But you rarely hear about the other side of the coin. How many lawsuits come from problems that businesses or institutions easily could have prevented, or solved, short of the courtroom?
Such a case is unfolding now in California--although there is a Deep South connection to it. The case happens to be in the realm of employment law, and it raises this question: Just how stupid can employers be?
The allegations range from coworkers sabotaging their performance records to threats of violence against one of the women who is an out lesbian and once served as mayor of the East Bay city of Pinole.
The former coworkers have both filed claims against the federal agency with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's San Francisco District Office. They are seeking reinstatement to comparable jobs within the VA's bureaucracy and back pay since the time of their firing last summer.
Lillian "Ann" Williams, 59, and Jamie Fox, 40, encountered problems almost immediately once they started working for the VA in November 2007.
Williams, who is openly gay, and Fox, who is straight, were hired by the VA as veterans service representatives and tasked with reviewing disability claims filed by veterans. During their six months of training the two women said that a male coworker continuously harassed Williams and poisoned other people's opinion of her.
Williams, who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi and served in the U.S. Navy, retains a Southern accent. That apparently helped spark her problems at the VA center:
The two said that shortly after they were hired a lunch conversation between them and the male coworker, who is Japanese American, about the nationality of a group of Asian coworkers devolved into his making fun of Williams's southern accent.
- Advertisement -"I felt bullied," recalled Williams, who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi and served in the Navy. "I apologized to him later that day and said I didn't mean to offend you."
But within a few weeks Williams said people at work stopped talking to her and she noticed files would go missing from her desk or important paperwork would be buried under stacks of claims to be processed.
"This guy infected other people behind my back," said Williams.
Fox quickly noticed the ill treatment Williams was receiving:
"Basically, when Ann was around this man he physically didn't want to be in her presence. The other team members pretended Ann wasn't there," said Fox, who spent five years in the Navy. "She was pretty much shunned."
The abuse escalated to the point that during a February training session held in Arkansas, another female worker told Fox that Williams was "the kind of girl who should be taken in the locker room, wrapped in a towel and beaten."
Bruce Choy, another employee hired at the same time as Fox and Williams, also saw the mistreatment:
"They would call her a dyke, things like that. I guess she had an opinion and some of the people were offended by that," said Choy, an Army veteran who was recently fired by the VA. "My sense of it is she was a target. She is older, she is white, she speaks with an accent like out of the Deep South. They know she is also lesbian. All those things sort of held against her."
Because of the threats of violence, Williams wrote a memo to her supervisor, likening her situation to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming.