Employment discrimination occurs when an employer discriminates against a potential candidate or employee in a protected class by basing an employment-related decision on certain characteristics the individual possesses.
Under federal anti-discrimination laws, protected classes are:
- National origin
- Genetic information
- Sex, including:
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity issues
Employers discriminate against individuals falling into one or more categories differently. Such unfair treatment by an employer can happen in a range of employment settings, including:
- Job Assignments
- Working Conditions
- Disciplinary Actions
Another form of discrimination occurs when an employer retaliates against an employee for reporting to a manager or filing a complaint for employment discrimination. This type of discrimination is enforced by federal law to ensure that employees are not in fear of the potential backlash from speaking up about being unfairly treated in the workplace.
Am I Protected by 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.
Some private employers are not held to the same standards regarding discrimination. Employers who have fewer than 15 employees are exempt from compliance with anti-discrimination laws. In addition to the requirement concerning the number of employees, some types of discrimination require an employee to have been employed for at least 20 weeks before they can file a complaint with the government.
Private employers whose employees do not number 15 or more may still be covered by state or local discrimination laws. 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 put the victim of discrimination in the same (or nearly the same) position that they would have had if the discrimination had never happened.
The types of relief will depend upon the discriminatory action and its effect on the victim. For example, if someone is not selected for a job or a promotion because of discrimination, the remedy may include placement in the job and back pay and benefits the person would have received.
The following is a summary of the different types of damages a victim may be entitled to receive:
- Compensatory Damages: Compensatory damages pay victims for out-of-pocket expenses caused by discrimination. This may include expenses associated with a job search or medical expenses. In addition, compensatory damages may be awarded to compensate for emotional harm that a victim has incurred due to the discrimination. This would include loss of enjoyment of life, depression, mental anguish, and humiliation.
- Punitive Damages: Victims of employment discrimination may be entitled to compensatory and punitive damages. Punitive damages punish the 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. The employer’s discriminatory actions must be especially malicious or reckless for punitive damages to be awarded.
- 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 back pay.
The employer will also be required to stop any discriminatory practices and take steps to prevent discrimination in the future.
A victim of discrimination also may be able to recover attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and court costs.
What are Federal Caps on Recovery for Employment Discrimination?
Established by the EEOC (the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination law, there are limits on the amount a person can recover for a complaint based on discrimination. These caps on monetary recovery can apply to compensatory and punitive damages and are calculated concerning the employer’s size.
These federal limits are summarized below:
- For employers with 15-100 employees, the cap is $50,000
- For employers with 101-200 employees, the cap is $100,000
- For employers with 201-500 employees, the cap is $200,000
- For employers with more than 500 employees, the cap is $300,000
The caps on damages do not apply to liquidated damages involving discriminatory pay based on the gender and age of an employee. This is because those employees are entitled to liquidated damages, as discussed above. The correct calculation for their damages is the salary that the employee should have earned. Because salaries vary, it would be unfair to cap this form of damages since the goal is to put the employee in the position they would have been in but for the discrimination.
Do I Need to File a Claim with the EEOC First?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a government agency that eliminates discrimination in U.S. workplaces. The purpose of the EEOC is to enforce the numerous federal anti-discrimination laws Congress has passed.
If you want to sue your employer in civil court, first, you must submit a complaint to the EEOC. Once the complaint is received, the EEOC will investigate it and determine its merit. If the EEOC finds evidence that there has been discrimination, its first step will be to attempt to informally resolve the matter. If the issue is not resolved within 30 days, a formal process can begin at the local EEOC office.
So, if you believe you have been discriminated against at your place of employment, you must first file a “charge of discrimination” with the EEOC. This is true for all claims except age discrimination and equal pay lawsuits. After its analysis, the EEOC will either take charge of the claim or issue a right-to-sue letter. At that point, you have 90 days to file your lawsuit.
Should I Hire a Lawyer to Represent Me in a Federal Employment Discrimination Lawsuit?
Because federal law has strict time limits on filing complaints for discrimination, it is important to seek legal advice quickly if you believe you have been the victim of unfair treatment. Before filing a lawsuit, you must file a claim with the EEOC, which is a complex process.
If you believe you are the victim of discrimination as an employee, a qualified employment discrimination lawyer may help build your employment discrimination case and pursue appropriate remedies. It is best to consult with an attorney to develop effective employment handbooks, clear nondiscrimination guidelines, and compliance procedures if you are an employer.