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Have Your Civil Rights Been Violated?

You have certain basic rights under the U.S. Constitution and state and federal laws. From race discrimination to sexual harassment and fair housing rights violations, if you believe you've been the victim of a civil rights violation, you most likely have questions about your situation and your options. The following is an overview of initial questions and steps to take if you believe your human rights have been violated.

This article will first discuss whether a protected right was violated, and what constitutes a protected right. The article will also discuss what your options are for a suspected civil rights violation. These options include informal negotiations, filing a claim with the state or federal government, and filing a private lawsuit.

Was a Protected Right Violated?

First, you should ask whether a protected right has been violated. You may believe your rights have been violated, but it doesn't necessarily follow that your civil rights were violated. Only certain rights are protected under civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. Some apparent rights violations are perfectly legal and can't form the basis for a civil rights case. The examples below highlight the difference between lawful discrimination and an unlawful civil rights violation in housing rights.

Example 1: Applicant 1, an owner of two dogs, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 1 is a dog owner, Landlord refuses to rent the apartment to them, because they do not want dogs in their building. Here, Landlord has not committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 1 based solely on their status as a pet owner. Landlord is free to reject apartment applicants who own pets.

Example 2: Applicant 2, an African-American man, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 2 is an African American, Landlord refuses to rent the apartment to him because he prefers to have Caucasian tenants in his building. Here, Landlord has committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 2 based solely on his race. Under federal and state fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, Landlord may not reject apartment applicants because of their race.

What Rights Are Protected?

Civil rights laws vary in terms of what characteristics are protected. Generally speaking, though, protected classes include:

  • National origin
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Race
  • Sex

These rights are often subject to protection in the areas of public accommodations, employment, and health care. Housing discrimination, as mentioned above, is a common complaint. There are civil rights laws in place to protect tenants.

If a Protected Right Was Violated: Your Options

If you believe a protected right was violated, you have some options available to you. These include:

  • Resolving the matter through informal negotiations
  • Filing a claim with the government
  • Filing a private lawsuit in civil court

Informal Negotiations

As with most legal disputes, your civil rights matter may be resolved without filing papers in court or facing the prospect of a lengthy legal battle. For example, a potential employment discrimination matter can be resolved, typically through the employer, employee, and their respective attorneys sitting down and drafting an agreement in which the employer agrees to pay the employee a certain amount as severance, and the employee agrees to give up any right to sue over the matter.

Filing a Claim with the Government

For most cases involving civil rights violations, one of your options is to file a complaint with the government at the federal or state level and allow a government agency to take steps to enforce your civil rights.

Filing a complaint will usually trigger an investigation into your claims by the agency. On the federal level, this is often done by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) or another federal agency such as the Department of Justice. In the case of employment discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the appropriate agency. 

The government may take further action on your behalf. Whether your complaint is handled at the federal or state level depends on your case's facts and the claims involved (what laws were allegedly violated, etc.).

What matters most is that your complaint gets filed. The appropriate agencies will decide where and how your case will be handled after that. In most cases, neither the offender nor the victim needs to be affiliated with the government. It's important to note that, for some civil rights cases, a claim must be filed with the government before any private lawsuit may be pursued.

Filing a Private Lawsuit for a Civil Rights Violation

If you believe you've been the victim of a civil rights violation, you can most likely file a lawsuit against those responsible for any harm suffered.

Once you decide to file a lawsuit for a civil rights violation, one of your first considerations will be whether to file in federal court or state court. Depending on the specifics of your case, the choice may be yours. An applicable state or federal law may dictate your options. Regardless of where the case is handled in federal or state court, in order to begin the lawsuit the person claiming a civil rights violation (the "plaintiff") files a civil rights complaint with the court.

The complaint sets out certain facts and allegations in an attempt to show that the opposing party, or defendant, is responsible for the civil rights violations alleged in the complaint, and for any harm suffered by the plaintiff as a result. For some types of civil rights cases, you must file a claim with the appropriate government agency before pursuing any private lawsuit.

Hire an Attorney to Help With Your Civil Rights Claim

Legal issues involving civil liberties can be complicated and challenging to resolve without proper expertise. If you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation, such as a freedom of speech violation, speaking with an experienced civil rights attorney is the best place to start. You have a right to due process and equal protection. Protect your constitutional rights. An attorney will evaluate all aspects of your case and explain all options available to you to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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