Employment discrimination is what happens when an employee, or potential employee, is treated less favorably than other similar employees, solely because of certain characteristics. Employment discrimination can also manifest when an employee receives harassment, denial of a reasonable workplace change/accomodation, or improper questioning regarding genetic and/or medical information.
These characteristics or backgrounds are ones that are protected by law, and may include a person’s:
- Gender and/or gender presentation;
- Religious beliefs;
- Disability, including temporary conditions such as pregnancy; and/or
- Other categories.
Such characteristics are known as protected classes. Employment discrimination can also occur when one group of employees are treated better than another group, based on protected classes or categories. These are defined by various laws. An example of this would be if one group of workers obviously receives benefits that are denied to others on the basis of their perceived sex.
Employment discrimination generally happens when a person is already hired. However, it can also happen when a person is still seeking employment, such as when a person isn’t hired because they are of a specific religion. It could also involve retaliation because the employee complained, or participated in job discrimination proceedings, such as a workplace investigation.
Most states, as well as the federal government, have laws and statutes in place to prohibit private employers, organizations, and governments from discriminating against people because of these protected characteristics. It is illegal to treat an employee differently based on specific attributes which are unrelated to their job performance. As such, you can sue an employer for discrimination under specific circumstances.
How Do I File a Complaint Regarding Employment Discrimination?
Employees belonging to a protected class who have been discriminated against at work may pursue legal action against their employer. However, the first step an individual that has been discriminated against should take is to consult with their employer, or the human resources department about the discrimination.
However, if the employer or human resources do not address the concerns surrounding the discrimination, or if they ignore the concerns, an individual may then wish to file a claim against their employer. Filing a workplace discrimination lawsuit against an employer is a very specific process, and an employee generally must first exhaust all available administrative remedies.
For example, under federal law, before an employee is allowed to bring a discrimination or harassment lawsuit against their employer, they are required to first file an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
The EEOC is a federal administrative agency which exists to enforce the laws against job discrimination and harassment. Generally speaking, most claims must be brought before the EEOC before the employee will be allowed to file a lawsuit. This process is known as exhausting your administrative remedies.
If a lawsuit is filed prior to filing an administrative charge with the EEOC, or a similar state agency, the lawsuit will often be rendered invalid. Typically, the discrimination claim must be filed with the EEOC within 180 days of the discriminatory incident. However, if your complaint is also covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law, this deadline is extended to three hundred days from the occurrence of the discriminatory incident.
Once the complaint has been received, the EEOC may conduct an investigation of your workplace. In order to do this, they will need basic information. Such information would include the contact information for both the employee and the employer, as well as the date and description of the discriminatory incident. The EEOC will investigate the matter and gather all of the documentation needed to make a decision.
Once the investigation has concluded, if it was found that the employer did indeed discriminate against their employee, the EEOC will work with both parties in order to reach a settlement. Should such efforts fail, the agency will either file a lawsuit on the employee’s behalf, or issue a right to sue letter to the employer. If the EEOC finds that there was no discrimination, they will still issue a right to sue letter to the employee. This triggers a ninety day time limit in which the employee must file their lawsuit.
You will need to provide evidence to support your claim, whether or not the process ends in a lawsuit. Some examples of such documents and evidence that might be needed could include:
- Eyewitness statements;
- Copies of all communication between the employee and the parties involved in the discriminatory act(s);
- Video or audio recordings of the incident; and
- A copy of the employee handbook or contract which may state the company’s policies for addressing discrimination in the workplace.
What Happens After a Lawsuit Has Been Filed?
Once the lawsuit has been filed, the employee will have a few legal remedies available to them if they can successfully prove their case in court. The ultimate goal of the law is to return the employee to their same position, or nearly the same position, that they would have held if the discrimination had never occurred. Other available remedies will depend on the discriminatory offense, as well as the effect it had on the employee.
The following is a list of the most common legal remedies an employee can expect from an employment discrimination ruling:
- The employer will be required to immediately cease all discriminatory practices, and create as well as implement steps to avoid discrimination in the future;
- Compensatory damages intended to cover any out of pocket expenses the employee incurred as a result of the discriminatory incident, as well as any emotional harm suffered such as mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, etc; or
- Punitive damages could be awarded in order to punish the employer if their discrimination was especially malicious or egregious.
Other common legal remedies include:
- Making special but reasonable accommodations so that the employee may perform their job as needed;
- Back pay;
- Attorney’s fees; and
- Court costs.
Once again, it is imperative to remember that retaliation would be illegal. What this means is that if your employer retaliates against you in some way for exercising your rights, they would likely face additional consequences for doing so. It is important that your rights are protected.
There are some factors that might affect the outcome of an employment discrimination claim. An example of this would be if it turns out that there was some other reason an employer took action, it could affect the plaintiff’s damages award. If it is determined that the employer fired an employee due to poor performance, and not because of their belonging to a protected class, the employee’s claim may be negatively affected.
State laws may also place limits on the amount of damages or the type of remedies involved in such cases. These can vary widely on a state by state basis. As such, it is in the employee’s best interests to work with an attorney who can anticipate these limitations and prepare their client for what they could be facing.
Do I Need an Attorney for Help Filing a Discrimination Claim?
As can be seen, filing a discrimination claim is often a difficult process, as procedural laws concerning discrimination vary from state to state. However, discrimination against employees belonging to a protected class is illegal under both federal and state laws. Employee rights deserve to be protected, especially if they belong to a federally protected class.
Thus, if you feel that you have been discriminated against, it is important to consult with an experienced and local discrimination attorney. A skilled and knowledgeable discrimination attorney will be a valuable asset in proving employment discrimination, as well as meeting any and all filing deadlines specific to your claim.
Additionally, an attorney can also help you investigate and pursue any additional remedies while the EEOC conducts an investigation of your discrimination claim. Finally, an attorney can also file a private discrimination lawsuit against your employer, and represent your interests in court as necessary.