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Lawsuits for Civil Rights Violations and Discrimination

Person with a megaphone yelling at a crowd to exercise the right to free speech.

What Is a Civil Right?

Civil rights include the right to be free from unequal treatment, regardless of race, sex, age, disability, national origin, ancestry, religion, and in some cases, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Civil rights laws promote equal access and opportunity and protect people from unfair or discriminatory treatment.

These protections are enforced at the federal and state level in various settings, including educationhousingemploymentvotingpublic accommodations (businesses), and more.

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 banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment, education, voting, and public accommodations.

Other federal legislation expanded protected rights, such as:

Other federal anti-discrimination laws expand on various areas of life where rights are protected, such as:

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.

Over time the protected classes have expanded in some specific settings to include older people, children, people with disabilities, pregnant individuals, and LGBTQ+ people.

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

  • A Sikh person may be discriminated against for their religion because a potential employer thinks they are Muslim.
  • A person may be unable to go to a restaurant because their spouse in a wheelchair cannot access the building.
  • An employee may face illegal harassment at work because they are friends with an LGBTQ+ coworker.

What Is Considered a Violation of Civil Rights?

When a person believes they have been mistreated, they should consider:

Discrimination is one of the most common civil rights complaints. It could be discrimination because of one's race or color, sex or age, etc. There are also more nuanced violations you might experience.

Refusal of service is a form of civil rights violation covered under public accommodation. It is when a public or private business refuses service to a person based on race, sex, disability, and sometimes sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a form of discrimination.

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

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.

What Is the Difference Between Discrimination and a Civil Rights Violation?

One could sue under civil rights law for discrimination if the discrimination occurred because the victim is part of a protected class (or is associated with a protected class).

But a person may be discriminated against even if they are not a member of a protected class, in which case they do not have a civil rights violation case.

Can You Sue for Civil Rights Violations?

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

  • You can file a claim with the relevant government agency asking them to investigate your claim of discrimination
  • You can sue in civil court for a civil rights violation

Do You 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. They 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 (usually after the EEOC has found sufficient evidence that a civil rights violation has occurred).

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 to file it 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 has been the victim of intentional discrimination in employment. They can win money for damages caused.

So, 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?

The court will take action to address the harm done to the victim if an agency, business, or individual is found guilty of violating state or federal civil rights laws.

In some cases, it will include financial harm. For example, if an employee was paid less than similar workers because of their gender identity. The court may order the employer to pay the wage difference the person would have received if the discrimination had not occurred.

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

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

In some cases, the harm is not financial but one of access. For example, a female student may have been denied access to an educational or sports activity due to their sex. In such a case, the court may order the school to change its policy to provide equal access.

What To Do When Your Civil Rights Have Been Violated

lawsuit for a civil rights violation will be handled in civil, not criminal court. In a civil case, the person claiming a civil rights violation (the "plaintiff") files a "complaint" with the court.

The complaint includes facts and allegations that the plaintiff believes demonstrate that the "defendant" (the party being sued) is responsible for the civil rights violations. The complaint will also identify harms suffered by the plaintiff as a result.

The two parties may settle their case before it goes to court. But if they do not, 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:

  1. Starting the Case: Initial Court Papers
  2. Fact-Finding and Discovery
  3. Resolution Before Trial: Court Motions
  4. Resolution Before Trial: Settlement / Alternative Dispute Resolution
  5. Trial and Verdict
  6. After a Judgment: Collecting Money
  7. Appeals

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.

It's important to understand which laws apply, whether you must file a claim with the government first, and where you should file your lawsuit.

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.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

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

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