Many different courts handle employment cases.
There are 50 State court systems, plus systems like State courts in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other territories. Each system interprets the meaning of its own laws, which can vary widely from one State to another. Some States use Federal court interpretations of Federal employment law to guide their own interpretations, and some do not. Each State court system has a trial level, and one or two levels of courts to handle appeals.
In addition to the State court system, there is the Federal judicial system. There are 94 U.S. District Courts, which are the trial level in the Federal judicial system. Congress has authorized 659 judgeships. Each judge decides legal questions based on the decisions of higher courts. If the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals for that judge’s Circuit have not yet spoken on an issue, then the judge will look at other decisions that may be persuasive even if they do not bind the judge. Then, he or she will come up with the best decision he or she can. Of course, there will be differences in decisions from one judge to another, or from one case to another, from time to time. Either side can appeal decisions of the district courts to the U.S. Courts of Appeals.
The Courts of Appeals are the next level up in the Federal judicial system. These courts are organized into 12 Circuits covering appeals from district courts in specific States, and one Federal Circuit, with an aggregate total of 179 authorized judgeships. Each Circuit is organized into shifting panels of three judges. These judges decide cases based on the decisions of the Supreme Court and of their own Circuit. However, if neither has yet spoken on an issue, the panel of judges will look at other decisions that may be persuasive even if they do not bind the panel. In other words, they are not required to follow those other decisions. They can then come up with the best decision they can. The resulting decision binds the district courts in that Circuit but not the district courts in another Circuit. These decisions do not bind the other Circuits. A decision that is not binding may still be persuasive to another court. Of course, there will be differences in decisions from one three-judge panel to another, or from one Circuit to another, from time to time.
Each side can ask the Supreme Court to review the decision of a Court of Appeals. However, the Supreme Court decides which cases to take. Furthermore, it takes only a small percentage of the cases presented to it.
The Supreme Court has nine Justices that sit together to hear arguments and decide cases. When the Supreme Court decides a case, its decisions bind the lower courts on questions of law. However, there are often differences in facts and circumstances that may lead to a different result.
As a result, a case may come out one way in one court, and a different way in another court.
A lawsuit can take substantial time to resolve. One side or the other normally appeals a case after it is over. The court of appeals can then reach a different result on one issue and send the case back for further proceedings on the other issues. After the further proceedings, another appeal might be taken on a different issue. In one case I handled, the other side took five appeals.