Federal Employment Laws: Overview of Claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - elements, damages, time limits

Overview of Claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: elements, damages, time limits

Federal employment regulations derive from laws passed by Congress, as well as federal agencies and executive orders.

Generally speaking, federal employment regulations commonly focus on fair treatment of workers. 

Most employment laws can be categorized in 4 areas of the regulatory environment. 

First, equal employment opportunity laws prohibit specific types of discrimination in the workplace. Examples include:
  1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 [race, color, gender, religion, national origin]; 
  2. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 to 634;
  3. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12112 to 12117; and
  4. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, as amended, 29 U.S.C. 28
The EEOC oversees compliance with these laws (except claims under the FMLA). 

Second, additional laws control compensation through federal regulation. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FSLA) or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), etc.

Third, employee safety and health laws keep employees safe from harm. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). 

Fourth, federal labor laws - the National Labor Code - for example, the Wagner Act, the Taft-Hartley Act, and the Landrum-Griffin Act constitute the core of federal labor law.

This post focuses on claims under Title VII and provides an over of Title VII, its elements, damages, and time limits. In sum, Title VII is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on:

National origin
Sex, including gender, gender identity, pregnancy, and sexual orientation

This means that an employer cannot take an “adverse employment action” — such as firing, refusing to hire, demoting, refusing to promote, etc. —against an employee or potential employee based on any of these protected characteristics. 

If they do, the employee might have a discrimination claim and they should contact an employment law attorney to determine their options.

If an employee believes the employer has engaged in discrimination and other unlawful acts in violation of Title VII, there are several potential legal claims they may pursue, including:

Disparate treatment 
Disparate impact 

Attorney Nathaniel O. Hubley
Disparate treatment: Disparate treatment is the most obvious form of employment discrimination and it occurs when an employer treats an employee or job applicant differently than other employees because of their race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.

Disparate impact: This is when a seemingly neutral practice unduly impacts employees in a protected class, often unintentionally. For example, if employees must pass physical strength tests or meet a minimum height — requirements that appear neutral at first glance — it may still have a disparate impact on women or other protected groups. Assuming an employee can prove a disparate impact, the employer would be given an opportunity to show that the policy is necessary for the position and that no alternative policy/requirement would work.

Harassment: Under Title VII, there are two main forms of harassment claims, which include quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment.

Retaliation: Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against employees or applicants when they assert their rights under the law, including when an employee files a Title VII discrimination charge, opposes an employer practice that violates Title VII, or testifies or participates in a Title VII investigation or proceeding.

Typically only covers private and public sector employers with 15 or more employees.

Even if an employer doesn’t reach this 15-employee threshold doesn't guarantee they can't face employee discrimination claims since state and local laws may give employees other options.

The General Employment Discrimination Model Jury Instruction provides:

Plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was [adverse employment action] by Defendant because of his [protected class].
  • To determine that Plaintiff was [adverse employment action] because of his [protected class], you must decide that Defendant would not have [adverse employment action] Plaintiff had he been [outside protected class] but everything else had been the same. 
This model jury instruction is used in Title VII, § 1981, and ADEA case.

Title VII Damages include:
  1. Injunctive relief;
  2. Back pay;
  3. Front pay;
  4. Compensatory damages (may include future pecuniary and non-pecuniary losses, including suffering, mental anguish, inconvenience, and loss of enjoyment of life);
  5. Punitive Damages (if employer engaged in a discriminatory practice “with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.”
  6. Attorney’s fess and costs to the prevailing party
Compensatory and punitive damages under Title VII are subject to a combined cap based on the employer’s size.

The applicable Title VII time limits include:
  1. 180 days to file a charge of discrimination with EEOC or state agency but may be extended by state laws;
  2. 90 days to file a lawsuit after issuance of notice of rights is issued by the EEOC.
If an employee believes the employer has engaged in discrimination and other unlawful acts in violation of Title VII, the employee should consult with an experienced employment law attorney to determine whether they have a viable claim.


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