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Lawsuits for Civil Rights Violations and Discrimination FAQ

The law protects your civil rights. It also defines what actions violate those rights. The victim of a civil rights violation may bring a lawsuit. 

In this article, find answers to common questions about discrimination and civil rights violations, including:

What is a civil right?

Civil rights are rights guaranteed to you by the United States Constitution and federal laws.

These rights include the right to be free from unequal treatment, regardless of:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Disability
  • National origin
  • Religion

Civil rights also protect you from discrimination based on disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Civil rights laws promote equal access and opportunity and protect you from unfair or discriminatory treatment.

These protections are enforced at the federal and state levels in various settings, including:

How does the law protect civil rights?

Some civil rights are from the Constitution, but most civil rights result from federal legislation or federal court cases.

The most notable legislation is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment, education, voting, and public accommodations.

Other federal legislation expands protected rights, such as:

What other laws protect my civil rights?

In addition to the laws mentioned above, other federal anti-discrimination laws expand on various areas of life. These include:

Many states have also enacted laws protecting equal access to services and freedom from discrimination and harassment for protected classes of people. In some cases, state laws protect more people than federal laws.

Altogether, these laws protect American civil rights by allowing victims of discrimination or harassment to bring civil lawsuits in state or federal court.

Who can be a victim of civil rights violations?

Civil rights legislation defines a protected class of people as those most likely to be victims of civil rights violations. Typically this is in terms of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

The protected classes have been expanded to include older people, children, people with disabilities, pregnant individuals, and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

People have also successfully sued for discrimination or harassment because they were inaccurately identified as or associated with a protected class. For example:

  • A Sikh person can claim discrimination on the basis of religion because a potential employer thinks they're Muslim (religious discrimination)
  • A person may be unable to go to a restaurant because their wheelchair-bound spouse can't access the building (ADA violation)
  • An employee may face illegal harassment at work because they're friends with an LGBTQ+ coworker (sexual orientation discrimination and workplace harassment)

In such cases, the root issue is still illegal discrimination, even if the protected class status doesn't apply to the victim.

What's considered a civil rights violation?

Discrimination is one of the most common civil rights complaints. This can be discrimination because of race, sex, age, or another protected characteristic. There are also more nuanced violations you might experience.

If you think you're being mistreated, it's important to consider:

Business Violations

Refusal of service is a form of civil rights violation covered under public accommodation laws. This occurs when a public or private business refuses service to a person based on a legally protected characteristic. This is a form of discrimination.

Work and School Violations

A civil rights case can also be brought for harassment in the workplace or at school. This could be sexual harassment, verbal harassment, a hostile work environment, intimidation, threats, or violence.

Housing Violations

In a housing case, an owner or manager could harass a resident by stopping their access to their apartment or interfering with their access to utilities.

Government Violations

Law enforcement officers and government officials could also infringe upon a person’s civil rights. Police officers must follow due process of law. Examples of violations include racial profiling and the use of excessive force. Section 1983 covers claims against police misconduct.

What is the difference between discrimination and a civil rights violation?

You can sue under civil rights law for discrimination if it occurred because you're a member of a protected class or are associated with a protected class.

You can be still discriminated against even if you're not a member of a protected class. In that case, though, you don't have a case for a civil rights violation.

Can I sue for civil rights violations?

If you believe your civil rights are being violated under one of the many federal or state civil rights laws, you can do two things:

  • File a claim with the relevant government agency asking them to investigate your claim of discrimination
  • Sue in civil court for a civil rights violation

Do I need to file a government claim before filing a lawsuit?

For certain types of discrimination and civil rights violations, you must file a claim or complaint with a federal or state agency before filing any private lawsuit in court. These agencies set strict time limits for claim filings.

For example, an employee alleging employment discrimination must file a complaint, called a charge, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing a private lawsuit. The employee must do this within 180 days of the alleged offense.

The employee can sue only after receiving a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC. This letter is usually issued after the EEOC has found sufficient evidence that a civil rights violation has occurred.

Is there state law involvement in civil rights lawsuits?

State agencies may also investigate complaints of civil rights violations or discrimination. They may work alongside or in place of federal agencies.

For example, an employee who alleges job discrimination in California may file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. As part of its standard procedure, that state agency will usually send the complaint to the EEOC at the federal level so that it becomes a dual filing.

An experienced civil rights attorney will be able to tell you whether filing a government claim will be necessary in your case.

Do I bring a civil rights lawsuit in federal or state court?

Once you decide to file a lawsuit for a civil rights violation, one of your first decisions will be whether to file your case in federal or state court. Depending on your case's specifics, the choice might be up to you or dictated by a statute.

For example, federal statute 42 U.S.C. Section 1981a specifically permits a private lawsuit for any employee who's been the victim of intentional discrimination in employment. They can win money for damages caused.

You can file a lawsuit for discrimination in federal court no matter what state you live in, but your state may have a similar law. In that case, you can choose where to file your lawsuit.

What kind of recovery can I receive with a civil rights claim?

If an agency, business, or person is found guilty of violating your state or federal civil rights laws, the court will take action to address the harm done to you.

In some cases, the damage will include financial harm. For example, if an employee is paid less than similar workers because of their gender identity, the court may order the employer to pay the wage difference the employee would have received if the discrimination hadn't occurred.

Another example is if an employee is denied a promotion because of their race. The court can order a company to:

  • Promote the employee
  • Backpay the money the employee would have received if they were promoted instead of being discriminated against

In some cases, the harm isn't financial but instead relates to access. For example, a female student may have been denied access to an educational or sports activity due to their sex. In that case, the court can order the school to change its policy to provide equal access.

What should I do when my civil rights have been violated?

You can consider filing a civil lawsuit against the relevant person or entity. In a civil case, the person claiming a civil rights violation, called the plaintiff, files a complaint with the court. lawsuit for a civil rights violation will be handled in civil, not criminal, court. 

The complaint includes facts and allegations that the plaintiff believes demonstrate that the defendant, who is the party being sued, is responsible for the civil rights violations. The complaint will also identify harm suffered by the plaintiff.

The two parties may settle their case before it goes to court. If they don't settle, and the civil rights case goes to trial, the plaintiff must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. That means they must prove it is more likely than not that the defendant violated the law and is legally responsible for the damages alleged by the plaintiff.

A civil case typically consists of the following main phases:

Get Help From a Civil Rights Attorney

What should you do if you have been discriminated against? The best place to start is to speak with an experienced civil rights attorney. A civil rights 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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