Employment Discrimination Law



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What is Employment Discrimination Law?

Employment discrimination law refers to federal and state laws that prohibit employers from treating workers differently based on certain attributes unrelated to job performance. Discrimination by government employers violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process. Discrimination by private employers may conflict with any number of statutory protections, most notably, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Not all classifications qualify for protection against discrimination in the workplace. Under current law, individuals are protected against discrimination based on race or skin color, national origin, genetic information (such as family medical history), gender or pregnancy, religion, disability, and age. In some cases, it is also illegal for employers to discriminate based on marital status, political affiliation, and sexual orientation.

Assuming a protected classification is involved, many types of conduct can be found to be discriminatory, including decisions to hire, terminate, or promote. Employers cannot discriminate when imposing work conditions or privileges, or when determining pay, bonus, or time off. Workplace discrimination can also take the form of harassment, or retaliation for reporting improprieties or exercising a legal right.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the most significant source of anti-discrimination law for American workers. In its original form, the law covered discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” although subsequent legislation has added to these classifications. Title VII applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, as well as other public and private entities. It is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

In the 1960s, Congress also passed the Equal Pay Act (EPA), dealing with gender equality, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), creating protections for workers age 40 and older. After several decades of employer-friendly decisions by the Supreme Court, Congress acted again to strengthen the nation’s employment discrimination laws. In 1990, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Filing an Employment Discrimination Claim

With so many laws and regulations on the subject, bringing an employment discrimination claim can become extremely complex, especially for those not represented by counsel. In most instances, the process is initiated by filing a complaint with the EEOC. In fact, nearly all claims must be brought to the attention of the EEOC, before the employee will be permitted to file a lawsuit.

The EEOC requires claims to be filed within 180 days. If the incident occurred in a state that has enacted laws dealing with the same issue, the EEOC deadline is extended to 300 days. Either way, timeliness is important. The EEOC calculates filing deadlines based on the earliest date the employee was notified of the employer’s conduct. This can make a difference, since employers often give notice of termination or other action weeks in advance.

Claims can be filed with the EEOC in person or by mail. The agency will require basic information to allow it to investigate, such as contact information for the employee and employer, and the date and a description of the incident. As the investigation proceeds, the EEOC may contact the parties for additional information and documents, or to schedule an interview. It may also request that the parties attend voluntary mediation to settle the matter.

Following its investigation, if the EEOC finds discrimination did occur, it will work with both parties to attempt a settlement. If unsuccessful, the agency will either file a lawsuit on the employee’s behalf, or issue a “right to sue” letter authorizing the employee to file suit. If the EEOC’s investigation leads it to find that discrimination did not occur, it will still issue the right to sue letter to the employee.

If an attorney has not yet been retained, the employee will want to do so immediately, as the EEOC’s right to sue letter triggers a 90-day time requirement for filing a lawsuit. For those who meet all procedural requirements and successfully prove their case in court, many remedies are available. These can include hiring, reinstatement, promotion, or special accommodation, as well as back pay, attorney fees, court costs, and other money awards.

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Employment Discrimination Law - US

  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975

    Legislation barring age discrimination at private institutions that receive assistance from the federal government. Full text of the statute, presented by the Department of Labor.

  • Americans with Disabilities Act

    Enacted in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with physical or mental impairments. This summary of the law is published by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

  • Employment Discrimination - Overview

    Cornell University Law School maintains this overview of federal employment discrimination laws. Major pieces of legislation are discussed, with reference to significant interpretations by the Supreme Court.

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

    The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for investigating alleged violations of the nation’s employment discrimination laws. Information on filing a claim, and what to expect while it is pending.

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - Types of Discrimination

    The 11 classifications protected from discrimination in the employment setting are explained. Each page highlights the time limits and other requirements for filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

  • Equal Pay Act of 1963

    President John F. Kennedy signed this historic legislation into law, in an effort to close the gender wage gap. The Department of Labor publishes this copy of the act, as amended.

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

    The FLSA is the source of wage and hour regulations for millions of American workers. This Department of Labor page describes the act, and provides compliance information and tools for employers.

  • National Origin Discrimination

    Fifty years ago, Congress made sweeping changes to employment practices in America. The EEOC offers this list of facts about the Title VII prohibitions against national origin discrimination.

  • Pregnancy Discrimination

    Summary by the EEOC of the source and extent of discrimination laws, as they apply to expecting and new parents. Particular emphasis on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993.

  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA)

    GINA is a relatively new law aimed at prohibiting workplace discrimination based on an individual’s genetic predisposition to disease, among other things. Full text of the statute, published by the EEOC.

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

    The EEOC presents this copy of Title VII, the first piece of federal legislation to outlaw discrimination based on the ethnicity, religion, or gender of an employee or job applicant.

  • US Department of Labor - Major Laws of the Department of Labor

    Brief descriptions of the most commonly referenced laws enforced by the Department of Labor. Information is also provided regarding the agency’s rule-making procedures.

Organizations Related to Employment Discrimination


Employment Discrimination Law - International