Legal Protections Against Discrimination

There are federal and state laws that offer legal protections against discrimination.Federal laws protect applicants and employees from discrimination because of a variety of factors: race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, military service, support for a union, legitimate workers’ compensation claims, and – if you work for a government agency – exercise of rights protected by the First Amendment. State and local fair employment laws often cover the same subjects. Sometimes, they do not provide as much relief as Federal law, and sometimes they provide more.

For example, awards under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act are not limited to any specific dollar amounts for lost earnings (“back pay”), or expected lost earnings in the future (“front pay”), but are limited as to common-law damages. Common-law damages include compensatory damages for the stress and humiliation of discrimination, and punitive damages.

The limits are based on the number of employees:

  • a limit of $50,000 for employers of 15 to 100 employees,
  • a limit of $100,000 for employers of 101 to 200 employees,
  • a limit of $200,000 for employers of 201 to 500 employees, and
  • a limit of $300,000 for employers of 501 or more employees.

Some Federal law claims, such as claims for intentional discrimination based on race or ethnicity under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. section 1981, and claims for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, allow common-law damages but do not have such limits. Many State and local laws allow awards of compensatory and punitive damages, but do not have such limits.

There are two kinds of discrimination:

  • Intentional discrimination, in which people of one protected group are deliberately treated less favorably than people who are not part of that group, and
  • “Disparate impact” discrimination in which an apparently objective rule, standard, or test has a disproportionately adverse effect on members of a protected group compared to people outside that group, but the employer cannot show that the rule, standard, or test is job-related and justified by business necessity.

Most claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in court involve intentional discrimination.