The discrimination laws apply to all private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations, and the federal government if they employ at least 15 employees. Virtually all employees are covered. Whatever your immigration or naturalization status, you may well be covered under the discrimination laws.


The discrimination laws prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of a protected category--your race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion, or disability. What does that mean? That means that your company cannot take any form of adverse or negative action against you because you are a member of one of these protected categories.

An adverse action is a very broad term, encompassing just about anything your employer may do that affects your employment in a negative way, including:

  • Refusal to hire

  • Discharge

  • Lay off

  • Suspension

  • Unequal discipline

  • Poor performance review

  • Demotion

  • Adverse transfer or shift change

  • Pay reduction

  • Reduction in overtime hours

  • Negative references

Even if you don't see it listed here, if your employer has taken an action against you (or is threatening to take an action against you) that can actually or potentially harm you in any way, that is likely to be considered an adverse action. An adverse action also includes retaliation, which means any negative action by your employer against you (or even against a family member or friend) in response to your complaint about discrimination, or for participating as a witness in someone else's discrimination case.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently defined retaliation quite broadly, to include conduct by an employer that would tend to deter reasonable people from pursuing their rights. In many cases, if you complain about discrimination but don't have a strong case, you may have an even stronger retaliation case if your employer retaliates against you for making a complaint. 


Title VII provides a number of rights and remedies to the victims of employment discrimination. You are entitled to a jury trial on your claims of employment discrimination and to a wide range of damages if you are successful in your lawsuit.

The damages that are available are:

  • Reinstatement

  • Front Pay

  • Back Pay

  • Compensatory Damages

  • Punitive Damages

  • Injunctive Relief

  • Attorneys' Fees



Although it is not frequently awarded, the court does have the right to order your employer to reinstate you to your job, with a full restoration of all pay, benefits, and seniority.


Because the courts are sometimes hesitant to order employers to reinstate their employees, in many cases, they award the alternative of front pay damages. Front pay is the total wages and benefits you would have earned with your employer had you not been discharged. In some cases, the courts will award as many years of salary as you would have made had you worked to retirement. This does require some strong proof that you would have successfully continued your employment had you not been discharged.


Back pay is the amount the court will award you to make you whole for all compensation you have lost as a result of the discharge or other adverse action against you. The back pay period typically begins from the moment of your discharge and continues to the time of trial. In addition to all of your lost wages, this figure can include the value of your lost benefits and any bonuses and over time you might have made had you not been discharged. The law does require you to mitigate your damages by looking for and taking a new job if one is are available and you are able to work. Any such interim compensation you make would be offset against your back pay. If, however, despite your best efforts, you are unable to get a new job, you may not be subject to an offset.


Compensatory damages are the amounts awarded to you to make you whole for any other losses you sustain as a result of the discrimination, including out-of-pocket costs for medical expenses you incurred as a result of your loss of company health insurance, job search expenses, etc. The potentially big damages in this category are pain and suffering, or what is known as emotional distress. If you can prove that you have sustained serious mental or emotional distress as a result of the discrimination or harassment you experienced, you may be entitled to significant emotional distress damages.


In certain cases, your employer's conduct may be so heartless or vindictive that the court will award a form of damages--known as punitive damages--that are intended to punish your employer for its intentional misconduct and to deter both your employer and other employers from engaging in such discriminatory conduct in the future. In many cases, even if the court awards you only a modest amount of back pay and compensatory damages, you still may be entitled to large punitive damages if you can prove them.


In many cases, especially employment class action cases, employees often seek to stop a discriminatory practice, such as a discriminatory job test or interview practice. In such a case, the employees will ask the court for an order (an injunction) either halting the discriminatory practice or ordering certain practices to be started, such as ordering the company's management to meet certain hiring standards or conduct anti-harassment training.


If you prevail at trial, in addition to all of the damages discussed above, you are also permitted to ask for the attorneys' fees your lawyer incurred in litigating your case. In many cases, if your lawyer spends a great deal of time in a hard-fought battle with your employer, your attorneys' fees could be substantial and far greater than your damages award, and they can be used to pay your contingency fee and let you keep more of your recovery.

There, are, however, some limitations on your right to money damages. Title VII caps the amount of compensatory damages available to you depending on the number of employees employed by your employer:

The damages caps are as follows:

  • For employers with more than 14 and fewer than 101 employees: $50,000 damages cap;

  • For employers with more than 100 and fewer than 201 employees: $100,000 damages cap;

  • For employers with more than 200 and fewer than 501 employees: $200,000 damages cap; and

  • For employers with more than 500 employees: $300,000 damages cap.

These caps do not apply to your back pay or front pay damages. Furthermore, if you have a state law tort claim, whistleblower case, or some other form of an employment case, you are not subject to these damages caps.


If you believe you have been the victim of employment discrimination, the law requires you to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the federal agency that is charged with investigating all claims of employment discrimination. After you file your charge, the EEOC will send your charge to your employer and require it to respond to your claims. In some cases, the EEOC will bring the parties together to have them mediate their dispute in order to bring your case to a quick conclusion.

If the parties choose not to mediate, the EEOC will complete its investigation of your case, and in most cases, will give you a right to sue, which allows you to file a federal discrimination lawsuit. In some cases, if the EEOC makes a finding of discrimination, it will order the parties to conciliate their claim, which often results in a very favorable settlement to you. In any case, throughout the EEOC's proceedings, you are entitled to have your own attorney.

Once the EEOC has completed its investigation of your case and you receive your right to sue letter, you then have the right to file your discrimination lawsuit in federal court. Once the case is filed, you will have the right to take extensive discovery from your employer, take the depositions of the key witnesses, and if you survive your employer's various attempts to dismiss your case, ultimately you will have your day in court--your trial.

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