some jobs are just dogs, you can't knowingly lick the dog then complain about hair in your mouth.  

If there is going to be a real solution to this problem then it has to be market based; end the supply of workers. People need to stop taking these jobs and firms will stop offering them. expecting the legal system to pick up the slack is ludicrous. 

Jul 15, 13 4:21 pm

The law is clear on this - just because you take a job with certain parameters known from the outset, doesn't mean that's indefensible or even legal.  You can't hire somebody to do something illegal, for example.  In this case, if the employee is doing work that a normal employee would (aka is contributing in any way to the office work) then by law that person must be paid as an employee (or contractor, with certain caveats).  Interns and employees are not the same thing.

Let me repeat that - if the person in question ever worked on a drawing, a presentation,  a budget, a model - they are an employee, and their "intern contract" is null and void.

Jul 15, 13 4:42 pm

Yes there are definitely times where the employer is breaking the law especially in the case of unpaid internships But lets face it in this profession there is a very blurry line especially around the term intern. It doesn't sound like this was an internship. 

Was the wage above min wage for a 40 hr week? Cause he/she admits to being paid something. So this is not an unpaid internship, its just a case of an employer being a dick and and an employee willingly taking it, then complaining later.

Putting the actual legal issues aside and addressing OP's original question. Yes you will be judged by anyone in this profession who finds out about the situation. How can you expect your employees to fight for a fair fee when they cannot fight for a fair wage themselves? In bringing up the issue you are pointing out more that you screwed up and excepted a bad deal, regardless of its legality. Who would want someone on their team excepting such deals on their behalf?

Jul 15, 13 4:59 pm

The point I really want to make is I think your legal chances are actually slimmer then you think. But you should stand up and fight for whats owed to you. You should have done this before you began the job at least while you were doing it. If your going to try and do it now, start with a professional mature approach. 

Jul 15, 13 5:04 pm

aia, department of labor, state board of architects, attorney - in that order. if you think money is worth it. oh, and watch the movie the firm.

Jul 15, 13 5:16 pm

Thanks for the replies so far. A few things:

The 35+ hours / week figure referred to overtime hours only, in addition to the regular 40-hour week. The total hours worked were in excess of 75 hours per week at some times. I have timesheets, pay stubs, and records of everything on file.

Regarding the state department of labor: This remains an option to me, but it would require me having to travel back to the state in question for at least one (possibly two) hearings at my own expense. The travel expenses would eat up any compensation I'm awarded.

As to why I took the offer in the first place: In retrospect, I shouldn't have. I allowed myself to be exploited, and I hate myself for it. The "stipend" offer should've been a huge red flag. But it was never made clear until after the fact that I'd be putting in insane long hours on a routine basis. If I had been working close to a normal 40-hour work week, there would've been no problem. I was also unaware of this particular state's employment laws until much later. However, that doesn't absolve the employer of responsibility to obey the laws that have jurisdiction. My work involved BIM modeling and picking up redlines on construction documents. I was a full-fledged employee, and received no academic credit for my experience.

Now that I've given it some thought and read the responses here, I've decided to keep my power dry for now and chalk it up as an expensive learning experience. Hate to say it, but it just isn't worth the risk to my professional reputation to pursue this matter further. Hopefully in the future I'll be able to use this experience to prevent somebody else from making the same mistake I did.

Jul 15, 13 8:27 pm

do you have any history of abuse of drugs/alcohol? how can you humanly work 75 hours a week with a stipend and now reflecting back on it all expect to be compensated for your time LOL...

Jul 15, 13 8:46 pm

ArchitectX, Sounds like it was an expensive lesson, but it will serve you well in the future. I would venture to say that there are few architects out there who haven't caught the short end of a compensation scheme at some point in their career. I have in the past been duped, by handshake agreements and letting enthusiasm about a project/Job get the best of me. You will be much more leery of jumping right in and working your ass off in the future, and i don't doubt you will get further in the long run because of it, a few thousand lost ten years from now will be nothing if you don't let that sort of thing continually happen. Best of luck to you!

Jul 15, 13 10:25 pm

Did you leave on a bad note?

Jul 16, 13 11:56 am

during the recession, a lot of us got taken advantage of with 1099 issues as well - I owe the IRS 5k+ in back taxes - my tax attny said I should go after my former employer - but the Bay Area is small pool - and one snitch could destroy my career - I decided to eat it.

Jul 16, 13 4:53 pm

Regarding the OP:

If you have moved, or are in a 1st tier market, with other references under your belt in that market, you shouldn't worry about it.

If you have not moved and the area is small, or are in a 2nd or 3rd tier market, then I would say weigh the variables.

Someone mentioned the Bay Area as being small.  I would consider that a 1st tier market.  Look at all the bouncing around between firms.

In general, it's amazing that allowing oneself to be taken advantage of (it happens) makes the employEE "bad" if they speak up, but not the employer.  In most cases in architecture, from what I've seen, it's the employER that is the problem.  There's such a climate of dispensability.  That's why there is that ~50% attrition rate from traditional architectural employment some 20 years after being granted a (pre)professional degree which I read about at one point in time.  Surely, "20,000 Frenchmen can't be wrong."

Again, it all depends on the quantity and quality of the references available to you and how they would counterbalance.

Jul 16, 13 7:20 pm

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