Employment discrimination occurs when an employer discriminates against a potential candidate or employee based on protected classes  or certain characteristics an individual possesses. Under federal anti-discrimination laws, protected categories and individual characteristics that are generally protected include:

  • Race;
  • Sex;
  • National Origin;
  • Religion;
  • Age (40 or older);
  • Pregnancy;
  • Sexual Orientation;
  • Disability;
  • Military Service or Affiliation;
  • Bankruptcy or Bad Debts; and/or
  • Citizenship.

Employers can discriminate against individuals falling into one or more of the above categories in different ways. Such unfair treatment by an employer can happen in a range of employment settings, including:

  • Hiring;
  • Recruiting;
  • Training;
  • Job Assignments;
  • Compensation;
  • Promotions;
  • Working Conditions;
  • Disciplinary Actions;
  • Referrals;
  • Termination; and/or
  • Harassment.

Another form of discrimination occurs where an employer retaliates against an employee for reporting to a manager or filing a complaint for any of the above instances happening. This type of discrimination is enforced by laws to ensure that employees are not in fear of the potential backlash from speaking up about being unfairly treated in the workplace.

Am I Covered Under Federal Law?

Federal law prohibits the discrimination discussed above against public employees working for the federal government. This means that those who work for the federal government (such as the U.S. Postal Service, Airport TSA workers, military, IRS, etc.) are automatically protected under federal discrimination laws. Generally, most state and local employees are covered as well.

Unfortunately, private employers are not always held to the same federal standards when it comes to discrimination. Generally, the federal government cannot directly regulate how a private business operates. However, most private employers who have at least 15 employees are covered under federal anti-discrimination laws. In addition to the number of employees, some types of discrimination require an employee to have been employed for at least 20 weeks.

If a private employer does not meet the minimum employee requirement there still may be state or local discrimination laws that apply. Some state constitutions provide additional employment protections for residents that federal laws do not cover. It is important to reach out to a local employment law attorney even if you may not be covered under federal law.  

What Remedies May Be Available in a Federal Employment Discrimination Lawsuit?

Those who have been found to have been treated unfairly as a result of intentional discrimination under federal anti-discrimination laws are entitled to compensation. Remedies for employment discrimination seek to achieve the goal of putting the victim of discrimination in the same position that they would have been if the discrimination had never happened.

The following is a summary of the different types of damages a victim may be entitled to receive:

  • Compensatory Damages: Out-of-pocket expenses incurred by a victim may also be included in a compensatory damage award, such as medical expenses and money spent searching for a different job.
    • In addition, compensatory damages may be awarded to compensate for emotional harm that a victim has incurred as a result of the discrimination. It is important to note that emotional harm is hard to prove in court.
  • Punitive Damages: Victims of employment discrimination may not only be entitled to compensatory but also punitive damages. Punitive damages punish the discriminating employer for wrongful conduct and go beyond what is necessary to put the victim back in the position they would have been but for the discrimination occurring.
    • Usually, in order for punitive damages to be awarded, the employer’s discriminatory actions must be reprehensible and reckless.
  • Liquidated Damages: Victims of age and sex wage discrimination are usually awarded the salary of what they would have been paid but for the discrimination.
    • For example, the amount paid may be the difference in salary of what males in the same position were making as opposed to females. Or, if you were terminated because of your age, you could be entitled to backpay.  

What are Federal Caps on Recovery for Employment Discrimination?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is an agency that enforces federal anti-discriminatory laws. The EEOC places special limits on the amount you can recover. These “caps” on monetary recovery can apply to both compensatory and punitive damages in relation to the employer’s size. These federal limits are summarized below:

  • Cap of $50,000 for employer’s size of 15 to 100 employees.
  • Cap of $100,000 for employer’s size of 101 to 200 employees.
  • Cap of $200,000 for employer’s size of 201 to 500 employees.
  • Cap of $300,000 for employer’s size of more than 500 employees.

The caps on damages do not apply to liquidated damages involving discriminatory pay based upon the gender and age of an employee. The caps do not apply because as discussed above, liquidated damages entitle victims to backpay.

The amount of liquidated damages will vary depending on the salary that should have been earned by the victim. It would be unfair to cap this form of damages since the goal is to put the victim in the position they would have been but for the discrimination.

Should I Hire a Lawyer to Represent Me in a Federal Employment Discrimination Lawsuit?

Because there are strict time limits on filing complaints under federal laws,it is important to seek legal advice quickly if you believe you have been the victim of unfair treatment. There are also different steps that must be taken to begin the complaint process, depending on the type of employer and discrimination that has occurred.

If you believe you are the victim of discrimination as an employee, a qualified employment discrimination lawyer may help in building your employment discrimination case and pursuing appropriate remedies. If you are an employer, it is in your best interests consult with an attorney to develop effective employment handbooks, clear nondiscrimination guidelines, and compliance procedures.