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Do-it-yourself vs Traps For The Unwary

For some legal problems, you may not need an attorney, at least initially. For others, attempting to go it alone can prove disastrous. Here are some examples.

1. Union grievance. If you are a member of a labor union and you believe your employer has violated the collective bargaining agreement, you need to file a grievance with your union within the time limits provided in the agreement. Your union is your exclusive bargaining representative, meaning that an attorney cannot represent you through the grievance procedure.

2. Small claims court. For cases involving a few thousand dollars or less, it is simply not economically practical for an attorney to represent you. You should first get legal advice as to the value of your claim and, if it is indeed a small claim, you should contact the small claims division of the district court in your city or township to acquaint yourself with their procedures.

3. Unpaid paycheck. Sometimes, employers attempt to withhold a final paycheck for one reason or another. Generally, this is unlawful. The wage and hour division of the State of Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Growth can quickly help you. For more information, go to or call 517-322-1825.

4. Obtaining unemployment compensation. If your employer disputes your right to unemployment compensation, you should appeal any adverse determination and redetermination until you obtain a date for a referee hearing. At that point, the unemployment insurance agency, upon request, will appoint an advocate to assist you with the hearing, at no charge. For more information, go to or call 800-638-3994.

5. National Labor Relations Board. If you suspect that your employer has retaliated against you for union activity, the NLRB has exclusive jurisdiction over those claims. You can contact them at 1-866-667-NLRB.

7. Minor auto accident claims. A driver at fault in an auto accident who carries Michigan no-fault insurance may not be sued for collision damage beyond $500 or the amount of your deductible, whichever is less. For minor injuries, you may obtain expense reimbursement for medical care, mileage expense to obtain medical care, wage loss, and household replacement services up to $20 per day from the no-fault insurer. Depending on the circumstances of the accident, the insurance company may be your own, that of a family member, your employer, the other driver or vehicle owner, or in some cases the State Assigned Claims Facility. We can help you decide which insurance carrier is the correct one.

8. Statutes of limitations. A statute of limitations is the amount of time a claimant has in which to file a case in court, after which the claim will be forever barred. Depending on the type of case, the statute of limitations may be as short as 90 days (in a whistleblower action). Other claims are six months, 300 days, one year, two years, and three years. Your employer may shorten the statute of limitations for a discrimination claim to a matter of months simply by saying so in the job application or employee handbook. It is crucial to obtain legal advice promptly on the appropriate statute of limitations for your case.

9. Employer-based group disability plans. In these claims, you must follow strictly the terms of your Plan. In most cases, if the claim is denied and you seek to take the claim to court, not only is there no right to a jury trial, but the federal judge will not look at any evidence that you did not already submit to the Plan. And, in most cases the judge will not change the decision unless it was "arbitrary and capricious," which is a heavy burden to sustain. For this reason, it is important that you obtain legal advice early in the process so that you understand what you must submit to the Plan.

10. Releases. You may be tempted to try to settle a claim on your own. The insurance company will insist that you sign a release. Your signature may bar you from suing not only the party represented by the insurance company, but any other party against whom you wish to bring a claim. It is crucial that you obtain legal advice before signing any such document.

11. Free speech in the workplace. Many people contact us complaining that they were fired from a job for "standing up for their rights." What most people do not understand is that employees who work for a private employer do not have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech in the workplace. The First Amendment applies only against government, not private parties. Even governmental employees may have limits imposed on their First Amendment rights.

12. If your employer has at least 15 employees and you have been terminated based on what you believe is discrimination on account of age, race, sex, national origin, color, or handicap, you must file a charge within 300 days of the act of discrimination (not necessarily the termination date) with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or your right to bring a claim under federal law will be forever barred. Once the EEOC supplies you with a right to sue letter, you must comply strictly with the terms of that letter or, once again, your claim will be barred. For more information, contact the EEOC at 313-226-7636.

13. You have a right to obtain your personnel file by making a written request, preferably via certified mail, to your employer. You can be charged a nominal amount for photocopying, and there are certain documents which are exempt from production. You also have the right to place a statement in your personnel file if you wish to respond, for example, to information in the file that you believe is not accurate.

In short, while there are a number of areas where you can take steps on your own or where it is not practical to have an attorney represent you, the wisest course is always to contact an attorney first to determine your legal rights. Here are some web sites that can assist you in becoming knowledgeable, though we caution you that you should not attempt to handle your own case based on what you read any more than you would attempt to perform a medical procedure on yourself based on what you find in a medical textbook.

Helpful Links

American Trial Lawyers Association:

Michigan Trial Lawyers Association:

Michigan Department of Civil Rights:

United States Courts:

Jackson County Circuit Court:

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